Houses in small towns have strange nicknames. My parents' house, for instance, is known to the residents of the locality as White House – this by virtue of painting their two storied house white for the last two decades. But naming houses after the colour of walls is something I learned much before that. When I was in junior school, the school captain and her sister lived in a house that fell on our way home from school. From our tin box school vans we spied on them in awe and wonder, the two sisters with long plaits hanging from their first storied balconies. They lived in a rented house that was painted yellow and so the young boys of Haren Mukherjee Road in Siliguri’s Hakimpara called these precious girls the ‘Yellow House Sisters’.
I envied them this appellation for years in spite of the yellow-dirty fellow rhymes that kept me off that colour. That was until my mother, an explorer on a cycle rickshaw on Saturday mornings, this of course nearly three decades ago, took me to visit an old college friend in an old part of our small town. The name of the house in which Kumkum Mashi lived with her husband and son was called ‘Neel Kuthi’, the Blue House. We had, of course, seen blue walled houses – the whitewash in small towns like ours actually had a bluish tinge, so that when someone mentioned ‘choon-kaam’, a lime wash paint, we knew it meant a faded but fresh blue. Neel Kuthi, where my mother’s college friend lived with her family, was nowhere close to that subdued blue. Instead the exterior of the house had skin the colour of Shiva’s and Krishna’s, so that one had the impression of entering a temple.
Once inside the house, my nine year old eyes gradually registered the assembly and assemblage of blue: the blue neelkantho flowers floating in a bowl of water on the centre table in the drawing room; a painting of a blue-black Kali hanging on a wall in the corridor; the blue and white ikkat bedspread in Kumkum mashi’s bedroom; the blue that governed the sensibility of Robin dada’s room, one I, at that age, mistook for the blue-for-boys moral aesthetic that my young mother had tried to shield us from; the blue and white pottery that had been collected from Tibetan travellers passing through Siliguri, I was told; the white and blue batik cushions on the cane furniture; and, what I envied most as a child – a huge globe, bluer than any our geography teacher brought to our Friday atlas class, kept on a tall table beyond my reach. In the dying afternoon light, the globe proved to my brother and me that ours was indeed a blue planet.
My brother and I moved around the house like immigrants in a new world. Snatches of conversation between the only two adults in the house, Kumkum mashi and my mother, reached me – she complained to my mother, once her roommate in a college hostel in Calcutta, how her life had changed after marriage. I was too young to understand the dynamics of adult relationships, but the tone of her voice made me feel that this was a happy complaint, the kind my mother made to my father about us, when we asked her for extra servings of food. She felt lonely in this huge house, she said (she used the word ‘mansion’, I remember – on the way home I asked my mother whether ‘mansions’ were built by men for women to live in, for I had not seen a single male in the house). Her husband came home on Tuesdays, the day the ‘tea garden’ was closed; her son, whom she referred to by his formal name, ‘Nilambar’, instead of his pet name ‘Robin’, was studying in a boarding school in Kurseong; her parents-in-law were dead.
When we were leaving, my mother said, ‘I’ll visit you soon, Kumkum di’.
This made Kumkum mashi furious, and she replied in a voice that was bristly with anger. ‘How many times do I need to tell you not to address me by my old name?’
I did not know her new name and waited for my mother to call her by this new word, but she did no such thing. Instead, she took us by our hands, closed the iron gate behind her, and called out to a cycle rickshaw. I thought I saw tears in my mother’s eyes, but I was too scared to ask.
Later that night, I overheard my parents speaking. Kumkum mashi’s husband traced his ancestry to a family of indigo growers who had found fame and fortune by exporting the dye to Europe. But this was more than a century ago. The market for indigo had gradually been captured by the synthetic dye that had first been produced in Germany, and so the husband’s family had had to abandon the production of the plant on their agricultural fields for tea estates. The Bose family had done well as tea growers, but Kumkum mashi’s husband, fed on a diet of stories about the power that indigo had once bestowed on the family, had never quite accepted what he thought was a more plebeian trade, producing a beverage for mass consumption, the humble chai. After the death of his parents, he had turned the old bungalow into ‘Neel Kuthi’, literally the Blue House, where he had curated his life as a continuation of the indigo narrative – the striking colour of the walls, the furniture and upholstery, the crockery and garden. But it had not ended there. He had married a woman called ‘Kumkum’, a word which stands for a Hindu religious mark on the forehead. Among married Hindu women, the colour of kumkum is usually a shade of red. Kumkum
Mashi’s husband would not have that, and so he changed her name to ‘Neela’, meaning blue. The son was named ‘Nilambar’, and though no one remembered what her husband’s ‘original’ name had been, they all called him ‘Neel babu’.
