The Journey to Guntur | Jay Hansford C. Vest

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Some four years plus, I had been corresponding with a professor of English at Acharya Nagarjuna University in the Guntur District of southern India. A member of the Dalit, my friend Raja is an indigenous person within the region and nation; his people were previously classed as untouchables for not being Aryan. Raja chairs the English Department at the university and his interests include the literatures and struggles of indigenous peoples around the world including First Nations and Native Americans. Locating me via the Internet with my publications listed thereon, he initially wrote me with an invitation to an international conference devoted to indigenous writing. While I planned to attend his conference, the UNC system shut down all international travel during the period of extreme austerity that accompanied the great recession. Hence, I was forced to withdraw from making an immediate presence at the conference, although I did submit an electronic paper in absentia.

As time passed, we continued to correspond and he subsequently invited me to review a doctoral student’s dissertation. A very admirable work, it addressed the literature of Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday and I was very impressed with this scholarship devoted to a Native American author from halfway around the world; it was comforting to know that Asian Indians cared for North American Indians despite Columbus’s geographical error. In the progression of years, more dissertations arrived for my approval; always I was impressed with the research and quality of work whether it is addressed to Australian Aboriginals, Canadian writers or great Indian authors like Tagore. With perhaps undo inspiration from myself, my friend proposed another international conference so as to again invite me to India. This time I could not deflect or let university travel policy deter me.

A global seminar devoted to indigenous people, it was set for December 2012 so as to avoid the hot season. My journey called for flights to London, Hyderabad and Vijayawada were myself and several other indigenous writers and scholars were installed in a charming hotel. Arriving a day before the others, I was joined by a most convincing Maori native and scholar from New Zealand who shared his delightful interest in oral tradition with me. It was a good pairing of aboriginality as we found the campus a day ahead of the others.

At the university, I was struck with the disrepair and overall condition of the building housing the English Department, but the students were bright, attentive and respectful. They appeared to worship their mentor and when we were asked to speak to them, they gave us rapt attention; it was an ideal audience. Taken across campus to the administration building, there was a stark contrast featuring a new building in the classic Indian architecture. Here we met the university president and other key officials who shared pleasantries with us. After taking delicate fruit drinks, we were off to meet a philosopher who specialized in Mahayana Buddhism and directed a school for its study. The monks were a delight although I am not sure what they thought of us; when I ventured to express my interest and study of Zen, particularly Dõgen, they passed it off as Japanese and but a minor tradition within Buddhism at large. The monks were preparing for a pilgrimage and I championed their traditions of compassion for all things that appeared to make nice our difference regarding Zen. They invited us to the foyer where a large statute of the Buddha stood and pictures were taken all around.

Going back to Vijayawada, I could not help but notice the trash scattered everywhere; it was squalor in its neglect. Once again I was troubled by the traffic patterns; all manner of vehicles including bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, tuk tuks, compact cars, SUVs, large buses and heavy trucks shared the road in a frenzy of competition. Using the full width of the road, they gave no care for keeping their lanes; darting in and out with mere inches to spare, tailgating was an art form. Honking horns was so prevalent it made me wonder if cars were judged not on performance but on the quality of their horns. Soon I realized all this honking was a kind of communications that nevertheless baffled me; the signals were there but I could not recognize the notes. Horns replaced signal lights and everyone whisked within a hair’s breath of disaster. With pedestrians trying to cross the road at any and all points, it seemed to be utter chaos but I saw no accidents and very few dented fenders.

Each morning there was a Dalit lady sweeping the street before the hotel entryway; clean she drew symbols with chalk on the immediate roadway. It was time for the opening ceremonies; somehow the symbolism about the hotel driveway seemed a perfect introduction for the conference beginning with all its pageantry. We were each called individually and invited to take the stage – flowers where given, the ceremonial programs handed out and a sacred candle lighted. It took us well past the allotted time and lunch into the afternoon, so that the nine-thirty plenary speaker began at one-thirty. A Canadian Métis or self described “half-breed,” addressed First Nations health issues in a well prepared but all too well rehearsed program; it had the feel of a less than original presentation designed for use on many occasions. In fact, I could not help but wonder how often in a given year she presented this same program while counting it new with each offering. Such vita padding seemed to me hardly the stuff of a plenary presentation. With subsequent panelists rushed into ten-minute quick shots, there was a race to catch up which went beyond all measure of a reasonable orientation.

