When Yaniv visited India a few years back, a series of chance encounters and coincidences lead him to an astrolger who had a copy of his horoscope written on an old palm leaf that contained many remarkable details about his life. The legend as I understood it then was that there was a certain disciple of the ancient sage Agastya who began scrawling out the horoscopes of certain people who lived in India at that time. The remarkable thing was that he was writing out the horoscopes of their future lives– and not just any future life, a future life in which they had reached a critical inflection point in their spiritual evolution. The goal was to create a sort of time-capsule to the future through which beneficial advice could be given to that soul to help them overcome critical hurdle along their journey. Not everyone had a leaf, but the legend goes that only people who did have a leaf would be interested in finding it, and thus be drawn to a place where the leaves were stored. Curious about the legend, I put it on my wish-list of things to check out while in S. India.
Back in December, I met with Dr. M.D. Muthukumarswamy, Executive Director of the National Folklore Support Centre, as part of the project with Stanford. What had been slated to be a 30 minute meeting ended up lasting 6 hours, and felt distinctly like catching up with a long lost friend. I figured that Muthu would know about the palm leaves, known as nadi leaves, and so I asked him. He added some information to what I already had heard: the original leaves were composed between 3000 and 5000 years ago, and were rediscovered in the early 1800s when they were copied; the originals are officially lost, but probably held somewhere as the sacred treasure of a brahmin family; most of the people who claim to have nadi leaves are fakers; a man named C. Poosamuthu near Vaidyetheswaran Koil was the only guy in S. India who had the legit leaves copied in the 1800s. If anybody knows what they’re talking about, its definitely Muthu, so I knew I had to find this Poosamuthu fellow near Vaidyetheswaran Koil. Last week I got the chance.
Vaidyetheswaran Koil is a temple about 30 km from Chidambaram, and so I boarded a bus from Pondicherry to Chidambaram, and then started looking for a cab to take to Vaidyetheswaran. That day had already been a series of amazing coincidences for me and for others and something interesting happened here too. When I asked the how much the fare was (in English) to my destination, he responded in Hindi. Hindi! That’s practically unheard of in S. India. Anyhow, happy to have someone I could communicate with fairly well, I zoomed off in search of Poosamuthu. BTW, it was actually Urdu that he’d responded in, and my drivers were two rather modern, unusually muscular Muslim guys in their early 20s who took me by the Muslim community center, and their Muslim neighborhood on the way to Vaidyetheswaran Koil.
Anyhow, we get to the temple, and of course every shop there is a nadi leaf shop. We ask for Poosamuthu, and everyone sends us to their shop. When we specifically ask for Poosamuthu, they claim that they are a branch of the Poosamuthu operation, or that Poosamuthu is “out of station”. I ask for their card, and of course it has nothing to do with Poosamuthu. I ask for Poosamuthu’s card, and none of these guys could produce one. We realized that it was a case of trying to ask a Hyundai dealer where the Honda dealership was and that we simply needed to ask someone in another line of business so we drove off and asked around, eventually finding C. Poosamuthu a short time, and short distance later.
Upon arriving, I was initially struck by the number of people lounging around. There were like 7 or 8 chelas loitering on the porch, who kind of perked up when I got there. They lead me to a small room where a man in his 30s sat across the table from me.
“Are you Poosamuthu?”
“Great. Dr. Muthukumarswamy from Chennai recommended you. I’d like to see if I have a nadi leaf.”
Nod. Smile. Silence. More silence.
What was he waiting for?
“So how do I go about doing that?”
Awright… so clearly I was not understanding how all this worked. I decided to follow the Roman rule and do as the Vaidyetheswarans do while in Vaidyetheswaran. I just sat there. And smiled.
A few minutes later, another dude walks into the room and sits next to me. The two of them start talking in Tamil. Just when I think this guy is cutting in on my action, he turns to me and starts talking in Hindi. Ahh… he’s the translator, and Poosamuthu doesn’t speak English.
