Writing as a corrective for a Hindu collective: An important reprise
Vamsee Juluri (August 2018). “Writing Across a Cracked World: Hindu Representation and the Logic of Narrative”. Kindle Edition.
What if you see your image in a mirror that is cracked/broken? What kinds of distortions will the mirror make of your visage? Will you want to continue to look in the mirror or look away? What do you sense and feel when you see your image is distorted? What if you do not know that the mirror is cracked? What if it is the only mirror you can access or allowed access to? Humor me and do this thought experiment.
I do not believe we are allowed cracked mirrors in our homes, if I remember right the admonition of my grandmother and mother. And, I believe, it was the Romans who warned that a broken mirror is a sign of seven years of bad luck….
Now, imagine the broken mirror as a metaphor for the world, and how the world reflects your image along and across those cracks. If the world/mirror is predominantly a construction of the media and academia, where do you place yourself to peer into the splintered glass? Are there places of advantage? Is there any space in, or across some swath of the mirror where there is little distortion, or at least only a few distortions? Can you move away from the badly splintered space and get into a more accommodative location?
If you are a Hindu, and you have been deliberately pushed into a heavily splintered spot in the cracked mirror/world, what do you see and make of yourself? And if you don’t have the skills or the talent to maneuver yourself into the space/s that you seek, what then? Yes, what then? You should not keep repeating the same ungainly moves you have got habituated to, and you cannot just give up. You need to upgrade your skills, if not acquire new ones, which will enable you to shift spaces, move away from broken places, and present to yourself and others a more real you, a more wholesome you, a stronger and confident you.
Keep this image/metaphor in mind as you read Vamsee Juluri’s new book, “Writing Across a Cracked World: Hindu Representation and the Logic of Narrative”, available now only in a Kindle/e-book version but which should be available in a print edition if the Gods will it. Juluri is deeply concerned about the growing if not already deeply entrenched bias in the media and academia about Hindus and Hinduism, and he is equally distraught that Hindus have not prepared well or equipped themselves with the necessary skills to counter the “mainstream” Hinduphobic logic. Thus, this guide; no, not a primer, but a guide that offers directions, provides insight, establishes markers, warns of shoals and slippery ground to aspiring writers and activists who are proud of their Hindu heritage and Hindu wisdom but who have struggled to correct and influence the discourse of the Hinduphobic world.
Juluri acknowledges that social media and the internet has enabled a new Hindu narrative, but that it is not sturdy enough to battle the “more powerful, well-funded, and technologically superior anti-Hindu narrative”. The established narrative has spread its tentacles and embedded itself in all of the mainstream institutions, including in major business corporations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), now influenced, shaped and funded by global/Western forces that have woven strategic alliances with religious organizations, political parties, deep-pocketed charitable organizations, and academic and media institutions. This is not some kind of conspiracy theory that Juluri is proposing or which is something of a new phenomenon/reality. India has been conquered, colonized, beaten into submission over centuries, first by a combination of Arab and Central Asian hordes, and then by a more organized European/Christian effort, and post-independence by Left/Marxist/modernist combines. India was not their only target, but Hindus have been only one of the few steadfast peoples who have withstood the ravages of the Muslim and Christian armies which have transformed the rest of the world into mostly majority Christian and Muslim nations, and battled the Left/Marxist/modernist combines that have sought to divide Hindus along manufactured fissures. The Muslim and Christian soldiers wielding swords and muskets were accompanied by priests and preachers thumping their monopolist creeds inscribed in their “singular” books, and by merchants and administrators who wrote for themselves much profit and much power. India gained independence in 1947, but it was a splintered verdict, with debilitating consequences, forcing a Hindu majority to acquiesce to a new subjugation, and to accepting a new, broken image manufactured and foisted by “modernists” in bed with the old enemies of Hinduism.
At this juncture in India’s history therefore, if Hindus are to counter their enemies using skill and intelligence, across media platforms, academic spaces, and activist battlegrounds, they need to learn to present themselves and their world using language with discipline and skill. Alas, many intelligent Hindus, post-independence, mostly sought to enter into careers in engineering, medicine, and other practical/development-oriented arenas, leaving the areas of the social sciences and the humanities to be occupied by Hinduphobic interests who now lord over the world of words. Juluri therefore seeks to hold the Hindu writer’s hand and guide her/him to “set the record straight”. But for him to do that he has to first clear a lot of the undergrowth, and to identify the weeds that have spread and begun devouring the life-sustaining and life-enhancing Hindu world and its cosmic embrace. The attacks against Hindus and Hinduism, he characterizes, rightly, as “Hinduphobia”, which he identifies as a product of the discourse produced in the “establishment”. Hindu opposition, slowly emerging as a movement, is to this entrenched establishment, and to its devious discourse.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, won the General Elections in 2014, there has been little course correction in the narratives and in the discourse about the nature and culture of Hindus, and the threats they face from monopolistic and global forces. The academics and the media elites, writing in English, still set the agenda, for they are the power-holders in the establishment, and even though the results of the 2014 elections indicated that the people sought a course-correction, that has not happened, and will not happen unless and until Hindus begin to make an impact with their writing and with their speaking. For example, Juluri points out how, to this minute, “Hindu deities, icons and symbols” are “depicted as innately, inherently, inexorably violent, dangerous and evil” even as Hindus continue to be the bulwark that keep India steady and grounded. While there is a large, unorganized, active group of people challenging such distorted depictions, they have failed to influence or change the discourse, Juluri points out, warning that unless and until Hindus have articulate and passionate writers and scholars, journalists and novelists, corporate chiefs and heads of NGOs, guiding the nation, the course of the discourse will not change.
