Aavarna is a novel by a well-loved Kannada author, S.L.Bhyrappa, that I managed to read when its English translation hit the bookshelves recently. Its the story of Lakshmi, an educated, liberal, artistic, career-oriented woman, who falls in love with a Muslim man and in order to marry him gives up her own identity. A few decades later, while working in her professional capacity, events force her to sit back and take a good look at what she gave up and what she received in return.
I really loved the cover by the way. It was quite tasteful and mysterious and tied in very nicely with the story that follows.
With a sincere apology to all Bhyrappa fans, I didn’t like it. First, because I didn’t like Lakshmi at all. Maybe I have never loved as deeply or as passionately as so many people do, but I know for sure I would never have thrown away my name and identity to be with someone, which therefore makes me completely antagonistic and unsympathetic of people who do so. Change of religion should be a matter of spiritual choice, not as a precondition for someone’s love. And then decades later, she suddenly realizes that all the desecrated Hindu temples she must have seen since childhood were broken by the Muslim invaders and that the left liberal, enlightened group that she is a part of is trying hard to cover it up by simply retelling history. She sets forth on a journey to her hometown and makes an appearance at her father’s cremation, after not meeting him for the last 30 years, and then promptly enconces herself in his home to look at his life’s work and compile it as he would have wanted. If you couldn’t be loyal or even respectful of someone while they were alive, it just seems presumptuous to ‘carry on their life’s work’ when they are there no more. Her actions feel more like a mid-life crisis rather than an awakening and the author quickly seems to lapse into a narrative style that begins to resemble a tirade. I believe a hint of subtlety goes a long way in getting a message across, instead of a message that tends more to infuriate and make one feel disheartened, except maybe when dealing with teenagers and college students. I am not an overtly religious person, but I understood the author’s complete disillusionment with the ruling class and its not-so-subtle efforts to woo the minorities. Why not simply be honest? Call a spade a spade. If a Hindu commits a crime then name him, and if a Muslim does so then do the same for him. How can a democracy allow different divorce laws and marriage laws for different religions in its constitution? It is utterly ridiculous. And before I become side-tracked I must tell the reader that Lakshmi also begins to write a novel within the novel, which was just simply not nice. I never felt any empathy for her main protagonist who happens to undergo a fate ‘worse than death’ and spends so much of his times listening to long speeches. I was completely at a loss about the motivation for her story line and the conclusion she formulates for it.
But then, the one thing this novel made me realize is the resilience and tenacity of faith in an individual and in a community. Oh not that of the fickle Lakshmi, but all around us. Look at the Jews; prosecuted for centuries and still alive and kicking. The Parsis, whom we love thanks to Bollywood and Boman Irani, who maybe down to 4-digit numbers and yet stick to the rigid tenets of their religion and faith and move on. Even the historical notes in the novel, that tell us about the oppression carried out over centuries on the Hindus, reaffirm the hold of faith over a civilization that refused to simply roll over and die. It has happened over and over again in world history, at different times and with different civilizations, yet we live on in hope of a better tomorrow for all.
So yes, this novel did make me think about my position with regard to my beliefs and my faith, which it set out to do, but it also made me uncomfortable and bored after a while. But it must be read by others to get a viewpoint from different perspectives, although it will unfortunately always tend to engender extreme reactions both for and against its story line and views. And I am sure, neither will be happy with mine. But hey, I am just someone who reads a lot of books and either likes the stories or doesn’t and in the end the story is all that counts.