The entrance to the prophet’s lair lay ahead, a rusted iron gate located on a typical road in India, a meandering mess of vendors, uneven structures and vehicles, littered with a range of culinary delights and stray animals alike.
Down the road, students and the sage purveyors of the world could be seen stuffing themselves with deep-fried kachoris from petal-leaf bowls or smoking a cigarette against the roadside shops while dexterously avoiding long-range spits of betel juice.
As one turned the corner onto the road, one was immediately assailed by the sounds and smells of a busy sweet shop, its superiority loudly proclaimed by the existence of a chaat counter where people were lining up.
All of them were waiting for their turn to gobble down crisp little shells filled with green, spiced water that made them cough and their eyes water. These spiced-up treats battled with the aroma of fresh aloo and matar tikkis vying for the attention of human mouths and stomachs against the sweltering heat of an Indian summer.
The rust-ridden gate with patches of what would once have been bright paint was hidden somewhere among the old family homes, one-room offices and the bright red and yellow boards that announced rooms for rent or a sure-coached way to a successful future. In between this zig-zag of hope and despair lay the gate to the fortune-teller’s secret lair.
You wouldn’t even notice it at first, the cracked old yellow walls with plastered yellow bricks were relegated to insignificance by the fresh juice cart, its surroundings littered with discarded fruit pulp and peels.
Yet, once you looked up above from the buzzing swarm of flies, your eye would fall on a faded semi-circle with dirty white letters on a faded blue background that pronounced it to be a Senior Secondary School.
The only living feature in this dismal picture was the newly-constructed door in the gate, painted bright red and lined in black, telling the world that this place had not given up yet.
No guard or liminal deity was standing at attention here or even stooping over in sleep to hide the treasures within; no doorkeeper to guide the weary traveller to his rightful destination. The gate was simply there, to be used by whoever knew the secrets of this place. Yet it appealed to very few as they passed the gates in the course of their everyday life. It was a doorway to the secrets of the future, hidden in plain sight, reserved for a privileged few.
To the hopeful pilgrim it held the answers to all their questions, their queries and doubts, the doorway was not to be ignored, it was the path to enlightenment.
Once the traveller had crossed over the threshold, the noise of the world subsided and eerie silence reigned. The empty desolate courtyard with its half-broken walls seemed not to belong to the world of men, not the living ones anyway.
Yet the buildings here still served a purpose, student desks and benches littered open classrooms, attracting dust and insects on a fresh coat of paint.
A dirty, wire curtain is pulled aside and a child peeps out, exclaiming in a low voice to his father it’s just someone to see the great man. The father too looks out and is satisfied, he pulls the curtain closed again. He and his family of squatters are not interested in the comings and goings of supplicants coming to see the great man.
Across a broken courtyard of loose bricks and cement, lie fallen, dead leaves, in different shades of yellow and brown, as if weaving a shroud for the ground. Their work lies there undisturbed until a stray squirrel or mongoose rushes across, leaving a long gash on their way to steal potato chips drying on a piece of cloth under the blistering skies.
Yet among these numbered classrooms, sat a man of infinite power and wisdom under a roof of corrugated iron. Devotees who made it to the sanctum came not empty-handed, with astrological charts in one sweaty palm and their offerings in another.
They came with rich, almond sweets that the seer was reported to be fond of or even better, envelopes stuffed with more worldly offerings that even the great man himself worshiped.
As they sat under the cool shade of the rust-tinged roof on dusty plastic chairs, the devotees would stare at one another, wondering what answers the others sought. Had they also come to discuss the possibility of an unexpected windfall? The hope of a promising career or marriage or did they expect more? Fortunes were made and broken, lives determined or destroyed and impediments to important deals were all removed here, with only the listless lizards as witnesses, peeping out from the cracks in the wall.
Once your patience was rewarded and you were granted access to the inner sanctum, the prophet sat at an old teacher’s desk having just portended unexpected news for the departing mother and son, the latter unable to look up and face the world.
For what secrets had been revealed during the session, no one knew, and the prophet was not one to talk of other people’s matters.
Like the assessors of Ma’at, who weighed the hearts of the dead against an ostrich feather, the prophet weighed the hopes of his supplicants against the alignment of the stars, predicting success or doom in line with the forces of the universe.
Not for the world would he lie to raise false hopes in the hearts of the doomed, for the ones destined for success, he had nothing but the facts.
He was not one to favour either the hopeful or the hopeless, he was simply a portent of things to come.
Yet his knowledge was not just ancient, a dilapidated computer helped him create and print charts as he followed the motions of the stars and the planets with his beady eyes.
He traced the courses and the positions of the stars and contracted it with the houses that fixated one’s life course upon birth. A master of his art, he believed in taking his time before announcing his decision. After all, the affairs of the universe could not be rushed.
As they watched the prophet at work, even the staunchest hearts cowered in anticipation of what was to come, impatient yet fearful of learning what the keeper of fortunes portended was to come.
The announcement of doom was not accompanied by much fanfare, there were no trumpets, no wild cawing of birds, no wailing of widows, the prophet not being a fan of dramatics, after all, delivered all news whether good or evil with a few chosen words and a smile, A smile that could strike terror in the hearts of those whose endeavours were bound to fail and a smile that deeply unsettled those who were poised to succeed.
The face itself was not so alarming, he looked like a ubiquitous clerk in a government office and one he was, during the weekdays anyway, when the machinery of mankind chugged its way onward. Yet on the weekends, in the ruins of this place, he held the fortunes of the lowly and the great in the palms of his hands.
