Thursday, May 03, 2007

Negotiating Chennai

Shore Temple (Mahabalipuram), September 2005

Marina Beach (Chennai), September 2005

Though astrology forms an important part of society all over India, I am in Chennai to explore the Nadi astrologers who are unique to South India. These astrologers claim to be custodians of ancient palm leaf manuscripts that were originally scribed by sages known as Rishis. Though based in Vaitheeswarankoil in Central Tamil Nadu, many have moved to Chennai in recent years. The sages claimed that they had put down a prophecy for nearly every soul in the world, of their time and later. If there is one for you, you find your way to one of the sage’s descendants, and if not, well! there was never a prediction meant for you. Reading the tales of earlier visitors getting their car breakdowns before they reached the town of Vaitheeswarankoil, losing their way into the town or ‘mysteriously’ running into a Nadi astrologer has always fascinated me. So I ask my local hosts to do the ‘reconnaissance’ for me before I arrive in the city.

Chennai is overwhelming and clich├ęd as it may sound, very, very foreign. Compared to other Indian cities it is very conservative, and while I am in the city, students at the Anna University were protesting the stricter dress codes being imposed upon them. As Chennai prepared for the upcoming Bharatiya Janata Party’s National Executive meeting in the city, where the party would most probably lock horns with the ‘parent’ organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, I was more involved in arranging matters of a more ‘celestial’ kind searching for a Nadi astrologer. I am running out of time and cannot wait till my name edges on the waiting list of a more popular one.

On the morning of the meeting, Barnali, who is putting me up confesses that she is sceptical about the whole process; and also knowing how conservative the community is, I should keep the Pathan (read Muslim) of the Aneela on the low .... unsure as she is whether they would search for a prediction about a ‘non-believer’. Our particular astrologer lives in a sleepy by-lane in a Chennai residential area. As we take off our shoes, I see a ceramic relief of the Khana-e-Kaba put up on a wall, further inside is a crucifix, so contrary to what Barnali was preparing me for this Nadi has no 'racial profiling' in place for his business. The astrologer puts down mine and my mother’s name in his register, the combination of my Punjabi sounding name and my mother’s anglicized one makes him wonder for a minute. For all practical purposes he concludes that I am a good little Hindu revert, and looks approvingly. The next order of business is to take a print of my left thumb. This will be matched with those on the ancient palm leaves to find a match and a corresponding prophecy for me. As I am left to pore over a one-page list of generic questions that I would like him to answer, the astrologer retreats to a back room to pray to his gods before he looks for a match. The minutes tick by as Barnali and me dissect the list of questions to have a better insight into what the average Chennai housewife is worried about. His prayers done, I am invited to sit in his office while he searches for an audio cassette player, the one that should have recorded my session (the price involves an audio recording of the prophecy, if any of The Post readers are interested!) has stopped operating. While he searches for the palm leaf and probably a player, I while away my time in his office. An audio recording of prayer chants in the background. Flowers, most probably from his morning prayer, are placed reverently on every ‘technical’ or ‘work’ instrument -- the telephone, his pen, his books, aah! none on the errant cassette player, so that’s the culprit! After fifteen minutes he pants his way into the room and mops the sweat off his forehead. Searching for palm leaves is perhaps a strenuous business, and asks me to return the next day. There isn’t a match for me in his offices, but if he sends one of his students to the temple town of Vaitheeswarankoil, I might have a reading later in the week. It is impossible for me to negotiate my departure from the city and so I leave him disappointed. For a) who wouldn’t like to know what evils they have committed in a previous life, b) would commit in the next, what prayers they should follow to atone for their past and future sins, c) how many siblings do they really have, yes that caught my interest when we went through the list, and finally how many cycles of birth left to go before reaching nirvana....I didnt want to find out I was entering my last cycle what with episodes of Season 10 for Frasier left to go.

I spend the afternoon pursuing my ONE TRUE LOVE that has never let me down (unlike Indian astrologers who failed to include me as they were cataloguing souls).... I am in Chennai’s film studios. Though the MGR Film Studio, which I really wanted to explore is one big parking lot at the moment, the AVM studio which was still open for business was not a disappointment after all. The film industry in South India is the largest in India, though most of the business in Chennai has moved to the Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad. Film stars are big in South India, with many a devoted fan building a temple for their favourite star. Many retired film stars become politicians. MGR and Jayalalitha have been Tamil Nadu’s Chief Ministers in recent times. On the afternoon of my visit, I am lucky to see three productions (though horribly B-grade) on the floors. As I sign my name for a security pass, I scan the list for earlier visitors; surprisingly most of them are from Nordic countries. Many of them have been roped in as extras; if you are very lucky you can be an ‘evil’ British soldier, who can punch the male protagonist in the stomach. I follow the street signs to different sets; there is a ‘rich man’s house’, a ‘police station’, ‘poor man’s street’ and the omnipresent Central Jail and court building. A portly convict with the most amazing moustache and gold chains sweats his way from a police van and repeats the shot patiently till he gets it just right. A crowd of visitors jostle to get a closer look; he is apparently a local star, and will we be seeing him at the Chief Minister’s residence in the near future? Bricks in most cases weigh down the film equipment; many of them are working on limited budgets in the film city. Behind me, an over bleached gangster’s moll is part of a scene of revelry being shot on ‘poor man’s street’. After every shot of her being generously drenched by watered down tea masquerading as beer, she chastely puts on a shabby terry cloth dressing gown and morosely sits in the corner picking her hair. However, when I see the screen captures on the director’s TV screen, her face is lit up with an inner glow and she goes through her steps enthusiastically.

The Marina Beach in Chennai is the only quiet spot I can retreat to in the morning, and locals describe the day the tsunami took early morning joggers and swimmers unawares. After some time, the city sounds and pollution reach me. I am exhausted deciphering the city’s chaos and beat a hasty retreat to Mahabalipuram just two hours drive away. Mahabalipuram, with its beautiful rock sculptures and Pallava influences is awe-inspiring. A Bihari security guard lets me photograph the famous shore temple even though it’s near closing hours and his superiors are bellowing in the background. He sees me as a quasi-comrade, as I am not South Indian and complains about the host community and the food. He misses his earlier job at the port, working for a firm importing cars. He has most probably tried smuggling some of the pieces of the now disused temple; alas! they seem too heavy for him to budge. A Bohra family gingerly steps its way into the sea. As the sun sets, the universe seems at peace for a second.

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