Girish Sreenivas is a short story writer and short filmmaker based in San Francisco, California. He hopes one day to drop the adjective 'short' from the previous sentence. His Tamil work has been featured in the magazines Mangayar Malar and Thendral.
The Astrologer’s Assistant
“That’s my seat.”
I looked up from my copy of Stardust, abashed. An old man with a bristly, unapologetic beard shaped much like the Indian peninsula stared down at me.
“Could you remove your bag from my seat please?”
“The compartment’s pretty empty,” I ventured, hoping the man would take a hint.
“But this is my seat.”
I transferred my backpack to the overhead rack, and distracted myself with the Stardust cover story: a popular actress found emerging from an abortion clinic claimed she was only visiting her childhood friend, a nurse; however, the journalist had a source claiming that she’d been a little too friendly with an actor whose name rhymed with…
“She’s lying, you know,” interrupted the old man.
“The journalist or the actress?” I asked.
“Oh, they both are.”
I turned the page.
“What is your good name, thambi?” he asked, interrupting my preoccupation with the amorous misadventures of a pop sensation.
“How far are you going?”
“Oh, so am I! Do you go there very often? Visiting the temple?”
“My parents are there.”
“Ah, your parents. That must be nice…” he said.
“… to have parents.”
I wasn’t sure what to do with my head anymore.
“No, no, how could you know? I was fourteen when I ran away from school. But that’s a long story.”
I played with my earlobes.
He appeared to take this as a sign of interest.”My parents had a huge fight when I was about eleven. I didn’t know what it was about, you never know at that age. After it ended, my father’s sobs made their way into the bedroom. My mother came to lie down next to me, and I pretended to be asleep, afraid she might turn on me next. She packed me off to boarding school within a week, a large convent in a village along the coast.
“Father wrote to me every week, but I didn’t hear from Mother again. He told me things were getting better, but not to come home for Dussehra that year. Eventually, he stopped mentioning home altogether, and we’d only talk about cricket, school, his business. He never mentioned Mother, and neither did I. I wish I had.
“To be honest, I was happy to be away from her. My teachers were nice that first year, and they spoke the most amazing English. And they wouldn’t hit us unless we did something especially bad, like chew gum in Maths class.
“Then came Father Chinnapparaj. He became headmaster my second year. Walk past him with your shoes unpolished and you couldn’t get out of bed the next day. That scoundrel… he should’ve been dragged through the streets for that kind of violence, but it’s surprising what you can get away with if you walk around wearing a cassock. You know what they say about religion?”
“It’s what keeps the poor from murdering the rich. Napoleon.”
“You’re well read,” I said, surprised.
He laughed, absent-mindedly combing his beard with his hand.
“A man is but what he reads, isn’t he?”
I surreptitiously moved my hand over the Stardust page, restoring the honour of a young maiden who had misplaced most of her clothing. The train pulled up at its next station, and I occupied myself with the scene outside: porters jostling for room on the platform alongside mothers juggling their babies in one arm and their luggage in the other, all while weaving through a group of pilgrims whose songs were unintentionally lullabying the valiant souls trying to sleep on the floor.
“Oh, I read a lot of books after running away. There has to be a common energy to the universe, some of them said. This order can’t come from nothing,” he chuckled, pointing outside. “By the time I was your age, I realized they were right. But the answer wasn’t God. I understood what the world was really about. Power. The lust for it. Behind every action by someone who matters, that’s the one guiding light. Think about it.”
I tried not to, but the chaos of the station wasn’t enough of a distraction.
“… Chinnapparaj was my first inspiration, what would I have done without him? The rich men of the village donated more to the school under his reign than they ever had. And yet they’d squirm under his gaze just like us. Superstitions and religion – the means to real power. Only a desperate fool would dabble in them.”
I stared outside the window.
“I see you’re bored. This deranged old man is babbling nonsense. I understand.”
“Oh, not at all sir! What were you doing when you were my age?”
“I was an astrologer’s assistant.”
