AvaraNa is a term used in Vedantic and Buddhist literature to denote that aspect of nescience (avidyA) that obscures all things. This word has been used with the same intention by SL Bhyrappa as the title of his latest novel.
AvaraNa - the novel has created history in the Kannada publishing industry. No other recent book has been sold out as soon as this book. Even before this book was formally released, eager readers awaiting Bhyrappa's latest novel bought all copies from book stores leaving people like me without the latest book. However, I was able to procure a copy directly from the publisher - Sahitya Bhandara. Needless to say, I then devoured the book in less than two days, in spite of hectic work. After all, isn't this the latest book written by the knowledgeable philosopher-novelist Bhyrappa?
The Kannada publishing industry is much bewailed these days. But Bhyrappa's books buck the trend and most of them have gone on to multiple editions.
This book is probably the most controversial that Bhyrappa has written. It deals with the relationship between Hinduism and Islam which, as everybody knows, can be termed tenuous at best.
Most of Bhyrappa's novels are based in and around a few districts of Karnataka or have characters that are from that region. He feels that this is essential in order for him to get into the mind of the character and maintain realism at the same time. Another feature of his novels is the strong female character. Both of these can be found in AvaraNa as well.
I will try not to give too many spoilers in this post - but AvaraNa is a book that can be read even if one knows its full gist. This is because it is not a regular novel. Anyway, for those who haven't read AvaraNa yet and want to do so, this is the point to decide if you want to continue reading this post or not.
Before I start delving into the book, I will try to explain why I have written this post about a Kannada book in English. I saw some reviews of AvaraNa in English on the Net. One review, especially, has compared AvaraNa to the Da Vinci Code. Let me just say that the effort is like comparing apples to oranges. But, as a result of that review, this book has become famous in non-Kannada circles as well. I wish to give a different perspective to the interested non-Kannadiga as well and that is why I am typing this post up in English.
The book begins with the protagonist, Razia, contemplating the ruins of Hampi. She, a screenplay writer, and her husband Amir, commissioned by the government, are in Hampi to make a documentary. The ruins of Hampi move Razia, who by birth is a Hindu - Lakshmi, so much that she continues to study more about it. Significantly, Lakshmi's introspection is also prodded by the destruction of the controversial masjid at Ayodhya - which she comes to hear about.
The story moves through a recollection by Razia on the circumstances of her marriage and simultaneous conversion to Islam. Lakshmi, clouded by love and a heady socialist euphoria that prevailed in that age, does not pay much importance to her symbolic conversion to Islam. Her inter-religious marriage makes her an icon in society for feminism as well as freedom from religious dogma. Her father, a staunch Gandhian, does not like his daughter getting married to a Muslim and disowns her and several years pass. Her father passes away and she visits her village in a long time. Razia/Lakshmi sees a library full of books on history that were read by her father and digs deep into them.
The matter that she discovers in the books causes an epiphany in her. She begins to read those even more and realizes that there has been a systematic pulling the wool over the eyes of society. She writes a very interesting novel - which forms the parallel track of AvaraNa also - to express her understanding. She opposes the system that is creating an AvaraNa to prevent society's understanding of the truth.
The story-within-a-story technique is not new to Indian literature. The Panchatantra is full of these, for example. But a parallel track is interesting and it is probably Bhyrappa's first attempt at this. It comes off very well, I should say. The story that Lakshmi writes in AvaraNa is simultaneously metaphorical and historical. Set in the mid-Mughal period, several historical aspects like the destruction of the Vishvanatha temple at Kashi by Aurangzeb are described in the parallel track. The characters in the parallel story mirror Lakshmi's story to a certain extent and also current Indian/Hindu society. This story is the best part of AvaraNa and I won't add any spoilers to that here.
This parallel track seems to be a continuation in the voice of "sArtha" - Bhyrappa's earlier historical novel. The only change is that the voice, in the case of "AvaraNa", has been emasculated - literally. That voice can be taken to be the voice of Hindu Dharma declining because of the assaults it endured. The description of several events in the parallel track is chilling.
Razia/Lakshmi faces lot of opposition from her in-laws who are staunch Muslims when she does not follow several Islamic customs - Hijab, for instance. Her son, who is raised by her in-laws, has a complete Islamic upbringing. She finds out that the religion of her in-laws does not confer freedom and peace upon its adherents. There are several parts of the novel that describe Islamic customs in detail and in that aspect, this book is more of a documentary than a novel.
