Friday, January 20, 2006

Chasing a Mirage


The Coronado National Memorial commemorates the first organized European exploration of the American Southwest. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, a 16th century conquistador, led the exploration. I visited the memorial just two days before Christmas last year. The memorial is in southeastern Arizona along the U.S-Mexico border, at the southern end of the Huachuca Mountains.

The guide at the visitor's center, a man in his early sixties, told us the memorial was free. He had a gray beard and his eyes had a certain intensity. He seemed more interested in the wildlife of the memorial than in Coronado. And that is indeed the other main – and perhaps more relevant – purpose of the memorial: to preserve the wildlife and the oak woodlands of the Huachuca mountains. At the back of the visitor's center was a large glass window, through which the guide showed us birds – hermit thrushes, acorn woodpeckers, Mexican jays – in the trees just outside. “I’ve seen nearly forty species of birds this morning,” he said proudly and with awe.

From the visitor's center a 2-mile road (mostly unpaved) leads to the foot of Coronado Peak. It was desolate that afternoon, and the views of the mountain ranges of Mexico and southern Arizona were excellent. Coronado’s expedition might have passed someplace close, perhaps within a ten or twenty mile radius of where I stood.

The only other car parked in the lot was that of the Border Patrol. With Mexico so close, its presence shouldn’t have been unexpected, yet I found it unsettling. All around me was the inhospitable landscape of low desert bush and oak trees. It is a landscape that hundreds of Mexicans, Central and South Americans attempt to overcome, hoping for a piece of the American dream. Many of them succumb to the difficulties of the journey; the desert is specked with the death of many of these migrants.


A lure of a different kind had been at work in the 16th century, during Coronado’s time. In the decades after Columbus’s landing, conquistadors from Spain were possessed of a frenzy that would unravel much in the New World. A lot of this frenzy had to do with the ease with which Cortez and Pizarro brought down rich, magnificent empires of the region – the Aztec and the Inca. Suddenly, there was considerable wealth to plunder, and other conquistadors dreamed of discovering their own rich cities, their own Tenochtitlan and Peru, and claiming the spoils for themselves and Spain. In the excitement and delirium of those years, every distorted tale of an unfound empire with unimaginable riches would have seemed legitimate.

The 1530s seems to have been a decade rife with rumors. The most famous of them of was that of El Dorado. The quest for El Dorado would occupy explorers for two more centuries. VS Naipaul in his short essay Columbus and Crusoe wrote: “And even in the violated New World, the Spaniards themselves remained subject to the fantasy. The quest for El Dorado became like a recapitulation of the New World adventure, a wish to have it all over again; more men and money were expended on this in twenty expeditions than on the conquest of Mexico, Peru and New Granada.”

Another, less glamorous rumor was afoot around the same time. This had to do with seven cities of gold located far north of the lands that the Spaniards had conquered in Mexico. The legend of the seven cities of gold was an older one; it came out of an Old World conflict, when the Muslims (the Moors) in the 11th century managed to conquer Merida in Spain. It was said that seven bishops had escaped this conquest and in a far-away place, each bishop had set up his own city of gold.

The legend found its way to the New World; it seemed to some Spaniards that through their transatlantic journeys and new findings they had come to that far-away place. The reports from some explorers seemed to substantiate notions that these cities existed to the north of Mexico, in what is today the southwestern United States. The reports spoke of “large cities, with streets lined with goldsmith shops, houses of many stories, and doorways studded with emerald and turquoise!”

An expedition of roughly 350 Spanish soldiers, 4 Franciscan priests, 1100 Indians and 1500 heads of livestock was organized. Coronado, who was then a governor of a province in Mexico, led the expedition. The journey started Compostela, a coastal town in the west of Mexico and traveled hundreds of miles north in two years (1540-1542): through Arizona, New Mexico, and eastern Kansas before returning to Mexico. Perhaps from what they had heard, Corondo and his Spanish expedition might have expected a land dusted, specked and studded with gold. Instead they found desert villages of the Pueblo people with flat adobe dwellings, large storehouses of corn and beans, a beautiful but stark landscape, and the impassable Grand Canyon that sprang upon them from nowhere.


At the visitor’s center of the Coronado memorial there is a short ten-minute video, a sort of documentary on the expedition. It shows Coronado and other bearded conquistadors on their horses. (The horse can go unnoticed today but when it made its appearance with the arrival of the Spanish in the New World, it had a telling role to play in conquests.) The video also shows the disappointment of the conquistadors when, on reaching a village of Pueblo Indians, they realize there are no cities of gold, and that their arduous journey through the desert is probably a fruitless one. The actors in the video simulating disappointment with their grave expressions only manage unwittingly to caricature the conquistadors. And since beneath all the talk of endurance and valor is just the avaricious core, the feeling of tragedy comes across as comic.

