There are many things I could have named this blog post, but I decided it should sound scandalous, it should sound crazy, it should sound epic. I mean, what is more scandalous, more crazy, and more epic than falling in love when you’re is only 6 years old?
Getting a tattoo? No.
Getting a tatttoo at 6? No.
Getting a tattoo of your true love at 6? Now that, my friends, is crazy.
Meet Kamal, he works in the housekeeping department at Cardamom County resort! I bumped into him one day while measuring one of the rooms we were redesigning. I noticed his tattoo and asked him what it said. The tattoo was written in a flowery exotic script, a collection of curves and lines that are so proudly and publicly displayed but still such a mystery! A tattoo can carry so much hidden meaning– I had to ask.
The tattoo is of his wife Meena’s name. He explained that he had pricked millions of little holes into his arm with a special herbal mixture when he was 6 years old to create this tattoo. Even though it took 30 days to heal, it was worth it because he had found love when he was 6, explained Kamal. He has been married to Meena for 22 years now and has two children with her.
Ironically, later that day, my friend sent me a link to a conversation between a girl and her shocked boyfriend after she tattooed his portrait on her arm after only 1 week of dating. It was awfully funny and a fine example of schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others). My friends and I always try to compete for who can find the most incredible stories, replying back and forth with crazier and wilder stories. I’ll admit, the story my friend shared got a lot of laughs… but the story of Kamal’s tattoo wowed the crowds and received an unanimous ‘awwwww’!
I was so impressed by his story and the traditional technique he used that I stopped him in the laundry collection room for an interview.
He explained that this tattoo tradition, pachai, was specific to Hindus from Tamil Nadu. He mixed human breast milk (I don’t know if I believe this part) and herbal powders made from crushed leaves to create the paste that he would dip a needle in before each prick. The herbal powder is sold by ‘someone’ (who, I have no idea… when I find out, I will let you know!) and it cost 1 rupee per letter. In his case, Meena is spelled with three letters: Mee-N-A. L. 3 rupees. Kamal explained that he bled a lot, but after a week the tattoo scabbed over, after another week a scar would form, and then the healing process would take another two weeks.
Kamal called over two other employees, Ponni (restaurant and kitchen) and Saminar (front desk) who also had pachai tattoos. Ponni had her husband’s name on her arm and a rangoli on her hand. Saminar had his name inscribed in a heart on his chest.
“Why’d you get your own name?” I asked Saminar.
“I like my name very much.”
I laughed, I thought he was kidding.
“Really! It is a good name. You don’t know what Sami means? It means he-lord.”
Ponni’s explanation for the rangoli on her hand was less straightforward. Rangoli are intricate geometric pattern designs that you find near the entrances of temples, homes, or buildings. My roommate said it was common to find them in front of festival or ceremonial entrances, too. Kamal explained that rangoli in Tamil Nadu were traditionally “drawn” with rice flour before the front entrance of a Tamil Nadu house to prevent pests. Pests would eat the rice flour instead of sneaking indoors. There’s more information on rangoli on Wikipedia, but it is always interesting to me how people choose to explain their own culture and what they choose to share, a curator of their own historical narrative.
Sadly, the tradition lost popularity 15 to 20 years ago (according to Kamal) and there is very little information about pachai on the internet (let me be more specific, on the internet accessible by the English language). There are also lots of speculations of the tattoos by Indians from other states and towns: “it came from the tribals”; “only gangsters tattoo their wives names now”; “the black ink appears after rubbing a special leaf over the wound” and so on and so forth. Kamal told me that he would be happy to arrange for me to see the traditional tattoos (some women even have full sleeves!!), piercings, and architecture of the Hindus living in his town in Tamil Nadu. I would’ve never imagined these two areas of design, body modification and architecture, to come together so harmoniously. I. can’t. wait. Maybe I’ll leave India with more than just memories; maybe I’ll leave with a pachai tattoo. Kamal warns that modern technology cannot remove pachai tattoos, so I can’t be hasty or careless with this decision.
Kamal explained that when he leaves this world, he won’t be able to take material things with him.
He can only take one thing: Meena.