Kumkum mashi’s stern words to my mother that afternoon had thus come out of fear – her husband would be furious if she was called by the name of some other colour and not ‘neela’, blue. Perhaps my mother understood that, and I never heard her calling her friend by her old name again. In fact, she did not call her ‘Neela di’ either though we were encouraged to call her ‘Neela mashi’. We visited Neel Kuthi a couple of times a year – the snacks were always exquisite, and that museum world was like visiting a park. This of course continued only till Kumkum mashi’s sudden death in the late nineteen eighties – it was a mysterious death that no one could ever come to terms with, for when the lower part of her body, her feet and her calf muscles turned bluish, the doctor said it was poison, perhaps a snake bite, that had killed her.
But all this was much later. That night, as I overheard my parents discussing this strange word, I wondered what it might mean. For the Bangla word for ‘indigo’ and the colour the dye produces is the same: ‘neel’, meaning blue. (Now, of course, the word would be familiar to most children who watch television – there is an airlines by the name ‘Indigo’, but that is a part of another narrative about how the recent revival of the dye, abetted as it has been by the textile and organic dyes industry, has largely remained one of names dropping, an utterly synthetic usage.) After Kumkum mashi’s death, Neel Kuthi, the Blue House, was gradually whitewashed from our memory – I use that word consciously; it comes from my mother who has used it from time to time, blaming her friend’s death on the obsession for blue in that house.
Recently, when I began attempting to make my own indigo dye from leaves of an Indigofera species, my mother threw a fit. There was no way she would let me do this – did I not remember how the plant had destroyed a family? Other stories came tumbling out: the only one I remember now is about the astrological stone ‘neela’, how it ‘suited’ some but ruined others, and then the moral tale about my paternal grandfather gifting his gold ring set with the blue sapphire to my teenaged brother almost two decades ago. The ring had been put under my thirteen year old brother’s pillow at night, all this to ‘test’ whether the stone ‘suited’ him. In the morning, when my mother came to wake him up for his early morning cricket camp, she found the pillow splattered in blood, his nose still bleeding. The ring was immediately transferred to the bank locker where it has lived since then.
My mother, who came from a landowning family in southern Bengal, had grown up on a diet of literature and gossip about what she called, in her Bengali affinity for the alliterative phrase, the ‘cruel colour’. Her friend’s death, as she saw it, wasn’t the first time she had encountered a human death at the hands of a plant. A branch of her paternal family had lost lives and livelihood to it. Over the next few days, whenever I visited her in the evening, she inspected my hands for traces of the dye, her fear making her preclude the possibility of my having used rubber gloves. At that time, the literatures we invoked were completely different in nature. I, amateur dyer, hoping to turn blue, knew Jenny Dean’s book, The Craft of Natural Dyeing: Glowing Colours from the Plant World, like a prayer. ‘Tear the leaves into small pieces and put them in a plastic bucket or dye pan. Pour boiling soft water over the leaves, enough for the dye bath that you require. Leave the leaves to steep for twenty to thirty minutes, then strain off the sherry-coloured liquid, squeezing the leaves to extract all the dye. The leaves can be kept and reused for a further dye bath, giving you a tan colour ...’; so it went.
An indigo factory in Bengal, a watercolor by William Simpson, 1863
My mother quoted from Neel Darpan (The Indigo Planting Mirror), a nineteenth century Bangla play by Dinabandhu Mitra. Her mother had first read it to her, in the poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s English translation. The play, set in February-March of 1859 in Bengal, is about the refusal of tenant farmers to grow indigo on their fields as a protest against the exploitative and violent mechanisms used by the British. I had neither read the play nor watched it being performed, but when my mother began paraphrasing parts of it, it seemed that I had been born with the story in my subconscious. How else could I recollect it in images? ‘Michael Madhusudan Dutt has such a strong resemblance with the actor Irrfan Khan,’ I told my mother who didn’t know the name of the actor of films such as The Namesake and The Lunchbox. My father, who usually chooses silence during what to him are inconsequential conversations, brokered the link between what I thought I knew but could not remember how.