An interesting aspect is that whenever the Prophet (PBUH) is mentioned in the book, it is suffixed by a ("sa") (which is the original Arabic for the PBUH acronym that is seen whenever that name is mentioned - such as earlier in this sentence).
The "AvaraNa" that Lakshmi/Razia faces is brought out well. For instance, she attends a conference on text book writing that is quite reminiscent of the "detoxification" effort of our honorable government. None of the professors in that meeting is able to answer Lakshmi in argument and yet, her points never go well with the establishment. It is as if they are unable to see the evident truth that is in front of their eyes - which is what AvaraNa really is.
A piece about AvaraNa can never be complete without mention of Prof. Shastri's character. This is a character that has tasted the wonderful benefits of being a celebrity Socialist in India. This smooth talking educationist has shades of several real well-known personalities in him. I won't mention who it is - but it will be pretty evident for anyone who reads the book. Shastri is the one who persuades Lakshmi to take up Islam as an act of rebellion against "oppressive Hinduism". Prof. Shastri has the wonderful ability of reinterpreting any event of history in that communistic light - in terms of oppressors and the oppressed, much similar to that of several of our comrades. For instance, he interprets Hampi's ruins as due to Shaiva-VaishNava clashes instead of Islamic Iconoclasm. He epitomizes the class of left leaning intellectuals that have sold their conscience to the establishment in return for the favors it bestows upon them. Of course, he is not an honest man as well.
The novel ends with Lakshmi/Razia trying to publish her novel, to find it banned by the government. A consoling part of the novel is that Amir, Razia's husband realizes what his wife has been fighting for and gets ready to help her. A list of books read by Razia/Lakshmi can be found at the end of the book and it also serves as a bibliography - something that is unheard of for a novel. Bhyrappa has resorted to this to defend the book from possible bans. His logic is the same as his character's. If his book is banned, then each and every book in the list at the end of the book might also need to be banned.
The book is wonderfully informative and is cause for deep introspection. Bhyrappa has forever argued for relationships between communities to be based on a strong foundation of truth rather than systemic misinformation. It is no different in this book. Though Islam has come in for rough treatment, to put it mildly, there are some parts that cause a person to pause and think for a while. For instance, a Hindu character is told that his gods are not as powerful as Allah for they could not protect their own abodes from destruction at the hands of Allah's men. Having seen temples at Somnath, Varanasi and Mathura destroyed, won't any Hindu feel demoralized? That argument about the relative power of gods, though childish, can provoke some serious thought.
Amir, though born and brought up a Muslim, sees his wife's plight and sides with her at the end of the book. In my mind, this also shows that Bhyrappa is still an optimist. People may deride Bhyrappa for being an anti-Islamic person after they read this book. But they can never say that he is anti-human. Bhyrappa seems to believe that this fundamental human quality will triumph over any religious dogma.
Bhyrappa, in my opinion, has been a bit simplistic in several parts in the novel. For instance, Shastri's wife is a staunch British Catholic and wants her daughter to grow up as one. But, just think of it. A British woman who can marry an Indian against her parent's wishes doesn't look like she can be as rigid as portrayed in the book. Certain situations in the novel look artificially set up, as if they were there just for a theological discussion waiting to happen. And finally, I don't know if any writer can escape this - but a few characters and situations in AvaraNa seemed like callbacks to older works of Bhyrappa.
Though most of the facts related in the book were already known by me and some of the books in the bibliography had already been read by me, this book's worth, IMO, is in the literary presentation. The parallel track, the imagery - for instance, that of a cow whose calf has been tied up elsewhere (there are several other examples if one cares to read deeply) , the language, the situations and the character development are all outstanding.
However, superficial readers of the book might feel a strong feeling against Islam, which is certainly NOT Bhyrappa's intent. But he definitely wants to discuss "minority-ism" in India. This is similar to the spirit in which he wrote against Girish Karnad's glorification of Tipu Sultan as a national hero. But because of all this, it may not go down too well with the government.
My only hope is that this does not lead to some more mindless violence and yet another idiotic book ban.
If you haven't read it yet, please do. Sahitya Bhandara's Bangalore number is 2287-7618.