Book Review—’Aavarana’ by SL Bhyrappa

I belong to the generation of English educated Kannadigas who read Kannada novels very rarely (or never). I stumbled upon a hotly debated book ‘Aavarana’ by SL Bhyrappa while following an altercation on Twitter.  I felt like reading the book considering the amount praise it was receiving. Once I started reading this book, it sucked me into its tale because of the depth of its characters. The sheer amount of research done by the author and its relevance to current debate on distortion of history by left leaning academia, cleansing of Islamic atrocities from history text books and conversions of Hindu women to Islam in Kerala makes it one of the most important novels of our time.

The book begins with a scene where Raziya and Amir, two professional film makers are touring Hampi to decide on a script for a documentary funded by the government. The intention of the documentary as expressed by the Amir, the director, is to create a harmonious environment in the wake of communal clashes in the country.  Raziya who was previously Lakshmi is also Amir’s wife. Both are subscribers of Marxist ideology and consider themselves as revolutionaries because of their inter faith marriage.  However Raziya, is deeply disturbed after touring the desecrated temples. She wonders whether it is ethically acceptable to distort history for scoring ideological points. She starts introspecting about her past .

She is expected to convert in order to marry Amir by his parents and communtiy. Narsimhe Gowda, her father refuses to accept her marriage and conversion. He says that if Amir loved her so much why isn’t he ready to convert to Hinduism? If Amir converts, he promises to happily get them married. A translated version Amir’s bone chilling response to her father’s solution is worth reproducing here.

Amir: The practice of a woman converting to her husband’s faith is common Lakshmi.

Lakshmi: But boys marrying Muslim girls have to convert to Islam

Amir: Let me be very clear. In my faith both women and men are not allowed to convert. If they find that he/she is going is going to convert, they are going to kill the person and the one responsible for the conversion. Our love is important. It is important for us to be a loving couple forever.  Even I don’t believe in religion. Neither do you. We subscribe to progressive ideologies. Conversion and changing your name is just a part of the strategy. The day when society will be transformed and religion, the opium of the masses will crumble is not far. Till then we need to follow this is the strategy.

Though Lakshmi is in a dilemma regarding conversion, she is adamant about marrying Amir. She seeks the advice of a well-known professor, Marxist ideologue and family friend Prof Shashtri. He, tells her that Islam, in spite of its deficiencies is the closest religion to Marxism as it advocates equality. After her conversation with Shastri, she converts and marries Amir. This episode clearly shows how the Marxist ideologies hasten the fall of gullible Hindu women into the trap of conversion. It also makes us wonder why conversion of Hindus is rampant in Kerala in comparison to other states.

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After her Hampi tour, Raziya finds out about the death of her father. She visits her village for his last rites.  She is surprised to see a huge stack of books that his father had acquired during the 28 years after she had left her home.  After skimming some of the notes left by her father, she is inspired to read all his books. After her deep study and tour, she realises that the version of history sold by the Marxist ecosystem led by Prof Shastri and his ilk are filled with irreconcilable lies.

The process of unlearning her misconceptions about history, and learning about the barbaric acts of Muslim rulers in the past occupies the rest of the story. The story of  Raziya/ Lakshmi is relatable to millennials who have been denied access to information, thanks to the secularised textbooks that seek to avoid atrocities of Muslim invaders from history books. With the spread of internet and social media, this generation is learning about the history that covered up by the establishment for ideological and political gains. A one-sided narrative is strongly facing legitimate questions and stiff opposition from the generation that has been fed with distorted facts, opinions and history.

The left proudly proclaims that there are no real scholars in India’s right leaning pantheon of thinker. In the final chapter, the book highlights as many as 126 books on history that could dispel myths sold to Indians about Indian history and the atrocities of its Muslim rulers. Navaratna Rajaram (Nationalism and Distortions of Indian History), Harsh Narain (Jaziya and the Spread of Islam) , Koenraad Elst (Ayodhya and After), Jadunath Sarkar (A short history of Aurangzib) , Sitaram Goel (Hindu Temples – What happened to them) and several other books find mention as a part of Narsimhe Gowda’s collection that falls into Lakshmi’s hands.

After decades of believing lies about Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan, millennials find themselves surprised after reading content written by researchers on the internet and social media. “If Muslim rulers were so bad, how Hindus are surviving till today?” is one of the popular questions. The answer is, the faith of our ancestors was stronger than the temples that had been desecrated throughout the rule of Muslim rulers. The new generation feels cheated when it realises how politically motivated historical narratives can be sold for decades for the sake of ‘social harmony’.

The back and forth journey in time is well portrayed by Mr Bhyrappa in the novel. It is neither sudden nor too slow. It is uncompromising on the truth without stealing the literary beauty of a novel. The slow build-up of his characters and the unveiling of their inner contradictions and concerns makes it an excellent piece of literature. The author’s deep understanding of the ways and customs in Islam have ensured that his portrayal of Lakshmi’s life after conversion is realistic and authentic.

The book is relevant to the current debate on Love Jihad and organised conversion of Hindu women by Islamists. It demonstrates through the story how Islam is still adamantly clinging to its medieval version. There is no space for a liberal accommodative stance, especially with regard to archaic practices like Talaq, animal sacrifice, and the veil covering the entire body of women is still prevalent among its followers. The portrayal of Lakshmi’s life after converting is more or less similar to the stories that we read in newspapers today. One realises that the liberal attitude of Hindus and Hinduism is exploited to systemically engineer conversions of vulnerable women into Islam in recent times.

The secular – liberal ‘ecosystem’ has condemned Mr SL Bhyrappa for stoking anti Muslim feelings through this book. Be that as it may, ‘Aavarana’ is a brilliant work of fiction in Kannada. In spite of the opposition, the book is a raging hit among Kannada readers. It has been reprinted forty eight times by the Kannada publisher and translated to Hindi, Tamil, English, Malayalam and Sanskrit. The strong opposition has only increased the popularity of the book, drawing curious readers towards the book.

Mr Bhyrappa , through this book has given a literary shape to his argument against distortion of history. He rightly argues that social harmony and goodwill between communities can’t be built on invented lies. It has to be built through truth and promise of not repeating past horrors on any community in the name of faith. He conveys this thought through this wonderfully crafted, well researched novel. I reiterate my words from the first paragraph here. ‘Avarana’ is one of the most important novels of our times.

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