This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
‘This land,’ my forefathers used to say, ‘is alive. It feels. It was never meant to give us what we didn’t need. And if we take more than what is owed, it shall rise against us.’
Indigo blue, the early morning sky just before the sunrise, lays before me. Never changing, no clouds to darken its shade. It seemed to close in on me as I sat outside, trapped in its stillness.
My eyes flitted across the fields bathed in the same shade as above, the dye extraction well tucked away in the part closest to the river, before they landed on the village road in anticipation. It shouldn’t be long now, with the beginnings of dawn on the horizon, before the silhouettes of the women making down to their homes with fresh water dotted it. Every day they left earlier and earlier, searching further downstream for clean water not muddied with the wastes of the processing wells.
It was then I saw the outline of a horse drawn carriage. It was of a like that didn’t belong to these parts, its extravagance contrasted with the worn down farmer homes that were spread near the road. An employee of the Raj, I deduced, as I watched a strapping young man in the latest Colonial attire get down. My eyes wandered to his suit, in wonder of its worth. Must be at least a month of rice for my family.
He walked up to me, a book in his hand. “Good morning, I am from the Office of the Census Commissioner. I would like to ask you a few questions.”
In these parts, we called it ‘sheep counting’. The rumours were abound about this process and they all went along the same lines. ‘Increased taxation’, ‘Military scouting’, and on they spelled, each taluk shuddering the day they came knocking on their doors. But as much as I wanted to shove away this boy with his book, I knew the repercussions of that action could end our village.
“Come inside, ji,” I said reluctantly and showed him the way.
My father blinked his eyes dazedly from the only wooden cot in our home, the leaves used to weave it together worn down at the seams. I gestured to the man, “From the Raj,” to which he nodded. I lifted him carefully and laid him down on the clay floor and he shuddered from its coolness.
The young man’s eyes drifted to my father and then down his legs, “What happened?”
“Dye extraction,” my father wheezed out, struggled to sit upright with just his arms, “I spent most of my youth in that wretched well. This is the price I had to pay.” He broke into a cough and his whole body shook. I walked to his side, a small clay pot of water with me. He drank fitfully and his coughs subsided. He looked back up, his eyes glazed over, “We used to grow rice, a long time ago… Everywhere you see, beautiful rice stalks. The land gave us what we needed. But this wretched hunger, those dratted Ra-”
Sensing the beginning of a rant that could delve into dangerous territories I stopped him, “Pa!” Age and decay has removed any inhibition my father used to have. He sat there rubbing his swollen feet. Blue veins ran amok his legs, rendering his legs useless. He started coughing again, which seemed to break the Raj’s man out of his reverie. His eyes quickly flitted to my legs, their shade a tinge of blue just like my father’s. “What do you need, ji?”
He sat agape for a second, before he looked down at his book. “Um, let’s start with your family. How many of you are there?”
“My father, my daughter and I,” My voice was critical despite my efforts.
He didn’t seem to notice. “Is that all?” he asked, his eyes attached to whatever he was writing.
“And a son.”
He frowned down at his book, “Where is he?”
The house fell silent, “Conscripted.”
He paused. He would know what it meant for one of us to be in the army. They had known the war was brewing and hid under the protection the Raj offered. His hand hovered over the book. I couldn’t read but I didn’t need to understand what it meant.
What use is writing down someone who might as well be dead at the front line?
The silence persisted until he cleared his throat and shifted uneasily. “Anyone else? A wife, perhaps?”
My eyes flitted to the wall behind him, “Dead.”
Childbirth. Nine monsoons ago.
I didn’t say it.
Her mangalsutra, the sacred thread signifying our marriage, hung near the door. I liked to imagine her standing there looking at me when I see it. We didn’t have enough even for a portrait on our wedding day, but I’ll never forget her face. For her and for our daughter who never got to see her.
“The lands, is it indigo that I see?” he disrupted my thoughts. I nodded. “The market price should be good. How much do you sell for?”
I stared hard at him for a while, wondering if he was joking. “The lands are under contract with the planters of the Raj. Same as any piece of land for ten zamindars around. There is only one price. Rs. 2 per bigha on a good harvest and 2.5% the market value in a bad harvest.”
His fingers started to shake, “And why did you shift from rice to indigo?”
My father snorted, his patience finally worn thin, “Why does anyone? We had no choice. The rice yield was low for two monsoons and the Raj’s lured us with promises of profit and money to grow these new crops. It was a time of hunger, it was the chance any desperate man would take. So did I. And now,” his voice shook, “the debts of my sin are carried by my son.”
