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Odia Story: Seventy or seventy two?

By Biraja Prasad Mohanty Translated by Asit Chandra Das | PUBLISHED: 05, Jan 2018, 20:13 pm IST | UPDATED: 11, Jan 2018, 13:22 pm IST

Odia Story: Seventy or seventy two?

Mukunda was studying with me in school up to class ten. After failing in class ten, he discontinued studies and took to his father’s professional 'jajamaani'. I went to Cuttack for higher studies in a college after HSC final. After completing my Preprofessional studies, I had come to our small-town during the vacation, when I met Mukunda after so many days. He came smiling his usual toothy smile. His smile was genuine and infectious.

He was very excited to see me, hugged me and asked me a series of questions, without waiting for my reply. “How are you? How is your college? How are your studies going on?” After a moment, he said, ‘‘You have become a little fat. Do concentrate on your studies. You will be a big man.” Though I didn’t really understand, what he meant by ‘big’, I felt a little embarrassed and asked him, “How do you know that I will become a ‘big’ man ?”

He innocently said, “It’s written on your forehead.” I jokingly asked him, “Are you doing ‘purohit’s (priest) job or ‘nahaka’s (astrologer) job?”. He clarified that he was doing house-to-house puja for a few families either with his father, who was a well-known purohit of our locality or by himself. (We normally call these families ‘jajamaana’ and the priest as ‘purohit mahasaya’ or simply ‘nana’).

Alongwith this priesthood, he was trying to learn a few basics of astrology from Pitta Nahak, who was one of the most well-known astrologers of our town and our family astrologer too. Pitta Nahaka, who was more than seventy years of age, had prepared the horoscope of all our four brothers and sisters. We all had great respect and faith in his calculations.

When I had come to the village in the vacation the year before, my mother was very sick. My father had already consulted all the doctors in our small town, including Dr.Bose and Dr. Rashid. Pati Babu, the well-known Homeopath had also given some medicines. Achyuta Kabiraj was also giving some ayurvedic preparations. All these doctors were more like family friends than professionals. When my sisters were giving these medicines to mother, she used to ask,” Why so many medicines?” .And she would smile and say, “It’s of no use.” We ,brothers and sisters, were naive enough to suggest to our father to take our mother to Cuttack Medical for better treatment.

One afternoon, the old astrologer Pitta Nahak was passing by our house. Seeing my father looking pensive, he stopped and enquired about my mother’s health. Many people in our small town knew about my mother’s sickness, as my father was a popular personality of our area. Nahaka mahasaya entered our house sat on a palm-leaf mat offered to him. My father requested him to examine the planetary positions in my mother’s horoscope. While drawing a large square on the ground with a piece of chalk-stone, Pitta Nahak said ,”You are such a wise person and you have helped a lot of people in many ways. Have faith in God. He will take care of you.” I could make out long and deep lines of worry on the astrologer’s forehead.

The astrologer knew my mother’s horoscope by heart. He drew a number of lines horizontally, vertically and diagonally inside the large square that he had already drawn. He further made smaller geometrical patterns and wrote numbers in many of the boxes and looked thoughtfully at them. Pitta Nahaka asked my father about my mother’s age and my father said,” She completed forty-four on the last full moon day.” By the time , I came back with a cup of tea for the astrologer, the drawings had become complex and his face had grown more serious. Droplets of sweat from his face and forehead were just about to fall on the drawing. He wiped his face with his small towel. I requested him to take tea, which was getting cold. He just ignored me and told my father in a low and sad tone ,” You have to be patient till the coming new moon day. You are already doing the best. She is such a pious lady. God will give her no more pain.” My father offered the customary fees to the astrologer, which the later politely refused saying, “Not this time. You have given me enough in the past. I cannot accept anything at this hour of grief “. He walked out of our house refusing, for the first time, his fees and his cup of tea, his two known weaknesses.

Four days after this incident, my mother called me one evening to her bedside, held my hands, touched my cheeks, my head , moved her fingers affectionately through my hair and said pleadingly “Give full attention to your studies. Don’t get into bad company.” “You are my eldest son.” She said proudly with tears of joy swelling in her eyes.