And sharp hands they were, with even sharper fingers that pointed sharply at the person while he pronounced their fate.
They came every weekend to complain of their ills, and impediments and seek advice. They arrived in rickshaws, shuttered to a stop outside the gates on their scooters and even set their golden sandals down on the dust-covered roads from the interiors of air-conditioned cars, their hairdos and makeup slowly melting down as the heat piled up, while they all waited to consult with the purveyor of destiny within.
Blessed with such patronage, the prophet was no less than a modern-day god, functioning amidst his kingdom of plastered brick walls, enjoying his devoted tribe that trembled in both fear and ecstasy with every movement of his fingers and every articulation from his mouth.
The visitors today were few, just a father and a young girl, the father with the expectant air of a hopeful supplicant who sought to confirm his good fortune could hardly sit still. Meanwhile, the girl who sat opposite him on a comparatively cleaner chair was surrounded by an unsettling air of anxiety and panic that swirled around her as if nothing could extricate her from its depths.
She noticed not the squirrels running to and fro or even the occasional insect, she could only stare into the distant future which if her expression was anything to go by did not promise much.
Startled by her father enquiring what time it was, her thoughts found their way back into her body, checking her brown and gold watch to see that they had been there only an hour.
“We are lucky,” her father said, “on most days there is a long line of people who come to see him. Many even return home dejected and have to visit next week. We came on the right day.”
Lucky indeed she thought to herself, and her thoughts turned once more inward, back into the middle of indecision and regret. She was an intelligent girl, had been an obedient and well-mannered daughter and had left the city 5 years ago in pursuit of her hopes and dreams.
But then, she had come back, if you asked her even she could not tell you why!
She just had.
The city had defeated her.
It was too big, too frightening and too fast.
Lost in an urban metropolis filled with people crawling their way to the top, she had turned away from it all in disgust.
Surely there had to be more to life than this grind? And so, she returned home in search of a simpler and more rewarding life, perhaps?
Yet her hometown had disappointed her, too.
She had tried hard to succeed, she truly had.
The old men had drooled at her, promising her everything even as their gaze stayed fixed on her breasts, the young ones wooed her by thumping their hollow chests with undying declarations of affections. She felt repelled by it all, old lechers or false lovers, she wanted none of it.
She sought comfort in the women, a few were intimidated, a few were resentful and those who sought to help were drowned in their sorrows, offering advice they could not follow themselves.
So, she had finally turned to her mother who told her to fix up her health, reduce her pimples, grow out her hair and shrink her waistline.
“After all, who will marry you the way you look now?”
She departed on this shot to catch the vegetable vendor as he made his daily rounds, after all, she had to cook lunch, did she not?
So, she knocked on more doors or escaped them and she tried and she tried till she could try no more, till she felt hopeless and discouraged.
So, this day she found herself knocking at the doors to the prophet’s temple, hoping he could reveal the future, and untangle the path she must take from the maze before her.
As she waited outside in the heat and dust with weeds and trees yet not a wildflower in sight, she looked and looked.
Looked inside her, looked behind her, looked ahead and even looked upwards, yet all she saw was rot and rust eating away at the iron.
When the doors finally opened and she stepped into the dimness, she found herself blinking as her sight adjusted from being outside. The room felt a sudden drop from the high temperature outside and the refreshing coolness of the interior, a relief despite its dimness.
As they took their seats, the prophet fastened her with his gaze and greeted her father with a smile. They knew each other, that’s why he had agreed to see them; the secrets of his inner sanctum were not for everyone to discover.
She felt a shudder pass as he turned her way, his dispassionate gaze making her feel more uncomfortable than the ones before. He answered her father first, reassuring him about his health and fortune before returning his gaze to her.
Eyes fixed, the prophet asked her about her burning inquiries, questions that were wearing a hole into her very soul. Then they moved on to the regular details, her name, the date and time of her birth that had sealed her fate.
Satisfied with his information, he switched his gaze to the monitor, a prophet of the digital age, his monitor served as his oracle, prophesying futures as he fed it the requisite information using his cantankerous keyboard.
As she awaited proclamations of her fate, she slowly began to feel like a puppet no longer in command of her fate, the strings were slowly but surely stretching across time and space rendering her mind and body numb, rendering her helpless against what was to come.
Oh! the prophet proclaimed in that ubiquitous voice, “The house of Mars is ascendant, you will face immense challenges in the time to come be prepared !”
Aristotle could not have better prepared Alexander for the challenges he was to face, yet the cowering girl before him was no conquering hero or so she felt.
More challenges she repeated in her mind.
More challenges ahead, more obstacles to overcome, more lecherous men to avoid, so there was more.
“But why?” she asked, she wanted to scream but she asked instead.
“That I cannot tell, all that the stars foretell is that you will face more challenges but if you survive them, success will find its way to you, too.”
Of course, if she survived, that is.
She laughed, a little too desperately it seemed and stepped out. In the background, she heard her father proffer his thanks for the prophet’s assistance and together they left in silence.
She walked in a daze till she heard a soft crunch, looking down at her feet she saw that she had crushed a snail. She looked down at its crushed remains and pondered.
Hearing her father’s call, she scraped the smushed remains off her shoes against the base of the gate and stepped out once more into the world outside.
A veritable Blahcksheep of epic proportions, Trishanka has always taken the road less travelled. Whether it has made a difference for better or worse, remains to be seen. She is inspired by the hidden traditions and patterns of everyday, mundane life and seeks to immortalize them in her stories. The literal train of thought may be hard to follow, but it reveals simple truths about our lives.