“Little girl, I’m going to tear you to shreds and toss the pieces in the trash! How dare you get a tattoo from that Jackal Lady without asking my permission!”
“But it’s so beautiful, Appa. And all my friends are getting tattoos.”
“You’ll have that…mess for the rest of your life, you know. You can never erase it. Your beautiful arm is ruined.”
Pitchaiammal, a resident of A.H.M. Trust’s Home for the Elderly, was only 14 or 15 then. I sat next to her on the washing stone beneath a coconut tree and inspected her tattoos. The Jackal Lady had indeed done a beautiful job, decorating the entire surface of her right arm with three interlocking vines and flowers.
“It was much more beautiful before I got this big scar down the middle.”
“A year ago I slipped in the dark and broke both my arms. The neighbors took me to the bone setter in Poosampatti, but since the bone was poking out, he refused to treat. They brought me to the local government hospital instead.”
“And they put in plates and screws?”
“No, the nurses just gave me injections. I was really afraid when I heard the doctors talking about cutting off my right arm. Luckily, the owner of the coconut grove where I used to work brought me to a private hospital in Madurai. He paid for it–the surgery, hospital, exercises– the whole thing. My arms are a bit crooked but at least they work. I’m not complaining.”
“Did the Jackal Lady do the tattoo on your left arm as well?”
She leaned back and laughed. “Oh, that was Alagu, my husband. He told me that he was as good as the Jackal Lady and I believed him! The first 3 initials are his: M.K. Alagu. He attempted to write my name ‘Pitchaiammal’, but the writing was crooked and he didn’t leave enough space for the last three letters. It’s so horrible I love it.”
“Alagu. That means beautiful. Was he good looking?”
She blushed and covered her face and seconds later the tears were flowing.
“My Alagu died when he was only 45 years old. A sudden heart attack.” She wiped her eyes. “That was 30 years ago. I’ve been alone ever since– we never had any children. I miss him so much.”
I took her hands for a few moments and when the wave of emotion had subsided, I asked her to describe how the Jackal Lady had created the tattoo.
“Oh, back then the ‘pachai kutthuthals ‘ (green pokings) were done with homemade ink made by mixing charcoal dust with human breast milk. The Jackal Lady held 3 needles together, dipped them in the ink and started to poke the dye into the skin. She did it free hand. Aiyoh, did it hurt!”
I nodded, imagining tattoos with dull, unsterile needles.
“After the pricking was over, I smeared my arm with neem oil everyday. The wound became red and oozed yellow stuff, but after a week or two things settled down and my ‘green poking’ healed.”
“Was it worth it?”
“Aandavaree! Oh, yes.”
I turned to the three teen-aged girls who had been washing clothes near by.
“What about you all? Are you going to get tattoos?”
The one with the yellow dupata shook her head vigorously. “Never! We would die from embarrassment. Tattoos are for old grannies like her!”
I laughed, thinking about the tattoos that adorn my niece in America.
She is one old fashioned girl, that Cecelia Johnson Ulrich.
“So, would you like me to sing you a song?” Pitchaiammal was back to her sparkly self. “I can do love songs, hate songs, or ballads I learned from the Jackal People. You choose. Maybe I’ll even sing two.”