Astrology represents the triumph of hope over religion. And by extension, Bejan Daruwalla, who died on May 29, represented the triumph of marketing over matter. He should be credited with turning a hobby into a national pastime for most Indians, and a passion for a faithful few.
Many things can be said about astrology. It can be called a farce, unscientific mumbo-jumbo, pop psychology, faith-healing or a heritage of a culture that sometimes finds it difficult to separate history from mythology, or a serious craft based on planetary motions, their shadows and interactions. In the end, astrology is purely a belief system based on the delicate interplay of fear and hope. You can believe in god, you can believe in religion, you can believe in homoeopathy, and, similarly, you can believe in astrology.
Amitabh Bachchan — notice the stones and gems on his fingers — reportedly believes in it. Former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, a polyglot, was reportedly a fan. Smriti Irani, who was the minister in charge of IITs and IIMs then, advertised it with a public visit to a palmist. Former President Pratibha Patil — understandably so — had a lot of faith in palmists.
To argue that an imaginary entity like Ketu — a headless entity that emerged from the mythological churning of the oceans — sitting in one of the 12 houses of your horoscope could be the source of your current misery is pure belief. May the stars shine on those who think feeding a black dog every Friday for 12 weeks can appease this headless entity. But, science will always be at loggerheads with this belief system. Scientists and rationalists will continue to call it bunkum, a fraud perpetrated on the fearful and the hopeful who has bunked critical thinking.
If astrology has managed to stay relevant in this war between scientific temperament and inherited belief, the credit should go to astrologers like Daruwalla, who brought it out of closed rooms, made it part of popular culture, mainstreamed it and turned it into a multi-million dollar industry. Like Linda Goodman for Western astrology, Cheiro for palmistry and numerology, Daruwalla should get the bouquets — even brickbats if you are on the other side of the divide — for making Indian (called Vedic) astrology a popular brand.
Till Daruwalla’s advent on the scene, a typical soothsayer was imagined as a moody Brahmin who would pore over a chart, look at the face or the palm and make some predictions about a person’s future. In popular culture, this was done generally at the time of the birth, when seeking the opinion of an astrologer was considered de rigueur. Once the predictions were made, the astrologer, who acted also as the priest, would be sent back home with some gifts.
Related news: Renowned astrologer Bejan Daruwalla passes away at 88
Followers of Indian cinema would notice this imagery still continues to be perpetrated. In the 60s, Yash Chopra helmed a blockbuster that starts with a prediction made by a palmist and is premised on the argument that men are slaves to their fate (waqt, time). In 2020, Indians are binge-watching a noir drama on Amazon Prime, where one of the central characters is predicted to be near-immortal because of his horoscope by a priest in mofussil India. The point is: astrology was considered a domain of priests and pundits, who were by birthright Brahmins.
Daruwalla achieved two things. First, he changed the image of the soothsayer. From a mendicant-like figure making dire predictions, Daruwalla helped the astrologer evolve into a jovial, intellectual, English-speaking, market-savvy product that everyone wanted. Two, Daruwalla, a Parsi, turned astrology into an enterprise that could be practised by not just non-Brahmins, but also non-Hindus. (Scholars of astrology, however, swear more by KN Rao than any other modern soothsayer).
In this pursuit, he was helped by his own background. Since Daruwalla was a teacher of English literature, it made him easier to connect with the urban, elite audience in a language and metaphors they understood.
Also, his association with the Times of India, where his Sunday column Ganesha Speaks was a big hit, was pure providence. You can perhaps argue it was in his stars.With the Times of India in his house of luck — most astrologers believe it is the 9th in the chart — Daruwalla became unstoppable. It gave him access to India’s elite, made him a household name and turned him into a mini-celebrity. From there on, annual books on predictions, personalised readings and high-profile appearances on TV were logical extensions of his serendipitous beginning.
Did Daruwalla predict anything of real substance? This question can be answered honestly only by his patrons and followers. In my opinion — and it is open to rebuttals — some people can actually tell you a few things about your own past with the help of several tools, both occult and scientific. But, nobody can predict the future since it is dependent on a variety of unknowns.
But, the arc of Daruwalla’s popularity suggests he was always in great demand, and, by inference, must have made a difference to the lives of the people who sought his advice and solutions. In the public domain, astrology is more myth than reality. Sometimes it acquires a life of their own because of the law of probability. Sometimes it is interpreted by followers retrospectively to fit an occurrence, like the rambling predictions made by the father of soothsaying — Nostradamus.
Daruwalla predicted the rise of Narendra Modi (even I did without reading his charts). He is said to have foreseen the Gujarat earthquake, Sanjay Gandhi’s death in an air crash and Atal Behari Vajpayee’s ascent to the top political post. If this is true, it made him an expert on politics, seismology, natural disasters and personal tragedies. That’s an impressive range.
But, Daruwalla certainly didn’t predict a pandemic in 2020 (though someone else actually did) that actually led to his demise at the ripe age of 89. And here is the irony. Soon after Daruwalla’s death, a friend mourned that the astrologer’s last wish of a “glorious” funeral could not be fulfilled because of the lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions. If only stars could have foretold…