A Naxalite in Tony’s Farm
Even as the mining mafia ravages beautiful Goa, a magnificent struggle is unfolding around the sacred groves and pristine rivers
Hartman De Souza Cavorem, Quepem (South Goa)
Mid-40s something and attractive like only someone like Tina Turner could be, Cheryl Marina D'Souza, twice tragically widowed, single mother of 10-year-old, Aki Zafran and wearer of many colourful hats - a history graduate, drop-out final year law student who turned boat-builder, furniture designer, antique-restorer and then successful, honest, beyond reproach entrepreneur for 17 years, big hip-hop fan who loves bass boosters and thinks George Clooney is very cool. She is now a top-drawer sales manager who's making money to keep her late husband, Tony San Francisco's farm going.
She is a woman who likes following the revs on the Gypsy's dashboard as she changes down to third, then makes them climb as she drops smoothly into second, wheels digging in with a screech, bright headlights marking the road as the jeep takes the sharp corner past the Forest Gate near Cavorem at speed, to drop Aki at school by 7.30am and make it to the gym before she goes to work at Margao, some 36 odd kilometres from the farm. She is most definitely not your 'normal' Naxalite.
Although that may be her essential being as she sits at the carved Webster dining table with six matching Webster chairs that she made with her old carpenters when she ran her high end carpentry business, dressed in a loose black top and purple wrap-around, bra straps fashionably showing, glares draped back on her long hair, hissing smoke and getting ready to chair a war council comprising her aide-de-camp, the tall, lithe Aki Zafran, who's brought her notebook and pen out ready to make notes and figure out what she's going to tell the minister for environment every morning when her mother is in jail - what do I call him, she asks Cheryl? Call him Uncle Minister, suggests her grandmother; yes, I like that... okay, Cheryl tells Aki, start writing your questions down, I need to see them after this meeting.
There's her 80s something feisty mother, Dora, who's in a class of her own, who happily slapped the police inspector's hand off when they loaded her in the back of a Gypsy the last time, saying take your dirty hands off me, don't touch me, you're destroying Goa's water and you're a devil. Now now bringing her diary to the war council where she's listed the questions she's going to ask the chief minister, a man, who, for some perverse reason, she insists on calling Ali Baba.
There's also the two family retainers at the table, Rita, who joined Cheryl and Dora for their one night in Aguada Jail last time and who still gets palpitations when she thinks of sleeping in a large airless room where one of the inmates calmly explained that she was in prison for killing her husband and cutting him into seven pieces. And Shashikala, who stood with them in front of Tembechem Dongor, the sacred grove that close to two years after they blocked the entrance is no more, thanks to a Congress politician wanting to emulate the infamous Reddy brothers of Bellary.
And last but certainly not least, there's her loyal farmhands, Dominic, from Panchwadi (where mining behemoth Vedanta has gigantic plans destined to destroy an important segment of the Zuari river); Pauto from Maina, whose house is barely 200 metres from the farm, and who holds a tight place in Cheryl's heart because he lit the pyre when Tony was cremated on the farm and his ashes sprinkled on the land he loved and nurtured and on the hill beyond Paikdev's temple, on the path leading down to his spring, just the other side of which, another Goan mining company, as effective as any, has already stripped half of Jollerancho Dongor, yet another grove sacred in this pantheon of hills, leaving it to look like a stale half-eaten cake on a broken plate.
And Anil, a dreamer and Cheryl's agriculture teacher. He gets up at 6 every morning and wanders off for an hour or so playing his bamboo flute for the birds; and Dilip and his wife Seema, both so much in love with each other, you know if you see one of them anywhere, the other will always be a stone's throw away; and their four-month-old baby son, Aditya, whom everyone on the farm knows is destined to be a hero because he was born two months prematurely at 4.30 in the morning on the day his parents were supposed to go on a month's leave. Instead of driving them to the station, Cheryl drove them to the hospital in Margao in her mother's Swift ZXI in 25 hour flat, saying later, oh man, was that an experience or what, I thought she had a miscarriage or something, she was yelling and screaming and moaning and then I got it and said, man I got to move, and I did... and she was out of the car, on a stretcher, in the labour room and boom, the next thing I see is Dilip walking to me with a huge smile on his face... so let me tell you that is one helluva fast car although you can still give me my Gypsy any day... no power steering for me, that's for cissies...
Cheryl leaves place for neither sophistry nor bullshit in this small but effective war council she chairs, but there's no fear of either showing up, because at every daybreak since the rains stopped in late August, everyone here has heard the bulldozers revving their engines to a loud, screaming whine as they push the trees down and rip out the earth, and every day they see how much more of the hill has been shaved off. Beneath that hill, at the side of that hill, in the cusps that connect that hill to other hills and turns them all into valleys that hold the human settlements of Maina and Cavorem, churn the waters that give this area its lush forests, its rich contented wildlife, its birds, its abundant springs, and its fertile plantations, orchards and fields growing rice twice a year.