She passed away next day, early in the morning, in her sleep. She was looking fresh and contented with the streak of a smile on her small lips. It was a shock to me and a matter of deep grief to all. I was feeling guilty that I did not sit with mother for longer hours, instead wasted a lot of time with my friends doing inconsequential things. I should have understood Pitta Nahak’s words and gestures the other day. However, from that day, my belief in astrology turned to a faith, especially if the predictions were made by experienced and knowledgeable astrologers like Pitta Nahak.

Pitta Nahak had no son. Both his daughters were married in nearby villages. In Mukunda he found an obedient and intelligent student. The senior astrologer started teaching the receptive Mukunda the rudiments of astrology and palmistry. Mukunda told me in a conspiratorial tone that the senior nahaka had given a large number of palm-leaf manuscripts, which were advanced treatise on astrology and palmistry. However Mukunda had not yet acquired the level of knowledge to assimilate the contents and so had not yet read those ‘pothis’ (manuscripts).

I could not resist my temptation of extending my palm towards Mukunda and asked him to predict my future. He became a bit serious when he said, “ It is neither easy nor possible to predict future precisely and with certainty. However depending on the available material and proper study, it can be predicted with certain degree of accuracy.” He gave a friendly smile and said, “ Don’t expect to have your future predicted without paying any fees. Go, get tea.” While sipping tea together, he said with a little sadness in his voice, “You all left the village and went to the city. Your father has grown old. It breaks my heart to see a man like him to do petty household chores at this age. Just think of the help he has given to so many people. Everyone has left, one after another. So what is the use?” He probably wanted to say something more serious, but could not express properly. I was feeling touched and helpless.

He held my palm, bent it and straightened it, examined the lines, thick and deep ones, thin ones, the curves, mounds, chakras on the fingers and pressed various points. This intent exercise went on for a full ten minutes. I was getting a little impatient. Then he let go off my hand and smiled broadly. “Everything is good in your future. You will complete your higher studies successfully. You will get a good job, live in a city and build a large house.”

Almost laughingly, I said, ‘This is no prediction. I can tell such things about anybody without actually reading their hand or horoscope. Tell me something specific. Like, how long I shall live? When shall I marry and where? How many children shall I have? What about income?” Mukunda probably had already studied these things. So he enthusiastically said, “You cannot do business. You will get a good office job with very good salary. You will have a nice house in Bhubaneswar. You will marry at twenty five and will have a large family. Your wife will take care of your children and will make your home a heaven.” He was sincere and serious in his pronunciations. I still wanted him to answer my last question.

“How long shall I live?” He tentatively said, “You will have a long life. “ I joked, “A hundred years?” He ignored my joke and once again looked deeply into the lines of my right palm. “You will live to be seventy. May be seventy two.” He took a pause and said in a low voice, as if he was talking to himself, “I am yet to go through the pothis given by Pitta Nahaka. Had I studied it, I could have told you exactly. Seventy two or seventy. Someday I shall check with the pothis”. He was becoming serious about his neglect of the pothis. To ease matters, I said, “Oh, seventy two is a long time. You mean I have to live for another fifty-four years. One should not live to become an old man, get sick and die. I would rather die young.” I remembered what Mukunda had told about the loneliness of my father.

Mukunda was not in a humorous mood. “Don’t say like that. Whatever you utter through your lips, eventually happens.” He cited some Sanskrit slokas and explained its meaning to me, “Every stage of life is important and meaningful. In childhood, we should enjoy the love of our parents, in youth the love of wife and then of our children. In later age, we have our grownup children and grandchildren. And most important is our wife, who turns into our partner and best friend.” He had almost gone into a trance. We were about to get up , when he said, “You have a ghatti (hazard) at the age of fifty-five. You have to be careful. You will have joint-pains, acidity and develop eye problem. Though it will not be fatal, your biggest problem will be with your heart. You will recover from all these and live up to...” He paused, “I shall check the pothis and then tell you.”

Every word Mukund said got recorded in my mind. We got up and walked down to Mukunda’s house. It was a small thatched house, on a small piece of land, with a patch of kitchen garden on the backside. He lived there with his parents, two sisters, and a younger brother. I returned to Cuttack after the vacation.