‘You watched the Indigo Revolt on TV when you were in school,’ he tried to remind me.
‘We must have had a black and white television then. For I have no memory of indigo dyeing the TV screen,’ I replied, trying to be smart.
A few sentences back and forth, and it turned out that he was right: I had first been made aware of the Indigo Revolt by Shyam Benegal’s television series Bharat Ek Khoj. I had watched the social reformer Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Harish Chandra Mukherjee, the editor and journalist
associated with the Hindu Patriot, the poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt, all these men from history discussing the effect of forced indigo cultivation on the poor tenant farmers in Bengal. But the people and the places in it were a blur for me.
And so I went looking for Michael Madhusudan’s translation of Neel Darpan. Dinabandu Mitra’s reason for writing the play had been didactic: “I PRESENT The Indigo Planting Mirror to the Indigo Planters' hands; now, let every one of them, having observed his face, erase the freckle of the stain of selfishness from his forehead, and, in its stead, place on it the sandal powder of beneficence, then shall I think my labour success”. My interest in indigo had been its colour alone – I had come to it to turn blue. But even before my nails, that part of the human body that catches colour before everything else, had turned blue, I found myself surrounded by stories of cruelty that the plant had generated. Were there ‘cruel’ plants? I asked myself, knowing I would never have an answer. And yet, plants and their produce had generated such human cruelty – coffee, cocoa, sugar, cinchona. Why should indigo have surprised me then?
Perhaps it was my naive refusal to accept that humankind could place such great emphasis on a colour. Why was blue so important after all? Jenny Balfour-Paul, in her extraordinary book Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans, writes about the ‘value’ of the dye: ‘No other dyestuff has been valued by mankind so widely and for so long. One of the world’s oldest dyes, it remains the last natural dye used in places that have embraced synthetic dyes for every other colour.... Southeast Asian mythology, for example, is full of indigo stories. In Liberia a tale is told of the way post-menopausal women gained from the High God the secret of blue dyeing with indigo thanks to a seeress who broke off a piece of blue sky to eat (after which the sky was pulled up high out of reach). ... The rareness of blue dyes compared with yellows is echoed in the vegetable kingdom at large. Blue flowers are much less common than yellow for example, and edible blue substances are almost non-existent. So finding that nature could produce a colourfast blue dyestuff by a process akin to alchemy must have been an extraordinary revelation, whose impact is hard to imagine in today’s multicoloured world’. Soon after, Balfour-Paul mentions the ‘many grand buildings in Calcutta’ which are the legacy of the indigo trade, and then the ‘blue disease’, the process by which ‘former green foliage has reverted to blue’ in Renaissance tapestries.
Indigo blue, she writes, ‘echoes the infinite richness of the sea, the midnight sky, the shadowy dusk and early dawn, and represents the elusive seventh colour of the rainbow which some people simply cannot see. In the medieval and Byzantine worlds blue was associated with divinity and humility, and in India with infinity and the capricious god Krishna. Many see it as a spiritual or
reassuring colour, standing for loyalty, as opposed to yellow, the colour of cowards. Although indigo represented happiness for the craftsman William Morris, for many it evokes ‘the blues’, both in mood and in music. ‘Mood Indigo’, Duke Ellington’s immortal song, provokes a sense of blue melancholy also expressed by Goethe, Picasso and others. Some societies, including Islamic and Indonesian, which consider indigo ‘dark’ or ‘black’, have linked indigo directly with ‘black magic’’.
Reading Balfour-Paul’s catalogue of idioms and sayings that indigo had generated, the ‘blue collar job’ being one of the most popular, I found myself stopping at a particular page of Dutt’s translation of Neel Darpan. Mitra, the playwright, had made a similar catalogue of colloquialisms and sayings in nineteenth century Bengal. In the first scene of the second act of Neel Darpan, what is also called the ‘godown of Begunbari factory’ scene, a few ‘ryots’, the term for tenant farmer, are talking to each other:
Torapa: Why do they not kill me at once? I can never show myself ungrateful. That eldest Babu, who has preserved my caste; he through whose influence I am living here; he, who by preserving my plough and the cows, is preserving my life – shall I by giving false evidence throw the father of that Babu into prison? I can never do that; I would rather give my life.
