Red Bull is engraving the Eye of God on your chest. “It’s a private tattoo over my soul and conscience,” you murmur. “I’m an atheist, bro,” you continue, thinking of the Chotta Bheem rakhi on your wrist eons back in time. I will be brave like Bheem someday, will fight for dharma, you had pledged at the marble mandir at home, in Pune. “I only need myself to keep a check on my actions. You know what I mean?” you now whisper.
Your mom had smiled at you as she had placed the thali of prasad at the feet of the Gods all those years back. Bikram Uncle had visited that day. He had sworn your mother as a sister when they were children. “Bikram Uncle had to cut his hair during the 1984 riots against the Sikhs,” she had whispered, shaking her head in sorrow.
“It’s a good tattoo man, it’s deep,” Red Bull reaffirms. It’s the fifth time this past hour, but you’re lost in all that’s gone. On his right arm charges a bull in red. It has wings on either side, and when the muscle twitches, the bull seems to amass energy in its wings. “You’ll never tire of it. Only make sure you don’t beef up on the chest. You don’t want a bulbous eye of God,” Red Bull continues. “And of course, the chest cannot become breasts.” Red Bull, what a cool name. It would suit a Marine Engineer, you tell yourself.
In the living room, Avni is lowering her tight derriere onto a bean bag. “That looks awesome, Neel,” she says sipping Kiwi juice from a bottle. Her grey office skirt rides up her thigh and the red silk blouse comes loose around her waist where it’s been tucked into the skirt. She has silky, toned legs.
You need to protect your tattoo. “It’s still tender Avni,” you say pushing those legs back and weaving your fingers into hers instead. You are determined to catch what Pablo is saying on screen to Colonel Carillo.
“You son of a bitch,” Pablo bellows and then drives two bullets into Carillo. “Go Pablo, go,” you murmur. You’ve been following the series together. It’s time for dinner; you let go of those fingers. She needs to get back home. She pulls out her office ID tag from the front pocket of her laptop backpack where she tucks it in every evening at your door. Hanging it around her neck, she tidies her clothes and leaves to dine with her parents. No goodbye kiss today.
You can’t wait to hit the gym, but the earliest you’re permitted is a week later. That day, your vest hangs loose around your neck. For the remainder of the month, you wear a loose-hanging vest to the gym. And for the remainder of the month and, well, later too, you measure your chest each morning, after the dead lifts, of course. The end of the measuring tape creeps toward the 40th inch each day and you are delighted. Your workout buddies look at your tattoo. At first, they look discreetly. Then they ask you to exhibit it, “For new members, Dude!” You do. You have a chiseled chest after all, and a sharp tattoo.
Your parents visit the next weekend. Pune celebrates Ganesh Chaturthi and your parents have decided to include you in the celebrations, albeit in Gurgaon. On the TV screen, a red ticker ticks with news about some Father Tom who has been brought back to India from the clutches of ISIS. You put up your hand in refusal at your mom who is standing there with a thali, holy smoke rising from the dhup. You tap your forefinger on the eye over your heart instead. You pick the prasad, swallow the laddoo in one gulp, then run to work, leaving your mom standing there marveling at your ideology.
You worked at the shipping line the year after getting your Marine Engineering degree at Bangalore. That’s where you had met Avni while sharing an Uber ride. She had hailed it from a neighbouring college where she was studying Electronics. You now prefer onshore roles and so you move to Gurgaon.
While walking down the corridor towards your desk, Amrita notices the ink of your tattoo through your light cotton shirt. You left your vests in the laundry basket for Mom to wash. You flex your chest muscle in pride. There are other pretty eyes that notice throughout the day as well. Some male eyes too.
You decide its best to wear white shirts to work, without a vest. You do own a chiseled body.
So, you get the next tattoo imprinted on your left shoulder. Poseidon, God of the Sea; thunderbolt, trident and sea waves. Avni isn’t pleased. “He looks blind,” she cries. “You’ve got a blind figure coming at me with a trident. How should I react, Neel?”
“Its Poseidon Avni. You know nothing girl.” You shrug.
There they crash, the waves, at the narrow of your bicep brachii, visible from under the sleeve of your fitted shirt, the sleeve with a fold and a triangular cut at the tendon, a cut that seems to clinch a million stares, you’ve realized.
