When it Rains, it Pours
The rain had stopped and the sun reemerged brutally fierce, rapidly quelling the effects of a weak afternoon shower. Freshly bathed by the warm rain and drenched by the heat of the triumphant sun, the colors of the grass, leaves, and earth exploded in bold vibrancy. The air was steamier and hotter than before and any lingering memory of the rain quickly evaporated. Enormous black crows shook off droplets of water from their feathers cawing loudly and scouring the ground with piercing beady black eyes while pecking at unsuspecting worms that had been laid bare by the downpour.
Adiyodi curtly nodded at his client and brusquely told her to sit. The widow meekly sat without a word clutching her money in her boney fist. “Thank goodness she is not my first client today. A widow, first thing in the morning, would have ruined my business for the day,” Adiyodi thought to himself as he prepared to sit. Typical of a widow, Meenakshi wore no jewelry and her sari, which was of the customary dull brown color worn by widows, was duller still and torn at the edges. The tightness with which she gripped his fees in her work-worn hands displayed her reluctance to part with something that was clearly scarce.
Adiyodi, the wizened old fortune teller, scattered the cowry shells or chozhi with a certain disdain that comes through years of experience in delving into the unknown that held no mysteries for him. The masses that came to him showed him the reverence that was close to what they reserved for the divine as he held the answers for many of their fortunes and misfortunes. He guided them towards happiness, wealth and well-being and told them how to deal with their circumstances. So Adiyodi’s condescension when he literally flung his shells to uncover answers was borne from years of being told that he was accurate in his predictions. If at all he was wrong, it was not his fault but that of quirky planets that refused to succumb to the soothsayer’s scrutiny and chose instead to play games with unsuspecting mortals.
The soothsayer was from a long line of astrologers who specialized in the art of reading chozhi. The astrologer would study the pattern in which the cowry shells or chozhi fell when he threw them, and it was this pattern that revealed the destiny of a client. He had learned this ancient art from his father who had learned it from his father who had, in turn, learned it from his ancestors. Adiyodi was not a native of this remote village. And so, his skills and powers were all the more intriguing to the other villagers who been born and raised there for generations, and who knew little or nothing outside of farming and village gossip.
Everything that the villagers knew about him was hearsay. The stories about his skill in reading the future and about his dabbling in black magic had grown as they were passed around from person to person. His grandfather had been so well-known for his skill in the art of reading chozhi that he had often been summoned to the Rajah’s court. He had, in fact, earned most of the wealth that had been handed down to his grandson, while serving the Rajah. There was a rumor in the village that the Rajah had not stepped out of his place without consulting Adiyodi’s grandfather. The one time that he had, he had been struck by a mysterious illness, which had eventually led to his death.
The villagers swore by Adiyodi’s skills. The aura of mystery that surrounded him was heightened by his aloof, even somewhat fearsome demeanor and his steadfast reluctance to engage in trivial niceties and conversations with the other villagers. He even lived in a secluded part of the already remote village. A vague rumor that he practiced black magic there added to his inscrutable image, while deepening the secrecy that surrounded him and increasing the value of his predictions. Shrouded by enigma, and perceived with fear by the villagers, his predictions sounded like the words of the Almighty. Adiyodi himself never denied or accepted the gossip since it helped his business to flourish.
A large, fat gecko that had stopped moving for some unknown reason began to lazily show signs of life. The widow, Meenakshi watched the lizard as it moved slowly and disappeared behind a picture of Kali standing in all her glorious ferocity and then glanced nervously at Adiyodi who sat silently counting with his fingers with his eyes tightly closed. The air that hung heavy with moisture and a sense of foreboding was almost suffocating. Meenakshi forced herself to remember all the slokas that she had learned from her grandmother and recited them repeatedly in her mind, her heart beating mercilessly fast within her weak frame.
