It began as a teardrop in Babylon. Where the sunlight came from Astarte, shameless goddess of the fecund feminine. The boteh. Stylized rendition of the date palm shoot, tree of life, fertility symbol. It danced through Celtic art, until the heavy feet of Roman legionaries tramped over the Alps. Then it fled the wrath of Mars and Jupiter, dove underground as Empire rose.
Some historians claim it travelled to Mughal courts from Victorian England, as the foliaged shape of the herbal. Evolved in the 18th century into a cone, then a tadpole. But a legend in Kashmir calls it the footprint of the goddess Parvati, as she ran through the Himalayas at the dawn of time.
Ambi. Form of a mango – fruit that ripens and rots the dreams of all South-to-North immigrants. A shape like a peacock feather. Half a heart, sliced on a smooth s-shaped curve. Something that would feel good in the hand, round to the palm like a solid breast, narrow to a sharp point to test the pad of the finger. Image a child could draw in a single stroke, free form, and still produce something elegant.
Have you ever sliced a heart on a curve? Which piece would you keep?
There was a craft of weavers. Makers of mosuleen, named after its city of origin, Mosul, in Iraq. A fabric so fine, you could fit a 30 yard length of it into a matchbox. Egyptian pharaohs used it to wrap mummies. Imperial Rome imported it for women of nobility to drape seductively around their bodies. Two Indian cities rose to glory and fame on the waves of mosuleen: Masulipatnam in South India. Dhaka, in Bengal.
There was a force called capitalism. Armed with a switchblade, designed to slice the heart out of craft. Separate - makers from fruits of labor. Spirit - mangoes out of their hands into the realm of dream. In 1813, Dhaka mosuleen sold in London at seventy-five percent profit, yet was still cheaper than the local British fabric. The British weighed it down with eighty percent duty. But that wasn’t enough. They needed to force India to buy British textiles. So down the alleyways of Dhaka stamped the legionaries – British, this time, not Roman. Hunted down the terrified weavers, chopped off their index fingers and thumbs.
How many ways can you clone an empire? Dice a people, digit by digit?
In 1846, Britain annexed the vale of Kashmir, fabled paradise of beauty, and sold it to Maharaj Gulab Singh of Jammu for one million pounds. How do you price a country? How do you value its mountains and lakes, the scent of its trees, the colors of its sunrise? What’s the markup on the shapes of fruit in the dreams of its people?
Article 10 from the Treaty of Amritsar, 1846: Maharaj Gulab Singh acknowledges the supremacy of the British Government and will in token of such supremacy present annually to the British Government one horse, twelve shawl goats of approved breed (six male and six female) and three pairs of Cashmere shawls.
Kashmiri shawls. Woven on handlooms, patterned with ambi, rich and soft and intricate as the mist over Kashmir’s terrace gardens. First taken to Britain by bandits, aka ‘merchants’ of the British East India Company, they wove themselves through the dreams of Victorian wives, like the footprint of a goddess no one dared imagine.
Has your skin ever craved a texture you could not name? Have you ever held strange cloth to your cheek, and felt your heart – thud?
There was a village in Scotland. Paisley. Tiny town of weavers who became known as radical labor agitators. Weaving offers too much time for dangerous talk. Weavers of Paisley learned how to turn out imitation ambi, on imitation Kashmiri shawls, and got to keep their index fingers and thumbs. Until Kashmiri became cashmere, mosuleen became muslin, ambi became paisley, and even later in history, chai became a beverage invented in California.
How many ways can you splice a history? Price a country? Dice a people? Slice a heart? Entice – what’s been erased - back into story?
Have you ever taken a word in your hand, dared to shape your palm to the hollow, where the fullness falls away? Have you ever pointed it back to its beginning, felt it leap and shudder in your fingers like a dowsing rod, jerk like a severed thumb, flare with the forbidden name of a goddess returning? My-gritude.
Have you ever set out to search for the missing half? The piece that isn’t shapely, elegant, simple. Won’t drop neatly onto a logo, slot into a market niche, make the perfect exotic motif to Chanel’s Spring Collection? The half that’s misshapen. Ugly, itchy, heavy, abrasive. Awkward to the hand, gritty on the tongue, platypus of history – stage of how we got here that we’d all prefer to ignore. But it’s here. Living, breathing creature that bewilders and irritates: it’s not what it should be. It births its young in a shell – then suckles them. It’s a mammal – but lives deep underwater. It lay hidden for centuries. Have you ever feared what the missing half would reveal? Migritude.
1 My thanks to Lisa Martinovic for the concept of Migritude as a ‘linguistic platypus’
2 My thanks to John Chung for turning Migritude into a living platypus and giving me it’s characteristics