First Ryot: Before sticks there can be no words; the stroke of Shamchand is a very terrible thrust. Have we a film on our eyes; did we not serve our eldest Babu? But, then, what can we do? If we do not give evidence they will never keep us as we are. Wood Saheb stood upon my breast and blood began to fall drop by drop. And the feet of the horse were, as it were, the hoofs of the ox.
Second Ryot: Thrusting in the nails; don’t you know the nails which are stuck under the shoes worn by the Sahebs?
Torapa: (Grinding his teeth with anger) Why do you speak of the nails? My heart is bursting with having seen this blood. What do I say? If I can once get him in the Vataramari field, with one slap I can raise him in the air; and at once put a stop to all his “gad dams” and other words of chastisement.
Third Ryot: I am only a hireling and keep men under me. When I heard about the plan which our master formed, I immediately refused to take any Indigo business on my hand, saying I shall never work for that. Why was I then confined in the godown? I thought that
serving under him at this time, I shall be able to make a good collection and shall be able to attend to my friend; but I am rotting here in this place for five days, and again I am to go to that Andarabad. ....
Torapa: He is a person of a good family. Why should he go to the Indigo Planters? We have now understood, these Planters are the low people of Belata.a
First Ryot: Then how did the late Governor Saheb go about all the Indigo Factories, being feasted like a bride-groom just before the celebration of the marriage. Did you not see that the Planter Sahebs brought him to this Factory well-adorned like a bride-groom?
Second Ryot: I think he has some share in this Indigo Company.
Torapa: No! Can the Governor take a share in Indigo affairs? He came to increase his fame. If God preserve our present Governor, then we shall be able to procure something for our sustenance; and the great burden of Indigo shall no more hang on our shoulders.
Third Ryot: (With fear) I die. If the ghost of this burden once attack a person, is it true that it does not quit him soon? My wife said so.
And after this, the group of men go on to catalogue a tragicomic list of homespun sayings that the forced planting of indigo by the British planters have generated.
“The man with eyes like those of the cat is an ignorant fool;
So the Indigo of the Indigo Factory is an instrument of punishment.”
“The Missionaries have destroyed the caste;
The Factory monkeys have destroyed the rice.”
From here, I went to Youtube to look for the Blue Mutiny episode of Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj. A farmer wants to grow paddy – what will his family eat otherwise, he asks. An Englishman, sitting atop a horse, reminds him of his debts to the company, passed on as inheritance from the farmer's father. Elsewhere, in Calcutta, Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Harish Mukherjee, the editor of the Hindu Patriot, meet to discuss a series that the latter is writing on the indigo farmers of Bengal. Dutt says, ‘I thought people in 'dehat', the provinces, were living in peace and happiness, and that all the difficulties of existence were only in Calcutta’. Harish tells him that such an opinion can only be held by a city dweller, and that Dutt may know a lot about the ways of the Englishman but not enough about his own people.
Soon scenes of violence and coercion follow: those who refuse to grow indigo are harassed into submission, and those who do not obey are put in jail. Farmers are starving and dying because of the compulsion to grow indigo while the European middleman grows wealthier.
Harish Mukherjee asks, almost in a rhetorical manner of speaking, why farmers should be forced to grow indigo when they could paddy or any other food crop. Dutt wishes he could do something about it. Mukherjee tells him that he actually could – ‘Calcutta is familiar with your talent ... Your plays, your poems ... Your command over both English and Bangla ... My friend Dinabandhu Mitra has written a play titled Neel Darpan. Will you translate it?’
Having gotten the back story of how the English translation of Mitra’s play had come to be, I continue to watch the rest of the episode. Benegal, the director of the series, takes us to a performance of Neel Darpan. The farmers are complaining about the tortuous conditions. They are dressed in indigo blue kurta and white lowers. A farmer says, ‘If this continues we will have to leave our desh’. A young woman who calls him ‘Kaku’, uncle, enters the dais. The farmer asks her about her father. No, he isn't back home yet. Another farmer corroborates, ‘We will sell our cows, house, land, fields and move to a different country’. The audience comprises of men in indigo blue turbans. During the performance a riot like situation breaks out. Men are beaten up. They decide to go to the zamindar for help.
The new zamindar is a ‘good man’. He has got Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, the educationist and social reformer, to teach here and open a school. My blue-hungry eyes notice that the peasants are wearing indigo dyed clothes. There is a swastika sign on the tree under which they were sitting. The actor Om Puri plays the zamindar. He is wearing a white kurta and dhoti, both laced with indigo blue designs. He promises the tenant farmers that he would get paddy back on their indigo fields again. That, of course, cannot happen without the loss of lives and land. Over the next half an hour, I watch farmers being harassed, terrorised and killed. Eventually, since films and television episodes must end with happy endings, I watch Harish Mukherjee and his patriot friends rejoice at the news of the success of the Indigo Revolt.
