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City Scapes

Cowrie Shells and the Batons

As I hastened my steps though the crowded street, and dodged the vegetable wicker basket on the pavement to my left and a rash black and yellow taxi to my right, I muttered angrily under my breath – “how unruly and uncivic this city had become? No place for pedestrians to walk”. But as I crossed the crossroad and quickly jumped onto the kerb, I was pleasantly greeted by the sight of a nearly empty pavement – no cows or their calves tied here, no vegetable seller with his wares spilling onto the road, no Dosai vendor with his makeshift cook-top. But there was a lady, a matron, sitting cross legged on the pavement with a cotton cloth laid out in front of her. Her demeanour was not “mendicantish” and she actually had an air of authority around herself. Her hair was well-oiled,  that covered her greys quite well. It was tied into a loose bun on the nape of her neck. She wore a dark cotton saree with a white blouse. Her forehead did not bear the red vermillion dot, but had a bright ash mark that was as white as her blouse. Her nosering was of a typical southern design and her heavy earring uhng from her earlobes. On the cotton cloth in front of her lay 2 batons, short, black with silver ends, and a handful of large cowrie shells. The classic trademark of the street astrologer, Jolsiyan, from the south.  She looked anachronistic in the modern day milieu as people raced past her. But this was the first Sunday of the new year and she hoped to read out fortunes for the hordes of visitors to Matunga, especially those who visited the temples to pray for good tidings; and would have to pass by her if they wanted to get to the best Southern style eateries in Mumbai. She was not crying out loud for people to notice her, but no-one would have missed her.

I remember Shenbaagham, a Jolsiyan, who used to sit outside the local temple on the main market street of Matunga. She would be busy telling the future during the busy temple times, and when the temples closed for the afternoon, she would pick up her tools of trade and walk through the residential lanes shouting out “Jolsiyam, Jolsiyam” so that the Mamas and Mamis (Tamilian and others) could use her services to foretell their futures or of their close ones. 

I had imagined that Shenbaagham was eternal – one who had not changed through ages. Perhaps she was around when young Kannagi giggled and gaped at the big of Madurai, when her husband, Kovalan, took her there. And Kannagi must have encountered Shenbaagham and urged Kovalan to stop by her and ask to read out their future. And Shenbaagham, who need not have been sensitive, would have felt sorry for Kannagi’s fate – and would have said her silent prayer before also proclaiming that Kannagi and Kovalan would be together after some separation and they would lived happily ever after, but with a rider – elsewhere. How correct Shenbaagham was, as Kovalan got drawn to Madhavi and later falsely implicated in a royal robbery and finally beheaded. And Kannagi could not believe her eyes when she saw the severed head of her Kovalan and how she cried and cursed the King and his city and burnt it down with her wrath. And how she ascended to heaven to be with her Kovalan. This was the elsewhere Shenbaagham had predicted.

Such were the charms of the fortune-teller, who could transport me to a different era in a different city.

What are the sights and sounds of the city that you have seen lately?


About Narayan

Not a good stock market investor and you can perhaps read why - I find odd reasons for their movements!


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