Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Unlucky Man

Mukund was traveling from Jamnagar to Bombay (as Mumbai was called back then) in a third class compartment with 2 letters, a matriculation certificate, a pair of clothes and almost no money. The year was 1942, and India was in midst of turmoil with the struggle for freedom against the British Empire, and the world was involved in the World War.

Mukund was always thought of to be unlucky. He was born on Amavaysa (No Moon Night), considered extremely inauspicious. In Brahmin families those days, it seemed that your fate was written, depending on the position of planets at the time you were born. With a inauspicious horoscope, this poor boy was pitied on by relatives and neighbours for having now future.
Nor was he extremely bright boy at school. He failed his Matriculation examinations (in English and Mathematics no less). But that year the Queen of Jamnagar delivered a son (and an heir to the throne of the princely state under the British Raj) - and all students appearing for the exams were declared pass with grace marks, including Mukund.

Mukund was married off to another Brahmin girl, and the reason his father-in-law had agreed to accept him as a groom for his daughter was that he had graduated from high school. (Apparently no one mentioned that his passing the examination was under special circumstances, and so was the exact nature of his "inauspicious" time of birth)

A year post his marriage, Mukund continued to remain unemployed, and lived of his fathers income. His wife lost their first child to illness (in a time when infant mortality was common). Then tragedy struck again, when his father die of tuberculosis, leaving Mukund to fend for his family (his wife, his mother, 3 younger brothers and a sister). Everyone blamed it on his stars.
Unable to find a job in Jamnagar, an older relative suggested, he go to the metropolis of Bombay, to try out his luck there. It was said, anyone who was willing to work could find employment there.

Mukund was sent to Bombay, with some money, and a one way train ticket. He was travelling to a city 1000 km away, where he knew no one. He was also carrying two letters, which were written by a the relative. One was addressed to a distant relative, saying that Mukund was a Brahmin from a good family, and please provide him with lodging and boarding for a short while, till he finds a job. The other was to some one working in Scindia Steam Navigation, saying that the bearer of the letter had passed his High School Matriculation examination (albeit with grace marks) Please provide him employment of any suitable nature.

Relatives, neighbours and acquaintances all thought it would be worthless. Anyways Mukund was unlucky. He couldn't find a job at home, how would he fend for himself alone far away?

Fortunately, some one at Scindia Steam Navigation pitied him, gave him a job as a clerk at Victoria Dock. While things were going smoothly there, on April 14, 1944 there was a huge blast in the docks. [See ]
SS Fort Stikine, which was carrying gold, cotton and explosives had caught fire. The explosion resulted in gold bars flying around. Mukund was trapped in debris in the godown of the dock, and unable to wiggle out to collect the gold. (again he cursed his luck). The luckier colleagues all ran outside to pick up gold bars, when the second and more powerful blast killed most of them.
Mukund survived the blast, since he was unlucky.

This changed his outlook in life. He stopped feeling unlucky. He believed that destiny had saved him now. Destiny had made him pass his examinations. Luck was on his side as he got a job and place to live with ease. The stars and horoscope was all humbug, and though you couldnt choose the cards dealt to you, it was all upto you to play your cards accordingly.

Now had this been a Hindi movie, he would've participated in the freedom struggle, and build a massive business empire. But he did none of that.
He worked in Scindia Steam Navigation till his retirement in 1981 as a diligent (but never a smart) employee. He and his wife raised 4 children. And he lived to be nearly 89.

And he retold this story many times over to his oldest grandchild. That's me.

He took me to see my first live cricket match, at Wankhede Stadium in 1993, where India beat England. (Anil Kumble took 6 wickets and Vinod Kambli scored a double hundred). He also taught me how to board a running mumbai local train to catch a window seat. (he was 71 and I was 11).

If he were alive, today would have been his 90th birthday.
He wasnt the one to believe in rituals, he demanded in his will that his body be donated for medical research.
So though he isnt there any more, may be his body is dissected in the Anatomy Department of Lokmanya Tilak Medical Hospital in Sion, Mumbai.

Happy Birthday Bapu-ji.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Strange Encounter with a Mystic Astrologer

This is the first time I am spending the Chinese New Year in an East Asian city. This is the Lunar Year of the Rabbit. I have been vaguely aware about each of the years associated with an animal (or a bird, or a fictitious creature such as a dragon) and the existence of horoscopes depending on the year of your birth. Though I am a sceptic, I dug out a few websites on the internet to check out my future in the year of the Rabbit. Unfortunately, all of the sources said simply one thing. The rabbit and the rooster (the bird signifying my birth year) do not get along. How much ever I tried, all sources said the same thing. Some websites tried to sugar coat the message but that was it. I had resigned for 2011 being a tough year for me.

