Saturday, June 30, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

An astral encounter
Khushwant Singh

EVER since Murli Manohar Joshi, HRD Minister, sanctioned teaching of what he grandiosely describes as Vedantic astrology at the university level, I have been itching to take him and Dr Gautam, Chairman of the University Grants Commission, on in a public debate: they believe it is a science, I am convinced it is unscientific hocus-pocus which has spread like an epidemic among India’s superstitious millions. Consequently, when Manoj Raghuvanshi rang me up and invited me to a debate on the subject for a DD Channel, I accepted his offer with alacrity. "Who will be the others?" I asked. "An astrologer and an official of the HRD Ministry," he replied.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon I was taken to Eagle Studio in Noida. Up a flight of stairs and I was ushered into the make-up room. In the room were five well-built men, of whom I only recognised Raghuvanshi, and two women I had not met before. One of them who was being ‘made up’ by the cosmetician was introduced as Dimpy Chopra who writes a regular astrological column for the Hind Samachar (She is a cousin of Ashwini Minna, editor of the Delhi editions of the group). So it wasn’t an astrologer but an astrologess (if there is such a word) that I’d have to contend with. The HRD Ministry decided to keep away from the debate.

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A lot of argument began while we were still in the make-up room. I let off a tirade against astrology. I told everyone in the room that the Third Battle of Panipat was lost by the Marathas because they listened to the advice of their Raj Jyotishi who told them not to commence hostilities till he gave them the green signal. Instead of going into the battle when they were fighting fit, they delayed action till they were famished for lack of rations — and though they outnumbered the Afghans 10 to 1, they were routed. "Belief in astrology can have dangerous consequences," I declared triumphantly. Dimpy (the astrologer) was having her cheeks rouged so could not answer, but a gentleman who later I learnt was her husband, took up cudgels on her behalf. "Who was that Raj Jyotishi?" he asked, "how do you know he was not in the pay of the Afghans?"

"You mean he could have been bribed by Ahmad Shah Abdali?" I asked.

Dimpy was free to enter the fray. She made her introduction and started on a gentle note. "I agree with you, astrology has and is being misused, by so-called astrologers. Even I have been offered large sums of money to give wrong advice to my clients by their rivals. That is why there is an urgent need to clean up the profession."

I noticed how much she resembled her cousin Ashwini Minna: short, chubby, animated. She was loaded with gold and precious stones on her nose, ears, neck and arms. She had rings on almost all her fingers and gold chains round her ankles and rings on her toes. She is a living proof that astrology is good business. I sensed I was in for a lively give and take.

In the studio Raghuvanshi asked me whether astrology was a science fit enough to be taught in universities. "It is not a science, it cannot be a science because you cannot verify and correct its errors," I replied. "It is bhram (superstition); will take our country back several centuries." I quoted the instance of ashtagraha of February 2, 1963, when all Indian astrologers predicted end of life on earth at 5.35 pm. Nothing happened. According to the Planning Commission’s estimate, the country lost Rs 35 crore because trains, planes and buses went empty and tons of ghee went up in smoke in havans. And the world laughed at us. I cited other instances of national tragedies like the Partition, assassination of prime ministers, cyclones and earthquakes when not one astrologer had predicted them. It was Dimpy’s turn to answer me. She evaded my direct questions and instead expounded the wisdom in ancient texts and how charlatans had given astrology a bad name. There was no stopping here. I tried. She brushed me aside with a wave of her bejewelled hand. Manoj Raghuvanshi tried. She cut him short to let her have her say.

The shooting had to be suspended for 15 minutes to sort out the procedure of debate. Ultimately Raghuvanshi persuaded Dimpy to give straight answers to his question whether she herself had made predictions which had come true. She gave a couple of instances of her success.

I did not let her get away with her answers: they were in a round-about lingo (gol mol) used by astrologers. I described the new fad of Vaastu and Feng Shui as total rubbish and people who believed in them as maha moorkh (great fools). I took good care to say this to them at the end of the debate, so Dimpy did not get the chance to call me the greatest of all moorkhs. We parted as friends.

Singing stones

All ancient monuments have stories to tell to those interested in listening to them. Of course, most of them are make-believe or fiction but nevertheless fascinating. Delhi is full of such monuments now smothered by new buildings. Little is known about them. Take for example a nondescript mosque close to New Delhi railway station. Up to the 19th century it used to be the meeting place of thugs. They assembled there at Dasehra to be initiated to the fine art of strangling people to death without a cry of pain. The ceremony was known as Ramasee. They has their own form of greeting "Ali Khan bhai salaam". They were both Muslims and Hindu thugs, their patron saint was Kali.

The champion of the thug fraternity was one Meer Sahib Ameer Ali of Morena who killed as many as 719 people. He was finally betrayed by his own followers but escaped the noose by turning approver. For some reason thugs never killed people of lower castes, lepers, barbers, bakers or eunuchs.

Where have I come across this information? In a small illustrated book Delhi: Tales the monuments tell by R.V. Smith (Journalists Literary Circle). Ronald Vivien Smith is a journalist, historiographic poet and novelist. After retiring as news-editor of The Statesman, New Delhi, he has been contributing a special column "Quaint Corner" which makes The Statesman doubly readable.

There are many nuggets of information about Delhi in Smith’s book. He tells you of Chawari Bazar and the abode of talented courtesans of the city. There was the famous Nur Bai who told Nadir Shah that her chief patron Mohammed Shah kept the Koh-i-noor in his turban. There were Chanani, Bahenia, Firdaus, Nilofer, Mumtaz and Nazaneen Jan. Though called kothawalis (prostitutes) by common folk, they were much sought after by nawabs and seths.

There is Haveli Sadr Sadar, Motia Mahal, near Jamia Masjid, which Ghalib used to frequent to recite his latest compositions. There are innumerable baolis (wells with steps going down to the water) with names like Devrani - Jethani and Khari Baoli. There is a lane known as Gali Namak Haraam where stood the haveli of one Bhawani Shanker who while being an agent of the Marathas betrayed their secrets to the British and was untrue to his salt. And from where did Tees Hazari derive its name? Many theories, none conclusive.

Those who love Delhi will love reading Smith’s collection of articles.

Science vs superstition

A priest declared after the Gujarat havoc

"God’s wrath caused the quake"

The stupid fellow did not know

Why the oval earth does shake:

Scientists have asserted time and again

Astrology is not a science but "a casual stroke"

MM Joshi, our saffron minister

Has turned it into an academic joke.

* * *

Netaji’s daughter frankly admits

"My father is no longer alive."

Some people still insist

"There is ample proof he didn’t die".

Why are we so credulous that we believe

What any leader or misleader says?

When will the sun of sanity rise

And illumine our hearts with its rays?

(Courtesy: G.C. Bhandari, Meerut)