I lost hold of my magazine and it plunged beneath the seat in front of me.
“I’d ended up in a small town, where anything and everything revolved around its ancient temple.
“My Guru was a popular man. How grand and virtuous he looked in an elegant veshti with a white shawl over his bare shoulders. His office was just a room in his house with a large table and three chairs, and it looked like a puja room, so many pictures of gods on the walls!
“He’d build on this energy, always starting out by making guests comfortable and happy. They were going to lead a carefree life…except for the close friend who would betray their trust for his own gains. Or their daughter’s decision to elope. But no, not to worry – just recite a special mantra a thousand and eight times twice a day for seven months.
“I’d see a look of resolution coming over the poor fools’ faces, fully prepared to step outside and fix their erring ways. But could they really pull it off? Did they have the time or self-control?
“That’s when he’d throw them a life vest, that genius! He knew some ascetics living in the forest who could perform the prayers, and send the benefits their way. Payment? No, no! They wouldn’t think of charging for this. Of course, they needed food for the seven months, and special prayer items, but they would only accept a donation given with piety. Not much, 15,000 rupees should cover it. No cheques.
“All through this, I’d be standing right behind his chair, ready to get him or his guests anything they needed. Oh, how much I loved him! He was like a father to me.
“He even got me married, just like a real father would. You should’ve seen my wife back then, entering my Guru’s house in a red sari. I thought Goddess Mahalakshmi herself had leaped out of a picture on my Guru’s wall. He must have noticed how I looked at her, how my expression changed when I realized they were searching for a horoscope to match with hers. He noticed everything in that room! He told her father that hers was a rare horoscope, that her husband would rule his field, and she’d lead a life of luxury. After a few weeks, he said he knew of a boy whose horoscope was just right– me.
“Her father didn’t buy it for a second. But he took the horoscope my Guru gave him to other astrologers, and we did match! We were married within a month.
“I could never repay my Guru for that. But I was young, I was restless… I had ideas of my own for how he could increase his influence. When I went to him with those ideas, he flew into a rage, and threw me out of his office. He didn’t realize that if you stop moving, someone else will not just overtake you, but shove you to the side of the road. I was too loyal to let a stranger do that to him.”
He paused here. Caterers had burst into the compartment to serve lunch, waking up dozing babies and destroying their parents’ peace of mind.
“What did you do to help him?” I prodded.
He turned around to look at me. I could barely hear his response in the din: “I killed him.”
I gaped at him.
He played nonchalantly with his food for a few minutes before setting down a small white stone resembling an idli. He turned to me. “I’m not a perfect man, Hari. I’ve done horrible th…”
“How did you kill him?”
He frowned. I caught my breath.
“Simple.” His tone was casual. “A bit of rat’s poison in the food my wife cooked for him one night, and we lit his funeral pyre the next morning. Within a year of my marriage, my Guru’s prophecy had come true. His kingdom was in my hands. And I couldn’t wait to build my own empire.”
“On my very first day, I walked into a local construction site and pulled away all the little boys working there. I gave them a job: track the taxis pulling into town. Once the rich passengers left for the temple, the boys’ job was to talk to the drivers. And once the rich people returned, the drivers would go, ‘Oh, you have come this far sir and madam, how can you not go to Sri Ramanujar Astrology Centre? Everyone goes there straight from the temple. He is very famous, speaks God’s words. I have reserved a place for you in line.’ The drivers were very persuasive; my boys promised them a hot meal and a few hundred rupees if they brought their passengers to my doorstep.
“I threw away my Guru’s table and leather chair, everyone had to sit with me on a simple mat laid on the floor. People would have to leave not just their chappals outside, but their cell phones too. My men then looked through their phones and signalled details to me when they brought in free chai.
“Let me buy you some chai. No? Sure?
“And I kept reading. Oh, how much I read! Every kind of spiritual book out there, written by men even more cunning than I. I turned to the scriptures– the Vedas, the Upanishads, copying down mystical lines for use in my own consultations.
