Is it all in the stars?

You can be a multi-millionaire or a stock broker, a techie or a housewife, a bus driver or a budding astronaut, there is a lowest common denominator that you have surely been pulled into at some point in your life.

It is the domain of horoscopes and astrologers, palm reading and tarot cards, numerology and fortune tellers, or a little bit of everything. It starts when the baby is born. Most Indian families I know (including mine) find it ‘auspicious’ to get the janampatri (birth chart) of the baby made. And that’s where the fun begins — with that, the baby has established a biographical footprint among the stars, the planets, and their mood swings. This piece of crucial document — as important as your Aadhaar card, social security number or the green card — is consulted again and again at life’s defining moments — a major illness in childhood, college placement, marriage (of course!) and the baby’s children. You can be a non-believer or a skeptic — your parents, uncles and aunts are more than willing to step in to ensure that the stars are synchronized and planets are pacified. You and your personal beliefs can take a backseat.

On the surface, this school of thought and activity seems to be ‘non-mainstream’. But my observation is that it guides our actions, decisions and beliefs more than we like to acknowledge. “It’s common knowledge that a large percentage of Wall Street brokers use astrology”, said Donald Reagan, formerly Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff. From eminent neurologists to cricket superstars, from political game-changers to Bollywood badshahs, major decisions are taken only after consulting the family pundit.

This is why Ayushuman Khurana becomes Ayushmann Khurrana. In Indian TV channels abroad, key services compete for advertorial space — banquet halls, Indian supermarkets, med spas, Michelin star Indian restaurants, travel agencies and of course astrologers and jyotish gurus. The audience wants not just gastronomical gratification after all, but also ‘spiritual solutions’ — not just in swades (one’s own country) but also in videsh (foreign country), perhaps more so in the latter.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, as in most areas of US with a sizable Indian population, there are radio programs in which an astrologer or guru is invited and listeners dial in with their concerns. The questions range from ‘when is my daughter likely to get a job with a Silicon Valley company of her choice’ to ‘what are the chances of my nephew getting a US visa’. The remedies range from feeding dogs at sunrise to wearing a blue sapphire, donating white flour to a temple during a lunar eclipse to hand-feeding spinach to a cow at a local animal shelter.

My assessment based on my limited knowledge of these shows is that is ever since Mr. Trump announced potential administrative and legislative changes in the H-1B visa program, the phones in these dial-in programs haven’t stopped ringing. The few times that I tuned into these programs, I got hooked on — amazed and amused on how much of the course of visa administration and foreign policy can be predicted by officials of a different domain.

Why would these professions not do well? After all, they feed on people’s anxieties, fears, insecurities and frustrations. They do well in stable times, and even better in times of economic recession and other calamities. It’s all simple economics — demand and supply. The deeper the trouble or higher the stake — the more important are the golden words of the guru.

Also an indication of demands of the time, the practitioners of these professions have undergone a transformation. They’re not the orange-clad, long-bearded sadhus any longer (this type does exist, of course). The current generation is wearing a business suit, punches in the date and place of birth in a laptop and viola, they’re ready to email you your e-horoscope. They have secretaries that arrange their phone consultations and manage their social media presence. They have a wait-list for interns and apprentices. They have a global outreach, hold client consultations in swanky offices and their world tours are scheduled a year in advance.

What amazes me is that most of us are more or less comfortable navigating the zones of practicality and faith. We could be inaugurating a new Infosys campus but the ribbon cutting will take place at an auspicious time determined by the company pundit. We breeze through the worlds of the scientific and the less-scientific, of proof and belief, of reality and hope on an everyday basis. You can love it or hate it, but you cannot ignore it or escape it. It is a part of our divided and divergent realities; it is an off-shoot of our cultural and religious beliefs. It is the dichotomy that completes our picture. This is why, Acharya Parmanand Astro Services next to Sachdeva Infotech Solutions is a common sight in prominent Indian bazaars and everyone is totally cool with it!

So, the next time you wonder whether or not to consult an astrologer or a pundit, think about what J. P. Morgan famously said: “Anyone can be a millionaire, but to become a billionaire you need an astrologer.” Om Shanti!