Monday, January 09, 2006

A day with Michael Mazgaonkar


Michael Mazgaonkar and his wife Swati work in the villages and hamlets of a district in Gujarat that is close to the Maharashstra border. They work with the tribal communities in the area on many issues: development of women’s co-operatives, bringing electricity to the villages, land rights of tribes, bunding of fields to prevent soil erosion, and environmental problems.

Michael toured the US late last year; he visited different US-based chapters of the Association of India’s Development (AID), an organization conceived in the US more than a decade ago, and that supports grassroots activists and volunteers like Michael and Swati and other development projects in rural India.

Michael was at the Tempe chapter of AID in November. His talk was on a Wednesday evening. I was to have lunch that Wednesday and show him around the Arizona State University campus.


I went to pick Michael up at noon at the AID volunteer’s apartment where he was temporarily put up. He was tall man, dark-complexioned, probably in his early forties, balding and gray-haired. He had a ready, disarming smile that suffused his face with a sort of benevolence.

I suggested Blue Nile, an Ethiopian restaurant close to the university, for lunch. I thought he might interestd in tasting injera, Ethiopian “bread”, made from teff, a grain that had first been cultivated in Ethiopia, in the unique climate and setting of its highlands. Michael liked the ambience of the restaurant – dark colored walls, African masks – and took particular note of the woodwork on the backless low stool used for seating. “This is very well done,” he said. And when food was served to us in a large circular plate, a plate clearly meant for a communal meal, he recalled a dinner he had had in Palestine with Bedouins. That way, in bits and pieces, I learnt a little where had traveled: the Middle East; North or South Dakota to meet the Lakota tribe; and Europe, which he referred to once in a while.

The particular village in Gujarat where Michael and Swati live is called Juna Mozda. I had read on a website that Michael and Swati had sold greeting cards there for a living while simultaneously helping the tribals with their various problems.

“The market for greeting cards is very competitive,” he said. “You have to keep changing designs.” And yet they had done that for a long time, for a decade or so, upto 1999.

I asked him when he had decided to become involved in people’s issues.

“There wasn’t just a day or a moment when I made the decision,” he said. “It was slow process that happened over time. It has to be slow.”

I wanted to know more about his background, so I could try to understand where the motivation for his work might have stemmed from. Had his parents been involved in social work?

“My parents were part of Gandhian movements,” he said. I thought he wasn’t very forthcoming. It was understandable – I had only just met him.

We then talked about the tribals in and around the villages that he worked in.

“There were hunter-gatherers fifty, sixty years ago. There was a significant forest cover then. There still are forests now, but not as many,” he said.

“Has the transition from being hunter-gatherers to settling down as farmers been traumatic?”

“It might have been, but they are quite settled now to a agrarian lifestyle. But they have lost quite a bit in nutrition. Their diet then used to consist of a lot of meat. Now they eat mostly vegetables. They used to eat rabbits, and there was the occasional deer hunt.”

“What language do they speak?”

“It’s a mixture of the different languages of the region. But they also have words of the forest.” So the memory of the forests was probably still there in their oral traditions. Their religion too, he said, couldn’t be categorized under Hinduism; but nowadays, the influence of the BJP and the RSS could not be denied. The tone of this last remark seemed to indicate his disapproval for the politics of Hindutva.

I asked him whether he had felt some resistance from the villagers as Michael came from an essentially urban background: he had grown up in Bombay and had later done his engineering degree in Baroda. I thought he wasn’t comfortable with the question; his discomfort was essentially a defense of the villagers. He said it took time to win trust, and even now the villagers sometimes “checked”, but that was fine; there was nothing wrong in that.


After lunch, I offered him to walk him through the ASU campus. It was a partly cloudy day but warm. Michael admitted to feeling a bit disoriented – as part of his itinerary he had already been to a number of other cities in the US. And there were many more cities more to go.

I have an interest in trees and plants and eagerly pointed out to him those that were native to Arizona. I told him how ill-suited the non-native ones were. The many palm trees that adorned streets and walkways of the campus seemed to be native but actually weren’t, I said. They upset the water table in an already arid, water-starved region. He agreed that non-native vegetation was a menace, was particularly severe on eucalyptus trees: “Nothing grows under the eucalyptus tree. It makes the soil acidic. We’ve cut eucalyptus trees in Mozda.”

But he had a keener eye for other things: he was very interested in all the construction going on around the campus; he lingered next to a half finished building with its innards on display – “So, this is how they do it,” he said, almost to himself. He was also interested in an antenna on the roof of one of the buildings, and wondered what its purpose was, for it didn’t look to him like the antennas he knew. On our way back to the apartment we passed by the APS (Arizona Public Service) plant. He noticed the many solar panels, some large and some small. He said he knew what the small ones were for – he had used them back in Gujarat – and was curious about the function of the larger ones.