My eyes turned fearful and I opened my mouth to apologize, when the sounds of commotion rang from outside the house. I rushed outside to see women bathed in the first rays of the morning make their way down the village road. But something was off. Instead of water pots atop their heads, the women seemed to be carrying something between them. Someone to be exact.
I ran towards them and recognized the limp body of my daughter, her eyes shut. I took her in my arms and felt the heat of illness burn right through me.
“She just fainted,” the woman closest to me gasped, “We were all nearly done collecting the water when she just fainted.” All of the village had gathered.
I called out, “Can someone get the village healer?” One of them ran off on my words.
“Who’s this?” One of them pointed to the Raj’s man who had followed me outside.
I swallowed, this wasn’t going to be easy. “From the Census Commissioner.”
They all gasped, whispers making rounds. Everyone stilled, their eyes trained on him. One of the men clenched his hand and stepped forward.
“No!” I shouted, my arms started to ache. “It’s pointless. He is one man. Hurting him will soon have the whole entourage whipping us. Just let him go.” Maybe it was the sound of desperation in my voice as I struggled to hold my daughter in my hands, the villagers stepped back. I then turned to him, “I can’t answer any more questions, ji. My apologies.”
I made my way to my house. I laid her down on the cot, fanning her face. An elderly woman with a handful of pouches entered just then. She sat down and lifted my daughter’s arm, her fingers wrapped around her wrist, “The life force is weak but it is alive. If her body heats up any further, there is no telling what it could do.” She proceeded to pull out a couple of things from her pouches, along with clay bowl and pestle. She ground the things she pulled together, scooped the paste into leaves and wrapped them before handing it to me. “Give it to her three times a day, with every meal. It should cool her body down.”
My eyes widened, “Three meals?” We barely had enough for one.
Her eyes saddened, “This is unlike anything I’ve seen before. At least for the period of her illness she must eat well.” I nodded and thanked her for her help before leading her outside. I saw to her hut safely and returned, only to stop near the fields deep in thought. The mass of blue seemed to become more vicious than before, swaying in threatening hordes. I didn’t know how long I stood there until someone called out my name. I turned to see my father had pushed himself to the entrance of the house. I followed in.
“You’ve been gone awhile,” his words seemed to echo with meaning. He gestured to a sack I didn’t notice until then, “Each of the houses stopped by, bringing what they could to help.” I walked towards it and peeped. It was more than I’ve seen in some time, enough to last two weeks in the old days. I felt tears threaten to flow but I contained myself. “What a strange world we live in,” my father whispered, “Those who don’t have, give in abundance, while those who do take from those who don’t.”
Just then, my brother-in-law stepped inside. “I came as soon as I could.” He gestured to her, “How is she?” I shook my head. He sat down with a sigh on the floor beside my father. “I believe tomorrow, you have to take the dye to the planter?” Wondering where he was going with this, I nodded. “I think perhaps it would be good for you to ask for some more money from him.”
My father interrupted, “I won’t have you more in debt with that sc-”
He jumped in, “Hear me out. It’s not about debt. She needs better,” his eyes flitted to my daughter, “And I won’t lie to you my friend, with all the good lands put to indigo and so little and so poor for rice, there’s barely enough to keep us alive. Even the towns are suffering because all the rice is being redirected to the military. The Raj’s spared nothing for us.” His voice rose towards the end, breaking the facade of calmness. His eyes were red in anger, “Our children are dying, we can’t hold on to our pride at this time.”
Those words, they seemed familiar. My gaze turned to my father, his eyes shining in contempt but also in defeat.
The man continued, “There’s something else.” He didn’t speak for a while, as though still unsure if he should. “I think you should sell the lands to him.”
“What?” This time I screamed out in outrage. “They’ve bought our bodies and now you want me to sell my soul too?”
He looked around nervously before turning back to me, “I received a letter today from a faraway friend.” He took a deep breath, “There’s a new synthetic dye that has come into production. It’s less expensive and apparently, more aesthetic as well. Word gets out, the blue lands will be useless. We can’t grow rice again, the fields are too ruined for it and we can’t sell the indigo either. It will be the ruin of us. You must act before the Raj’s do. He only owns half the land now, get rid of it all. Take the money and go elsewhere. A new life, for you and your daughter.”
A realization dawned on me, “You didn’t tell anyone else.”
