Now that my Uncle Ram is dead and gone, I can write about him without any fear that he will read this. Not that my Uncle would have gone out of his way to read an account of himself even if I had written it during his lifetime. He was a literary ascetic in that he abstained from literature. In fact, Uncle read nothing except books on astrology. Nothing else interested him, and I don’t think he was even aware that other things besides astrology existed in this or any other world. The world of astrology was good enough for him. He had just peeped into this unique world, liked the looks of it and so settled there, not caring whether it was the right one or not. Had Uncle chosen a different world, say the world of astronomy, and explored it with the same unshakeable faith and fanatical zeal he had given to his astrology, everyone might have honored this worthy son of India.

I did mention this to Uncle once. We were trudging across the yellow rice fields one starry night. He looked up at that twinkling world of his. “Look, my boy,” he said dreamily, “up there are our rulers. Every atom of life in this world dances and sings like puppets when they pull the strings. And the starry rules enact this puppet show according to definite rules. My work is to find out these rules.”

“But astronomers say,” I began, “that astrology is not a science. And astronomers are clever people; they are well paid and honored everywhere. Now if you took astronomy –“

“Astronomers! Pooh! All they can do is look at the starts through their silly telescopes. I don’t have to sit and stare at the stars like an amazed child. I study them in plans and charts and find out what they are going to do in our lives. Scientific! Bah! If anything is scientific it is astrology because it foretells the future with precision.

And he spat on the rice fields as if those contemptible astronomers were hidden somewhere among them.

Uncle Ram could not talk of anything else but his science of the stars. There was no event or activity of life without the stars having a hand in it. When the farmers of the village talked about the rice and the rain he would wait impatiently till they had finished. Then, whether they liked it or not, he would give the while problem an astrological interpretation and end up with a warning. If the farmers were in the mood to listen to him he would do a bit of propaganda in favor of the stars. His discourse was received with appropriate good humor by the farmers, who were not wholly skeptical towards astrology.

When one of the farmers wished to get married or had been blessed with a child, he found it necessary to consult Uncle, who, in turn consulted the stars. He would take out his astrological almanac and peer gravely as it over his glasses. Then for days he would add, multiply and subtract; for Uncle was not quick at figures. On arriving at results, he would visit his client immediately and say to him: “The sixth of June is an auspicious day for the bride but not for the bridegroom. The tenth of August is, however, a lucky day for your marriage.”

“If it were a child’s horoscope it meant even more intricate evaluations. But Uncle loved every bit of it. It meant that he was planning the life of a human being up to the moment of his death. Uncle Ram, however, called it “predictions”, and said that he was only jotting down what the stars told him. Unlike other astrologers, Uncle wrote down bluntly the predictions of the stars. If the child were to end up as a criminal he did not seek to cover up this bit of bad tidings in any way.

Uncle predicted woes and happiness with great enthusiasm. He is reputed to have prophesied the First World War and many minor catastrophes besides. Whenever his predictions came true, Uncle would talk of them for weeks and months on end.

“Have you heard of Annamal’s son?” he would ask everyone he met. “He was kicked into a well by a bull and is seriously injured. I had warned him of it and had told him that within a few months he would suffer an accident from fire, stone or water. It’s all written in the stars. The poor boy!”

There were many of Uncle’s predictions which never came true, and he did not like to be reminded of them. Whenever he was questioned about these unfulfilled prophecies he would say rather impatiently: “I must have made a mistake in the calculations. You know how bad I am with figures. It’s my figures and not the stars that have been wrong. In fact, I have worked the whole thing all over again and have discovered that the stars do say that the thing should have been as has just happened. The stars can never be wrong it your calculations are correct. If the stars are wrong then how did I prophesy the Great War or what happened to Annamal’s son, eh? I have been right many times and you all know it.”

Aunty Ram did not play the part of the sympathetic wife, who with kind words and constant encouragement should have helped this great scholar in his search for truth. Often at night when she found her husband busy calculating she reviled him abominably.

“You good-for-nothing husband of mine. If only you would spend your time calculating money instead of the stars, we would not be living in this dirty hut and be so poor. If only you would work harder in the fields instead of wasting your time on such rubbish life might have been easier for us.”

“But, my dear,” Uncle would say softly, “ we are destined to be what we are and, however much we may try, we cannot defeat the will of the stars.”

