AAVARANA: The veil by S.L. Bhyrappa
Brief review by N.S. Rajaram
This is the long awaited English version of SL Bhyrappa's Kannada novel AAVARANA: the veil, which was hailed as India's Da Vinci Codewhen it first appeared in Kannada in 2007. It went on to establish several publishing records in the original Kannada before going on to become a best seller in Marathi, Gujarati and others. Bhyrappa is probably India's greatest living novelist. What is interesting is his novel, Aavarana, is making waves beyond the usual literary circles. Though a historical novel, its impact seems to be no less socio-political than literary. In this regard, it is a literary phenomenon like Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.
In reading Aavarana, Dan Brown's novel, Da Vinci Code, springs to mind. Both have as their subject the suppression of true history and the propagation of a myth by powerful interests. In Da Vinci Code, the villain is the Catholic Church and its modern secret and sinister arm the Opus Dei. In Bhyrappa's novel, the villain is the collective of politically correct historians and 'intellectuals' who out of a combination of greed and fear have suppressed the truth about Islam and its record in India. While these intellectuals -- called dhimmis by the Egypt-born scholar Bat Ye'or -- can boast of no Vatican or Opus Dei, they do form a powerful clique enjoying the support of successive Governments. They find it politically expedient to appease Islam and conceal the truth about its record and teachings.
The word aavarana is the antonym of anaavarana, which means to reveal or to open. Aavarana, thus, means to conceal and suppress the truth by covering it with a layer of false myths.
In his preface, Bhyrappa states: "This is my second historical novel. My earlier work, Saartha, was an attempt to portray in novel form the transitional period (from the old to the medieval) that took place in the eighth century AD. In Aavarna, I have made a similar attempt for the long period after Saartha to the present. This period of Indian history, though rich in records, is in the grip of aavarana (concealment and suppression) forces... As things stand today, forces of aavarana hold both the historian and history in their grip. How can historical truth flourish when the historian stands as the main barrier to its discovery?"
Bhyrappa is a serious thinker who has studied the subject, often going to the primary sources and major research works. His bibliography is quite extensive for a novel and artfully introduced as part of the narrative. A surprising omission, however, is the eight-volume magnum opus, History of India as Told by Its Own Historians, which was compiled by Eliot and Dowson.
It is to Bhyrappa's credit that he has gone beyond superficialties by tracing the horrors of Islamic rule and jihad to the sources themselves -- the Quran and the Hadith. He has consulted several Islamic scholars and lived with Muslim friends to learn how Indian Muslims today practice their faith and relate to their history. As a result, Aavarana is more than a novel about Muslim India; it is also a primer on the beliefs and practices that condition the life and thought of Indian Muslims.
Aavarana narrates the story of a Rajput prince and his wife captured in the siege of Deoghar and turned into slaves in Muslim courts during the time of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who ruled between 1659 and 1707. He later accompanies a Mughal officer and witnesses the destruction of the great Vishwanath Temple in Banares. He also witnesses the horrors inflicted by Mughals on Hindus and leaves a record of it.
To bring out how these horrors are whitewashed and even concealed by modern negationist historians, Bhyrappa introduces a contemporary character, Lakshmi-Razia -- a Muslim convert who returns to Hinduism after being shocked to learn the truth about India's Islamic past. She receives her first jolt when she visits the famous ruins of Vijayanagar (destroyed in 1565), now a World Heritage Site, as a scriptwriter for a documentary. Soon her father, whom she had not seen since her conversion to Islam, dies and she inherits his papers. She finds that in her absence, her father had made a detailed study of Islam and its record in India. Using his notes, she writes and publishes the novel about the captured Rajput prince in Mughal service noted earlier.
This lands Lakshmi-Razia in trouble, beginning with her former colleagues and friends, especially her mentor, one Prof Shastry. Her novel has blown their cover and they use their influence to have the novel banned and she is forced to go into hiding. In this, Bhyrappa has given a hint of what may befall his own novel for the same crime: He has exposed the horrors to a wide audience and also punctured the scholarly pretensions of jihad apologists masquerading as intellectuals.
In the Kannada original Bhyrappa employs an unadorned, even spare literary style-- a judicious choice that makes the characters and the story stand out. The characters are vividly drawn among which Lakshmi - Razia and professor Shastry stand out. The translation by Sandeep Balakrishna is felicitous and the English version reads well.
Readers will see that Bhyrappa has produced a major literary work distinguished by exceptional skill, scholarship and courage. One hopes it will soon be translated into other languages and made available to a wide audience. Of one thing we may be sure: Aavarana will be "cussed and discussed" for a long time to come, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln. Its publication is a historical event no less than a literary event.