Featured Member — Rajnish Dhawan
**Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Rajnish Dhawan, a Professor of English at the University of the Fraser Valley and an award-winning writer who writes in multiple languages and genres.
Since moving to Canada from India in 2009, Rajnish has written four plays. His first Canadian play That Time of the Year focuses on the issues of gender, and sexuality among the South Asian diaspora in Canada. That Land Beyond the Waves, is based upon the Komagata Maru tragedy. Basement Santa is a comical take on fake marriages to get Canadian citizenship. A Full House is an all-women play that attempts to challenge the process of religious and cultural stereotyping associated with the phenomenon of terrorism. These plays have been performed at various venues across the Fraser Valley. Rajnish’s latest play Culture Shock is a spicy cocktail of intercultural humor borne out of an attempt to challenge and subvert the stereotypes about people of Indian origin. In 2019, Rajnish’s maiden Hindi novel Amritsar 1919 was published and is now being translated into Punjabi. Rajnish is also a stand up comic and he performs regularly at various venues in Vancouver and the Fraser Valley.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got your start writing plays.
I was born in Amritsar, India. My city is famous for the Golden Temple or the Harimandir Sahib, the highest seat of worship for the people of Sikh faith. The history of the land on which the city is located goes back thousands of years and there are many landmarks in an around Amritsar that can be linked to the stories in the Hindu epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. My father taught English literature in a local college and my mother was the principal of an elementary school. My earliest memories of my parents’ routine and habits form the basis of my literary career. Every morning, my father would read the newspaper while sipping a hot cup of chai and in the evening he would read works by Romantic and Victorian poets to prepare for his lectures. My mother is a wonderful orator and she would regularly address the assembly of school-children as they stood in rows after morning P.T. Growing up in a Hindu household, I was also introduced to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata at a very young age.
In 1975, when I was five years old, the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, faced a constitutional crisis and she declared a state of emergency. All the major opposition leaders were put behind bars. For the next two years, India reeled under the autocratic rule of Indira and her son Sanjay Gandhi. In 1977, the emergency was lifted and general elections were held in India. My father used to have animated discussions with our neighbours about the political environment of the country. I was inadvertently drawn towards these discussions and, as a seven year old, I was following the federal elections in India with as much interest as any other adult in the country. As is natural for sons (especially when they are young) to imitate their father, I also started reading newspaper around that time. In 1978, there was a violent clash between some fundamentalist Sikhs and the members of a religious sect in which seventeen people died. One of the dead, was the father of my friend, while one of those arrested for opening fire at the crowd, was the father of another friend of mine. After that fateful day of religious and political strife, two of my friends had a reason to hate each other. That clash was the beginning of a long drawn spell of Sikh militancy in Punjab with Amritsar being the epicentre of it. I was seven when that violent clash occurred, and I was 23 when militancy in Punjab ended. There were murders every day, bomb blasts were frequent and for many years, we lived under a constant threat of communal violence. Sikh militants were killing innocent Hindus while the government agencies were killing innocent Sikhs under the pretense of maintaining law and order. During that decade and half of violence, some of us (Hindus and Sikhs alike), created a coping mechanism to deal with the trauma through the use of comedy and theatre. A vibrant theatre culture began evolving in Amritsar. Violence, loss, pain and uncertainty found its voice in theatre. However, the powers that be were not happy at this development. Many artists, poets and performers were gunned down because they offended the militants through their creative expression. But this did not deter the community, and theatre in Amritsar continued its journey. It was against this backdrop that I wrote my first play, a musical, based on the first Gulf War. The year was 1992. We did not have any budget but we were a bunch of college students with passion. I wrote the script, a couple of friends composed the music and we recruited anyone who was willing to go on stage and we managed to put up a show. It was extremely well-received and we got invites to perform it at a number of venues. But we were still students and we had exams and we had term papers to write. So, after about ten performances we went back to our normal student life. A couple of years later, in my final year, I wrote another musical, this time mocking at the government institutions including the police. Both of these scripts dealt with current issues, they were violent and they were also funny. But till then, I had never thought about going into creative arts professionally. I was having fun, but in the process, through my creative expression, I was channelizing years of pent up anger and frustration towards all the players in the Punjab saga. It was cathartic. It gave me some direction and meaning. By the time I finished my Master’s degree, terrorism had ended and the state was slowly beginning to come to terms with peace. I started teaching at a college and got married. In 1997, I entered an all India thriller writing competition and was adjudged first runners-up. This opened the gates of the television industry for me and for the next six years I consistently wrote television series and documentaries for the Doordarshan, the Indian version of the CBC. I didn’t write any plays during this time, but I continued to act on stage. I tried acting for screen once, and I didn’t like it. In 2004, I was invited to Mumbai (derogatorily called Bollywood) to write for the top ranking T.V show at that time. I spent five weeks in that city, but I did not find the world of commercial television appealing enough for me to move my family from Amritsar to Mumbai. That was the last time I wrote anything for commercial T.V. in India. Theatre was beckoning me.
