Monday, May 16, 2011

"I’m here until we win, or until we have nothing left to eat or drink but dry red dust, whichever comes first.”

In her past life, Cheryl and husband Tony owned an upscale furniture company, and were “happy, free, party-going coastal Goans who knew how to enjoy life”. But Tony had his heart set on farming, and although this fantasy was foreign to Cheryl (who prefers the treadmill to a walk in the woods), she agreed. Seventeen years ago, they purchased these 240 acres in the boondocks dirt cheap, with savings and a loan. Cheryl continued to work in the city (“I love to work”) and bring in the money, and Tony began to build the farm. The expert they brought in to assess their water situation had some unexpected news. “Your farm is sitting on huge deposits of first-grade iron ore!” he told them, “Sell it and become millionaires.” The couple was not interested. “It was so beautiful. We knew we couldn’t let it fall into the miners’ hands.”

In 2006, while helping a neighbour, Tony was electrocuted and killed. Their daughter, Aki Zafran, was seven years old. Cheryl grieved profoundly and felt she would never pull out of the blackness. It was during all this that the night-time phone calls began. “Tony kept them at bay,” she says, “but now the jackals smelled an easy score. ‘Do you know what can happen to a woman alone at night?’ ‘How about some acid in your face?’ whispered unnamed callers, and: ‘Your daughter is so pretty, aren’t you afraid of what might happen to her?’ Their favourite was ‘Your problem is no man has ever taught you a lesson’,” Cheryl recalls. One agent, speaking for an unnamed company, offered her Rs 70 crore for her land. “The S.O.B.S will get this land over my dead body,” she says as her elegant mother Dora beseeches her to put at least the appearance of being a lady. “My parents, true Goans, taught me that women are equal to men; that we must strive to be free, and to do what’s right. No one can threaten me and expect me to go away quietly.”

The heavy mining began in this area three years ago, in ’08. Tired of the daily confrontations with the hundreds of trucks blocking the road at all hours, the red dust settling everywhere, choking the sprouts and flowers in the fields and orchards, the alarming depletion of the water in the wells and springs, Cheryl and her small household—mother Dora (84), daughter Aki Zafran (then 9) and housekeeper Rita—chained themselves to the entrance of a mine down the road. They were arrested, their few supporters badly beaten. Many of the women from these villages, still enamoured with the imagined opportunities the mines would bring, shouted and cursed her (“and my curses are just nothing compared to theirs!” she laughs).

And so she was surprised and a bit cautious when she received a call last month from the women of Caurem to join their struggle. Disenchanted, their fields ruined and trees barren, their water drying up, they had decided to fight the mines with all their might. On the first day of the blockade, just as Cheryl got off her jeep to join them, the police arrived and in a whirl of lathis arrested them all, 97 including Cheryl. “I’m not going home until they make me go,” came Cheryl’s deep, husky chuckle when I phoned her. Her small ‘jail kit’—contact lens solution, nice-smelling soap and toothbrush—had been tucked inside her handbag; “one never knows when one might be arrested around here,” she says. “Anyway, it’s nice to be here with so much company!” In the weeks since, on daily roadblock duty, a sisterhood has developed and Cheryl, at long last, is accepted as a local. “These are wise women, ah?” she now says, “they have a great sense of humour, and with their children’s very lives on the line they have become dangerous to mess with, like me. They have a new name for me,” she adds with delight, “the wife of the tiger. Now we get on together just fine.”

Not one to admit easily to emotions like loneliness, the new-found camaraderie suits her well and these days her shoulders look softer and her eyes, once clouded with grief, twinkle when she laughs. “I have a good education,” she says as we sit in the shade of the gazebo built on the spot where Tony was cremated, “I can buy a ticket and move to New Zealand with my mom and Aki Zafran and leave this whole damn mess behind. But my neighbours, my friends, they are so poor and have zero choices and are doomed if this continues. I am not going to walk out. I’m here until we win, or until we have nothing left to eat or drink but dry red dust, whichever comes first.”

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