When I was younger tattoos scared me because they were permanent. Sure it may look good now, but when I’m sitting in my rocking chair in my dotage perhaps I will have second thoughts. I watched as friends of mine back in the United States couldn’t stop at one tattoo and steadily started marking up their bodies like grade school kids fill up note pads. What is the fun in being a human doodle?

In the last couple months, however, I began to change my mind. What if a tattoo was more than just a drawing, but meant something special? Padma has long advocated me marking up bodies and has a large tattoo that snakes up her back. The main problem was that I couldn’t think of anything right.

And then I began thinking about an incident that happened to me about a year ago when a student of mine I was taking through India on an abroad program died while we were in Bihar. I was charged with bringing her body back to Delhi so she could be shipped back to the United States for burial. As many of you already know the three days I was stuck in Gaya preserving her body against decomposition and negotiating with police and consular officials were quite difficult. The only respite came from some very good friends who arrived in my hour of need. One of whom, Joel Lee, pretty much showed up out of thin air and spent the entire time by my side. At one point while we were sitting beside the student’s coffin we started talking about a sufi saint in Delhi named Nizamuddin.

In the 14th century Nizamuddin was building a mosque in Delhi at the same time that the sultan Tugaluk was constructing a fortress on the south side of the city and the two were in constant competition for workers. Tughaluk was often out of the city waging wars and expanding the empire while Nizamuddin was expanding his spiritual practice. On one of Tugaluk’s military excursions Nizamuddin took away all of Tugaluk’s workers and set them to building his mosque. Eventually word reached the sultan as he was finishing a campaign in Bihar and he sent a message back to Delhi that said that he would “deal with” Nizamuddin when he returned. This of course meant that Nizamuddin’s days were numbered. But when Nizamuddin heard of Tugaluk’s plan he was not concerned. Instead he sent Tugaluk a one line note in Urdu that read “Hanoz Dilli Dur Ast” or, “Delhi is still far.”–meaning that Tugaluk had to be in Delhi to exercise his powers. Tughaluk headed back to Delhi while riding on a war elephant and had started to set plans in action to kill Nizamuddin. However, when he was only a day’s ride outside the city his elephant was crossing over a bridge which gave way under the animal’s weight. Both Tugaluk and the elephant perished and Nizamuddin was safe.

I have heard dozens of different versions of this story recited over the years but this one has always stuck with me. At the time we were in Bihar sorting out my student’s remains the saying seemed to take on yet another meaning–we were headed to Delhi but had been unable to get there—Delhi was still far away. I am told that in Delhi the saying is often repeated as meaning “You don’t know as much as you think you do.”

I started dreaming about getting the line tattooed on my arm a few week ago. I knew that I had to get it done after I found myself wandering through the Muslim area of the city and came across one of the last communities of professional Urdu calligraphers who were running the only hand-written newspaper in the world. These were the people who would design it for me.

I asked them to write out several versions of the saying (and triple checking for spelling since I don’t read Urdu) I went to a very posh tattoo parlor in Chennai called Irezumi. A woman in a salwar kamiz named Nisha tattooed it on my forearm. She had never gotten a tattoo of her own, but stencils on about 20 permanent markings onto people every week. She says she likes drawing. I think she did a pretty good job.

At first it was difficult for me to get used to the writing on my arm. The night after I had it done I woke my wife up at three in the morning and thought I had made a horrible mistake. It was my inner conservatism coming to the surface. I searched out different tattoo removal companies in India and discovered that it is pretty easy and cheap in Bangalore. Could I get it removed the next morning, I thought.

But since then I have grown into it a bit. It is healing well and I am really starting to enjoy it. I’m not so worried about being marked. The script and the story behind it means something to me. I might have to worry about airport security in the future, but I will always remember that Delhi is still far away.