Desperately Seeking Shiva
Lisa Abend searches in India for a cure for her broken heart. It takes two temples, one elephant, a palm leaf astrologer, and the kind driver of a velour-lined taxi to make her whole again.
For hours as you drive toward Vaitheeswarankoil, there is nothing, and then suddenly there is too much, and all of it the same. Located in the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the town is composed mainly of ramshackle storefronts pressed tightly against each other, slowly decaying in the dusty swelter. Brightly painted signs, garish as any Las Vegas neon, mark them as Nadi astrology offices. There are also a handful of modest hotels, a few stalls dishing out sweet, milky coffee, and an immense temple that, with its ornate carvings and shadow-filled interiors, manages to be excessive and eerie all at once. But mostly there are Nadi stands.
I had come to Vaitheeswarankoil for Nadi. A branch of Hindu astrology native to Tamil Nadu, Nadi holds that the lives of all humans were inscribed in ancient times by sages on palm leaves, one leaf per person. Find the Nadi reader who can find your leaf, and it will all be there—the story of your life, including how everything turns out in the end. Which is what I desperately wanted to know.
Eighteen months earlier, my partner of 12 years had left me for a much younger woman. The man with whom I subsequently fell madly in love had suddenly remembered, months into our relationship, that he had a girlfriend.
In the wake of my exploding relationships, I felt as though I had been dropped unwittingly into a foreign country—one of those horrid, pre-1989 Soviet Bloc ones where everything is ugly, no one speaks your language, and every meal is an unending sequence of soggy fried meats. I felt, in other words, sickeningly alone. And once that feeling took hold, it was hard to believe that it would ever go away.
I could have done the Eat, Pray, Love thing and sought answers for my emotional crisis by committing myself to a rigorous program of Eastern spirituality for a year. But that would have required work and sacrifice. And I was way too depressed for that.
Which is why I went to Vaitheeswarankoil. I needed answers, and I needed them fast.
It is said that Nadi’s origins date back thousands of years. The practice became associated with Tamil Nadu sometime in the Middle Ages, when the kings of Tanjore had the original palm leaf texts translated from Sanskrit to Tamil. For centuries, these leaves were housed in a single library in Tanjore, but during colonial rule, the British broke up the collection and auctioned off the leaves. One family, rumored to be descendants of the original Nadi practitioners, reportedly bought lots of the leaves in the 1930s and assembled them at Vaitheeswarankoil. It wasn’t long before palm leaf astrology became the town’s main source of income.
Early on my first full day in town, a young man named Nandhakumar tells me this. We have struck up a conversation mostly because we are seated at the same table in a stall serving coffee across from the temple, but also because he is the only person I have met so far in Vaitheeswarankoil who speaks English. I ask him if he would be willing to translate my palm leaf reading for me. He scoops up a pinch of dal from the banana leaf that serves as a plate, and cocks an eyebrow at me.
“You believe in that stuff?”
“Um,” I say in my defense. “You don’t?”
“Of course not,” scoffs Nandhakumar. “It’s pure superstition. A blind belief.” An emaciated woman with a baby on her hip approaches our table with her hand out. He drops a coin in her palm nonchalantly, though I get the distinct impression that she is not the one he pities. I’m about to slink off to my rendezvous with benighted ignorance at a Nadi office when he stops me.
“Now planetary astrology, that’s different,” he says, jotting down an address on a slip of paper. “You want help with a difficult decision, you go see this guy.”
An elderly passerby, eavesdropping on our conversation, stops to glance at the name. “Oh yes, he’s very good.”
“Of course,” says Nandhakumar. “What he does is based on your time of birth. That’s not blind belief. That’s science.”
In India, everyone has the solution to your fucked-up life. If, like me, you have come to India precisely for this reason, you will find yourself, like me, taking advantage of any potentially healing opportunity that presents itself. Meditation at the graves of a renowned guru and his bilious French lover? Check. Ayurvedic massage by two young women keen on rubbing a gallon or so of semi-rancid oil into your naked body with their feet? I did that, too. Now I tuck the address in my pocket. If the palm leaf reading doesn’t work out, I tell myself, I can always try science.
Nadi holds that you only come to your reader at the point in your life when you are ready and that you are led to the one who possesses your leaf. Among the dozens of Nadi stalls in Vaitheeswarankoil, I pick the one named Govi Jayaraman because it is inside the temple, a location that, in my mind, bestows it with added authority. The fact that the stall’s flyer helpfully specifies “between elephant shed and tonsure shed!” (the place where the resident temple elephant is kept during his off-hours and the place where devotees get their hair cut, respectively) somehow only raises its standing in my eyes.
I leave my shoes with a woman at the shrine’s entrance. I pass vendors selling coconuts and tiny brass figures of the gods, slip under a cool dark arch, and find myself face to face with the aforementioned elephant. A manifestation of the Hindu god Ganesh, he offers his blessing to supplicants, including me, with a sullen thwop on the head with his trunk. Through an intricately carved door to the right lies a vast pool that draws hundreds of the devout to Vaitheeswarankoil. According to legend, a dip in its murky waters can heal all illnesses. Straight ahead, a line of faithful pilgrims snakes through air thick with incense smoke to the gold-plated figure of Shiva, the lord of both destruction and re-creation.
