My earliest memory of the Om symbol was one inscribed on my father’s hand, a greenish-blue tattoo made when he was a few years old. He was born in Lahore in 1944, three years before the Partition. It was the ‘it’ symbol of the time, a religious stamp on his and his brothers’ hands to prove their Hindu birth once they’d migrated to India. It was not just a chance of birth, it was their only chance of survival in the battle-scarred old world of newly liberated India. There was no deep metaphysical philosophy behind it besides survival, the most important of them all.
To my childish eyes, it was a beautiful work of art, somewhat magical because it had sunk deep into my father’s skin and showed through translucently, and I could not imagine how it must have got there. This is Om, I thought, a symbol of reverence and identity. It made my father righteous and truthful (his name, in fact means God of Truth), and ensured that every action he took was honest and morally upright. It made him the good man he was. That’s quite something, isn’t it.
I later dabbled with Om in college, drawing it, using it in my poems, painting it on T-shirts. It still did not mean anything, it was just a graphic, an ubiquitous symbol like any other, used by shopkeepers on their first bill of the day, or tattooed on the back of an actress or model.
Later in my early 30s, however, once I got this job in Marie Claire and life had a new direction, I became fascinated by Om. My editor had okayed a spiritual column in the magazine much to my delight, and I set about investigating what it meant. To delve into the meaning of Om is to unearth a mine of Vedantic theory.
My research drew me tightly into the philosophy. Like the greatest technology lies behind the most artfully simple of computer applications, here was a universe of meaning behind this little curly symbol. There was so much more to discover. I became a fan. I began chanting Om once in a while, and made my children do so whenever they were nervous or upset. I recommended it to all I came across. And it gradually became a part of my way of thinking. To me, Om = God = the mystic forces in the universe.
On my 34th birthday, I got an inch-thick black Om tattoo from a swanky salon in Basant Lok market. It was a little above my right wrist, on the inside of my arm, the same place where dad has it. It is a family tradition, I told most people who asked why. But the truth was more than that – it was the biggest gift I could give myself. I figured that if I had God, I had everything.
A few months after that, I saw a greenish-blue Om tattoo on the inner arm of our new temporary guard outside the house, as he held the door open for me. It was done the old way, the way my father and uncles had it. I pointed to it and asked him when he’d got it and showed him my own. We gazed at each other’s and our own Oms in a brief moment of solidarity. Then he closed my door and I smiled my thanks, and drove off.
I never saw him again.