"Indigo manufacture in India," from The Graphic, 1887. Click here for source...
Over the next few days, three things take over my life: I cannot forget that the farmers and peasants in Benegal’s film wear indigo dyed clothes. Why did they, if they hated the cultivation of the plant so much? As if to find an answer, I first bury myself in Prakash Kumar’s excellent book, Indigo Plantations and Science in Colonial India, which gives me the history of the cultivation of the plant in Bengal (and the rest of the Indian subcontinent) but does not satisfy my spirit. And so
I make a phone call to my husband’s cousin, Bappaditya Biswas, a textile designer. A little more than a decade ago, he, along with his wife Rumi, began working on indigo panels to showcase the socio-cultural history of indigo. These were then part of an exhibition in Hyderabad and Vancouver, and they have now gone back to their work with the history of indigo dyeing in a recent exhibition held in Calcutta. Over a long phone conversation, Bappaditya tells me about how the production of indigo had stopped in Bengal after the Blue Mutiny, and how he had had to learn to produce the dye in a tiny village in Andhra Pradesh. I was greedy for the tiniest detail that would lead to a state of blue, and they came in instalments – but there was rarely any surprise; it was as if what Bappa was telling me was something I already knew, a history that had come to me like an inheritance that I wasn’t aware of. The only thing that surprised me was the discovery that it was Michel Garcia, a Frenchman, who had taught him to use indigo as a dye for textiles.
The French connection in indigo, I discovered, had a history too, and this sense of happy surprise, the kind that attends a school reunion, came to me when I began reading the scientist and novelist Biman Nath’s novel, The Tattooed Fakir. Set in the late eighteenth century, the ‘new’ colonial rulers, the Europeans, some of whom indulge in indigo trade and its espionage, find themselves in opposition to a local army comprising fakirs and sanyasis, what historians have called the Blue Mutiny. But it is not the narrative alone, with its rich historical details that held me. There was a ‘Neel Kuthi’ in the novel. I was curious: did this have any kind of relation with the Neel Kuthi of Kumkum mashi’s blue obsessed husband? (There is another bit of trivia – Nath’s first novel, set in the world he lives in professionally, that of astrophysics, is titled Nothing is Blue; blue again, I thought greedily.)
Set in northern Bengal, where indigo devotees like Neel babu and I lived, Nath’s masterly storytelling takes the reader through the life of Roshanara, a young Muslim woman who is first kidnapped by the village landlord and later kept as a mistress by the British sahib who ‘rescues’ her. Roshanara is no ordinary woman, of course – her father is a well respected fakir, and soon he and Roshanara’s husband make way to the famous Majnu Shah and his band of fakirs. Together, they make plans to rescue the poor woman. In the meantime however, a son is born to Roshanara – he inherits the colour of his British father’s skin and through a series of exciting events, the novelist eventually allows him to be the saviour of the neel-oppressed people.
I had been teaching Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights to my students in class, and while reading Nath’s novel, I found the opposition between the two houses in the novel reminiscent of the war between the houses Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Roshanara is moved from the house of one torturer to another, the first Indian, the second British. But what are the British doing here? Not the British alone, but also the French, as we soon learn – Nath walks us through the history of indigo growing in Bengal and then the private histories of the British and the French working as supervisors, owners and agents on the indigo plantations in this part of the country. The Neel Kuthi is, in my reading, the axis around which the novel moves. Nath makes this clear in the first few pages itself:
‘The other house across the yard was still dark under its sloping thatched roof. ... The house belonged to Ronald Maclean, the owner of the kuthi, the estate. The ‘neel kuthi’, as everyone called it – the indigo estate.’
‘If anyone came to know that a mere peasant could peek inside the kuthi and get away with it, people would laugh at his (Maclean’s) guards and his estate.’
The landlord: ‘Fine, so I was wrong, and the wife found it out. But why did you all think of the neel kuthi?’
‘What did you think the indigo sahib would do in that case? Let her live inside his kuthi and not touch her?’
