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His Master's Harshness

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The Greek philosopher Bion of Borysthenes (circa 300 B.C.) described the brutally tattooed face of his father, a former slave, as "a narrative of his master's harshness."


In Alipore prison, the godna-wala waits. Before him are laid his instruments, newly cleaned and sharpened, and a dark bottle of ink. A pouch at his hip holds a few pieces of afeem, the only mercy at his disposal.

--

As a boy, Asif was restless. Even as a baby, as his mother told the story, he slept very little. During the long months inside her body he shifted and kicked, as if eager to be born. He didn't walk when he could run or run when he could climb. Bador, his older sisters called him, monkey, as they hooted at him from below.

When he could, he spent hours watching the boats and ships on the Hooghly. He listened to the shouts and curses of the lascars and English sailors, and learned to tell the difference between a gaff topsail and a mainsail.

He was thirteen the first time he joined the crowds in Calcutta to watch the bán lunge upriver. He spent the day in an agony of anticipation so acute he thought it might burst his skin. But finally, at sunset, the crowd heard the first low roaring and quelled itself into an unnatural stillness. Then the water began to rise and rise as the noise grew louder and louder, as if the sound were pulling the water along with it like a child's toy on a string.

It rose high in the air, higher than any of the great ships he had seen, until it looked like a ship itself at full sail. And as the crowd cheered and jostled, he imagined how glorious it would be to climb up to the top of that wave and ride it as far as he could go.

In a few minutes, it was over, and the crowd broke apart. People drifted back into their usual evening tasks, as though nothing remarkable had happened, and Asif felt oddly deflated. He scuffed away from the wharf slowly, watching the orange light fade behind the forest of masts.

--

By fifteen, Asif had earned a reputation with the merchant seamen for being a willing and eager hand. He endured the jeers of the lascars until they gave way to grudging acceptance. And on days when the disdain and casual brutality of the mates felt impossible to stomach, the sight of tall masts and the yards of sail and rigging reminded him that his longing was greater than his pain. For two years he fell asleep at night, imagining the world from the top of the mainmast, rising aloft on a great wave until his head touched the sky. Then, three weeks before his sixteenth birthday, Asif was signed to the crew of the three-masted Basilisk.

His duties as a foretopman set him apart from the crew who worked on the deck of the ship. He was swift and agile, and he learned quickly. His hands bled and blistered, but eventually hardened; the muscles of his shoulders and arms and back grew sleek and defined.

Something within him altered slowly as well. Gone was the restlessness that had hummed in his blood all his life. In its place came the silence that pools underneath the roar of wind and the whip and snap of sails and rigging; the deafening sound of becalmed waters that lie flat and smooth as a mirror. Over the years, he became known for his steadiness even in the fiercest storm. In the endless shift and motion at the top of the mainmast, Asif learned what it was to be still.

--

The fall didn't kill him, but it ended his life all the same. He had been six years on the Basilisk when one misplaced grip on a slippery piece of rigging sent Asif to the deck like a stone dropped in an empty well.

After two weeks, the bruises had faded and his ribs no longer hurt when he took a deep breath. But the odd numbness in his left arm remained. Second Mate Chambers, who had splinted the broken bone, told him the break was healing well. 'You're lucky to be spared infection,' he said. To Asif, it seemed no luck at all.

By the time they neared Port Louis, Asif's restlessness had returned and he was spending most nights in the stern, watching the stars. There were few things a one-armed man could do on a ship and none of them involved the heights he loved. Accepting the loss of that wild joy tasted bitter as ash.

Two days out from port, one of the older lascars approached Asif. They stood together at the rail and watched the stars come up over the faint rise in the distance that was Mauritius. Kishen had been aboard the Basilisk for some time before Asif joined her crew, yet he still appeared just as he'd been the first time Asif had seen him. He was a large, weathered man who rarely spoke, and whose body was covered with tattoos.

Finally, he said: My father taught me his trade before I came to this ship. But I wanted to go further than just the next village with my tools. So I came to the sea. He turned to look at Asif: I will teach you if you want.

Asif was stunned. Why?

I have no family, Kishen said with a shrug. You have a steady hand and will need a new skill, I think. The sahibs won't keep you much longer.

Asif shook his head. It will heal, he said with an emphasis borne of anger and fear. It will heal.

Kishen shrugged again. Think about it.

All night, Asif lay awake under the stars. He practiced clenching his hands into fists, but the fingers of his left hand would only curl halfway. They had no strength in them. After weeks on deck, his calluses had softened as well as his muscles. It seemed to him that his body had already decided.

The next morning he found Kishen in the fo'c'sle before anyone else was awake. I'm grateful for your offer, he said. I accept.

--

In Alipore prison, the godna-wala waits, on a mat stained dark with ink. He has had a lifetime's teaching in patience. The lessons are marked on his skin.

His longing for the sea has never faded. It lives in him like a pebble in a shoe: he has learned to walk despite it. Yet there is a peacefulness that has come to inhabit him over time, through age and the discipline of his craft. The stillness he once found in the heart of the wind he also finds in the precise and delicate process of sealing ink into flesh.

For thirty years he has followed Kishen's trade in Raskhali, has passed it down to his children as they will pass it to theirs. In the time it takes for a young man to grow into an old man, Asif has watched the fields of poppies grow larger every season. In the homes of the upper-castes, who pay him to tattoo their family names into the delicate skin of their forearms, he has listened to the talk of opium trade and the British. When the news came of the zemindar's arrest, Asif knew what was to come.

He is an old man and, although not poor, he is not rich. His wife is dead and his children are grown. There is little he can do to alter the world, but there is this one thing. On the Basilisk, he learned the lessons of wind and water: to flow around obstacles, to wear them down with his passing.

When the sepoys force Neel Haldar to his knees, Asif feels a great tenderness well up in him, followed by sorrow. The zemindar is not even as old as Asif's youngest son.

Why? Neel asks. Why are you doing this?

It's the law, Asif tells him, his voice smooth as water, as wind. All transportees have to be marked so they'll be recognized if they try to escape.

He works steadily, until the sepoys lose interest in the prick, prick, prick of his needles. When they turn away to exchange desultory talk, Asif reaches into his pouch for a piece of afeem. Here, eat this, he says, and pushes the ball into Neel's mouth. It will help; eat it...

While Neel is lost in the haze of the opium, Asif continues to work slowly and carefully. Although he has never recovered the full use of his left hand, there is enough strength and agility in it to balance and to hold a patch of skin taut. Both of his hands are steady yet.

When the tattoo is finished, the sepoys are asleep. Asif wipes his needles clean and then his fingers. Finally, he wakes Neel.

What is it?

Don't worry, Raja-sahib, Asif tells him. I've watered the ink; the mark will not last beyond a few months.

Neel appears confused: Why? why would you do that for me?

Raja-sahib, don't you know me?

No.

Asif bends closer. My family is from Raskhali; your grandfather gave us land to settle there; for three generations we've eaten your salt.

He places a mirror in Neel's hands and says: Forgive me, Raja-sahib, for what I had to do…

Asif believes, as do many, that tattoos are what identify the soul of the bearer in the next life; they carry it from one state of being to another. He believes that what survives after the body is gone should not be the marks of a crime. And so he has used the lessons of time and the sea. Wind shifts and scours; water dilutes and washes away; time fades.

There is more than one way to escape.