“I don’t care how you manage it but I want you home on Friday,” said Mrs. Chatterjee to her eldest son. And although he was thirty-seven, he still felt compelled to accede to his mother’s demands. He nodded without committing to anything yet. Shonin Chatterjee worked as the marketing head of a pharmaceutical giant in Bhopal in central India. Its factories and labs were in the city and the company had a reasonably effective distribution network across the country.
How on earth could he manage to stay home on a weekday, he wondered, as he picked up his bag and the car keys. His mother was quite demanding and pushy. She had done this to him in the past, as well. And he had no choice but to give in to the pressure for the sake of peace at home. When he had tried to stand up against her commands, he had to pay for it for many months after. There would be snide one-liners and underhand remarks.
His wife, too, would have to go through the quiet torture, the murmurs at the dining table and the constant drone on Sunday mornings. She was a lamb; meek and timid. But she shared a decent rapport with her mother-in-law, and the women could suddenly gang up, without warning. “Please listen to your mother. It is for your own sake. Why are you being so stubborn?” she asked.
Why was his being at a puja so important? He agreed that the prayers were being held for him… but could they not do without him?
“These prayers are being held for your safety; for your life,” his mother had said, her eyes wide, and the expression in them, insistent. “Don’t you remember punditji looking up your janampatri last week and making that really scary announcement?” she gritted.
Shonin couldn’t care for such humbug. But he didn’t say that to his mother. How could an astrologer foretell his future when the vile creature had no inkling about what would happen to him, in the first place? Could you be absolutely certain that predictions mattered? Did they not feed on the insecurities and on baseless beliefs? Shonin was a man of reason and did not encourage conjecture. It seemed absurd to suggest to him that he was going to die in exactly three weeks!
All hell had broken loose when this catastrophe hit the Chatterjee household a while ago. Mrs. Chatterjee had been to her friend, Uma Bhanot’s place, and had encountered an astrologer there.
“Punditji has been advising our family for over a decade now. He is always right. And, because of his interventions, we’ve avoided bad luck several times,” said Mrs. Bhanot, as if trying to convince her.
But Sarla Chatterjee needed no convincing. She was already on board. She made an appointment with Pundit Ram Vilochan Bharadwaj to pay her a visit over the weekend, and he had landed with alacrity. Once she got the formalities out of the way, Mrs. Chatterjee brought out the horoscopes of her children and grand-children. Her other sons also lived in the city, and were equally well-placed. Pundit Bharadwaj took his time, using his paraphernalia, to do his job.
“I don’t know how to say this to you but something inauspicious in on the anvil. Should I share this with you? Are you ready to hear it?” he asked.
Sarla’s muscles contracted and the veins on her neck stood up. “What is it, punditji?” she asked. “Is it so bad?” she prodded.
The astrologer kept a deadpan expression for a second and then made the announcement, “There will be a death in the family, very soon,” he said.
Sarla put her hand to her mouth; she was shocked. She thought about herself and about her husband; both were advancing in years. “What do you see, punditji? Please tell me,” she said.
The astrologer adjusted his stance; looked a bit reluctant and then, opened his mouth. “Your eldest son will die a month from now,” he announced.
You can imagine what a mother would go through on hearing such news. Sarla Chatterjee recoiled from the man; looked about herself and then did what she was instinctively used to doing: she rushed to her husband.
Amitosh Chatterjee had retired from the Income Tax Department. He was a soft-spoken, simple man, who despised noise and clutter but who could not untangle himself from his better half. So, he just surrendered to her whims. He was, at that moment, sitting in his sanctum, scanning the newspapers of the day. He saw his wife in tears and asked, “What happened?” She did not respond. “What happened, Sarla?” he asked again.
“I cannot even repeat what I have just heard. You have to come out with me and talk to him,” she said. “Pundit Bharadwaj is here and he is saying awful things. Talk to him. Ask him again. What will we do now? My poor Shonin.”
Amitosh Chatterjee pulled himself out of the comfort of his easy chair and walked to the living room. A man sat there on one of the chairs, dressed in a white kurta and dhoti. He had the typical orange cloth that pundits wear, thrown around his shoulders. His forehead was smeared with vermillion and sandalwood paste. “Namaskar,” said Amitosh Chatterjee. “My wife seems to be completely distraught by whatever it is that you have told her. What is the matter?” he asked.
The doomsayer remained seated calmly, sans emotion on his face. “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Chatterjee, but there is very bad news for the family,” he began.
Amitosh leaned towards the soothsayer, in anticipation. “Yes. What is it?” he asked.
“It is very difficult even for me to share this with you but I cannot change what the future holds. Can I?” Then, after a short pause, he continued. “Mr. Chatterjee, according to this horoscope, and I believe it is of your eldest child, then, the time ahead is tragic,” said the astrologer.
“What does it say?” asked the father.
On hearing the prophecy, Amitosh’s heart missed a beat. “What do you mean? He is absolutely healthy. How could anything happen to him?” he asked.
“I cannot tell you what will go wrong. But his horoscope shows that this person will not live beyond this month,” said the pundit.
