Sep. 08-21, 2007)
The controversy over a recent Kannada novel provides an insight into the direction of the politics of religion and culture in Karnataka.
IDEAS and ideologies, especially those that are rooted in false consciousness and amount to little more than a concoction of grains of half-truths and mountains of lies, need to reinvent themselves periodically if they are to retain their appeal. Threats of everlasting hell-fire and promises of eternal heavenly bliss, strange demons and stranger gods, Immaculate Conception and levitation to the heavens, revanchism and remembered wrongs, nirvana and reincarnation – th e list is endless. The old lies and hatreds need to be recycled in new forms, with new villains and doomsayers reaffirming the old hopes and anxieties.
History and creative writing, sometimes masquerading as each other, have not escaped the beguilement of such ideologies.
Avarana (meaning, cover, concealment) by S.L. Bhyrappa, a popular and successful Kannada writer, has created somewhat of a record in Kannada publishing and marketing. Published in February this year, the book had gone through to it s twelfth imprint by the beginning of August. It has been the subject of at least three books, two collections of essays and a full-length study. The book has received intense and sustained critical attention in the media almost from the day it came out.
The story is simple, though the narration tries to be complicated. The central character is Razia, aged 54 years. Born Lakshmi in a Vokkaliga family, she converted to Islam at the age of 26 on her marriage to Ameer, her classmate, friend and lover at the Pune Film Institute. That she belongs to a non-Brahmin peasant caste of Karnataka is central to the narration. It is through her persona that the author ‘speaks’, giving expression to what he sees as the degeneration of the present and the hope for a regeneration of tomorrow. In this perspective, the lower castes will ultimately drive the Hindutva agenda, which incidentally is increasingly the political reality in Karnataka, notwithstanding feeble refutations by well-intentioned progressives. An earlier work, Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, in the making of whose Hindi film version (Godhuli) progressive intellectuals were involved, also had a non-Brahmin peasant character driving the Hindutva agenda.
Narasimhegowda, Lakshmi’s father, personifies quintessentially this neo-Hindutva perspective. He has utterly ‘brahminised’ himself, rejecting many of the given social and cultural mores of his community. For instance, he has given up eating meat, which almost all Hindu gods relish; and is cremated on his death, as he had wished. Having lost his wife when young and not having married again, he dotes on Lakshmi, his only child, and strongly urges her not to go ahead with her plans to marry Ameer, for a child born out of such a union would necessarily be a wrecker of idols that Hindus worship. Lakshmi, however, yields to the call of her heart, severing all links with her father and the home and the world in which she grew up.
The story begins on January 13-14, 1993, “a month and eight days” after the fall of the Babri Masjid, as the author precisely notes. The locale is the government tourist lodge at Hampi where Razia and Ameer have arrived to film a documentary sponsored by the heritage department of the Central government, part of a larger project to make documentary films on all heritage sites. The ‘implicit’ purpose of the project is to counter the anti-Muslim sentiments that animate those who view the ruins of Hampi and similar sites. The larger context is the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in the country that so recently had led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid. The ideological contours are already in place: a dishonest government out to appease Muslims by falsifying historical truth.
The carefully chosen date and context marks two kinds of transition: one of time and seasons in a system of beliefs, the other an act of contemporary revenge for remembered wrongs of the past. The Sankramana emanates from and encomp asses other preoccupations: Forced conversions of Hindus to Islam, slaughter of cows, destruction of Hindu places of worship, abduction of Hindu women, in short a litany of Hindu grievances against a people still seen as alien invaders over a millennium after their distant ancestors arrived in this land, some as conquerors and soldiers of fortune, but many more as traders and missionaries. Countering these centuries of defeats and humiliations is the final pay-back time transition, the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Such are the coordinates of the history of India’s past and present, all covered up by persons and forces less honest than the author, who is out to strip this mask (avarana) and lay bare the reality.
Despite occasional strains in her relationship with her husband and his family, Razia has been a most enthusiastic votary of her new beliefs and identity, strengthened in her resolve to make a new life for herself by Professor Sastry, a family friend and an intellectual whom she admires. This character, a farcical caricature hiding his hypocritical inner self behind a mask of progressive doubletalk, is perhaps the only ‘realised’ character in the novel, animated by the venomous malice and hostility of the author to persons of his timbre.
Razia is strangely tense and uncommunicative as the story begins. This puzzles her husband, who probes in vain the reason for her silent tension. Later, in bed, she opens out to Ameer with her reservations about the project, which in her view is turning out to be a government-sponsored attempt to cover and airbrush the cruelties and vandalism of the destruction of Hampi and, by implication, of the whole Islamic encounter with Hindu India in medieval times.