Invoking “satyagraha”, truth-force, that is essentially ingrained in the Hindu quest for knowledge of the self and the world, Juluri insists that the only way to prevail over the mayhem of the postmodernists and the monopolists is to speak the truth and speak it “sweetly”, by which he means that truth cannot be simplistically harrumphed, but should be woven with care and with skill. That cannot be achieved by mere wishes or by spending money foolishly but by acquiring the expertise necessary to engage the entrenched establishment, he points out, reminding us that as long as Hindus are a minority in the “narrative professions” we will continue to be forced into corners from where battles are hard to wage. We know what the weakness is of the establishment – in the reading and understanding of traditional Hindu texts, Indian practices of medicine and meditation, history and language, music and art – but our weakness is that we do not know the grammar of Western academic discourse nor do we know how to unpack the language of the media and its guardians. We may know our Vatsyayana and Vallabha but if we do not know their Hegel and their Habermas, or their Marx and their Müller, we are at a disadvantage. This does not mean it is necessary to earn a PhD in cultural studies from an European or an American university to become adept in using the English language or in academic discourse, but it takes a lot of care and discipline to write with rigor and with power.
“You can do it,” Juluri assures the reader, and he gives some of the best advice I have ever read about good writing, for writing is indeed difficult. It is one of the most challenging of human skills to acquire, and good writing in an alien language much more of a steep hill to climb. That is why we procrastinate so much when it comes to our writing assignments. It is easier to postpone than to confront a blank page or an essay on stilts. While it is somewhat easy to pour our anger onto a page, it is easier to see how poorly it reads. So, “…it is best to be professionally courteous, civil, and precise in writing about others,” Juluri advises as “wild anger… does not help in securing our representation”. He cautions the aspiring writer about falling into the trap of an “us and them” narrative, suggesting instead critiquing the Hinduphobic works “…in general, universal, moral terms”.
Warning against the use of easy labels like “Left” and “Right”, Juluri presents us with some interesting findings from a simple survey he conducted on Twitter (where he has a substantial following), pointing out that the embrace of “left/right/nationalist” labels reduces Hindus “to a subservient place in an alien, colonial framework”. His advice, “Reason like a conservative. Write like a liberal. Live like a Hindu”. All this is just in the first section of this important handbook for Hindu writers.
The next section is all about writing: as a calling, as a discipline, as a skill, as a sacrifice, as serious business. Juluri writes with the passion of a writer, and with the knowledge of what it takes to become a good writer. It takes discipline and commitment to influence people and win praise if not converts, he tells the aspiring writer. Most of us rush to publish, and much of what is published is easily forgotten. But if we want readers to thrill to what we have to unpack for them, we need to be prepared to make some sacrifices. For example, it takes hours of practice each day, every day, over many years for a student to rise to the level of a concert stage musician. Few are self-taught. Good teachers and mentors are needed to guide the student from unlearning bad habits and poor techniques to what works well, and what makes a difference. So it is that a Hindu, aspiring to be a good writer, has to devote herself or himself to many, many hours of practicing the art of writing. They should be prepared to face the prospect of rejection, multiple times, from publishers, and they should be willing to open, re-read, and edit carefully a few more times a piece that they had already spent many months working on. It is the nature of the business. Excellence requires practice, devotion, commitment, and a single-minded focus.
Full of rich examples from his experience writing across a variety of platforms and in a variety of formats, Vamsee Juluri’s book fills the big void that so many aspiring Hindu writers faced in their quest to write well, make a difference, even as they sought to avoid traps, understand the genres, evaluate their strengths, identify their calling, and become true sadhakas. “Approach the word with your feet clean as if entering a temple,” Juluri tells the aspiring writer. “The word is a deity. Treat it with respect,” he echoes Hindu sages.
It is for a good publisher to pick up the gauntlet now and offer this book in a printed version. Such a handbook will strengthen the Hindu movement and equip the Hindu writer with a manual to weave word-baskets necessary to carry the world.