Years passed since then. I completed my studies, joined a Bank as an officer and married at twenty five. My visits to our small town became few and far between. My father and younger brother had also started staying with me. I was blessed with two beautiful daughters and two intelligent sons. In a few years, my father passed away, after a brief illness. In due course, my younger brother got married and moved to a house he constructed in the city, by selling off our house in the small-town. It was time for my elder daughter Meenakshi to get married.

I went to our old town, after nearly two decades, to invite a few relations and old friends, who were still there in the town. Everything had changed, including the skyline. I could not locate Mukunda’s house and was about to ask someone, when I saw Mukunda rushing towards me in his bicycle. He was a weak shadow of his earlier self and looked pale and sick. His old thatched house was replaced by a small pucca house with a half-finished first floor. Despite his appearance, Mukunda was as excited as ever to see me. He had three children, two daughters and a son. His father had died of Asthma a few years back. His son was studying engineering. Both his daughters were married in nearby villages. One of the son-in-laws was a school teacher and the other was having a Puja materials shop. He told me all these with a sense of pride and fulfilment. Then he enquired about me. “How are you? Where are you now-a-days? How is your wife? How are your children? What are they doing? How is your job? How much is your salary? Have you finally constructed your house? “He was probably trying to find out how much of his predictions had come true. And after a pause, Mukunda said “You seem to have forgotten your old place and all of us too.” The truth hurt me.

He enquired about the purpose of my visit. Smilingly I extended the invitation card. He opened it and read aloud, “Meenakshi. Beautiful name. What is your son-in-law doing ? How is your wife? “He patted my back lovingly and said, “You owe a lot to your parents. They were pious people. Unfortunately neither of them is alive today to see the marriage of their eldest grandchild.” I had to go to other places. I asked him why he was looking so frail. He told me that he had stomach ulcer and that at Cuttack Medical, they could not do much and asked him to go to Bombay for further treatment. He said that he did not have enough money and courage to go to Bombay. He couldn’t come to Menakshi’s marriage, though I had a dhoti-chaddar for him and a saree for his wife.

Two years after this meeting, I received a post card printed in black from Mukunda’s son. Mukunda was no more. I felt very sad and immediately telephoned his son on his mobile number provided at the bottom of the card. His son, weepingly, said that Mukunda had died of cancer. They could not afford to take him to Bombay for proper treatment. I was having my own troubled thoughts. Could I have done something for Mukunda ? I had a lot of contacts in Bombay. But it was late. I felt guilty that I did not live up to his level of friendship. Such guilty feeling hunts me till today.

It is nearly twenty years since Mukunda left us. All my children are married. And their own children are also grown up. I had become old and a grandfather of six loving children. I am living with my wife in my own house, which has also become old and pale. None of my children or grand children is staying with me, though we talk to each other almost every other day over phone or video chat.

I have developed my joint pains, acidity and eye problem. My cardiac issues are under control. But my sugar-level, Blood pressure and Thyroid profile has to be closely monitored. I have lost all contact with Mukunda’s son and our old town.

Today I completed sixty nine years of age and celebrated my seventieth birthday. My niece has brought a huge chocolate cake and a new dress and a shawl. We had an elaborate cake-cutting ceremony and photo session. Telephones started ringing after evening, more so after the birthday celebration photos were mailed by my niece. All my sons, daughters-in-law, daughters and sons-in-law and grand children rang me up to say Happy Birthday, My younger daughter enquired about my health and cried a lot. I too cried and blessed her. My grand children wanted me to celebrate my birthday again, when they would visit me next. I smiled and said yes.

My eldest daughter, telephoned late at night and talked to me for more than half an hour and admonished me for taking cake. Photos were viral by now. She told me walk a mile extra the next day, to compensate the cake and sweets. Then she talked to her mother for another half an hour.

The old birthday boy was not very happy exactly, as he had entered seventy. After all seventy two was not all that far. We retired to bed. It was midnight. I remembered Mukunda telling me about my father’s loneliness. We were only two people in the big house today. One of us has to leave first. The other one will be left behind. I was seventy and had my cardiac problems too. I remembered Mukunda’s words “ I will check the pothis and tell you exactly how long you will live. Seventy two or seventy. I don’t know if he ever referred to the pothis.

# Original story in Odia by Biraja Prasad Mohanty, Translated by Asit Chandra Das