Aavarana: How To Read Propaganda

Motion Sick on Terra Firma

I have acute motion sickness. An unfortunate condition but a good reminder of one of my many fallibilities every time I travel on bouncy vehicles. It starts innocuously enough. I would be checking messages on my phone and a slight feeling of queasiness would rise from the back of my throat. Nausea spreads through my whole being slowly and soon my eyes turn blurry. I fight to keep down the rising fumes of bile, trying to focus my eyes on some distant point or pleasant thought. At this point I tune out words and ambient noise, clench my teeth and remind myself that this is just a temporary state which will ease back to normality once I hit terra firma. This way I have endured many a precarious journey.

It is an ordeal well described by Junichiro Tanisaki in his short story The Terror, Kyofu, in his collected work Seven Japanese Tales.

As you might have rightly inferred many such terror filled rides can be avoided if I take some precautions. Even then they happen on a fairly regular basis.

Curiously, whenever I was reading Aavarana, by S L Bhyrappa, I felt motion sick. I happened to come across a translation by Sandeep Balakrishna at the Housing Works Bookstore in Soho, NYC. I had never heard of the book but since I pick up any work by an Indian author I remember picking it up and filing it away hoping to read it sometime later.

I can safely say, after reading it over this weekend, that Aavarana was by far the most vile, pedestrian piece of Islamophobic prose, masquerading as literature I have had the misfortune of reading.

It makes no bones about its intent, message and tone to vilify Mughal rule in India, providing convenient strawman arguments that are then crassly decimated to leave Bhyrappa, the idealogue, gloating over his pseudo intellectual triumphs.

Before I veer away from the topic of the book let me in all sincerity ask you to stay away from this book – and it’s sympathizers.

Books as Propaganda

At a fundamental level all art is propaganda. They come in various sizes and forms. Overt, covert, forceful, benign, intentional, unintentional, humorous, poetic.  We as readers are always subjected to these machinations. And to a large extent we understand and accept it. We might disagree with some very vehemently but never to the point of violence. The more provocative the art, the more divisive it is among the general reading populace. However, those that disproportionately concentrate on the message rather than the style can safely be relegated to the lower realms of art and literature. Just like a bundle of sticks do not make a tree, a collection of letters do not make a book. There is a life form that binds the work together in its earnestness and empathy.

Reading hateful materials though is a different beast altogether. Instead of warm fuzzy love, or cynical philosophy, or sweeping familial or societal sagas we are subjected to narrow minded interpretations and factual contortions. Structural and tonal layering is minimal because that is secondary. Art follows message distantly in such cases.

There is nothing inherently wrong in such works. They are hateful but so is a lot of art for some segment of readers who hold differing views. Where the slip happens is the motive. Art, to a dreamer like me, is divine. There is room for dissent and anger and loathing and pain and suffering that stems from the author’s very personal point of view. It stems from a need to express stylistically deep held conflicts. It is an attempt to understand and contradict emotions and thoughts that then find its way out as art or literature. It can be unbridled and unanalyzed and hopefully lead to self awareness.

Unfortunately Aavarana, achieves none of these. It does not accord respect to the ideas it negates. It serves only to denounce, not to forgive. To vilify, not accommodate.

Can literary works exist without such lofty ideals? Of course. Does it induce motion sickness? In me, yes. A rudderless unnameable sadness at the prostitution of literary vehicles to further hate agendas. 

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