Thus begins her transition, with her earlier conversion to Islam taking on a new direction with her return, indeed formal re-conversion, to her ancestral faith after 28 years of living as Ameer’s wife and the mother of their only child. The process, despite the length of the narration, is swift and is presented as the most natural thing in the world. Her father’s death strengthens her resolution in this regard. She moves out of her marital house and later returns to her village where, after a formal purification ceremony, she is entitled to immerse her father’s ashes preserved in a corner of the homestead. Her mentor in this process is an elderly Brahmin of the village, a friend of her father and now very nearly her surrogate parent, who is also the alienated father of Professor Sastry, the other mentor of her youth who had supported and encouraged her in her conversion to Islam.
While re-establishing herself at her father’s home, she comes across a collection of books that her father had acquired to study, as she learns in this process of re-educating herself, to make sense of why a daughter of his had abandoned the faith into which she was born. The collection is carefully listed from memory at the end of the book. This recourse to memory and other such narrative devices, including the story within the story ‘written’ by Lakshmi and incorporated into the novel, is simply an overworked rhetorical device. The story within the story turns out to be a most gruesome and prurient account of remembered ancient wrongs, including emasculation and sodomy and forced conversion of a captured Hindu royal perpetrated by Muslim zealots.
This rhetorical device, part of the bag of tricks of much of current writing and meant to be the core of the narrative, is resorted to because that collection, as indeed the manuscript of Lakshmi’s story, is confiscated by the State government. At that point, the alienated Ameer returns to Lakshmi, spiriting her away from possible arrest and urging her to record from memory the story within the story as well as the ‘bibliography’. There is a suggestion that this also marks the beginning of Ameer’s own ‘re-education’.
The Babri Masjid, before it was destroyed. In the project of reinventing Hindutva, the demolition of the 16th century mosque is often seen as avenging imagined wrongs of the past.
This ‘bibliography’, as well as the introduction (the author used the word pravesa, defined in a standard Kannada-English dictionary also to mean ‘introduction’ to a treatise on religion) to the novel is mean t to bolster the claim that the novel is actually a work of history and historical research. Of course, it is nothing of that kind. A large number of the cited ‘sources’ (and their publishers) are works (and publishers) of acknowledged Hindutva ideologues; not one of the usual suspects is missing. Indeed, for the kind of history featured in the book, no such citation is necessary.
The ‘transition’ that is the theme of the novel is worked, indeed at point laboured, at several levels. It begins with the conversion of Lakshmi to Razia, leading to several other transitions: of Lakshmi’s father from being a pietistic peasant to an avid reader of historical literature, of a kind; of Ameer from a sceptic, vaguely progressive Muslim to one who is ready to compromise with the missionaries of Tableegh, from a loving husband to one who in a sulk and temper very nearly assaults his wife and makes the first of the three mandatory pronouncements divorcing her, and yet never takes the process to its logical end, continues to be in love with her and at the end of the novel breaks ranks to come to her rescue when she is vulnerable; of the rather empty-headed daughter of Sastry from one with no belief of any kind, in anything, to a believing Muslim to become the wife of Nazir, the only child of Razia and Ameer; and other transitions incorporated into the story within the story, with an almost mechanically symmetrical predictability.
The ultimate transition is of Razia back to Lakshmi, literally a homecoming. That in theological terms Lakshmi is an apostate, not once but twice, is in the perspective of the novel a cause for triumph and celebration, for her second apostasy is liberation from the bondage of nearly three decades of enslavement. However, perils still beset this triumph. These, in the present instance, are posed no longer by alien conquerors but our own ‘pseudo-secular’ government and the state.
The history of this country, from this perspective, comprises an unending cycle of wrongs and revenge, aggression and defeat that continues to the present day. This does not, however, mean that the author views the past and the present as permanently frozen. What is frozen is the Muslim mindset that is still committed to re-enacting the earlier triumphs; in contrast, the Hindu mindset is presented as vibrant, full of contradictions and so capable of creative growth. Hinduism has space for both the hypocritical Professor Sastry and his upright father; however, there is no place for such contradictions in Islam.
Such a Manichean perspective is possible only when time is frozen, in this instance frozen in medieval times. Changes since the end of Muslim rule are noted, but only as insignificant moments in this circular view of history where defeat and conquest are always round the corner. Such a perspective has no place for democracy in action, chaotic and turbulent and corrupt, perhaps, but also dynamic, revivifying the human spirit. Such optimism about the future is by definition impossible for ideologies locked into memories, often false and induced, of ancient wrongs and humiliations.
And yet, it is a matter of fact that the book has succeeded immeasurably. To say that is because of SMS campaigns or active Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh intervention is to miss the real dangers that are prefigured in the sales and success of the book, and the wide acceptance its ideology has found in the Kannada intellectual establishment. This ideological challenge, posed by an author who in the past was courted and lionised by the very progressives now criticising him, cannot be defeated by abuse or dodgery.