Book review: Aavarna – The Veil (Author: S.L.Bhyrappa, Translated in English by Sandeep Balakrishnan)

Historical fiction is quite a challenging genre to write. The writer has to not only to do some solid research but also has to be very careful about how creative and imaginative he can be with his characters and his narrations. He has to tread a very fine balance between being true to history while making the story a compelling read for the audience. Today when historians are accused of presenting fiction as history to suit their narrative, S L Bhyrappa’s historical fiction – Aavarna stands out as a tribute to history – history of India under Mughals.

Aavarna is not just a story of the past, it is a tale set in today. A story of how history has been systematically and clinically fictionalized by the so called progressive historians to make the victims look perpetrators and perpetrators appear as victims. For those who have been following Indian politics lately and our aware of tactics of Indian left liberal intellectuals – their holier than thou attitudes, their complete intolerance of opposing views, their contempt for the masses –  parts of Aavarna feel like Déjà vu. It is a must read for those who want to learn history and also for those who want to learn the art of writing historic fiction. This book is gripping, un-put-down-able and heart wrenchingly moving.

The story begins in the backdrop of Hampi (in Indian state of Karnataka) and we are introduced to Razia and Amir, a 54 year old couple, who are documentary film makers and are in Hampi to shoot a film on the ruins of the Vijaynagar empire.  The sight of mutilated UgraNarsimha and the destroyed temple complexes that still bear testimony to the material and cultural grandeur of one of the most powerful hindu kingdoms in the South century; triggered a flurry of memories in Razia’s mind. The story then flashes back into Razia’s younger days. We learn that Razia was really Lakshmi by birth, born in a village near Bangalore to a Gandhian father. She had converted to marry Amir, her classmate, who like her considered religion to be an opium of masses. They both were determined to fight the religious dogmas which they believed only led to the exploitation of masses. In this endeavor of theirs, they are supported by Professor Sastri, a very influential figure among Indian Intelligentsia. (You cannot miss the close resemblance of Professor Sastri with people such as  U A Ananthmurthy, Ram Guha and the likes)

But if religion was of no consequence to both, how did Lakshmi become Razia? Well, in islam no marriage is recognized till both bride and groom are Muslims, hence conversion is must, even if it is on paper. I have a live example in my own family, my cousin was married to a Muslim guy and had to convert. Anyways, we learn in the story that “just on paper”, is also how Amir convinces Razia to convert. However, this doesn’t go down well with Lakshmi’s father and he decides to break all relationships with her. For Lakshmi, this behavior of his was just another example of how rotten religions are and she too decides to move on with her new life, with Amir and his family. But life really isn’t as romantic as one imagines when in love. Amir’s parents were deeply religious and orthodox Muslims. They expected Razia to behave and live like a good Muslim wife abiding by rules of Islam – eating beef, doing namaz, wearing burkha, not working etc. Razia complied initially to find acceptance in the family. But it is only a matter of time that Razia can take it no more, especially when Amir decides to use his right as a Muslim husband to Talaq her. (he eventually doesn’t fearing how the “intellectual crowd would trash him if he had). She and Amir then move out his family home and live separately.

Back to the present, Amir and Razia return from Hampi, and Razia learns about the death of her father. She learns that past few years, her father was immersed in the study of history, collecting rare manuscripts, researching historical texts and touring places. He had left behind carefully researched, hand written notes on Indian history, of facts challenging concocted stories of certain present day historians. What she sees in her dad’s notes is enough to motivate her to conduct her own research, question her beliefs about religions and happenings, about stories and their contradictions. Thus starts Razia’s re-education.

Through the book S L Bhyrappa dwells into some very basic but unanswered questions –

What is history and what is the purpose of history? Is history a privilege of those handful ideologically motivated individuals who want to serve their pre conceived goal – even if it is indeed a lofty well intentioned goal? Or is it a study of stating events of the past as they happened dispassionately to let people take their lessons from them as they so wish and perceive?

Does a self-assumed good intention warranty whitewashing or distorting of facts and presenting them as reality? Is it not acute intellectual dishonesty and elitism to assume ordinary men are so foolish that they can’t be trusted to deal with truths of the past?

What are the boundaries of artistic freedom? Can passing of imagination as truth be allowed in the name of artistic freedom? What is the line post which art doesn’t remain art anymore but becomes a tool for propaganda?

Meanwhile, as Razia is ploughing through the cobwebs of the past with a vision free of colored ideological lens, a story is taking shape in her mind. A story that would narrate History as it happened and as seen and lived by a “hijra” of the Mughal harem- a Rajput prince who was captured and made into an eunuch to serve the Mughal sardars, a young promising youth whose manhood was destroyed and in the process also his identity and his self-esteem, a Hindu prince who accepted Islam to save his life and eventually found his way into the inner circle of Mughal harem – we know him as Khwaja Jahan. Through him, we get transported back into the day and age of Mughals in India.

Aavarna is a story within a story, but a story that stays true to history. I will disclose the plot no more and leave to those interested to read the novel to enjoy the beauty of flow and narration.

I’ll end the summary review with a few historical events that we come across in the book, which completely demolish our text book knowledge of history with a sharpened sword of facts

  1. Was Tipu Sultan really a hero and a secular ruler as he is made out to be? Or was he just another fanatic Muslim ruler who dreamt of a Muslim kingdom and had blood of innumerable Hindus of Malabar on his hand? Wasn’t he responsible for the huge demographic change in the religious identity of his subjects? To assume so many Hindus including upper caste ones accepted Islam out of love is but naïve.
  1. What led to the destruction of Vijaynagar Empire and its temples? Was is really a result of enmity of Shaivas and Vaishnavas, as progressive historians want us to believe? What explains then, the countless examples of Vaishnav kings endowing and even constructing shiva temples and vice versa, in Vijaynagar itself? How do we deal with records of Muslims kings around who have proudly claimed the mutilation and mauling of these temples?
  1. Why is Varanasi, the holiest city for Hindus, dotted with mosques all around? Why is the most dominant feature there a mosque with an interesting name of “Gyanvapi’? Is there any truth in the claim that this mosque was constructed by destroying the Kashi Vishvanath temple (like other mosques around)? Or for that matter, how is that Krishna’s janmbhoomi Mathura, has a small temple but much bigger mosque right at the location of Krishna’s birth? If we are to believe Aurangzeb’s own historians and record keepers, it was on Aurangzeb’s orders these structures of the Kafirs were destroyed and their bricks and pillars were used to construct mosques.
  1. Was life under Mughals really a secular bliss? How does it tie with complete lack of any kind of scientific, literary development of the otherwise intellectual Indian society? Did people accept Islam on their own accord or was it to save their lives and escape unending torture in form of formidable taxes including “jizya” which was levied on non-Muslims?
  1. How did Sati become systematized in the north only after the muslims arrived? And why was there such a huge disparity in Sati practice across India? It had become a way of life in North but not practiced by people in South, in spite of having Hindu kings there? We know of Rajput queens doing Jauhar to escape being caught and violated by Muslim invaders. If queens weren’t spared, what makes us believe that ordinary women would escape them?

This book is a must read!


(S L Bhyrappa is one the leading Kannada thinkers and authors of our times. His anti-establishment (Establishment =Leftist/Marxist/Nehruvian ideology) stand, his piercing wit and well researched factual narrative has ensured he has many enemies in the system. Not surprising therefore this great novelist has been deprived of Jnanpith all these year)


One comment

  1. Apt summary.. Bravo.
    Book is a must read. Anyone with a logical mind set and a good psychological quotient will agree with the horror we live when we accept our history as our books teach us without a question


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