Featured in the next session, there were two plenary lectures back to back on the conference program. Initially looking at this scheduling I was troubled by thinking it would not work out well for both the audience and speakers. The first plenary was accorded to a Canadian indigenous writer, Lee, the granddaughter of Chief Dan George who as Old Lodgeskins had made a stunning film debut in the 1970 film Little Big Man. While I had enjoyed Lee’s jokes the night before, it was quickly dawning on me that she was overbearingly rude and given to the spotlight of her own demand. It struck me as odd when she rushed through her presentation in ten short minutes while using little or no prepared remarks.

I was to follow her; my preparations were planned for a full plenary address as I had been given to believe was my due on invitation. With the time problem, I began skipping key points and themes that I thought important to the overall thread of my presentation. Still this was not enough to suit the moderator who after eight or so minutes suggested I sum up my remarks. Ignoring him, I pressed on but Lee boomed out saying I should finish while declaring, “I am a feminist” as if her gender orientation somehow gave her leave to interrupt me. Indeed I had no idea what feminism had to do with the shortening of my plenary address as I was an honored guest of equal status, hence I replied, “I did not come halfway around the world for ten minutes.” She persisted and I stormed off the stage complaining about what I perceived as a direct affront and insult to my invitation and concomitant record of accomplishment as a scholar. The host and others begged me to finish but saying, “I am done,” I refused to resume my plenary lecture.

It was an ugly moment and I recalled Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines as an example of how not to interrupt an aboriginal tradition; in his case, he reported how an investigator had given an aboriginal man who was on walkabout a lift in a pickup truck. The man was singing his traditional song lines but when he took his seat in the pickup truck bed, it moved too fast for him to keep up with his songs so that he faltered and gave up. Rushing an invited speaker in this same manner is no way to honor and respect an indigenous tradition of which he or she speaks. As the session ended, the moderator attempted to address my remarks but I would have none of it and I stood saying, “No.” Lee attempted to once again intervene but I would have none of it. After all who was she to dictate my time? We came, moreover, from two separate indigenous traditions and she is no more the elder than I; explaining such to my host I demanded to be treated with equal respect. With that I took my leave fully intending to put the conference and all association with the place behind me.

In the reception area outside, however I was joined by my Maori friend who offered – “I feel for you.” His sympathetic remarks and attentive attitude began to give me the means to discuss and assess all that had happened. A host of students crowded in around us; all begging me to finish my talk but it was almost as unpleasant as the interruption until I began to respond to Hone in explaining the traditional perspective from which I operate. First, I asserted the fragile manner in which I found myself functioning in a strange place foreign to my spirit helper and outside its habitat. Hone countered, “I take my spirits with me” so I explained the organics of the situation; in my case spirit helpers are nature persons dependent upon their ecological habitat, outside that domain they have no power. Hence, I was alone without my spirit helpers and unable to take them where they do not reside. Second, I lamented on the height of rudeness that the interruption had taken it was akin to disrupting a traditional ceremony; the interruption of an elder’s address is an unspeakable taboo among most indigenous peoples. With the students begging, a realization came over me; moreover, when a traditional ceremony is interrupted one has to return to the beginning and start over. It was this epiphany that gave me an out; my host had already suggested giving me a new time slot for as long as I needed on the next morning. My primary objection was grounded on the effrontery of the insult but then I also did not want to take away from someone else’s time. Acknowledging the ceremonial restart, I relented and accepted the offer to renew my presentation on the next day. In the process of storytelling and assessing the traditional protocol, I had found a way out of the mess although I was not entirely satisfied. My thinking was to complete my part, continue with whatever initiatives I had already begun in association with my host but subsequently refuse all others – so I explained to my Maori friend.