The humidity in the air slowly but surely began to appear as small beads of perspiration on Meenakshi’s brow. The heat and her anxiety caused these beads to rapidly increase and trickle down the sides of her once gently beautiful face. She used the end of her faded sari to wipe her face before pulling it closely around herself. It was important that she be seen by the astrologer and anyone else who might see her alone in the company of this man that she was nothing more than a poor, hapless widow dependent on the largesse of her brother and his wife.
The scent of freshly soaked earth and grass, the suffocating odor of damp wood and the pungent redolence of incense sticks burning in front of the huge picture of Kali inside Adiyodi’s house, swirled around in a wild confusion of smells while adding to the growing feeling of anxiety in Meenakshi. The fortuneteller frowned deeply and his eyes sprang open to stare sternly at the shells, willing them to tell him the truth. Meenakshi looked at him nervously hoping to glean something from his expression.
As was usually the case with Adiyodi, he said nothing until he was sure of what he read. He had looked up at her directly only once to ask what her son’s zodiac sign was. Her response had for some reason made the frown deepen on his forehead. Beads of perspiration had begun to appear on his bald head before the frown on his forehead dissolved and left in its place a look of deep contemplation. He made some quick calculations with the fingers on his right hand before closing his eyes again to think and with his fingers, to count, again.
Despite the anxiety that was gnawing painfully at her, Meenakshi could not but help notice how stumpy and chubby Adiyodi’s fingers were. As she reproached herself silently for the frivolous and irreverent digression of her thoughts, Adiyodi’s expression softened and slowly, a semblance of a smile appeared. He picked up an old, once white towel that lay crumpled next to him and wiped his face and head before he took a deep breath and released it loudly. He slowly looked up at Meenakshi and met her tense but expectant demeanor with his piercing gaze.
Meenakshi wet her lips and returned his look trying hard to hide the fear that she felt. On the one hand, she was desperately hopeful that her son would see success and that she would be able to get out of her brother’s home and away from his charity. On the other hand, it seemed like it was too much to ask. What if God felt she was greedy and avaricious? He had at least given her a brother to take care of her. He could have just as well left her a homeless vagrant on the streets with her children, scrambling for one meal in a temple or chattaram. But there was no harm in hoping and hope cannot be construed as avarice, surely. As these thoughts spun around in her head confusing her and adding to her nervousness, Adiyodi cleared his throat and began to speak.
His gruff voice cracked through the thick clammy air of the still afternoon. He spoke for a few minutes about the different positions of the planets and their movements, providing information that was meaningless to Meenakshi as she didn’t understand it. Most people didn’t. Saturn could move into the third house and Jupiter could move into the eighth house and Mercury could stay where he was. It didn’t make any difference to her. If her eyes widened with consternation it was only because she worried about how all these movements would affect her son and his life. She listened deferentially and held her breath till he finally began explaining what the planets and their positions meant and would mean for her son in the future.
The first thing he said felt like a sudden gust of cold wind in that hot, suffocating afternoon. “Your son will not live in this village for long. His life is beyond the shores of this country. He will make his fortune in cooking or some job that has to do with fire. Nothing to worry. He will be a rich man. But he will never come back to live here.” Meenakshi released the breath that she had been holding with an almost audible sigh. Adiyodi talked a little bit more about Rangan’s life and what he could read from the position of the shells but Meenakshi had stopped listening. She had heard what she had fervently wanted to hear. Her son’s life would be better than hers and that of her husband’s and that was enough for her. It gave her enough strength and desire to continue living her life of dependence in her brother’s house.
As soon as Meenakshi left his little hut, Adiyodi sat back and stared at the shells. As gruff and unfeeling as he preferred to be seen, there was a very small part of him that still felt the warmth of compassion for people. He felt a slight pang of pity for the woman who had just handed him what was probably a large part of the only money she possessed. He thought of the woman’s son who was destined for a large amount of wealth and a comfortable life in a foreign land and how he would probably never return to his native village. The soothsayer shrugged and smiled cynically. “How can I tell this widow that she is never going to see her son live well? He will be lighting a funeral pyre very soon,” he said to himself as he put his shells away.
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