(Originally published in the extant little magazine Madras Mag, Oct. 2017)
Four hundred years ago, the world was shrinking like a ball of calico soaked in salt water. Ships with multihued sails, proud masts and busy decks were riding the ocean and sailing eastward. Towns sprouted out of the beachy sand where the land and sea met. One day, in a village called Thariyur, forty weaver families also decided to head east, tearing themselves away from the land where their families had lived for thirty-five generations.
The chieftains and elders of the village could not digest the fact that forty families were, just like that, turning their backs on the lands where their fathers and forefathers had breathed, weaved and died, and going somewhere far away, never to return. In anger and agony, they turned their faces, and refused to acknowledge the small group that stood before them, waiting to seek their blessings one last time. Fine cotton cloth with broad kottadi checks danced in the wind on the clotheslines around them, and curled into each other like mating snakes. The hard, lined, remorseless faces of the elders emerged out of them, like the stone sculptures in a temple courtyard.
When it was time for the young rebels to finally leave – the sun was high in the sky, and it would be a day and a half’s journey to reach their destination – a withered crone came forward, the heavy brass pambadams on her ears glinting in the sun, her bare, brown, lined chest heaving with emotion. She scooped two handfuls of the dry brown earth, and threw it in their faces. “You dare to leave! You, blood of my blood, you dare to leave! May these breasts that have run dry feeding you lot fall off right now! Remember, remember – you have dared to leave, and you must pay the price. Now hear this! The clothes you weave and dye will no more hold their colour. You will dye and dye, but the colours will run away, just as you do. All your efforts will bleed away, just like the milk of my breasts and the blood of this land that walks away as if all of this means nothing!” The man named Madhiran, who stood at the head of that group, lowered his head, and took upon it the full force of her curse. The town watched as their broad backs disappeared into the brown haze.
The cloth from Thariyur was a prized commodity in all of the surrounding towns and villages. Nowhere else in the world is there cloth that is softer than this, they remarked with pride as they held the cloth to their cheeks and folded it up to ease the burdens they carried on their heads. Some castes in the Arcot region had a tradition that their wedding sarees and vettis should be procured from the handlooms of Thariyur. They would come as a group of twenty-thirty people, a long line of bullock carts along the dusty lanes, stopping by the ponds on the wayside to quench their thirsts. The town would first appear as a dot of colour in the dusty brown landscape to the sharp-eyed youngsters amongst them. “I see it! I see it!” they would hoot. As they neared the town, they would see long yards of onion-white cloth drying on the bushes. Then came the stretches of clotheslines. Dyed cloths of all hues would flutter in the breeze, and the women would already start planning the colours and the prints. The narrow village streets had tiny houses, with a vat for the vegetable dyes in the front, and the large looms in the back. The visitors would stay in the town for a week and marvel at the softness of the cloth.
However, the real reason that people flocked to Thariyur to buy their wedding garments was not just the fineness of the cloth or the brilliance of the colours. It was because they knew that the dyes of Thariyur would never ever bleed and run. Like the steadfastness of Arundhati and the chastity of Sitai, the cloth of Thariyur would never, ever, lose its color. They would remain like new till the end, their colours brilliant like the blue of a cloudless sky, like the red of coral beads, like the yellow-green of neem leaves.
The dying process was a secret that was held close to the chests of the weavers of Thariyur, passing from father to son to grandson for thirty-five generations. They had not married outside the village for many centuries, and so their faces all looked alike and their clothes never bled. Some said that the magic of the Thariyur weave came from the exceptional unity of its weaver families. Others said that it was a boon granted by the muni who lived on their lands, by the border of the village near the town pond. Still others said it was born of the bond between weaver and loom, water and cotton, cloth and dye, land and blood. A few believed that these men possessed strange powers, and they could also walk on water, grow to the size of an atom or as tall as the sky, and that it was not their fingers that wove the cloth or dyed it, but by the power of their words they could weave and dye and fasten colour to the cloth. The women who draped the Thariyur sarees around their bodies swore that it was the plentiful milk of their mothers’ breasts, cooled by such soothing cotton, that held the secret in it.