In 2005, I enrolled myself for Ph.D in comparative literature and started studying classical theory and traditions that governed the ancient Greek and Sanskrit drama. It was at this stage of my life that I decided to not only study the theory of drama, but also to indulge in the practice of this art form with a more professional attitude. While working for my Ph.D, I wrote two plays (in Hindi) — Anupama and Tarpan. Anupama was based on a court case where a community in India had gone to court asking it to intervene in a live-in relationship between a man and a woman, which the community deemed to be illegal. The court struck down the petition and the couple was allowed to continue to live as they pleased.
Tarpan dealt with the twin-issues of female foeticide and farmer suicides in Punjab. Tarpan was performed at a theatre festival in Amritsar. Anupama was considered too radical for Indian public and I could not generate resources for the project.
In 2009, I moved to Canada. What happened then? You will find the answer to my response to the next question.
The plays you’ve written since coming to Canada have focused on “melting down the barriers to intercultural communication”. Why do you think theatre is well-positioned to do this work?
I came to Canada in 2009. I worked as a radio host for a few months before landing a teaching position at the University of the Fraser Valley. It was encouraging to see a vibrant performing arts scene in and around Vancouver. I began exploring opportunities and went for some auditions. But all the parts that I auditioned for were written for white actors. So, I wasn’t surprised when I never received a call-back. I was disappointed, but not surprised. Some of my colleagues advised me to try my luck with some Indo-Canadian theatre groups in Surrey. I went to see some performances but I couldn’t relate with the world that they were presenting on stage. Then, something happened that made me understand a rather disturbing reality about my space in the Canadian theatre-community. That incident was to inform my writing process in the years to come.
I was watching a play in Langley, B.C. It was a comedy, centred around a white dysfunctional family. The production was wonderful and I was wholeheartedly enjoying the play. I was sitting in the front row and an elderly white man was sitting next to me. He completely ignored my presence. About 45 minutes into the play, a brown actor appeared on stage. This character was of course written for a white actor but for some reason, they had cast a brown actor to play it. Now, the moment this actor came on stage, the man sitting next to me, looked at me and smiled. Then, whenever, this actor would say something funny, the man would look at me and smile as if trying to say, “this you understand, right?” This went on throughout the show. He never looked at me when a white actor would say something funny, although I was laughing at those jokes too — cuz I understood them. During the interval, I realized that I was the only person of colour in the audience. I probably would not have realized this had I not had that strange experience. After this incident, I became conscious of the demographic make-up of theatre audiences. And it wasn’t hard to see the segregation. There were white plays and there were brown plays and the audiences largely patronized the plays whose characters looked like them. This was far removed from the progressive image of the Western world with which I had come to Canada.
So, in 2010, when I wrote my first Canadian play That Time of the Year, I tried to make it multi-cultural by adding a couple of white characters to the cast. The play was stage-read at the Reach Gallery Museum, Abbotsford. The audience appreciated it but I was not happy with it. Something was amiss. When I tried to revise it for a full production, I realized that it wasn’t a Canadian play. Rather it was an Indian play forcibly transplanted into Canada. The white characters had a token presence and the play could have worked without them. I never revised the play and for the next couple of years I struggled to find my Canadian voice.
The opportunity came in 2013. The South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley asked me write a play on the Komagata Maru tragedy of 1914, to be presented during the centenary of the event. I wrote That Land Beyond the Waves and instead of using the historical personages as characters, I told the story through the reactions of the common people in the Vancouver community to this event. This gave me an opportunity to bring characters from various ethnicities on stage together. The experiment gave the characters (and subsequently some actors who played them) a chance to see the other beyond the conventional stereotype.
That Land Beyond the Waves is a full-length play in English based on the Komagata Maru incident. The play has almost equal number of white and brown characters and my audience was as diverse as one can expect it to be in Abbotsford. The play premiered at the Matsqui auditorium in Abbotsford and since then has been published by the South Asian Studies Institute.
The success of That Land Beyond the Waves gave me the formula that I have been using since then to write my plays. The formula is simple — tell Canadian stories through Canadian characters. Bring the streets of Canada on stage. Strip the hyphen off the immigrant identity and present them as Canadians. Through my plays, I try create a space where difficult and uncomfortable questions are raised and answers are sought so that the barriers to inter-cultural/inter-community exchange of ideas can be lifted and we are able to share our stories with one another.