“Within five years, I was the most popular astrologer in town.
“But I wasn’t satisfied. That’s the thing about craving power, you’re never done, you never know when to stop, there’s no ceiling to how far you think you can go. For my next move – I involved the temple itself.
“Every time a devotee entered the main sanctum with a Ramanujar Astrology Centre bag in their hands, the priests knew what they were there for. If the bag was red, filled with hibiscus and bananas, the priests would go, ‘Oh he is here to pray for a son.’ A green bag signified marriage problems, an orange bag some kind of disease. The priests would say exactly what I’d diagnosed for the devotees in my house. Over time, I fine-tuned the program until my priests could identify money troubles, bad supervisors, problems with your unmentionables, any number of specific things. In return, I made them rich men.
“Oh, it was wonderful! I made a lot of people worry about little things, lose their peace of mind and their sleep. I broke off engagements because the girl’s parents didn’t pay me enough, I took money from some who had it and many who didn’t, I gave them needless hope and I… I ruined lives. Many lives. Destroyed people. Destroyed them.
“That’s why I left it all behind.” His voice started to quaver as his words grew emotional.
“You’re not an astrologer anymore?”
“What do you do now?”
“But what made you give it up?”
“I couldn’t sleep anymore.”
“Is that really why?”
His eyes grew red. When he spoke, his voice was softer than before, and still shaking– but with anger.
“My wife wouldn’t let me. She nagged me, went on and on and on. She said I’d become soft with age. That I’d become the sort of man I used to spit on. I didn’t bring in the same kind of money after she visited me. She broke me, broke everything I thought I understood about the world.”
“Who visited?” I ventured.
“It was a normal day when Mother came, and I had a mass of visitors in my waiting room. I was tired of sitting cross-legged in my room and decided to step outside. That’s when I saw her.
“She was almost unrecognizable. Not at all the proud woman I remembered. But she gave me one look and I felt something shoot through me, bringing back all those memories of being terrorized as a child.
“My assistant Karikaalan saw the way I looked at her, and told me she had come a long way after hearing of my powers. I returned to my office and shut the door, regretting for the first time not having a chair to sink into.
“I ordered Karikaalan to bring two chairs into the room, and let the old woman in. She could barely walk.
“‘Please sit, amma,’ I said. I called all old women amma. She didn’t recognize me. I’d changed more than her, grown a long beard and wild hair, looking nothing like the fourteen-year-old who ran away. She wasn’t wearing a pottu, so I knew Father was no more. This jolted me. I hadn’t thought of him for years, for decades maybe. I felt very… I felt something I hadn’t experienced before. I felt like locking myself up in a room and screaming. I think it was grief?
“She said she wanted to hear about her son. She’d lived to a long age, outlasting her husband, but she didn’t know where her son was. She handed me his horoscope. My real horoscope. When I looked at it, a beast locked up inside of me for all those years burst out.
“I told her it was a tragic horoscope. The boy had probably died, and even if he were alive, he must be begging for alms outside of a temple no one visited. She burst into tears, and I felt better for a few seconds.
“Then she started hitting her chest. She said everything had been good in her life at one point. She’d had a good husband, an obedient son. Then her husband had found another woman and wanted to leave them both. She’d sent her son to boarding school so he wouldn’t have to live through that kind of hell, and worked odd jobs to pay his school fees. Her husband eventually married the other woman. She’d never heard from her son again, realizing years later that her husband hadn’t posted the letters she wrote him. She said when she went looking for him at the school…”
I looked away to let him wipe his eyes without my scrutiny.
“After she left, something changed inside of me. The man I’d considered God was a villain, and the woman I’d hated was… I didn’t know what she was! Of what use was my judgement? I couldn’t do my normal work anymore. I turned to my books, because I had nothing else. The Vedas, the Upanishads. Except this time around, the philosophical lines struck a chord deep inside of me. They helped me understand.
