Delhi - It was not an auspicious beginning. The gods of Air Canada had deemed it necessary to place me in the most uncomfortable seat possible, in one of the middle seats of four. There I sat, all 6 feet, 196 pounds of me, for 16 hours, including the two hours we spent on the runway waiting to take off. Maybe the crowded airplane seats would serve to acclimatize the passengers to a country with approximately 1 billion people.
After fighting claustrophobia all the way, I landed half a world away , primed for a series of conferences. The first was in Jaipur, or "Pink City," so called because of the colour of the stones used in its construction. The name of the confab held at the university there was The Contemporary Drama In English. I was introduced as Professor Drew Hayden Taylor, which was news to me. Hard to admit, I didn't bother to correct them. I tried to act smarter.
Here I encountered the ongoing debate over Dalit literature. The Dalits are what used to be called the untouchables, the lowest caste in Hindu society. They used to clean toilets and do all the menial work for the higher castes and were considered unclean. Some had to walk with a broom tied to their backs that would sweep the ground clean after they'd walked on it. The caste system was officially abolished in the Indian constitution back in the 50s, but prejudices like this die hard.
Dalits make up approximately 16 per cent of the population. Much like the native people of North America, they've discovered the sword of literature as a means of liberation. Dalits are beginning to write their own stories, tragic survival narratives, a classic example of an oppressed people finding their voice.
One of my travelling companions, Alok Mukherjee, a high-caste brahman (though it's not something he boasts about), translated a book titled Towards An Aesthetic Of Dalit Literature, by Sharankumar Limbale, and was discussing it at the conference. At one point a woman stood up and asked him, "Now that they are being appeased by the government, why are they (the Dalit) still complaining and upset?" Boy, did this sound familiar from the aboriginal prospective - and we were on the other side of the world.
Wandering around Jaipur, I began to develop a strange sense of "otherness." Obviously, I did not belong. Even worse, after 15 years of writing about my native heritage, I was indistinguishable from any other white tourist. I saw a Caucasian couple riding an elephant who looked and dressed like me - completely out of place. They even waved to me.
I had flashbacks to my childhood when we used to watch tourists stop on the reserve to shop at the arts and crafts store. To us they seemed to have come from another planet. Evidently, I now have a cottage on that planet.
As the world knows, all white people have money. On the drive up to see a fort, a man came running up to the car and banged on my window, shoving his guide's licence against the glass, begging us to hire him. He picked my window because my fellow travellers were obviously South Asian - except for the one who looked strongly native American. My companions told me to "get used to it. You're white here." I pondered the philosophical implications of this while we returned to Delhi. Did this mean I had to buy a Jetta?
A few days later, we flew to Hyderabad, the location of the conference on Post-Colonial Commonwealth Literature In English. What the hell I'm doing here I don't know; there's a school of thought that says native people are not post-colonial because in many ways we are still colonized. So I'm a sheep in wolf's clothing - or, more accurately, a colonized person in a post-colonized environment. I just hope I have the proper paperwork.
I sat through a lecture by an academic considered the Wayne Gretzky of literary theory, Homi Bhaba. He sure sounded smart. I passed the time counting the ceiling tiles. Soon it was my turn to read and lecture about the nature of First Nations theatre and humour. If this had been a rock concert, they would've thrown their underwear. Instead, they threw metaphors.
The first controversy hit when conference-goers fumed that no Dalit writers had been invited to present papers. E-mails flew all over the place like bats in an insect frenzy. There was talk of a protest, but nothing materialized.
Later that night, at the official book launch of Mukherjee's translation, it was pointed out that the author, a Dalit, had not been invited. Kind of awkward, to say the least.
As we got ready to return to our hotel, a conference volunteer asked if we needed a ride. I asked if he was our driver, and he laughed, saying, "No, I'm upper-caste." As they say, you can cut the tree down, but the roots run pretty deep.
We all flew to Chennai, formerly known as Madras, on the eastern coast, where several of my plays are on the curriculum of the university. Like many First Nations communities, Indian cities are changing their names back to their original, pre-colonized forms. Bombay is now Mumbai. Calcutta is now Calicut. Just like here in Canada, where Cape Crocker is now Nawash and Gibsons is now Wahta.
Students there produced selected scenes from my plays Someday and Education Is A Right. It was quite surreal - "dot' Indians playing "feather Indians,' a distinction Canadian writer M. G. Vassanji and I once invented.
There was plenty of heart up onstage, but I couldn't help wondering how much they really understood about life on the rez. The amazing thing is there's talk of doing a full-scale production of Someday in Chennai. What's next - a rendition of Tomson Highway's, Dry Lips Oughta Move To Pondicherry?