The tradesmen came to the village for silk and cotton, and the fishermen came for thick, flexible sails. The young women favoured linen that became one with their limbs, their colours and patterns giving flight to their dreams that took them, as if on Vadivelan’s peacock, all around the earth. The heavily checked kottadi sarees were for the matrons and crones. Each person in the village, according to their life and station, found the cloth to suit their needs. Thariyur cloth was wrapped around their sunbaked heads, fastened about their thin waists, folded and scrunched into their armpits in deference, tied as a single piece around their loins. When they handstitched long skirts for their whittled wooden dolls, young women used to save leftover scraps of the soft cloth that would never bleed in the menstrual huts, as rare treasures for the older women. As the generations grew in the wombs of these women, the cloths hung on the clotheslines near the huts for nine whole months, waving in the wind like victorious flags, gladdening the hearts of the whole village. The old women would remember their own maiden days with a fond smile as they tore up their wedding sarees and folded them up to make peethunis for the newborns. Wailing infants would take a break to track the colours of the cloths with their beady eyes, and drift off to sleep in the confines of its thuli once the soft cloth was tied around its waist. When the men who filled the hearts and lives of these women died and the biers carrying their bodies had crossed the town’s borders, their women could be seen near at the wells and ponds, dipping their sarees one after another into the waters, and bemoaning their fate – this man’s breath disappeared just like that, in a whiff! Yet I dip and I dip and I wring and I wring, but oh, would the colours on this cloth never bleed?
When the white man’s trading ships docked a few miles north of Mayilapuri, the local tradesmen made contact with them, and when they learned that the overdressed men were looking for more cloth, told them about Thariyur’s fine cotton. One look at the cloth convinced the whites that this was the treasure they had sailed in search of. For the first few years, they sent some of the local traders as middlemen to haggle with the weavers and bring the cloth to them. This cloth was received with tremendous delight in the markets at Southampton and London and Rouen and Paris. Calico skirts and chintz draperies came into fashion. Women wanted them by the yard for their chemises and underskirts. Their voices crying for “More! More!” washed up as waves carrying more ships on the Coromandel coast. The trading company thought it might be a good idea to create an exclusive production facility close to the fort that they were building by the coast. The cloth that would be woven and dyed there would go straight into the cargo holds of their ships. The white traders sent a few messengers to Thariyur, asking whether some of the weaver families could move east to the Fort and settle in its vicinity.
It was a time when that land was ravaged by war and famines, and the people were dying of hunger. There was no stable king or government. The rains had failed that year. Madhiran had buried seven children; he did not want to bury the eighth. He had observed the white folks when they had come to his village once or twice earlier to buy cloth. His sharp eyes were capable of reading men the way his fingers knew cotton. He could immediately tell by the swagger in their walk and the smartness of their clothes that these were not ordinary men. Their bellies swelled with prosperity, bags of money jingled at their waists, their muscles were strong, their eyes looked content. When he heard that if his family would move east to the Fort and weave for the company, they would be fed, clothed and unburdened of tax, he decided within his own young heart that he would go, no matter what. He spoke about his plans into the ears of other young men like him, in undertones, unobserved, behind the cotton bushes where cloth was laid out to dry. The picture he painted about life in the east, by the coast, was so alluring that his band of followers grew. News got out, and reached the ears of the town elders. The elders would have forgiven murder, but not the fact that all their young folks were thinking of cutting ties with their land and way of life, and wanted to unravel and break their unity. Madhiran stood before them, at the head of the group, his child on his shoulder, his wife mutely standing a few feet behind him. They received the town’s curse in silence and walked eastwards, towards the sea.
They walked in dejected silence, unhappy about leaving the only land they had called their own, frightened on hearing the old woman’s curse. Would we be able to weave the cloth that we have weaved for all these centuries? they wondered. Madhiran knew that they would never weave the cloth of their ancestors again. He knew that when the soil, air and water changes, the cotton and the dye change too. Things would no longer be the same. However, he had sense enough to not tell them that. “We are not going to the east just to weave cloth, we are going to the east to weave a city,” he told them. They listened with wide-open eyes, grateful for a story, any story, to relieve the strange burden pressing down upon their hearts. Madhiran started telling them the story of how the first towns and cities came to be.
It was a time when there were no cities and towns, and human beings lived in burrows. It was a time so long ago that there were no colours on the earth. Everything was black or white. We were scared of the world then, and we continued to stay in our disgusting burrows, afraid to even poke our heads out. It was a pity, for we also had wings then, but they were black with grime. We could have flown high in the sky like the birds, but we were like craven chickens, and stuck to the ground. We could have hopped from flower to flower and drunk their nectar like bees, but the flowers were black, and the trees were black, and we are afraid to approach them. We could have lived on the treetops, but we stayed underground and hid in the darkness.
