Indigo, a history lesson using poetry…

indigo-bg

If I was to choose a favourite word, I might have chosen this one; Indigo. I have written about this before (here) when I said this;

I think it reminds me of something half remembered from primary school- a reading set of books that only the keen readers ever progressed to taking home.

Or an ink pen whose innards bled blue blood all over my fingers.

It describes colour, distance, depth. It contains a promise of space beyond space- like a night sky.

Gregory of Nyssia, a 4th Century mystic, likened the move towards God as to a journey into holydarkness. He suggested that the deeper and further we go, the more darkness we find in the light. For him, God is unknowable- a dark purple mystery, drawing us on- calling us to explore further and further…

Indigo.

In we go.

Then I discover something I did not know about indigo; and that is that like sugar, tobacco, mahogany and many other exotic luxuries that we have come to believe should be ours almost by right, indigo has had a terrible cost.

See for yourself;

 

Indigo

BY CHITRA BANERJEE DIVAKARUNI

Benegal, 1779-1859

The fields flame with it, endless, blue
as cobra poison. It has entered our blood
and pulses up our veins
like night. There is no other color.
The planter’s whip
splits open the flesh of our faces,
a blue liquid light trickles
through the fingers. Blue dyes the lungs
when we breathe. Only the obstinate eyes
 
refuse to forget where once the rice
parted the earth’s moist skin
and pushed up reed by reed,
green, then rippled gold
like the Arhiyal’s waves. Stitched
into our eyelids, the broken dark,
the torches of the planter’s men, fire
walling like a tidal wave
over our huts, ripe charred grain
that smelled like flesh. And the wind
screaming in the voices of women
dragged to the plantation,
feet, hair, torn breasts.
 
In the worksheds, we dip our hands,
their violent forever blue,
in the dye, pack it in great embossed chests
for the East India Company.
Our ankles gleam thin blue from the chains.
After that night
many of the women killed themselves.
Drowning was the easiest.
Sometimes the Arhiyal gave us back
the naked, swollen bodies, the faces
eaten by fish. We hold on
 
to red, the color of their saris,
the marriage mark on their foreheads,
we hold it carefully inside
our blue skulls, like a man
in the cold Paush night
holds in his cupped palms a spark,
its welcome scorch,
feeds it his foggy breath till he can set it down
in the right place,
to blaze up and burst
like the hot heart of a star
over the whole horizon,
a burning so beautiful you want it
to never end.
 
 
Note
Paush: name of a winter month in the Bengali calendar
The planting of indigo was forced on the farmers of Bengal, India, by the British, who   exported it as a cash crop for almost a hundred years until the peasant uprising of I860, when the plantations were destroyed.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, “Indigo,” from Leaving Yuba City: Selected Poems (New York: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1997).

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