And so it continues, the drama, the tussle, the war between the indigo planter and his men and the fakirs who want the woman out of the house. There are two things that I took away from the novel: the first was the ‘tattooed fakir’, a masterly ploy by the novelist – Roshan, the woman’s son, gets tattoos at a fair, this to escape from the colour of his ‘non-Indian’ fair skin, but in the process this makes him even more prominent. I found Roshan’s desire to get inked, to become blue, in some sense, similar to mine. The other missing part in my private history of indigo was, of course, the ‘Neel Kuthi’, the Blue House. Was it possible that the Neel babu who was Kumkum mashi’s husband had some kind of relation to the Neel Kuthi of Nath’s novel?
Ignoring my mother’s request, when I went looking for Neel babu in the spring of 2014, I was not prepared for what I found. Neel babu – and even now, no one would give me his ‘real’ name – had died two years ago. The house, which had calcified into a static blueness in my memory for nearly three decades, had been painted moss green. The garden, where neelkantho flowers had grown in my mind for all these years, was flooded by wild grass and creepers. The taut discipline by which
the blue world inside it had been held in order had collapsed. The son, the heir to this world, now lived in Italy – a neighbour said that she had heard he worked as a physicist in a university in that country. An elderly woman, who spoke in whispers, making it seem that all she said was a secret from the world, reported that her grandson had told her that the young man, whom I used to call Robin dada, had married a white woman with blue eyes. I was suddenly reminded of what my mother had told me about Kumkum mashi complaining to my mother about the cruel jokes his classmates made about Robin, about ‘Robin Blue’, a brand of blue dye used to retain the whiteness of fabric. ‘Robin Blue/How do you do?/Robin Blue/Do you live in a zoo?/Robin Blue/Stay in the loo ...’. With a schoolteacher’s memory for such things, my mother had remembered the taunts to the little boy even after all these years.
When I began making enquiries, a crowd gathered around me. I soon realised that their need for the truth about Neel babu was greater than mine. A few of them had their own interpretations of Neel babu’s life. And death. A man whom the rest addressed as ‘mastermoshai’, meaning ‘teacher’, said that it was his madness that had killed him. ‘Blue blood’ is a metaphor, he said, one should not treat it literally. Neel babu’s malady, all those who knew him conceded, was that he believed in the royalty of the blue dye, and that he, by tying his destiny with the indigo plant, wanted to become a transferred epithet. What followed was a cavalcade of gossip and speculation: someone said that he had become a neelkantho plant, a blue pea flower (a man who had come to speak to us with shaving foam lathered on his face said that this was impossible because the neelkantho belonged to the Clitoria family, as it resembled the female clitoris, a train of logic that was as difficult to understand as the theme of reincarnation that had started it); another explained that it was better to be that blue flower than an indigo plant in this day and age; another pitied the ‘torture’ he had had to endure to turn blue. I have to confess that I could not disagree with them. The arc of his life, stained in blue in my mind, had gradually accretioned to become a moral narrative. Not in the equivalence of the death of the man with the death of the plant (and the trade) to which he had married himself, but something far more cruel – it was the moral of separateness between the plant and human world, one obvious to most except people like Neel babu and myself.
A few days later, on a train to Calcutta, a group of folk singers came to me, asking for alms. It was a young group, chaperoned by an elderly man with white hair. Since their faces and bodies were all made up to resemble the Hindu gods and goddesses, it was difficult to tell whether the hair on the man’s head was really white. He had no paint on his face, but the bodies of the young teenaged boys were painted blue. A little girl sitting on her mother’s lap in the bunk opposite mine whispered to her mother, ‘Avatar, Ma’, this after the James Cameron movie. Momentarily envious of their blue skin, I asked them naive questions about the permanence of the colour on them. The youngest among them (I say ‘youngest’ but I perhaps mean ‘shortest’) said that the colour never came off, no matter how many cakes of soap or bottles of kerosene oil or nail polish remover they rubbed on their skin. Was it natural indigo they used, I wanted to know. They laughed at my question. Perhaps my obsession with the plant and the dye did not allow me to phrase my curiosity well enough. A boy, with broken front teeth, burst into a song: Tell me, who coloured the sky blue ...
William Morris would have an answer for that: Of blues there is only one real dye, indigo.
Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal, India, and is at www.sumanaroy.com. Her Warscapes column "Treelogy" is about the politics of plant life, from the perspective of man and plant. It documents the terror and trauma inflicted on plant life and the violent human-plant relationship.