Then one day, the first rainbow emerged in the sky. We had never seen colours before that, we were scared out of our wits. We hid deep in the burrows, certain that some calamity was to befall us. We closed our eyes and took comfort in the darkness. We prayed to our dark gods and huddled together. However, there was one young man among us, who could not forget the colours he had seen. He would close his eyes with his wings, and instead of the darkness he had known and worshipped all those days, his vision was filled with the dance of colours. For many nights after that, he tossed and turned in his sleep, and wondered how it would be if the colours came close to him, if he could touch them, feel them, smell them. The colours from the rainbow wafted through his dreams, and then he knew that he could make his world full of colour and light. He knew with unexplainable certainty that if only he could bring colour to the world, no one would live in burrows anymore, and no one would be scared. They would walk on two legs, and fly through the air, their very being filled with the delight and ecstasy the sight of the colours evoked in him.
He told his friends about his plan. We will wait for a rainbow again, he said. And when that happens, we will fly up towards it, and bring its colours to the earth. The burrow people thought he had gone mad; they were happy with the way they lived, and indeed, many of them had forgotten that they possessed wings at all. However, he managed to convince three others, and the next time the dark clouds and the pale sun came together, they waited at the entrance of their burrows for the rainbow, to emerge. At first sight of her splendid dress, they took off. As they flew higher and higher, the drab earth became smaller and smaller and fell off their feet. The colours of the rainbow shone, they became more real than what they had left behind. The men felt their wings stretch and grow lighter; they felt the wind in their faces and whooped for joy. They had flown so high that they were within reach of the rainbow now; it was trembling gently like many light cloths hanging on a frame, and shone as if with a strange light of its own. They flew through the rainbow; their feathers took on the colours they touched.
On seeing their audacity, the Sky god was outraged. He stretched out one regal leg, and with an almighty kick, sent them all spiraling to the ground. “The colours were meant for the sky; you have stolen them for the earth with your wings! You humans shall no longer have wings!” he cursed. The four men crashed to the ground. They died. Their wings fell off. But wonder of wonders! – everything touched by their feathers gained its own colour. The fruits turned red. The flowers became yellow. The earth that took up green turned into emerald fields. Water that drunk up blue became the sea. The sky fell in love with the blueness of the ocean and took it up as his own colour. The earth wore all the colours and all her treasures revealed themselves to man; however, own skin was still black. But the sight of the earth’s splendor awoke in man’s heart a feeling called beauty. The sky was beautiful, the earth was beautiful, the birds were beautiful, their beaks were beautiful, the trees was beautiful, their dancing leaves were also beautiful. Even when he closed his eyes, he could feel the beauty in his heart. His whole being pulsed with beauty. He was also beautiful, he realized. However, the blackness of his own body repulsed him, for since it reminded him of the darkness he had left behind, it was not beautiful. He spun cotton into softness, and dyed it with all the colours the world gave him, and draped them over his own body, and when he twirled, he felt more beautiful than ever before. After that, human beings emerged out of the burrows and lived in groups amidst beauty, colour and prosperity – green fields, purple mountains, blue rivers, brown earth. Burying their black past underground, they built houses above the ground and lived in them. To distinguish their new lives from the old ways, they decorated their houses with all colours except for the inauspicious black. They dyed cotton and silk and hung them from their tall houses as drapes and curtains. They painted their balconies with colourful motifs, and even dyed the earth at their feet with colours. They celebrated the carnival of life with the auspiciousness of colours; where there were colours, there, there were people, there, there was life. That was how towns and cities were born. Only those of us who know the magic of colours can build a city. And it is such a city that we will be building where we go, concluded Madhiran.
A little girl in their group turned to him with a thoughtful face. “Our ancestress said that the clothes we will dye will always bleed from now. Will the city we weave also bleed like that?” she asked.
Madhiran looked at her inquisitive face. “Cities always bleed,” he said. “It is only because the old Thariyur bled that we are going to go and build our own new Thariyur, you know?”
