Debu the Astrologer was on his third whiskey. He gestured with his glass in my general direction narrowly missing hitting the bottle with his right elbow.
“Stop seeing that young man!” he shouted across the room at me.
I was still lingering in the doorway, not sure I wanted to go any further. Anand had gone ahead and was beckoning me forward. This had been his idea and I was already concocting my revenge.
Debu pointed with his glass to the seat next to the sofa where he was sitting, lurching like a schooner, shirt out over his pants, an ashtray over-flowing on a glass table top. I sat down, uncommitted.
“Stop seeing that young man!” he barked again. I hadn’t said a word, but he acted as if I was arguing with him. I shot an SOS to Anand who shrugged and looked down at the carpet.
Debu leaned towards me, eyes surprisingly focused, and spoke in a rummy whisper.
“He’s an A class bastard, my dear.”
I felt a surge of affection towards this smashed stargazer.
“He’s not so bad,” I protested, aware that in doing so I was admitting that I knew what he was talking about.
I had promised myself that I wouldn’t offer him any information. I knew how cunning astrologers could be, building confidence with informed guesses and then extrapolating from any snippets of data their clients unwittingly provide.
There was a knock at the door and an attractive plump girl with glasses entered the room. We were in a nondescript hotel in Greater Kailash where Anand had told me that Debu was getting treatment for stomach cancer.
While she and Debu discussed some personal issue she was having, I sidled over to Anand.
“It’s only four o’clock. He’s drunk out of his gourd. What kind of astrologer is he?”
“It’s four twenty five and he’s the best,” was his reply.
“Hi, my name’s Amrita,” said the girl, extending her hand. She looked in her late 20s. Bright and very sober.
“She’s my assistant,” explained Debu, lighting a cigarette from the one in his mouth.
Amrita opened up a laptop and began tapping away at the keyboard.
“I was telling her that the young man she’s seeing is an A class bastard,” said Debu, pouring himself another drink. “I don’t think she believes me. Why don’t you check her chart.”
I had given him my birth details a few days before, that apparently had been inputted into some astrology program.
He poured one for me. I downed it straight.
When he got up to get ice from the fridge I could see that it was hard for him to walk, and not just because he was inebriated. He caught my expression of concern.
“You’re in a lot of pain,” I said.
He smiled and tonged three ice cubes into my glass from a bucket.
A few minutes later, the girl looked up from the laptop and over the top of her spectacles.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” she said, like a doctor might confirm an unfortunate diagnosis. “He’s absolutely right. A class bastard.”
I didn’t have time to ponder how being born in Epping, England, on December 29th at 6:30 pm meant that 48 years later I was dating a bastard, A class or not, because Debu then began to tell me things that no one living outside my wardrobe could possibly know, interspersing revelations about my dire love life with exclamations of “You’re a lovely girl! Why do you do this to yourself?”
Why indeed? I thought.
Debu looked at Anand as if he had the answer. Anand shrugged again and began fiddling with his mobile.
Debu was systematically blowing my mind. I later understood that he did this deliberately to win my confidence because he actually wanted to tell me something else. Something far more important than the fact I had a lousy boyfriend. I was going to have a “fatal accident”. It was going to happen in six months. That’s all he would give me.
“What’s the point of telling me I’m going to have a fatal accident if I can’t do anything about it?” I asked exasperated.
“Oh, but you can do something, my dear.”
He proceeded to tell me about a special kind of puja performed by lepers in the Punjab. Naturally, intercepting a fatal accident didn’t come cheap. Anand generously offered to pay. I had just started a new job, and hadn’t yet worked out a puja budget.
“What was that about lepers in the Punjab?” I asked Anand as we descended the stairs on the way out.
“There’s a guru who hires them to do it. No one else will give them work. They live in the temple and are looked after. They do special rituals for people who are sick or going through a crisis. It’s like a karmic intervention.”
I ditched the ‘A class bastard’ a week after my first meeting with Debu with no regrets. I saw Debu twice after that. Anand and I went over for tea. We made sure we arrived before noon, and well before the third whiskey. Debu had a tangible warmth. He was loud and kind, creative and deeply human. The hotel staff had clearly fallen in love with him, and treated him like a respected uncle. He told me he felt like my older brother, and I knew he meant it. “Don’t don’t live for yourself,” he would say. “Live for others.”