“Arey, does the goddess Ganga not pour enough blessings on you? Why do you need Poseidon?” your mother asks that Dussehra. “Arey, don’t you remember when we’d gone to Haridwar for the Ganga arti, you were about to slip and flow away, the chain was coming lose. Goddess Ganga saved you that day.”
“Yes, and we were stuck there for days due to the Muzaffarnagar riots.”
“He’s a boy, he needs a macho figure,” shouts your father from the balcony where he sits sipping his cup of morning wakefulness and reading the newspaper. “It’s under his shirt Bhawna. Go forth Son, but not too many okay?”
“We need to come more often to Gurgaon,” your mother mumbles. She’s chopping a potato into determined chunks—a modern mother with a chef’s knife and a chopping board. She bought them from one of the hundreds of gourmet grocery stores dotting modern Gurgaon. “Who knows what he’ll have the next holiday we come.”
You get Ganga on a lotus atop a crocodile; this one you get etched on your right shoulder; its Thai art style adds just the required sharpness to the edges. The crocodile seems to slither down the arm towards the elbow and you delight in its shiny green when it reflects on women’s sunglasses. One of them turns around to catch a glimpse. She’s on the foot over bridge at Cyber City, the one you need to take to work.
Avni is upset again. Neither makara nor dragon, she perhaps thinks, but she does not voice it. She knows what people will say over chai and samosas if they hear of her fragmented fundamentals. “What a girl, sleeps around with boys with tattoos. At least the boy emblazons the goddess.”
You’re aware of the speech of the world, the one that’s always reserved for the weaker lot. “They can keep multiple wives,” your mother had said when your friend Ahmad brought his girlfriend home back in Pune. “Didn’t he come home with another girl last time?”
“She was a common friend, Mom,” you defended them vociferously, once they left. But your words had been drowned under the whirr of the mixer-grinder grating pudina chutney. “They eat beef,” Mom had whispered in the kitchen while pouring out Coke for Ahmad and his girlfriend. Ahmad and Pooja had excused themselves saying they were on a diet.
“Doesn’t my opinion count?” Avni asks looking at the Thai crocodile. “Could you not even ask?”
You do not. The next summer, you bear Shiva on your right arm. The holy Ganges spouting atop his head unifies into waves that flow under the goddess. Avni disapproves. Her Profile picture is avant-garde. “But you’re an atheist,” she attempts. “All these God’s sliding below your sleeves.”
“I am,” you state. “But girl, it’s Shiva under Ganga. Ain’t there a story there? The aesthetics Avni? Appreciate the shades of blue on Shiva’s skin, lady, and Shiva’s abs give my arms the look I have been trying to chisel out for years at the gym. Show the love, pumpkin.”
“Oh! All right. What the heck.” And then she is beside you as Parvati.
You’re lucky, winter arrives late to Gurgaon. Your team takes to the tattoo like a toddler to glittery wrapping paper. Even Poonam, at work, bows before it as she heads for a presentation with that difficult Arnab in his glass cabin. All goes well for her. She returns relieved and then she bows again before you, in mock gratitude.
That Diwali, at home in Pune, your mom strips you naked to check for new tattoos. The Diwali gift overwhelms her and when you leave, she slips a picture of the lovable Maakhan Chor in your duffel bag so you can pray to the natkhat Lord who will protect you from all evil. You keep the picture in your wallet. Avni never checks your wallet.
It is now the turn of the Sudarshan Chakra; this one you want on your back. The hand of Krishna to guide you. “You’re changing, Neel. You can see the ruckus religion is creating in our country. Let’s keep away from overt symbolism,” she cries.
“It’s in the back. Look, it’s like a wheel, honey.”
“It’s not a wheel, Neel, and you know it. You’re a namesake.”
“Okay, chill. I’ll get a sword on my forearm. That’ll balance it out. What do you think, pumpkin?”
“Whatever. I need to leave. Remember, you can’t undo it,” she says, as if murmuring a threat. She hangs the office ID tag around her neck and leaves.
Ahmad and Pooja had separated too after they had left your home that day. You heard it from another friend. “Their love could not tide over Pehlu Khan’s lynching for carrying a cow,” Gautam had said, and you knew that Ahmad had stopped talking to you since the day he had left your home with Pooja. He had probably been embarrassed about the beef revelation in front of Pooja.
Years ago, you first spoke with Ahmad outside the Std. IV classroom. He had also been punished by the Math teacher. After that, he joined you every time. Your mother didn’t know. Ahmad didn’t tell on you.