At the presentation there was an audience of about ten – mostly members and volunteers of AID. It might have been disappointing for a speaker who had come from far, but Michael was relaxed.

(He was in the same casual attire I had seen him in earlier in the day. I had thought then that his trousers were corduroy but when I saw them again now, I realized I was wrong. The trousers had a peculiar nap, a sort of furry nap. I wondered if they might have been made of khadi, the furriness a sign perhaps that the fabric was crumbling now after much use. Michael would have received Gandhian ideas even as a child, from his parents, so khadi wouldn’t have been surprising. I wondered, further, if his heritage was that of the merchant class not unlike what Gandhi's family and ancestors had been part of. For during lunch he had mentioned – with a hint of reverence, not just matter-of-factly – of how Gujratis had controlled much of the pepper trade first millennium and the much of the second, and how they had traveled extensively: to Beijing, Constantinople and East Africa. Many had even settled in these places.)

In his presentation, Michael talked of the work he had done with Swati in the villages for the last decade or so. There was a lot of engineering involved: bunding of the fields; designing and assembling a windmill with the help of some villagers (these villagers, whom Michael called colleagues, were actively learning skills, and not just a compliant background presence); making torches for farmers that last longer the commonly used kisan torch; a pedal-power project for generating electricity (at a school, 20 students pedaled for 5 minutes each, and they had electricity for four or five hours). His curiosity about the construction on the ASU campus, the antenna, the solar panels were now very clear and understandable: Michael loved working with and creating new devices; and that love of his was coupled with a social and environmental cause.

Most of the things he presented had an understated – that was Michael’s style – yet positive ring to them: small innovations, step-by-step improvements. The last part of his talk was on environmental pollution. It was stark, and hard not to feel strongly about. The Golden Corridor is a strip that stretches north-south in Gujarat; it is a region known for its good infrastructure, and therefore has many factories and plants – notable among them are Essar, Reliance, IPCL. The wastewater effluents and hazardous materials dumped by the companies, small and big, has not been brought under control and have continued; these dumps have now contaminated the groundwater. Drinking water in several places has tested positive for carcinogens. Michael showed photographs of wastewater flowing out of pipes; it was obvious, he said, from the strange, unnatural color of the water that it was bad, and yet the regulations were not in place. There was more: a photograph of a well used by a small school that had water with a reddish tinge. And in some houses, when water from taps inside was exposed to the sun, it turned red or some other color, clearly indicating the presence of chemicals sensitive to the sun.

These facts brought out strong reactions in the audience. Someone asked: Are the people there not fighting this? They have been fighting, Michael answered, for a long time since the 60s and 70s when the industries were set up, and perhaps now they are tired for nothing has been done. Can’t something be done that is independent of the government, at least on a small scale, something like the windmill and pedal-power projects that Michael, Swati and their colleagues had successfully engineered? Michael said they had focused on small cases, the school for instance (whose contaminated well he had shown in a slide); they had protested until the clean water was made available. Had nothing been done by the government officials, they had been planning on doing something themselves.

Despite the anger and sense of helplessness that ran strong in the audience – all of us so used to clean drinking water and basic amenities – Michael was composed; there wasn’t a hint of dogma or idealism in what he was presenting; they were collected facts, clear and incriminating, shocking but not the least bit sensational. He seemed well aware of ground realities, and, even in this case, was content to take the problem step by step: collect evidence and samples from different rivers and water sources and report them. And he wasn’t cynical either: for he was continuing with what he had started, and only hope could have driven him.

I found it interesting that the activism in Michael hadn’t possessed him. Others I had met, like Reetu Sogani who works in the villages of Uttaranchal, were possessed of idealism and righteousness. Or possessed of a fatalistic view, like my uncle who promotes organic farming and environmental movements in South India but who sees no sustainable solutions in the long run. Michael’s activism seems more measured, as if he has thought everything through. I was reminded of his comment earlier during the day that his involvement hadn’t happened suddenly, and his confident assertion that the process has to be slow.

Later that evening, over dinner with AID volunteers, Michael loosened a bit; he told us a joke he had heard about a development consultant from the West and an African shepherd; the joke was a sly stab at the ambiguous nature of development today. We asked him: what did he do during his free time? He took walks in the forests around the village, and sometimes bathed for hours in the river. And with that remark of his, I got the impression that Michael was able to extricate himself from his work and lead a full personal life; or, even better, he had turned work into a kind of idyll, to be enjoyed.


To learn more of Michael and Swati’s work, see