As the next day arrived, I made my presentation anew giving it the proper attention as merited in a plenary address. For what it is worth, the students, scholars and others were enthralled with my storytelling and analysis – so that I was also given to speak briefly about my novel in progress. It was surely too long, but I supposed it to be a means of saving face on both sides.

In the evening there was a cultural program featuring exotically attired young women in a dance program. One of the dances was quite unmistakably related to water, perhaps celebrating the river and all that it gives to the people. Truly stunning, I imagined all the little girls dreaming of becoming dancers just as some living elsewhere dream of becoming ballerinas and gymnasts in their youthful fantasies. An orchestrated rhythm dance with boys clapping sticks together with their associates followed the next evening; it was most impressive in its coordination among the participants – I thought to myself how it advanced coordination and cooperation among the traditional Dalit society. In a last and final show, there was a drama featuring a cattle thief plot with several girls in the role of boys disguised with little painted mustaches. As they played through the set, I was reminded of the old Irish legend of Cú Culann that also featured a cattle thief and it made me once again think of the relationship of Aryan Indo-European tradition – Celtic and Hindu – at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Everywhere we went from day one until the end of the conference there was one refrain and constant demand – “Can I have a snap?” In my entire lifetime, I have never posed for so many photographs; in fact I began to fear for my shadow with each new snap, still I bore it good-naturedly. On the last day my Maori friend and I were given again to speak with the students. At first, I was asked to tell a story, which I gave without reservation. Afterwards, our Métis friend offered that “we” do not traditionally tell stories out of season but she relented and while speaking for only a few minutes, she and the others were off to meet the Buddhist monks. As for myself, I have concluded we have to relax the storytelling taboo least we lose the oral tradition entirely; hence, I make storytelling a key pedagogy of my classroom instruction. Following the departure of the others Hone taught a Maori chant and dance to the classroom and it was wonderful with everyone participating. Again I was called upon to tell more stories, which I enthusiastically engaged before our departure. Leaving for the airport, Hone and I were laughing as we watched a young man urinating along the side of the road; but then just halfway to the airport Hone urgently requested a bathroom break. Of course, there were no wash closets nearby, so our host pulled to the side of the road and with me giving a shielding presence to the view of oncoming traffic, Hone urinated into the ditch. The joke was now on us. It was a fond farewell as Hone called his ancestors to make his departure in this all too human land of diversity and tradition.

Jay Hansford C. Vest is Professor of American Indian Studies specializing in Native American Religious Traditions at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. A Native American, he is an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation and he is also a direct descendent of 17th century Pamunkey leader Opechancanough who took Captain John Smith captive as a murder suspect. In addition, he was given a name and ceremonially adopted as an honorary Pikuni (Blackfeet) by the late Joe Crowshoe of Brocket, Alberta in June 1989. Since 1980, he has taught American Indian Studies at universities in Montana, Washington, Arizona, Alberta, Minnesota, New York and North Carolina. Twice awarded Fulbright Fellowships, he was a 1992-93 lecturer in Bamberg, Germany and a 2005-06 Research Chair at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He has also held scholarly fellowships at the D’Arcy McNickle Center for the History of the American Indian, Newberry Library in Chicago (1995) and the Oxford Round Table for religion at Jesus College Oxford University in the United Kingdom (2008). With interests in Native American religious traditions, oral traditions, cultural studies, ethnohistory and literature, as well as comparative world mythology, environmental ethics and the philosophy of ecology, his scholarship includes more than one hundred peer reviewed publications and more than one hundred formal presentations world wide. He is author of Will-of-the-Land: A Philosophy of Wilderness Praxis and Environmental Ethics (2011) and The Bobtail Stories: Growing Up Monacan (forthcoming).

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