Barely 50 metres from the war council, runs a canal built some 14 years back at the cost of Rs 4 crore to take spring water to the many settlements and the sugar and paddy fields in the plains. The water comes from Paikeachi Zor, Konkani for Paik's Spring, barely a kilometre uphill from the mouth of the canal, a spring linked to the old temple to Paikdev, Warrior God and Protector of the Velip community, that the mining company tore down to put in its place a monstrous concrete structure in gleaming pink and orange.
They cut down the trees and levelled and broadened what was once a sacred grove with mining reject because when the temple festival comes around, the same mining company will pour in a few hundred thousand rupees to lay it out with concrete to fatten more 'contractors' and make a really huge tamasha to make the people forget that the real sacredness of the temple is the water from Paikeachi Zor. The Paikeachi Zor is suffused with a bittersweet myth of a father's angry altercation with Paikdev, who, blessing Maina with water, did not do so for Cavorem where his daughter was married, and who returning home after fetching water from the spring, found her baby son covered with stinging black ants, who grieved so much at finding him dead, herself died of sadness.
Chastened at the girl's father hurling an empty mud pot into his bubbling waters, from that day, Paikdev sent three quarters of the water to Cavorem. That waterfall, a little low this year for obvious reasons, is on the western slopes of Devapan Dongor.
Both the springs at Cavorem and Maina are barely half a kilometre as the crow flies from the mining operation, where, one of these days, anytime between 8 and 8.30 in the morning, Cheryl, her daughter and mother, will have blocked the entrance that allows more than a thousand trucks to climb up a hill to each bring out 17 tonnes of low grade ore leaving behind a desert where nothing will ever grow and pits so deep they will kill the springs and suck out water for miles.
Water, its abundant presence, and the fear of its absence, is the singular fact that bonds this war council around the table, even though puzzled that the onus is on them to prove that water is important to life. The meeting is over in exactly 15 minutes, Cheryl explaining the plan, jabbing a marker on the spread-sheet in front of her, assigning each one specific roles and functions. That done, the snacks and tea are brought in and Cheryl smiles and says, see, now wasn't that simple?
Later that evening when the sun sets and the leaves on the trees turn into dying embers, Cheryl sits in the gazebo she built at the spot Tony was cremated on a cold rainy night three years ago. This is a hundred or so metres from the Curca river that flows past and whose abundant water he used for his orchards and fields to fulfil his dream of just being a damn good farmer, and he would have done it too, Cheryl adds, if only he hadn't been stupid enough to climb the transformer on his neighbour's farm to fix a loose connection. Aki misses him, I miss him, we all miss him, Cheryl says, if he was alive you think mining companies and politicians would have had the guts to show their faces here?
It is getting darker but you can speculate that her eyes are misted as she looks at the sacred grove she's started in Tony's memory with trees from all over the world, telling you that Tony loved birds and always said if you have trees and water then you will always have birds. He once found this large, incredibly beautiful kite with its wing broken, and crazy guy that he was, he drove his red Trax all the way to Curtorim at 10.30 at night to see the vet, then nursed the bird to health with a quarter teaspoon of feni every night so it could sleep with less pain and naming it Moses because he would fly to the kitchen window and flap his wings and screech, flicking his tongue angrily until handed raw meat or fish. Moses died last year, peacefully, of old-age, living with the thought that he could fly when he wanted and always come back to his kitchen window.
You think I'm happy doing this, Cheryl says, I'm not. The last time the truck-drivers were fed with booze for a few hours and they came right up to us and muttered and yelled such filth, Mum nearly burst into tears until I told her not to give them the pleasure of seeing her break down. The cops were watching this. They watched the transport contractor slap Father Mathias from the Don Bosco School at Sulcorna, watched the truck drivers beat up Rama and Seby and Kurush, who was still smart enough to film everything and hide the tape before they broke the camera. The inspector tapped his baton on his open palm like he was in a bloody film or something and said I am going to teach you a lesson, sure, and why wouldn't he say this, he probably owns five or six dumper trucks taking out mud.
Last time was a joke because there's just no conscience left in this all-for-mining government. This time, it's not...
Cheryl is a very stubbornwoman and her family and her two late husbands, were you to meet them, would rapidly concur. The police inspector told her the last time that it was the constitutional right of the mining companies to mine for ore. She says it is her constitutional right to have clean air, the forests in the Western Ghats, and the water. Bail is for cissies, she says. I have not committed a crime. If I'm guilty fighting for Goa's water, they can lock me up and throw away the f..... key.