I learn that this dude actually isn’t Poosamuthu, but someone who claims to be the son of Poosamuthu. Felt kinda shady given all the scammers a few blocks away, but he said that Poosamuthu is old and doesn’t do readings anymore. He’s taught these guys how to read the leaves, and he still meets people but isn’t directly involved with the action. Next, he tells me the story of the nadi leaves. My Hindi isn’t anywhere near perfect, but as I make it out, his version says that the leaves were written by Vashistha (instead of Agastya’s disciple), another ancient sage of fame, meant for people who are either at a critical point in their evolution, or whose spiritual evolution is critical for the overall benefit of humanity. Seemed like a flattering twist designed to make people feel special and important, but whatever. On to the way it works. Not everyone has a leaf, you don’t pay if you don’t have a leaf, but you do have to pay half of the amount upfront if you want them to check for a leaf. Pricing depends on how much info you want. Apparently, there are 15 chapter that cover all aspects of your life… each priced at 300 Rs. Or you can get the whole enchilada– past, present, future and all chapters for 4000 Rs. Translation to English, where you also get an audio tape of the translation, cost another 400 Rs. Seemed like if you only got the past, it could only verify whether there was anything to all this, and not really do anything relevant for the present. Also, if you only got the future, you have no idea if any of it is legit. There are similar problems if you ask about any particular chapter, like the ‘career’ chapter or the ‘marriage’ chapter. So I decide to go for the whole enchilada.
They tell me that in order to find my leaf, they need my name, birthdate & location, and right thumb print. 2000 Rs and 30 minutes later, another dude aged about 50 or so comes back with a short stack of strips of palm leaves. They seem to be quite old, and have faint, not-quite-Tamil script on them. The dude and his translator begin. He carefully unwraps the leaf bundle and drawls off a line or two in a nasal, archaic Tamil. He then translates into modern Tamil for the translator in normal tone, who tells me what he said in Hindi.
Basically, the way it works is this: the guy asks you a yes or no question supposedly from the leaf. If you answer is no, its not your leaf, and they move onto the next leaf. Only when the answer to every question asked is ‘yes’ has your leaf been found. They’ll ask you questions like “Does your mother’s name start with any of these four letters…?” or “Is your family involved in the _____ business?” or “Do you have ___ brothers?” When they get a ‘yes’, they’ll move on to “Does the second letter of your mother’s name start with…?”
You can see the problem here. About a 100 questions later, they knew: my mother’s name, father’s name, health status of both, number-gender-approx age of siblings, where my family lives, what they do, my educational background, work background, future aspirations & inclinations, travel history, and many details about each of these. Essentially, they have tons of information about my past & present circumstances, and lots of information about what my future directions might be. Doesn’t take a genius to make some good enough guesses to fill in the gaps. As if that weren’t enough, there was still more that made it seem fake. First, the guy didn’t seem to be actually reading the leaves- just showboating like he was and then asking whatever question seemed like it was far enough removed from the previous question such that those with bad short-term memory wouldn’t remember the details of sequential lines of questioning. The nasal supposedly-archaic-Tamil added to that. Second, there seemed to be an endless supply of leaves. He first brought in 1 bundle that had about 20 leaves. When that was exhausted without locating my leaf, he went in the room and got another stack. This kept happening. You’d think that if there were perhaps 100 candidate leaves, he’d bring them all in the room at once. But if he was scamming, he would never want there to be a finite number cuz he might run out and then have to pay back the advance. What added to this sense was the Hindi translator telling me that I definitely had a leaf before I paid anything upfront– really got the sense that anyone with the money has got a leaf. Third, when he finally got to all ‘yes’, every question was based on things he had already asked and verified in previous questions– there wasn’t a single question that was a newly confirmed ‘yes’. Fourth, at the last yes, he didn’t note down what leaf, just said that he found my ‘index’ an wrote things down in his pad. This lead me to wonder if the leaves themselves were the nadi leaves or some sort of indexing leaf– but also gave the feeling that the leaves didn’t really matter and were just part of the show. Lastly, they didn’t seem to do a thing with my thumbprint. Theoretically, your leaf is supposed to be located by patterns on your thumb. They seemed to take my print just because perhaps I had heard that its all done with your thumbprint.
After they found my index, I was supposed to go back the next day. The process was supposed to take 2-3 hours and another 2400 Rs. but instead I went back to Pondy and called Yaniv the next morning. His experience was quite a bit different from mine… not nearly as sketchy and expensive. Wasn’t able to get a hold of Muthu to get his thoughts, but was convinced enough that these guys were cheaters. The experience did cost me 2000 Rs for the scammers and 600 Rs for the taxi (which also was a rip-off by about 150 Rs) but that’s the price of satisfying my curiousity. And for being a sucker!