I’d crossed that Stygian road umpteen times to the Qutab Minar metro, paying the ferryman with metal nerves and visible entitlement. Crossing roads in 21st century Indra City was never a doddle, but this section of the Mehrauli-Gurgoan highway was pandemonium on meth. I felt like a true Delhiite, weaving with skill and precision between bumpers, using all the tricks of the besieged urban pedestrian to reach the other side in one piece: taking refuge in a clump of other crossers (the human shield technique), on-the-spot calculations of the collision algorithms of moving objects (take the two speeds add them together then divide by distance…okay, this is more instinctual than practical), keeping pace with the flow, invoking Hanuman, and never, ever hesitating.
There were two double lanes with a central divider so it had to be tackled in stages. I had made it to the divider and was negotiating my next move, waiting for the traffic to slow for the red light further up the road (actually a less safe place to cross as you never know who is going to ignore it). The vehicles slowed to a crawl, including a public bus, and I began to cross over, daydreaming about my future plans, when the present knocked me flying. I found myself upside down in a kind of slow-motion suspension. My attention suddenly absolute. I saw my reading glasses soar through the air and considered that if I died I wouldn’t need to buy any more. I seemed to have all the time in the world to mull over my situation the way that Alice could read books while falling down the rabbit hole. Definitely hospital came the first thought. I wonder how many bones I’ll break? and then, Maybe that bus will run me over.
The bus didn’t run me over. I landed in rather unglamourous fashion smack on my behind in front of the left tyre. A motorbike was on its side spinning its wheels near the curb. I rolled to my left and grabbed my glasses, leaped up, and raced to the pavement with the distinct impression that I had actually bounced like a rubber ball. A young man in a sea foam green tee shirt was tending a cut on his shin, his arm wrapped around another’s shoulders. He had been shooting the gap between the bus and the curb when I had walked right in front of him. There was no way that either of us could have avoided colliding. He began shouting at me in Hindi. I guessed it was something along the lines of, “What the hell were you thinking lady? You could’ve got us both killed!”
He was in shock. I checked his leg. It was bleeding a lot as shin wounds do, but it didn’t look bad enough to need stitches. I kept telling him I was sorry. As we stood there, my left hand, stinging from road burn, began shaking violently. Suddenly, the young man’s demeanour shifted from indignant to solicitous as if he’d just realized that he’d hit me. I assured him that I was okay, and his friend drove off with him riding pillion.
I boarded the metro and took a seat in the ladies car. When I reached my friend’s place, I told him what had happened.
“That was a really stupid thing to do,” he said unsympathetically. “Bikes drive the inside of traffic all the time, you know that. If you can’t see the entire road, don’t cross it. People get killed every day in Delhi doing what you did.”
I was amazed that I wasn’t hurt, but for a few days afterwards I felt strangely absent from my life. Like in that Hollywood genre of paranormal comedies where the hero gets killed in a road accident and their ghost gets up from the body and walks away. Except that my ghost was still lying on the road. It was the living being that was walking around in some in-between state. I kept having the urge to shake my body, as if I could shock myself back into total existence like banging the side of the TV set to improve reception.
Three days later, I crossed the road to the metro again and spent over five minutes hovering on the middle divider. I’d lost my street-crossing mojo. I watched my left hand shaking like someone else’s. For a few weeks I had trouble getting to the other side. I began taking autos instead of the metro so I didn’t have to try. I was even reduced to asking a friend to hold my hand across the street to the Saket Citywalk mall at rush hour, which embarrassed him no end. But that was all. That and a little neck strain that made me feel my face was on backwards. A week later, I called up Debu.
“I think I just had the fatal accident,” I said. “Thanks for everything.”
“There’s no need to thank me,” he replied.
“Yes, there is,” I told him.
It was almost exactly six months since his prediction.
The next summer I was preparing for a trip out of Delhi. I needed to get out of the city that was wrecking my lungs, plugging my sinuses and using my senses for a punching bag. For some reason Debu sprang into my mind one evening while I was packing. I called him up, even though it was well past four o’clock and I knew he probably would be past coherent. He didn’t pick up so I texted him a greeting. YES. TELL ME was his reply. He was always ready to help anyone, even though he was suffering so much himself. I texted him back that I was just wanting to know how he was doing. He didn’t respond. I had a strong urge to see him before I left, but I got busy. It’ll wait until I get back, I thought.
A month later when I returned to Delhi I called up Anand who told me that Debu had died the week before. I’m not sure I will ever understand who he was or what he did but I will never forget our brief and mysterious connection. Rest in Painless Peace Debu ji. Always my favourite astrologer. And the most unexpected friend.