You get a sword on your left forearm, and that March, at Le Havre, where you’d gone to a work conference, you change the sword to a cross on French Good Friday and decide to take a day off from work. It bleeds—the cross—black blood from black wood. Gothic, man!
Back in Gurgaon, Poonam is offended and refuses to pay obeisance to your Shiva. “Unless you dedicate tattoos to Brahma and Vishnu too,” she says, pouting. “On your right arm where it belongs, Neel; your left you can decorate with Gothic or Avant-garde or whatever,” Gauri admonishes too. That summer you get the Trimurti on your right forearm which is by now sleeved in colour.
This brings Poonam back and, like Iron Man, your favourite superhero, you announce, “I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I have more to offer this world…” The men on your office floor ask details; they envy you.
You etch symbols of rage and love on your legs: the trident, the om, Celtic symbols, dream catchers. Your left arm, you adorn with Anubis and Ra, the Sun God. “In a world of ordinary mortals, I am Wonder Man,” you whisper at the mirror one morning as you flex your muscle and Anubis on your forearm pouts in approval.
Poonam adores the Gods on your right arm. And the lady you pass daily now on the Cyber City foot over bridge adores the colours, the shapes and the dreams, the vision they perhaps conjure up in her mortal brain.
“She was asking about you,” Ramesh at the cigarette kiosk whispers. “She buys her smoke from me since she saw you here the other day. Her name’s Teesa, Tessa, something like that, in case you want to know. I heard her friend call her. I don’t think he’s a special friend like that,” continues Ramesh tightening the lid on his PearlPET jar of mint.
“Arey Ramesh, I’m only glad to bring you business,” you say. He needed to hear it, the poor man.
There she is, Tessa, on the foot over bridge again. As you walk back towards your office building, she turns to look at your arm and you hear a faint prayer twinkle from her lips. Definitely, a prayer. What you don’t notice is the one on yours, after you walk forward.
“Let not an inch lack divinity. You were made to rise,” you whisper into the mirror at the Men’s.
On your glutes, you go for a phoenix, the one that rises from the ashes. For you’re rising, like the glory of the Tattooist who holds the potions to give life in his hands; who with the words he etches, slights.
Life is nothing but fantasy, after all. An Arabic text you get designed on your left ankle. And Om Shanti on your right in Devanagari alphabets.
On your right palm, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, it is. Again, in Devanagari. You hold it out every so often now.
In queue behind Poonam, who’s heading to a meeting with Arnab, is puny Divya. She feigns desire to seek your blessings. “What for baalike?” you overplay. “For your shipment’s safe arrival? For wit to respond to Arnab?” You list them out, as if you possess a menu of blessings to bestow.
“For the shipment,” she petitions.
“Poseidon blesses you.”
“Oh! Please ask Poseidon to bless my shipment too,” prays Rahul. “Ask Ra, the Sun God, Rahul. Isn’t your shipment coming from Africa?”
"Do you possess upon you, the Almighty, any God who can help me with problems in love?” Veer seems to joke. You pull open your shirt and turn around to show him the Sudarshan Chakra on your back—for Krishna who loved his Radha so.
“Mulmul shirts from now on,” you decide. The Gods need to be visible to their devotees.
Your mother can’t help but adore you, your divinity. You also raise your palm for peace when she rebukes you for dirty clothes. And you raise your palm after your belly is satisfied with the flavourful daal offered by her loving hands. You raise your palm at the maid who in a moment of hurry swipes your foot with the mop. And you raise your palm when your father waves from the cab leaving for the airport. Shanti, Shanti, Shanti. On the streets, eyes look up towards the balustrade on which you lean. They adore you. Your body, your art, your aesthetic. You think.
“The universe is so big; it has no center. I am the center,” you marvel, raising your palm in blessing.
On the foot over bridge, you hold your palm up to a bewildered Tessa. “Shanti, Shanti, Shanti,” you say, the tattoo and not the Tattooist.
Bio: It was while fighting over the corporate ladder that Donna Abraham Tijo’s first short story won a contest and was published in ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul, Indian College Students’ (Westland Ltd, 2011). She then went on to publish her first novella 'Or Forever Hold Your Peace' (AuthorsUpfront, 2014) on a whim. With learnings gathered over the following years, she contributed a short story ‘My Mama’s Girl’ to ‘Escape Velocity’ (Write&Beyond, 2018). These days she’s adding final truths to her second novel, 'The Pheeki Lives of Geetanjali and Maryann.'