“The art of concealing truth is called ‘Aavarana’, and that of protecting it is ‘Vikshepa’. When these occur at the level of an individual, it is known as ‘Avidya’ and when they occur at the level of a group or the world, it is known as ‘Maya’.”
About the book and author:
Aavarana: The Veil is a translation by Sandeep Balakrishna, of the Kannada novel by the same name, authored by S. L. Bhyrappa. S. L. Bhyrappa is a widely renowned Kannada novelist of modern times and has been a best-seller not only in Kannada but various other languages including Hindi and Marathi for the past two decades. In a career spanning more than fifty years, he has authored twenty-four novels, some of which have been featured on the big screen too. He was honored with the Padma Shri in 2016. Aavarana is followed by the novel Kuvalu.
The protagonist of the novel is a so-called feminist, progressive, egalitarian woman who has made a good name for herself in the progressive media industry. She has married Amir who also works in the same field, after converting to Islam to avoid any social backlash. The couple works together to produce plays, with Amir doing the direction while Razia developing the script. Razia’s parents have broken ties with her and they also live separate from Amir’s parents as they are severe orthodox Muslims who repeatedly forced Razia to follow traditional Muslim traditions, which led to clashes between them even leading to Amir once pronouncing Talaq on her. A torch-bearing figure in their lives is Prof. Sastri, himself considered a strong progressive intellectual.
Once, as part of filming documentaries on India’s heritage, they travel to Hampi, Karnataka. Over there Razia gets disturbed when she sees idols broken by Islamic invaders but is not able to showcase it in their documentary as it would supposedly harm communal harmony. This sets into motion the events of the book. Slowly, she starts feeling distanced from her original ideologies and makes her want to search for the concealed truth, to break the ‘Aavaran’. The obscured light of dawn results in intermittent clashes with her husband who shows displeasure of her constant diversion from the work. Meanwhile, she receives news about the death of her father and hence rushes to the village. To her surprise, she finds out that her father has been, for his last few years, engrossed in studying Islamic religious work and historical literature, especially of the Mughal Sultanate to better understand Islamic ideologies. She understands that the material will avail her in developing the script and hence starts going through it.
“Feminist. Progressive. Egalitarian. Potent combination of courage, rationality, scientific temper and the rest. Labels, all of them. Given by people who assigned it to themselves and doled it out to their followers and peers.”– Razia ponders over herself
Over the course, she also decides to write a novel based on what she has learned. She portrays it through the life of a captured Rajput prince, who has been turned into a eunuch and is forced to work as a slave under Aurangzeb’s rule. Her relations with Amir go on deteriorating as she gets more and more engrossed in her father’s notes and history. She openly starts confronting the diluted history taught, which tries to portray Islamic kings like Tipu Sultan and Aurangzeb as being secular, who instead were religious fanatics oppressing non-Muslim citizens.
She starts realizing how misguided she was when ranting about being progressive and intellectual but not having read even a tiny bit of the history books before giving out slogans and participating in hollow rallies. She gets to know about the countless numbers of Temples razed, cities renamed, unjust laws and taxes and slave trading and oppression of nonMuslims at the hands of Mughal kings, specifically Aurangzeb. At the same time when the western world was undergoing an industrial revolution, the Mughals aimed at spreading Islam to all the corners of the country, and they were prepared to break all humanitarian barriers to do so.
The only forces that opposed them were the various saints who started the Bhakti movement and the strong resistance from the Marathas led by Shivaji Maharaj. She thus decides to conclude her novel with the prince-turned-slave resolving to fight and thus joining the combined efforts of the Marathas and King Chhatrasal. In the present day, it’s the period when the Babri Masjid was demolished and newspapers and media were flourishing with articles written by intellectuals. Again, she realizes she’d have done the same hollow, propaganda-driven activities had she not started studying the original works which clearly mentioned such events happening throughout India.
She gets to know that Amir has a second wife, further making her realize about the injustice in Islam to women and hence severing ties with her husband completely. She is ashamed of her demeaning Hindu traditions on the fields of feminism, when her own religion was traditionally biased to women. Meanwhile, Prof Sastri who has been their role model, the face of intellectuals in Karnataka, starts facing a dilemma in his own life after being denied to do his mother’s last rites by his father. They meet at Kashi, where the professor had arrived out of guilt to perform the rites but however does not acknowledge so, afraid of spoiling his progressive image.
Razia and the professor travel to attend a seminar hosted by the professor and organized by the government to improve communal harmony. There, Razia realizes all the attendees have been hand-picked by the professor so that all of them share the same ideology, and thus directed efforts are being taken to bombard a particular set of values on the citizens. Razia, now a changed individual, starts questioning every one of the dignitaries quoting solid facts and references. Her behavior is not in favor of the professor and hence she is not called for the second concluding seminar which takes extreme decisions horribly diverting history.
“History is not tied to slogans and ideals and reform movements. It is to rid ourselves of notions of doctrines and movements and look at the incidents of the past as they actually happened. And this can’t happen unless we allow our minds to be cleared of the illusions created by the present.”
In the final report by the committee, all of Razia’s arguments are suitably omitted. Furious, she writes articles condemning it, but the newspapers refuse to publish them fearing extensive backlash. Freedom and liberty are put to test as per her opinion. Resolved to portray the truth, she manages to publish her novel which starts protests and resulting in the government banning them, although all of them are based on solid facts, and books written by Aurangzeb’s own personal historians. Her husband, Amir suddenly arrives one day, saying that he had insider information about her arrest. He expresses his respect to her for standing against everyone, and together they resolve to fight legally to bring out the concealed truth. They start ‘an-Aavarana’.
“True spirituality doesn’t need God. Someone who doesn’t believe in God can still be spiritual. And to be truly spiritual, a person must cultivate the qualities of compassion, non-violence—in thought, word and deed—and celibacy, because unless you’ve defeated desire, you cannot defeat violence.”
I started reading some historical books during the lockdowns and came across this one, which as I found out, had many people calling it as one which destroys social harmony by giving a communal approach to the Mughal history and so on. Hence, I decided to dive deeper and ‘uncover the truth’ for myself and had one of the best reading experiences of my life.
The book has a beautiful flow that intricately weaves several character stories together. At specific times in the book the story unfolds from a different character’s view, may it be Razia’s husband Amir or their guiding light, the professor, which is done with smooth transitions. At appropriate points in the book, the author gives to the point references and citations of the historical records and religious texts, which reveal the extensive research done by him to present us with the facts, which he does so through his character, Razia. The book also caters to philosophical discussions on the values of both prominent religions, Hinduism and Islam along with instances of Jain and Buddhist religions assessing the pros and cons of them. Heart-wrenching descriptions of the atrocities being committed during the rule of the sultanate make us feel the urgent need of revealing the truth to the public.
The author through the journey of Razia places before us the reality of today’s situation and makes us ponder over what will be fruitful for the society as we advance to become truly intellectual. He attempts to break down the divide among people, caused by blatant labeling and constant clashes without actually studying the underlying history. He wants us to analyze what really happened and not try to fall for interpretations made by people trying to conceal the facts for their own motives.
The book is a glaring eye-opener that repeatedly underlines the need to seek the truth in history. It gives a simple but revealing message:
“Those who do not study history, are doomed to repeat it.”
The book, as many sources claim, is not one that seeks to destroy religious harmony. Unless we realize and accept the horrors committed not only by Islamic invaders but also other oppressive rulers, unless we accept and strive to overcome the shortcomings in our religions unless we stop suspecting one other and strive towards meaningful equality, we cannot hope to establish communal harmony in the true sense.
And for this, we should begin by setting our history right.