I, however, go to the left, and cross a hot patio floor to reach the Govi Jayaraman Nadi office. Once I’m inside its flimsy walls, a man takes my thumbprint and date of birth—information that will help the reader locate my leaf—then motions for me to sit. Except for the crepe paper streamers dangling from the ceiling, it feels remarkably like the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Next to me, a middle-aged Indian couple sits nervously on folding chairs. Their college-age nephew nods grimly at me and explains, in exactly the same tone he might use to announce his uncle’s gallstones, “Business decision.”
At last, my reader ushers me into his office. Ravi Chandram is a small man with a luxuriant head of curly black hair and a crisp blue sarong wrapped around his waist. He speaks no English, and for a few minutes we sit there—he behind the desk, me on a yellow plastic stool— silently beaming at each other. Finally, a man in an elegant white caftan sweeps in and pulls up his own plastic stool: Rajendran, the translator. He explains that I’ll be asked a series of questions and should answer yes or no to each one. Using that information, Ravi will then locate the leaf that holds my fortune.
The initial, fact-finding questions are written on their own palm leaves, which are long and thin and loosely bound together between twin covers so that they look like a lady’s folded fan. Ravi opens this book and starts to read, with Rajendran translating. You are oldest child? Yes. Father is alive? Yes. Mother is alive? Yes. You have children? As soon as I answer no, Ravi flips the page to a new leaf. The questions begin again: You are oldest? For a while we get hung up on my profession. Medicine? No. Education? No. Consulting? No. They ask if I am kratif, and since I don’t know what kratif means, I assume I’m not. They keep going (Hospitality? No. Defense industry? No.) until it becomes clear that my reading has degenerated into a game of What’s My Line? Finally, in a burst of inspiration, Rajendran calls out, “Real estate agent!” They both look so crestfallen at my answer that I confess the truth: journalist. “But that is kratif!” cries Rajendran, as if I’ve betrayed him. Kratif: creative. Ravi flips back several pages, and we start again.
Now the questions become more personal. You are married? No. You are in love? Yes. You want to marry the person you are in love with? It’s complicated, I reply. “Yes or no,” demands Rajendran. “You want to be married?”
I may be heartbroken, but I’m still a feminist, and this line of questioning is way, way too reductive for comfort.
“The thing is …,” I try again. “Yes or no?” he repeats. “Well, it depends,” I stammer. “Maybe if I meet the right …” Rajendran cuts me off impatiently. “Look, you want to be married or not?” Faced with only two alternatives, what could I say? “Yes,” I whisper, and slump back on my stool. “OK then,” he says. He and Ravi go off to a back room to find my leaf.
Rajendran and ravi return with a book of leaves that looks exactly like the previous one. Money determines how much detail you get in your reading—do you want your future in five-, two-, or one-year increments? I choose the cheaper five-year plan (about $40) and learn that I will have a great deal of professional success. As Ravi reads my leaf in a monotonous chant, Rajendran translates his words in a voice that thrums with excitement. “You will be a famous writer! You will rise through the ranks of a great magazine to become director!” he says. “Your name will be known on the American continent! The European continent! Even the Asiatic continent!” I recognize this last as rhetorical embellishment, but by this time I’ve come to accept that Rajendran is given to a certain amount of artistic license. “You!” he cries. “You will do all this!” Then, nearing the climax of his narrative, he lowers his voice, and looks straight at me. “You,” he says. “You will be the champion of your own destiny!”
Who doesn’t want to be a famous writer? I’m encouraged by the news about my professional life. But I have not traveled halfway around the world to hear about my job; I have traveled halfway around the world to find out if I will ever be happy again.
The reading continues. My palm leaf says that I will marry within a year. This seems suspiciously soon to me, but then Ravi and Rajendran describe my future husband. He is someone I meet in Madrid, where I live, but he is not Spanish (or German—they are quite insistent that he isn’t German). He is not a journalist, but he is kratif and loves writing. He is thin. He is 40 years old.
The day before, the now unavailable man I was in love with had turned 40. He fit the other characteristics, too—we had even met in Madrid. Throughout my Nadi session, I have been keenly aware that Ravi and Rajendran were reading me as much as they were reading any leaf, trying to fit what they took to be my wishes with their own beliefs about what constitutes a happy life. But this was something else, something they couldn’t possibly have guessed. And while in any other context I would insist that meaningful work, travel, and independence are the most crucial ingredients for happiness, somehow, in this fluorescent-lit room with turquoise blue walls, my broken heart conjoins with their ideas about what a woman like me should want: a man. I feel tears spring to my eyes.
And then Rajendran brings me out of my rumination. “Also a son you will have!” he cries rapturously. “A male son!”