He gave a small smile, “If they all went to him, he’s bound to get suspicious. You need this, more than any of us. You haven’t had much, ever since...” his eyes drifted to where the mangalsutra hung. He shook his head, “I’ll get going now, think about it.” Without another word, he stepped out of the house.
The sun rose on the next dawn and his words still haunted me. I didn’t want to, but I wasn’t sure I had a choice. I stood staring at the yellow thread holding the golden pendant, wondering what she would tell me to do.
“It’s a desperate choice. I’m sure she’ll understand why you did what you did.” My father spoke out. I looked back at her lying on the cot. All night her fever kept rising and falling so I had sat vigil by her bedside. But now I had to leave in order to ensure we both survive.
I nodded and took off the mangalsutra, tucking it inside my pocket along with what little money we had. I then loaded the bullock carts and rolled down the village road to the planter’s home.
It was a few hours before the beginnings of a tall mansion came to sight, the factory right beside it. Outside the doors milled buffed up looking men. I slowed down and handed over the reins to one of them, before making my way towards the house, but I was stopped.
“I need an audience with the planter,” I told the man who held out his hand to block my way.
He sniggered, “The Raj doesn’t talk to low lives. Get your money and scamper, peasant.” I glared at him and clenched my fist, feeling it rise against my will.
“Is it one of the farmers?” A foreign voice called out from the entrance. I looked up to see the regal man, his eyes cold as ice as he stared down at us in disgust.
“Yes, my lord,” bowed the thug before pushing me forward.
“My lord,” I started, feeling the anxiety build up inside me, “My lord, I have a request.”
He sneered at me, “Get this peasant out.”
He whipped around and was about to leave when I shouted, “Please! Please my lord.” I fell to my knees and held his feet, “My daughter,” I took in a shuddering breath, “She’s very sick. We have so little food in the village. I only wish to ask for a small increment in the price, for all the years of service we’ve done. I beg you.”
He turned back, stood still and then guffawed in laughter. His goons joined in with him. It lasted a minute before he quieted, “Years of service, what a joke.” He mock wipes tears from his eyes, his smile quickly taking a dark turn, “You should be glad you have someone leagues above you to serve at all, you filthy dog.” He kicked my stomach.
Maybe it was the exhaustion of the long ride or the longer night before it, maybe it was this feeling of hopelessness, or maybe it was the years of injustice and starvation, something inside me snapped. I stood back up and lifted my clenched fist. “You inhumane swine!” The feeling of my bones meeting his flesh seemed divine. “You just wait, your end is coming for you. This cursed indigo you thrive on will be your downfall.”
In an instance, I felt my hands and legs being pulled in different directions, fists pummeling into parts of my body I didn’t know of. I could see him hold his bleeding nose but his eyes had snapped to me at my last words. When it was all done, I felt a hand on my chin.
“What did you mean?”
I was breathless, “N-new dye, no more i-indigo, fall...” My bruised mind couldn’t seem to stop. I fell forward. There was a moment of silence, before I heard whispers and then the sound of movement. Somebody lifted my hand off the ground, pressing my thumb onto something wet and then onto paper.
“There’s your payment, filth,” he whispered crouching beside me, “Your precious lands are back in your name. Now how are you going to reward your master for his generosity?” He stood up, “Search him.”
I dragged my hand slowly, fisting it around my pocket. They took over everything of value but I held tight. When I wouldn’t move my hand, they stamped on my fist, crushing the bones before I finally gave in. They lifted the shirt off my body and along with it the last memory of her.
“Go to his home. Raid it. Leave nothing but the dirt to which he belongs.”
It was dusk by the time I crawled back home. Or what was left of it. The house was dark but I could make out the faint outline of my father at our doorstep.
“Is she okay Pa?” I asked him gently. He sat staring, still for a while. “Pa, did you give her the food?” I shook him with my good hand.
He fell forward, eyes wide open.
Dread filled up in my bones. I dashed into the home, rushing past the disarray to the cot.
She looked blue. I lifted her cold hands into mine, searching for the slightest sign of life but there was none. Something seemed to claw at my chest, the ache in my bones paling in comparison to this pain that bloomed from my heart. My throat opened and a choked sob spilled out.
Outside it was dark, still. The midnight sky met the fields in solidarity, not another shade in sight. In that darkness, a monster slowly crept up on me. It grew larger the longer I stared. I tried to fight it, but the battle was lost, and with it every thing precious to me was gone. All that remained was us. Me and this monster that was the colour that haunted me all my life.