Open Book “Refreshed”
Once again, my foot is in the hands of Mr. Gupta, the gentlest man I have ever paid to hurt me. He’s “refreshing” my tattoo, punching white pigment into the blank pages of my open book.
The book is on my ankle.
“A very sensitive spot,” says Gupta. (I’m sure he says this to all the girls.)
As I casually clutch the armrests, I realize that the pleasure of our disjointed conversation will more than compensate for the occasional wince of pain.
Today, we touch on everything from his mother’s flight from Lahore during Partition in 1947. “She was Hindu. It was beyond imagining,” he says. “The horror.” To his anti-hero, Gandhi.”His last, dying word was the name of a Hindu goddess. That one word did more to divide Muslim and Hindu India than anything the British ever did.”
Then we talk about his immigration. The irony. “India is the land of opportunity now. Our daughter is already thinking of university in Bangalore.”
There is also a brief verbal skirmish about women and their place in Indian society.
“We worship women, Brenda. They are our goddesses. We were even ruled by a Queen. There are still statues of Victoria all over Bombay.
“Being worshipped is not the same as being free, Anil,” I say, knowing full well this is a battle I will not win and therefore not one worth losing a friendship over. So I digress and ask him why he chooses skin as a canvas for his art.
“All that work and it just walks out the door,” I say. “You never see it again.”
“All art is made to walk out the door,” he says.”The point of it is doing it. It’s the process.”
We even talk about movie stars. Anil has tattooed more than a few.
“She was haggling over the $50 consultation fee for another family member,” he tells me.
“I’m spreading your name all over the world,” she says. “I’m making you famous.”
“I am already famous,” I say.”That’s why you’ve come to me.”
We talk about other things, too. Things too personal, too private, for blogging. But when I make a connection between his own atrociously painful childhood and the fact he has chosen a profession in which he inflicts pain on others, he erupts into hilarious, belly shaking laughter. I’m suddenly struck by the thought that there are some men who should never be thin.
But how in awe, how much I admire this couple. Their humor, their grace, their intelligence. When he’s done, we finish our boiling hot cups of sugary, milky chai. “I buy it from the Punjabi deli,” says his wife.”They’re Sikks.” And I am reminded of a dinner my family once shared with Ahmed. Ahmed is a food runner and a busboy at our local steakhouse, The Knickerbocker. He is a Muslim, of course. A native of Bangladesh. One Sunday night, he invited us to a restaurant on E. 6th St. owned by his cousin. Until that night, I had no idea that this frenziedly festive, colorful street known as “little India” was not Indian at all, but Pakistani and Sikk. While his wife sat at a seperate table, smiling but neither speaking nor eating, Ahmed and his daughter joined us for a seven course banquet.
A master of that hugely human, Muslim gesture, he bowed slightly from the waist and touched his heart with his right fist before speaking about 9/11. “Steve, my boss, brought us altogether that morning. I was afraid. He kept me there for hours. Till I felt safe. Then people took me home. New York has been good to me.”
New York has been good to Anil Gupta, too. Although he freely admits to his rabid dislike of Pakistanis and Muslims, he and Ahmed now share the same streets. They share the same taste in food and addiction to chai. They share the same hopes and dreams for their children and their futures. Perhaps, this is why New York is the love of my life. City of paradox and perpetual revelation. Tough, tortured, all embracing, it is a city of stories, stories as Shirley Hazzard says about Naples, that are “deeply, profoundly lived.”
Yes, it’s young, new compared to most. But the experience, the collective experience, of those who come here to begin their lives afresh is not. New York is me. It is a city that seems to careen between wild extremes. Even the street signs speak to me in terms of those extremes: Don’t Litter. It’s Selfish. Get off the Grass. Don’t Even Think of Parking here. This is language I understand–intimate, personal. It wastes no time in cutting me and everyone else down to size.
This is the wonderful thing about New York. It’s bigger than all us. And, somehow, I find comfort in that. This city is, for me, what religion is to others. I believe in it. No matter how dwarfed or diminished I might feel; now matter how my own hopes might dwindle, I can not imagine abandoning it. Like Anil and Ahmed and 8.2 million others, it is the only place I have ever felt I truly belonged.
As I limp out of Mr. Gupta’s studio, he gives me a great hug and hands me a copy of Mother India. (This film is to India what Kurosawa’s films are to Japan.)
“You watch it three times,” he says to me. “And then you will get it.”
“No problem,” I say with a smile.
He chortles. “It’s three hours long, Brenda,” he adds. “And today’s session is on the house.”
I grin. I go home and that night I prolong both the pleasure (not to mention the pain) of another too brief encounter with the Gutpas. I watch the movie. Once.