Rajendran tells me there is only one thing standing in the way of this bounty: a tiny karmic error, committed in a previous life, which had consigned me to an eternity of hellish breakups. According to my leaf, I had been a wealthy woman in Sri Lanka who had fallen in love with a poor man. He was beneath me, but very beautiful, and so I married him anyway. However, I was not kind to him—“Always judging!” Rajendran interjects—and eventually he left me and killed himself. This is the root of my problem. This is why I keep failing at love.
Luckily, there is a remedy. I can do puja (worship). Actually, Ravi and Rajendran tell me to pay them 5,000 rupees and they will do puja for me. It is only when I press that they admit that I can do puja for myself. For that, I must go to the marriage temple at Thirumanancheri, the place where many Hindus believe Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati tied the knot.
Balaji, the tall, thin driver who shows up at my hotel the next day behind the wheel of a velour-lined Ambassador, is quiet and utterly uninterested in my attempts at conversation; he also seems mildly annoyed when I ask if the car has air-conditioning.
But when I tell him that I have to do puja at Thirumanancheri, his eyes light up. “I went there,” he says knowingly. “Three months later I was married.” Thirty minutes down the road, we veer onto a small path, then rumble past rice fields until we finally arrive at the temple, so utterly hidden in the glade that it seems like a fairy village. I descend from the Ambassador’s berth, and two men chide me to take off my shoes, even though the temple entrance is still 30 yards away. As I stand there, hopping from side to side in a futile attempt to keep from burning my bare feet in the hot sand and from stepping on little balls of goat shit, Balaji looks at me piteously. “OK,” he sighs. “I’m going with you.”
He leads me to a stall within the temple. There, in exchange for 200 rupees, I get a green plastic bag that contains five ghee candles, two coconuts, a pack of red powder, an unripe lemon, a wilted jasmine garland, and a paper ticket that is greasy from candle ghee. A sign directs us—in English and not at all metaphorically—to the Marriage Waiting Hall. Inside, the room is long and dark with an altar at one end and a table smoky with burning candles at the rear. In between, held back by a metal gate, are a few dozen people waiting their turn at the altar: single men in neatly pressed shirts, single women in resplendent saris, a few giggling couples about to be married. Balaji and I join them, fanning ourselves in the stifling air.
Finally, a man begins barking orders. As the single women rush the corridor that leads to the altar, Balaji pushes me toward them. We are ushered into the area in front and made to sit in a line, single file and cross-legged on the floor. The couples are seated in the line next to us, and then, on the far side of the room, the men. (I think to myself, Has no one in this marriage temple thought to put the single men next to the single women?)
The ceremony itself involves much giving and taking: We hand in our garlands and our bags of lemons and coconuts, and get red and white powders with which to mark our foreheads. During one of these rounds, a tiny, bare-chested priest who looks for all the world like Tattoo from Fantasy Island comes through with a basket of flowers. As it passes, every- one touches it lightly and mumbles something that the priest then repeats. Mild panic grips me as I realize I don’t know the words to say, but just as the priest nears me, I feel a reassuring pat on my shoulder. Balaji has somehow muscled his way through the crowd of anxious mothers fussing with their daughters’ hair to sit next to me on the side of the gate that divides supplicants from spectators. When the priest gets to me, Balaji hands over a piece of paper on which he has written my name. I, too, will be blessed.
Later, the same priest comes back with now sanctified garlands, which we are to keep until we are married and then return to the temple in thanks. Distribution is random, however: You don’t necessarily get back the same garland that you handed in. When the priest gets to my side, I realize that instead of the wilted jasmine that came with my bag, he has been keeping a particularly fine string of marigolds apart for me. He hands it to me and almost smiles. I’ve traded up.
At the end of the ceremony, a bell rings and we line up at the altar to get our green plastic bags back. Everyone files out into the embrace of excited families. Balaji explains to me that I must take the items in my bag home and perform puja there. “And then,” he says as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “you’ll be married.”
But what he really means, I like to think, is that I don’t have to be lonely. I can find the remote temple, and sit in the neat line of sari-clad women, and not be embarrassed by my aloneness. I can depend on the kindness of the random driver who assigns himself the task of my spiritual upkeep and stays at my side, whispering instructions, so that I never once feel lost. I can let myself be borne by the heat and the scent and the feel of slate beneath my bare feet and, most of all, by the people pressing around me as they bring their hands to their foreheads and wrap garlands around their necks and ask their God for nothing more than what they want. I can receive their marigolds and know they believe it, too: I can be the champion of my own destiny.
As we leave the temple, I reach into my pocket for some coins but find instead the slip of paper Nandhakumar had given me earlier with the “scientific” astrologer’s name written on it. Turns out I don’t need it after all.
Balaji and I walk back to the car. Never once during this whole excursion has he suggested that my presence here is the least bit preposterous; never once has he smirked at my utter lack of knowledge about what to do. Now, we brush the sand from our feet and climb back into the Ambassador. “Where to?” he asks.
Photos by Chiara Goia. This story appeared in the September/October 2010 issue.