So I started reading ಆವರಣ some 10 days back. One of the main issues I felt I’d have to overcome was the language, since this was the first book I was reading in Kannada. The last one was when in 10th and the Kannada 3rd language text book! Even though fluent with Kannada, reading a novel in a different script than English, I knew, would be challenging.
The initial few days was difficult. It didn’t help that the first chapter was the longest in terms of content. It lasted some 20 odd pages, but Bhyrappa covers a lot of time in that and sets the characters up from that. What helps though is the language, which is toned down to the colloquial. Sentences flow like someone is telling you a story in normal conversational Kannada and not like you are reading a text book with grammar. English gets sprinkled liberally in conversations between characters and the dialect, the words used by different people, whether from villages or the city, is reflected in the manner they speak. End result is that the language is firmly out of the equation letting you concentrate on the content and the story. You feel like you are reading an RK Narayan novel more than a Kiran Desai or Jhumpa Lahiri one. Bhyrappa sets multiple stories in different eras – socialist India of the 60s, the capitalist one of the 2000s and in 16th Century Mughal era. He is not what you’d call a visual writer, creating a setting and painting it with his words. He lets you imagine the world where the characters are set. It helps in a way, as the language does not get too technical with too many objects to be described and most importantly for me, to understand those words.
And the story. I don’t think there is much that I have to say on this. The story of ಆವರಣ is well known and well publicised (and criticized too). It starts in Hampi where Aamir and Razia are to shoot a documentary about the ruins from the Vijayanagar empire and it leads directly into conflict as she believes the truth of how the empire was destroyed and the ruins came about needed to be told openly, with him feeling that they don’t need to deal with the truth as they are only artists and not historians. This remains the theme of the whole book – artistic liberties when it comes to history. A flashback reveals that Razia was Lakshmi who married Aamir and converted to Islam, before ending up in his house living with his orthodox parents. Bhyrappa uses that setting to explore her difficulties and the differences between Islam and other religions in India, including the concept of triple-talaq and polygamy.
He soon moves forward 28 years to the death of Lakshmi’s father, when she reaches her village to realize he had been studing history the past 3 decades understanding the effect of Islamic rulers on Indian history and society. The rest of the book is about her studying those books and writing a tiny novel. The novel is another story running through the book, set in 17th century Mughal India, more specifically Aurangzeb’s rule.
The main character, a Hindu prince is captured when Aurangzeb’s forces land at his doorstep, just before he tries to commit suicide. He is taken and sodomized by a general and his friends before he is sold to another high ranking officer who gets him castrated. The odds of surviving that, he is told is only 25%. He lives in the quarters of various queens as a eunuch and learns Persian and even visits the Kashi temple desecration. He finally bumps into his wife (whom he believed was dead) and is surprised to know that she had his child. He decides to escape and join the Rajput princes who were planning to join Shivaji and rise against the Moghuls. After a while you realize that the prince represents Hinduism itself and what it went through under Aurangzeb and the child that it continued to survive despite him.
The fact that Aurangzeb was the least tolerant among the Moghuls to other religions is a well known part of history. Bhyrappa mainly raises questions about secularizing someone like Aurangazeb, pointing out that history is something to be understood as it is to help us understand what was done wrong and what shouldn’t be done. He stretches the story back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed and the techniques he had to indulge in, in spreading Islam.
At many points the gloves come off and he launches into an open attack on the religion itself wondering how we can expect a religion which believes in saying there is only one God and anyone who does not believe in Him needs to be punished or converted, to be tolerant and co-exist. Questions are raised about the treatment of women in Islam and why God is considered a male when formless.
The ending is abrupt, which I heard is a trademark with Bhyrappa. To be honest, there cannot be a proper ending for it, as it just chronicles one period of time and one person doing research and writing a novel. But the key part is the bibliography and references. Bhyrappa cites some 136 books as references for any and every historical fact he mentions in the book. He knows the sensitive nature of the topic and when dealing with history keeps it straight with historical books, offering none of his viewpoints, speculations or extrapolations. But of course it expects you to take those books at face value (but I believe we’ve reached a stage where there is so much information and books on every topic, it’s hard to believe what is true and what is not)
One of the very interesting parts is the character of Prof. Shastri. What starts off as a friendly neighborhood villager who made it big in the intellectual field, becomes a caricature – A man who returns with an English wife, has kids, one of whom struggles with identity issues. The man himself is shown to be a socialist(complete with a ‘socialist beard’) who believes in a Maoist Cultural Revolution kind of approach for India, before slowly supporting ministers etc because of his influence. He creates a character with much influence in fields like education, politics etc and shows him out as a hypocrite. I had my doubts, but they got confirmed as I read some blogs on the book. Prof. Shastri was based on a well known writer and one of Bhyrappa’s arch rivals and critics! That becomes one of the weakest points of the book as openly mocking a contemporary writer does run the risk of coming off as immature.
The book does not offer anything new in terms of what we know or is commonly felt about Islam or how it relates to modern India from a Hindu perspective. The main issue it tries to deal with is historians twisting and covering up history in the name of national integration. And that’s where the questions are brought up.