Then came the first day of the New Year of the Rabbit. Despite it being a public holiday in Singapore, I had to be at work for a few hours. (As I said, I expected life to be tough in the year, I plodded along without complaining)

Post work when I was walking back towards home, an old Indian gentleman with a long grey beard stopped me and said in impeccable English 'Sir, you have a lucky face, and destiny shall smile upon you soon'. I was taken aback and asked him why. He told me that he was an Astrologer, his name was Yogi Singh, and had studied Vedic astrology for 21 years under the guidance of his Guru in the Himalayas. He also mentioned that he was visiting Singapore for a short while, and it was destiny which had lead us to meet here on the footpath.

Having some time to kill, and being curious, I stopped to listen more about what he wanted to say, and get some idea about my future.

The Astrologer first asked my date of birth, and then looked up towards the sky, pretended to mumble something, and then he took a good look at the lines on my palm and the creases on my forehead (did I have any?). After this he made the following statements about me: (which in hindsight were generic statements which could be applicable to anyone)

(1) You have big thoughts, but are unable to implement them. You are capable of far greater success, than what you have achieved in your career. (Hmmm, I guess every person might be thinking on the same lines, whether or not they have achieved in excess of their true talent and capabilities)

(2) You are open hearted and often speak your mind. You blindly trust others, but those you trust are secretly plotting behind your back, and bad mouth you in front of others. (again a statement one might like to believe about yourself being the nice simple hearted naive person. I may not be Machiavelli, but I am surely not the simpleton he suggested.)

(3) The last few years have been tumultuous and volatile for you. (This is another generic statement, could be applicable to anyone. Yes I have had my fair share of ups and downs, and worked in 3 different countries for 3 different employers in the last 5 years, but that could be applicable to anyone working in the Financial Services Industry in the time of the 'Credit Crisis' and the 'Great Recession')

(4) You are an easy going person, and money comes and goes easily from your hand. You are generous but lot of people exploit your generosity. (Though anyone would like to think of themselves on these lines, people who know me would say I am more of a stingy bas****d, but for this trait i blame my conservative brahminical upbringing in a middle class, Gujarati household)

(5) A girl whom I have hurt in the past, has put me under an evil spell, and this is the hindrance in my career ahead.
(Who could this lady be? I couldn't think of anyone, but by now I was almost hypnotized by the astrologer, and would have believed any more generic statements he said)

This suddenly sounded a lot like the protagonist in R.K. Narayan's short story that I had to study for my ICSE, An Astrologers Day'
But at that point of time I was actually falling in the trap.

He then asked me to think of the first thing that came in my mind. He wrote down something on a paper chit, and told me to hold the chit in my hand. I don't know why, but I thought of a Blue Lotus (may be inspired by the Tintin comic by Herge of the same title). Mr Yogi Singh then took the chit from my hand, clenched it in his fist, chanted a small prayer and then asked me to do the same. Lo and behold, when I opened the chit, it had the word 'Blue Lotus' written on it. (It could have so easily been switched when he took the chit in his fist and chanted the prayer. But till then I still was enchanted by this mystic seer)

Then finally he said, that to ward of the hindrances in my life, for me to climb the ladder of success in my career, to find one true love, live a long age and have two healthy children (his words stated verbatim) he would offer flowers to the Shiva Ling in the Himalayan Temple (how would he do this while he was in Singapore is a different question altogether) and pray for me daily. This would be done once I paid a fee of S$1000.

This is when I suddenly woke up. Now if you learn anything in a Conservative Middle Class Gujarati household in suburban Mumbai, is before spending money, take a deep breath, and count till 10. If you still think your purchase is worth the expense, only then do you go ahead and buy. For once I heeded to my parents advice, and then I understood the generic phoney statements. As soon as I refused to pay, the guy said for a fee of S$500 he would tell me the first letter of the name of the lady who was casting an evil eye on me. I joked back saying I have broken hearts of more than 26 women, so this wouldn't help me narrow down the list (Like most of my jokes, even here no one laughed). Now he got flustered and said that I had spent his time, and used his expertise and I owed him S$100.

Now finding myself in a sticky situation, I walked away seeing the closest bus stop tried to board a bus (as one might know, you never get a taxi in Singapore when you want one, and I boarded the first bus I saw, even though it was the wrong route number, and was going in the opposite direction). The guy chased me on to the bus, and told me that I could contact him on his email and gave me some Indian Mobile number. Took out a few books from his bag as the vedic texts where he learnt his astrology, and showed some pictures of him with other old Indian men with even longer beards wearing saffron robes, saying these were the great holy men from whom he had learnt the art of astrology.

This pestering almost created a scene, and the other passengers in the bus were staring at me as if I had done something wrong. I tried to get rid of him by offering ten dollars, but this was refused. Seeing a bus stop approaching, I finally said 'Please read your own palm again, and see if you had some money destined for this day' Saying this i quickly alighted the bus, and jay walked across the road and caught a empty cab (rare and lucky phenomenon in Singapore) and headed home.

Only after I reached my apartment I felt a sense of relief. It was then I thanked my stars I didn't fall for the phoney astrologer. So after all this Year of the Rabbit wasn't so bad after all.

Wish all my readers (yes both of you) a Happy Chinese New Year of the Rabbit. Gong Xi Fa Chai ! and hope you don't fall in traps laid by phoney astrologers.