“There must be an error,” he said.
“I assure you, Mr. Chatterjee. I have read this again and again and come to the same conclusion. Still, if you have doubts, I challenge you to show it around. I don’t think there will be any great change,” he said.
Soon after, there was a deluge of suggestions. The believers advised Sarla to take remedial measures. There were invitations to trips to various parts of the country to see even more celebrated astrologers. There was a lot of sighing and disbelief and the customary display of empathy and there was the odd casting off of such baloney. “You must take a second opinion,” advised her elder sister, who also lived in Bhopal. “I’ll refer my astrologer to you,” she added.
So, Sarla Chatterjee showed that particular horoscope to the second astrologer. The outcome was the same. But the new pundit asked her to get a yagna performed to avert the disaster. “There is always a remedy,” he assured. “The ceremony is a bit elaborate and will cost you but it will help your son survive. And, obviously, he will have to be present during the prayers.”
Therefore, Sarla wanted her son to be present for the occasion.
The neighbours had been invited to participate in the ‘welfare prayers.’ Relatives were to pour in. On D-day, the house was full of smoke and the fragrance of burning incense sticks pervaded every nook and cranny. Wishes were to be sent up, heavenward. Four pundits, led by their chief, threw a lot of paraphernalia into the holy fire, and chanted mantras. Shonin had to take the first half of the day off and put up with every ritual. At the end of three hours, the pundits declared that all was well now. And, Shonin left for work.
By the time the next week dawned upon the household, Sarla Chatterjee had arranged for a driver to take her eldest child to his office. “This is just a temporary measure. Once the fateful day passes us by, I will let you drive on your own,” she told her son.
Meanwhile she kept in touch with the new pundit and kept getting tips from him. Shonin was forced to wear amulets and stones for protection. His mother also tried to smear his forehead with some ash one morning as he was leaving for work. “There is no shame in this,” she said, as he protested. “Is there any shame in being religious?” she asked, as he wiped it off.
Things were getting quite unmanageable for Shonin. His peers and staff wondered why he was wearing several red and yellow threads on his right wrist; why he looked distracted and as to why his mother had begun calling him half a dozen times each day at work. She also sent several figurines of Gods and Goddesses to his office and asked his assistant to place them on his table. Not many Indians would find it in themselves to remove them. At home, everyone was reciting the Mahamrityunjay Mantra to keep death at bay.
D-day was to fall on Friday, but on Wednesday, Shonin’s mother took ill. It must have been the strain. Perforce, he had to pitch in. He called in sick. Every time he would make a move to leave the house, he would get a sob story. Come Thursday, his mother’s condition deteriorated. She had high fever and she was delirious. Once again, Shonin had to stay home.
On Friday, the man got dressed up for work. Word got to his mother and she called out for him. “You will leave this house only over my dead body,” she warned him. “Ma, I’ve already missed two days of work,” he said.
But she would not relent. She cried ’til her eyes were red and swollen so Shonin stayed home.
D-day had almost passed him by. His father maintained a stoic attitude. His mother was nervous. His wife was pale. There was very little noise in the house but his mother had been quietly reciting mantras all day. Everyone was waiting for the sun to set upon this unwelcome episode when the new pundit called at their house.
“Have you been reciting the mantra?” the pundit asked Shonin.
He had not done that.
“This is not good,” said the pundit.
Bored with all the commotion, Shonin stepped out onto the balcony for some fresh air. It was windy. Lighting up a cigarette, he looked at the houses on the other side of the road. His neighbours on the floor above his had laid out their clothes to dry on the balcony and a saree, which was hanging there, kept flapping at his face.
“I feel like a fool,” he thought. “Why did I give in to this absurdity?” he asked himself.
The astrologer joined him on the balcony. “Oh. Chatterjee Saab. Please do not fret. All this was done for your benefit and to protect you from harm. And now the day is almost gone. It is just a matter of a few hours,” he assured.
He pulled hard at the saree which had flown into his face for the tenth time, meaning to get it off the string. The punditji stepped forward to help him out. “Let me do this for you. You might end up tearing up the garment.”
The astrologer gave it another pull. A brick, which had kept the cloth from flying away, came crashing upon the pundit and hit him on the head. He died instantly.
dhoti: men’s garment worn instead of trousers in rural India.
Durga: Indian Goddess
kurta: loose shirt worn by Indian men
mantra: A sound, a syllable or a group of words capable of creating a spiritual transformation
Mahamritunjay Mantra: The Death Conquering Mantra, chanted to keep death at bay
pundit(ji): astrologer (‘-ji’ is added to show respect)
sans: without (French).
saree: a women’s garment from India
yagna: sacrificial prayer
Illustration by Alan Van Every
Sangita P. Menon Malhan is an Indian writer born in 1967, who began her life journey by training to be a pilot but shifted careers in her mid-twenties and became a journalist, in New Delhi. In 2008, she veered towards writing fiction. Her first book, a collection of short stories for children, Rastapherian’s Tales, was published in 2010. Her second collection, set in the hills of India, is aimed at adults and delves into complex emotions, fears and insecurities.
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