The town they founded as forty weaver families settling south of the Fort was called Chinna Thariyur, the Little Weaver-Town. Over time, weavers from the surrounding towns bled into Chinna Thariyur, and forty families became four hundred. According to the dialect of that land, the name of the town changed to Chinnatharipettai. If you visited Chinnatharipettai in those days, you would find cotton cloths of all colours hanging from the looms, swaying in the sea breeze. On the looms of Little Weaver-Town, an entire city, a civilization, a way of life was born. Pristine white cloth, the finest linen, became the Fort, and when it mellowed and yellowed, it became George Town. The same cloth dyed black became the Black Town. Cotton in mango-yellow became Ezhumbur; in all shades of green, it became Purasai, cloth coloured lotus-pink became Thiruallikeni, and in peacock-blue, it became Mayilapuri. When all these towns came under the white man’s crown, he made the weavers weave them all into a city and called it Madras, in honour of the first weaver of the city. The cloth that had found the city was also called Madras by him. Madras plaids were world-famous by then. But who knows – was it is the seawater, the salt in the air, or the curse on the heads of the Madras weavers? Their prized, colourfast cotton had, just as the old crone had prophesied, started to bleed. The brilliance of the colours disappeared in one wash. Nevertheless, the faded colours appeared stately and the cloth was just as soft, so the demand for Madras did not change.
Madras grew, adding more colours to the cloth on the loom. The towns in Arcot, Mysore, Andhra, and the Chola-Pandiya lands bled copiously in the following decades. People were flowing into Madras. Chettis, Padayachis, Nadars, Mudalis, Paraiyans and Paarpans, Muslims and Christians, Northerners and Easterners, Armenians and Anglo-Indians, all broke free from the roots of their lands and like ants, moved towards Madras in search of a new life. Each person – man, woman, child, was a new colour on the loom of Madras, and they were all woven side by side on the giant tapestry of the city. Many tongues were spoken. People of all shades, for the first time in history, started to live together in the same settlements.
But when cities are born, it is not just the colours that bleed and run into each other. Tears, blood, sweat, they bleed too. A town, a city, an empire – even it is an empire the sun never sets on – tell me, who is answerable for the blood that is spilled to build it? Whose curse willed it? Who will take the responsibility?
After India became independent, after Madras became Chennai, after the old looms of the city got locked up in museums, Madras is evoked as an emotion, a way of life. One day out of the year is observed for Madras; groups of people undertake Heritage Walks every day in the city. The Fort and the High Court and the Chepauk Palace and the Ripon Building are held up as specimens of Old Madras’ colonial glory. We take a collective sigh of pleasure in remembering the history of this city. We built this, our forefathers built this, this is our history, this is our treasure, us heritage walkers say. Each caste clutches the thread of their colour and begins a journey into the past, tracing their glory on the tapestry of the city. But I ask them this – can we say which cloth bleeds to make this city what it is today? Which colour bleeds into the walls of this city? Whose blood stains its glorious past? What colour bled through Madras’s port to Fiji and Jamaica, Singapore and Malaysia, to plant and sprout towns there? What is the colour of the little Madras that has sprouted on the Pacific coast? What colour bleeds into the Madras that is Chennai, and tints our malls and storefronts, makes the ECR flourish, builds our real estate? What is the colour of the blood that still runs on its streets, and flushes into the Koovam?
In the 1950s, there was an American businessman who was fascinated by Madras plaids. A trader from Madras sold him yards and yards of Madras plaid cloth. However, the American did not pay attention when the Madras trader told him that Madras bleeds. The American businessman went home and sold his purchases for a huge profit to a clothing store called Brooks’ Brothers, but they were not at all pleased when they realized that the cloth bled colour. What a huge loss, they rued.
Their fortunes were however turned on their head by a clever advertiser called David Oglivy. He wrote the copy – “This cloth is handmade by the skilled fingers of Indian weavers who pour their sweat and blood and tears into the making of this cloth. They dye this cloth with the finest of all-natural colours. There is no cloth on earth that is softer than Madras. Guaranteed to bleed!” His ad campaign made the American people believe that the bleeding colours of the cloth signified the hard work and handicraft that had gone into the making of it. They were not buying just cloth; they were buying the work and craft of an exotic land. The same cloth was used as lungis by the rickshaw-pullers of Madras went into the making of shirts and pants and ties, marketed at the American upper class white males. They were sold at an exorbitant price, for they were not just buying cloth, but cloth that was guaranteed to bleed. That cloth is still called Bleeding Madras.
There is an apocryphal tale that somewhere in Yale University, there hangs a square of Madras cloth in memory of Eluhi Yale, former President of the British East India Company, a philanthropist and slave trader, who was born in the city. I have heard it said, but I don’t know how true the tale is – that there is a trail of black colour that continues to bleed from that square; that all attempts to stop the bleed over the years failed; that the frame has been cleverly constructed to stop people from noticing the ugly bleed.
Bleeding Madras, is still bleeding.