Theatre is as much a community space as it is a performative space. The plays entertain and inform and information raises further queries and then theatre tries to address those queries through performance. It is a cyclical/churning process whose output is a positive energy that has the potential to heal and change the community/environment/world for the better.
My subsequent plays, A Full House, Basement Santa and Culture Shock have all been written with the idea of promoting inter-cultural understanding and melting the boundaries between various ethnic groups. A Full House is the story of four women who share a house in Vancouver. All of them are victims of various kinds of terror and all of them are potential terrorists themselves. They belong to different ethnic groups and while at the human level they are close friends, but when it comes to their communal identity, they all have a reason to hate each other.
Basement Santa and Culture Shock are comedies that try to peel off the mask of the cultural stereotypes often associated with the ethnic minorities.
What advice would you give to artists immigrating to Canada?
I belong to that category of immigrants who come to Canada believing it to be a white people’s country. For them the people of color are outsiders who come and encroached upon the space that belongs to the white people. Despite my doctorate degree, I was woefully unaware of the history of the First Nations peoples and the generational trauma that they had suffered over the hundreds of years of colonial rule. Therefore, I would encourage the artists immigrating to Canada to familiarize themselves with the indigenous myths and cultural narratives. In my case, it helped me develop a stronger connection with my adopted land and feel at par with the European immigrants. I am as much an outsider as a white person is and as much a Canadian as any other immigrant. I also found many parallels between the indigenous myths and the mythology of my native country. So, my advice to the artists immigrating to Canada is that they should try to understand the land, its stories and feel connected to the land and try to tell Canadian stories; stories that reflect their subjective creative energy and are not borne out a defensive and apologetic attitude.
Your plays reflect real events going on in the world. How do you take those events and translate them into a play?
As I mentioned in my introduction, the world I grew up was extremely violent and dangerous. I have lost family members and friends to terrorism. When I came to Canada, I saw that people from various walks of life, political, academic and religious, were using our trauma to their personal benefit and they were least concerned with the human stories of suffering. For my plays, I create characters that live and experience the turbulent events first hand. I do objective and intensive research into the political, social and economic aspects of the events and then record the reactions of characters as those events become their lived reality. It’s a risky business because the powerful people who are responsible for those events/crimes do not want people to see the human loss and suffering. They want to promote the narrative of individual sacrifice for the sake of a greater communal good. But where have all the sacrifices made in the name of religion/community landed us? The common people are sacrificed in order to make the so-called leaders rich and powerful. I try to tell the stories of the common people and warn them lest they too fall for the rhetoric and sacrifice their respective lives so that a selfish tyrant could reap rewards.
As I said, it’s a risky business. I was warned/threatened when I used a victim of the Air-India bombing, the largest act of terror on Canadian soil, as one of my characters for A Full House. A prominent theatre group in Chilliwack offered to collaborate on the production of That Land Beyond the Waves only to renege six weeks before the show because they were under pressure from some groups who thought that this play might show white people in bad light. The group told us that Chilliwack is a white community and a play with South Asian theme may not attract sufficient audience to make it economically feasible. But despite all these hiccups, thanks to the incredible team comprising of John Carroll, Julia Dovey, Shyna Kanda, Deepali Malviya, Thomas Smith, Aaron Levy, Satwinder Bains and Sharanjit Sandhra, we have managed to tell these stories on stage and are now excited for our next production.
What are you working on next?
The production of Culture Shock was suspended due to COVID and I am hoping that we will be able to pick up the pieces from where we abruptly left them in 2020. Fingers crossed! I am also working on a new script which explores the issue of Canadian identity vis-à-vis the ethnic/national identity of the visible minorities in Canada. The idea germinated during a cricket match. I bought my cricket gear from a Pakistani, much to the chagrin of an Indian team-mate of mine who asked me why didn’t I go the Indian guy’s shop to get my gear. That got me thinking — Will we ever truly become Canadian? I have surrendered my Indian passport and am now a Canadian citizen. If a Pakistani has done the same, then should I look at them as Canadian or Pakistani? If India and Pakistan go to war, which they quite often do, how will that affect my friendship with Canadians of Pakistani origin? We as Canadians have grappled with this topic many-a-time in the past and it is still as relevant as it was at any other time in history.
What is your favourite Canadian play?
Drew Hayden Taylor’s In a World Created by a Drunken God was the first play Canadian play that I ever read. It still ranks high on my all-time favourite list. Tomson Highway’s Rez Sisters has given me a lot to think and research about. Rahul Varma’s State of Denial is a show that I would love to watch some day.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.