“I started letting my clients go, telling them their futures were bright and their children would rule the world. And suddenly, I didn’t receive as many visitors anymore. Funny how the world works, isn’t it?” He laughed then, the joyless laugh of irony.
“Karikaalan, my loyal sishya – he was the first to notice this change. He smelt opportunity. With that, my days were numbered, just like my Guru’s had been.
“I tried convincing my wife to leave everything behind. We could move away to a small town, taking just what we needed to survive, and live out our years trying to undo our sins. I’d leave marked passages of the Upanishads open on her dressing table, hoping she’d read and reflect.
“She brought in a doctor to have me checked.
“That was my biggest mistake with that way of life. You have to surround yourself with vultures to rise. And if for a second you start to behave like your prey, they turn on you.
“As I walked back to my room after closing up shop last night, I heard some whispers from the kitchen. It was Karikaalan and my wife. They were talking about my dinner. And rat poison.
“I went to my bedroom and meditated. This would be an easy way to let things finish. But then I thought of what Karikaalan would do with my money.
“I invited him to have dinner with us. I paid some of my taxi-chasing boys to burst crackers, a ten thousand wala, right at our front door after we started. When Karikaalan and my wife went to see what the commotion was all about, I switched my plate with his.
“Later that night, as he convulsed in pain, my wife phoned for the ambulance and was by his side. I packed everything up, even the gold hidden away behind the pictures of Gods in my office. I opened up the Bhagavad Gita, and stuck a note over a highlighted passage. You must have read it somewhere? ‘Who everywhere is free from all ties, who neither rejoices nor sorrows if fortune is good or ill, his is a serene wisdom.’
“I walked with my bag all night to reach the closest train station, and bought a ticket to Thirupathi.
“I will leave everything I have at the Lord’s feet. And then I’ll shave my head and beg for His forgiveness.”
“And what will you do after?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find my mother. ”
He turned towards me, and the corners of his beard rose a little. He was smiling.
“I’ve never told anyone the full story of my life before. It’s liberating. I haven’t felt this way in a while. I think… I think I can sleep now. Thank you for listening, Hari.”
“I have one last favour to ask of you. I don’t think my wife would let me go like this, without a fight. And I don’t know what’s become of Karikaalan. I’m not yet safe.”
He closed his eyes, and his words grew muffled.
“If you happen to see the police outside your window, walking around in a group or just a single policeman loitering on the platform, could you wake me up? Even if it seems like they’re not doing anything. Just wake me up. If you can, I would be very, very grateful.”
I walked to the compartment entrance, meaning to disembark at the next station to buy a new magazine. As I leaned outside the door, I spotted a group of police constables milling around the station sign. I hesitated before running back to my seat. I shook the man awake.
He jerked up and looked at me with blank eyes. Then he was up in a flash, grabbing his large black bag, turning around and sprinting away without a word. I wish I’d asked for his name.
The train stayed at that station for an abnormally long time. I pulled my bag down from the overhead rack to my former companion’s seat and waited, trying to quell my restless legs.
The men who charged into our compartment wore police uniforms.
“Have you seen this man?” a constable asked in three languages, going seat to seat and holding out a photograph.
Before I could respond, the woman sitting across the aisle from me shouted, “He was sitting in that seat! That one!”
“Where did he go?”
“He ran out through the back! There!”
And with that, the majority of policemen shot out of the compartment, their lathis waving in the air.
“What did he do?” I asked the constable carrying the picture.
“Oh, he’s a terrible man, a crook of the first order! He was a fake sanyasi, a swindler. He was about to be exposed last night by his assistant, so he poisoned him, beat up his wife, and escaped with her jewels. We received a tip that he’s on this train.”
“It’s men like him that give religion a bad name!” sputtered the woman two seats away, and I saw a lot of bald heads swaying in self-righteous agreement across the compartment.
“You sat right next to him, did you speak to him at all?” the constable asked me.
“Only about Stardust,” I swallowed. “Is his assistant d–”
The train started to move, and the constable rushed off.