Michel works in the private sector, in the renewable energy industry. He has a masters degree in literature, with a focus on early twentieth-century European novels, as well as a masters in business administration. His freelance writing has previously been published in British, Argentinian, and Indian publications, including the Buenos Aires Herald in Argentina and the Business Standard in India. He is based in New York City.
Shalini’s father’s younger brother – or her chacha, to make use of Indian genealogical vocabulary that cuts finely enough to afford unique labels for each type of uncle based on their point of entry into the family tree – is a psychiatrist. He specializes in treating patients who are contending with the mental echoes from their past lives.
I met him on an overnight train ride from Delhi to the far west of India. Shalini and her husband Amaresh are dear friends who had invited me to join them on the occasion of her brother Saurabh’s wedding to a woman from Rajasthan. I was in the company of nearly a hundred family members for this journey. The operation of boarding the crowd into the train and tending to their needs over the thirteen hours was administered by Shalini’s father, the president of a steel company. I had never been under this man’s employment, nor could I understand a word of his Hindi, yet whenever he spoke, his voice orotund and authoritative, I wondered if I shouldn’t make myself busy smelting iron ore – or whatever it is that workers at steel factories are supposed to be doing when their boss is watching.
In the lavatory of the train, making unsteady attempts to urinate through the hole in the floor between my feet while I swayed to the train’s clatter, I momentarily raised my head to catch sight of the advertisement affixed to the back of the lavatory door: “Guaranteed hot stock tip! Think big, strike high! 5,346 millionaires made with our jackpot tips! Email now: Indian-share-tips.com.” I slept in the train on an overhead cot, elevated above, as if emanating from, the prostrate body of a snoring Hindu priest.
The night before the train ride, the family gathered for the sangeet, the traditional ceremony before the wedding in which friends and family entertain the soon-to-be couple with performances. Shalini and Amaresh had written a comic play about Saurabh’s courtship of his bride. They asked me to play the role of an iPad-bearing astrologer who studies the heavens for propitious signs of his marriage. My character was a mute (Shalini and Amaresh’s tidy solution for my deficiency with Hindi), so I was accompanied on stage by a spokesperson lackey, played by Shalini’s garrulous, amply-sized cousin Ankit.
I can’t say much about reincarnation; Jewish people try to believe in different things, and in different endings. But if the Hindus have it right, and if there is some profound verity to Shalini’s chacha’s claim that the iterations of our past lives make themselves somehow manifest in our present incarnation, then I suppose I could do worse than to have once been an Indian astrologer.
Not just any astrologer, however. I like to think I would have been known across the land, from as far down as the Dandaka Forest to as high as up as the insurmountable Himalayas, and throughout the kingdoms that drew their life from the holy Ganga as it flowed to the sea, as an especially wise and gentle mystic, proffering penetrating, if also sometimes enigmatic, words to the pilgrims who trekked great distances to seek my counsel.
“Less vegetables for him,” I would advise the concerned parents who had brought before me their prematurely malcontented boy. “Beware of girls born under skies with an ascendant Moon…,” I would caution a desperate romantic who confessed to having had fallen in love too many times, “…or, for that matter, a descendant one.” To a crestfallen farmer who had seen his crop of papaya spoil that season, I would say, “The day will soon come when the bodyless dragon Rahu will consume the Sun. Start not your new plantings then, but on the morning after.” And then, unthinking, the words parting from me as the reverberations of a memory whose source I cannot quite place, I would add, “Remember, think big, strike high!”
Once an astrologer, now resurrected as a skeptical tourist – these ruminations had begun as the train shot through nighttime in the desert of northwest India, on our way to the wedding. I find myself still clinging to this thought a week later, in a hotel room in Houston, where I had come directly for a business meeting after my vacation in India.
I’m standing on the scale in the hotel bathroom. If ever there was a trip that would result in a weight gain, this one – in which I had spent a week coping with the instruction that it’s rude to refuse when members of the bridal party offer to feed you buttery sweets directly from their hands into your mouth – would be it. Yet I’ve lost three pounds. “There are truths on this side of the Pyrenees,” wrote Pascal, “which are considered falsehoods on the other.” Outside, on this early December night in south Texas, the temperature is in the fifties, and Jupiter is in transit through constellation Pisces…
May we all live in auspicious times.