Out of India: Science of the lamp is used to cast a sinister shadow

NEW DELHI - The astrologer's office is cramped and dark, and inside sits a small man with eyes bright like a noctural animal's and an air of weariness, as though nothing he witnessed under the stars could surprise him any longer. I visited him because I could not believe what I was reading in the Indian papers.

It was about astrology. A dangerous obsession is spreading among the middle classes: Indian women are having caesareans so their children are born under lucky stars. There were reports of this happening in the southern state of Kerala and in some of the better New Delhi clinics.

The man behind it in Kerala is V S Ramakrishna Nair, who runs the Centre for Astrological Research and Development (Card). Last year, at a Vedic jamboree, helped along with copious quantities of incense, coconut milk and a few well-chosen mantras, he promised 1,136 childless couples they would soon have sons. With a boy, parents are spared having to pay huge dowries. But few of the couples did have sons.

A far more effective way to guarantee the birth of a son was told to me by a bee-keeper's daughter in Kashmir. Her mother, after producing five girls, despaired of having a son. She had tried everything: prayers, magic, offerings at shrines, and had even begun to suspect her husband's various honeys of lotus, jasmine and cannabis might have been responsible. Then an old woman, about to embark on the haj pilgrimage, approached her. 'Give me a bag of your basmati rice, and I'll feed it to the pigeons in Mecca,' said the old woman. It worked, but not without side-effects: her son is vain and flighty, and migrated from Kashmir to work in Saudi Arabia.

No doubt my New Delhi astrologer, R Santhanam, would dismiss the story as coincidence or superstitious bunk. He believes astrology is not only the oldest science, going back 5,000 years, but the purest too. The Sanskrit word for astrology is jyotisha which means Science of the Lamp. 'Astrology is like a lamp. It can light the road ahead, but it can't change the direction of the road, make it longer or shorter,' Mr Santhanam explains tiredly. 'People don't always know that. They expect miracles.'

Mr Santhanam gave up a plum job reading horoscopes for rich tourists and businessmen at a deluxe New Delhi hotel. Now he hunts down ancient, crumbling texts on astrology in the great temples and libraries of Varanasi, Madras and Baroda, which he translates from Sanskrit into English.

He had seen the articles on the caesrean births and thought it was lunacy. Never mind the morality or medical ethics of it, cutting the baby out of the womb has no effect on his or her horoscope, Mr Santhanam says. Your stars are unalterable since what counts is not the birth but the moment of impregnation, he claims.

'The time of conception is like the negative of a photograph, while the time of birth is like the positive. Just because you change the positive, it doesn't alter the truth recorded in the negative,' he explains. Evidently, this means the human race has been spared a bunch of obnoxious and incredibly lucky super-brats.

Many doctors are aghast at this trend of speeding up birth for astrological imperatives, but there is no scarcity of Indian clinics willing to do it. A normal delivery costs around 1,500 rupees (pounds 31), while a caesarean can run to 10,000 rupees.

Even if the vogue for caesareans wanes, nothing will dent the Indian's belief in the planets' influence on personal destiny. Punctuality is not often observed here, but every Indian I've asked knows the exact time of his or her birth. Belief in astrology permeates everything. The Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, consults star-gazers. Astrological espionage is used by businessmen who also delay signing contracts until an astrologer gives the go-ahead. Some patients will postpone surgery until an auspicious planet scuttles into their Sixth House.

And of course there's love. From illiterate villagers to urbane Bombay industrialists, Indian couples seldom will wed unless their stars are compatible. Is it all written in the stars? The astrologer's reply was cryptic: 'If rain is falling, and I send you outside with a cup, you can only gather a cup full of rain.'

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