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Among the Indians

Once the heart of the Zapotec civilisation, the people of the Mexican town of Teotitlan de Valle share much with us. Kaushik Basu explores.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 19:47 IST

Arriving in Mexico from New York, the balmy weather, the fragrance of vaguely familiar tropical flowers and the shades of brown into which I, as an Indian, effortlessly blend, make for a heady atmosphere. To get to Oaxaca one has to change planes in Mexico City. As the door of the airport train shuts, an Indian gentleman enters disheveled, assured by a lady outside that this is indeed the train to terminal 1. He mistakes me for a Mexican, ignores me, and asks the American across the aisle, “Does this train go to terminal 1?” A few minutes tick away; he turns to me and enunciates each word: “Do you speak English?” Then, lowering his voice to be out of earshot of the American: “Is this train going to terminal 1?” Before we reach our destination, he has polled the entire compartment. Not for nothing are we Indians known to be cautious people.

But I am now headed to spend three days with the other Indians — the Zapotecs of Teotitlan de Valle. This small town, an hour from Oaxaca, was once the heart of Zapotec civilisation. The Zapotecs, it is believed, kept the warlike Aztecs off their backs by giving them their elegantly woven rugs. The Zapotecs may not have reached the heights of conquest and glory as some other Mesoamerican groups but their culture has the quality of resilience, and continues to flourish as it did in 500 BC when Monte Alban, nearby, became a major city with its astronomical observatories and sports arena.

Land here comes cheap; so, while my hosts, Ana Bertha, her husband, Orlando Lopez, and Orlando’s stately mother, Marsalina, are undoubtedly poor, they have land — a large rectangular area, enclosed by a high boundary wall, the height a reminder of the region’s periodic insurgency. Inside the compound, three corners are occupied by the Lopezes, their daughters, Daniela, Ana Christina and Niala, and some of their relatives. The rest is space, where goats, donkeys and bulls live, alongside the roosters and turkeys. During the day the animals roam free, amid the conifers and the cactus, pomegranate and lime trees.

Orlando, whose quiet dignity reminds me of the late actor Sanjeev Kumar, spends the day on the roadside in Oaxaca, selling the rugs that they weave. Roberto grazes cattle over large tracts of bush lands and undulating hills. When they are both back at night, the family gathers for dinner — tortillas and corn soup. Perhaps because in the evening we were talking about local drink, the Mescal, at our first dinner, I refer to Marsalina as ‘Mescalina’. This is like addressing the senior lady of a Scottish household as ‘Whiskia’. The brothers suppress laughter, Ana Bertha bursts out laughing and, finally, to my relief, a faint smile flickers across Marsalina’s face.

As night settles over Teotitlan, the hills that hem the town fade into darkness; and we chat, as Orlando weaves rugs, and Marsalina and Ana Bertha comb raw cotton and twirl the combed cotton into threads. Eager to see all the activities of the household, I wake up at 5 am, a good 30 minutes before Santiago Nasar did on that fateful dawn of his foretold death in a magical, Central American town. I do not wake to the bellows of the bishop’s boat but to the braying of donkeys. I want to go with Marsalina to the mill where she gets corn ground for making tortillas, but she has already left.

During the day we walk the children to the Benito Juarez Primary School. Daniela’s teacher is absent; so she accompanies us to the municipal market, where local people buy and sell village crafts and food-string cheese, yoghurt, pork rinds. In one corner of the market is an open stall which is among the few places that sell coffee. I sit there, amid sombrero-wearing men, for a “bowl” of coffee, and Daniela, while shyly protesting that she is full, sits next to me to have hot chocolate and cookies.

The morning of my departure I stroll alone, without my translator, in the market, drinking hot chocolate and watching the course of everyday life. To the Zapotecs, I must be as strange a sight as they are to me. They pause to look at me, and those who recognise me from the previous day break into a welcoming smile.

Sitting in this strange market place, with the morning sun casting shadows on the dew-laden grass, not too far from some ruins that go back 2,000 years, in a town as far away as possible from my familiar worlds, hearing a babble of Zapotec, which is like no language I have heard before, a sudden feeling of belonging comes over me. Despite the differences in language, attire and other attributes, it is impossible not to feel that I have with these people commonalities which are deeper than the differences. The little cares, sadnesses and joys that I shared with them over the previous two days make me feel that, at a deep level, I understand them as they do me, that we share a humanity and history that is common, and that 30,000, 40,000 maybe, 50,000 years of separation do not alter the fact that we have millions of years of shared history and, in all likelihood, thousands of common ancestors.

Kaushik Basu is Professor of Economics and Chairman, Department of Economics, Cornell University