This logic was answered by a spate of violent abuse and threats but Uncle did not give up his world of the stars.

There was a fat grimy scroll which Uncle consulted frequently. It was his own horoscope, and it had been written by an astrologer now dead. It seems that Uncle’s horoscope was fairly accurate. According to Uncle (and he showed me this remarkable passage), it was written that he had partiality towards the stars. But some of the malicious elements in our village propounded a theory that Uncle became an astrologer after reading it in his horoscope

Uncle read his horoscope often and even made alterations and additions to it in the course of his readings. He was chagrined to find so many discrepancies come to light with the passage of years. In fact, he tended towards the opinion that his astrologer had been quite ignorant of astrology.

Anyhow, this book of predictions influenced Uncle’s life and activities very much. Sometimes he refused to venture out of his house for days because his horoscope forbade such foolhardiness. Many a time he had been saved from horrible dangers, thanks to timely warnings of the stars. Auntie, however, interpreted Uncle’s frequent confinement in the house as nothing more than an excused to keep away from work in the fields, and spend more time on his astrology.

According to Uncle’s horoscope, he was to die at the age of sixty-eight. He had even gone so far as to calculate the time and day of his death. He repeated the grim predictions to everyone as if the fulfillment of it would once and for all be an irrefutable proof in favor of astrology. There was something dramatic in the idea that Uncle had to die to establish the truth of his science. Any other person in possession of such a grim fact as the precise time of his own death would have found life a misery fearful of expectancy. Not so with Uncle. His attitude towards the whole affair was that of a fearless and impersonal scientist. He knew he could not escape what the stars had planned for him, however much he might struggle, the stars would win out in the end. Above all, was the knowledge that his death would establish the truth of his one and only love – astrology.

A few weeks before his prophesied day of death Uncle Ram went about taking farewell of his friends and relatives. At first the village looked upon it as a joke, but Uncle went about it so earnestly that they began to take an interest in his approaching death. Uncle had purchased a fine brown shroud. He sent out invitations to his friends and relatives to be present at this death. After that there was to be a great feast; for his death was not to be an occasion for grief but for rejoicing. Was he not by death to prove the truth of his astrology?

The great day arrived. Between two and give in the afternoon Uncle Ram was to meet Yaman, the God of Death.

He wishes to die on the open rice field, so that everybody could witness the logic of the stars. The shroud was resting on a mound of fragrant flowers. He had even brightened up the small, drab field with gap paper banners and festoons. In fact the scene was more suggestive of a wedding than of death. There were two priests to chant appropriate praters and hymns while Uncle died.

The day was hot and the sky clear. The stars were invisible but were there looking down all the same. Hundreds of people had assembled to see what promised to be a strange phenomenon. Even the skeptical ones had come, with their peculiar smiles. But, thought some of them, what if he should really die? What then should their attitude towards astrology be?

The perspiring, excited crowd waited for Uncle.

At half past one Uncle came direct from the temple. He was dressed in white and was in no way downcast. He smiled and joked with those around him as if he were waiting to catch a holiday train. Some admired Uncle for his calmness and courage. Some were even moved to tears, and all the more so because many had treated him rather unfairly. Auntie too was there by his side. At first she had scolded him for being a fool and calling him the usual names. Gradually, because of Uncle’s earnestness, she had believed that Uncle was really going to die. Now in the face of his impending death she began to weep loudly. She reproached herself for having treated him so inconsiderately all these years and begged for his forgiveness.

A few minutes before two, Uncle wrapped himself in his shroud and cheerfully laid down to die. Auntie and many others howled with grief and begged him not to die. Others were afraid. Some did not know what to feel.

Uncle closed his eyes and waited for death to take him away. The priests chanted their prayers and hymns. All waited for the miracle and kept looking at their watches.

The chanting and weeping were kept up for more than three hours. Now and then the priests stopped their chanting to examine Uncle. At such moments everyone held their breath. The priests shook their tired heads to indicate that Uncle was still alive. Past five and Uncle still breathed heavily.

Many of the crowd had gone away, some angry and some were laughing their sides out. The skeptical ones smiled with increasing sarcasm.

The priests kept on with their chanting for another hour, thinking that there might have been a slight error in the calculations. Uncle too was convinced that he might have overlooked a vital fraction in his calculation.

However, the chanting and the weeping slowly changed to angry murmurs. They insisted that Uncle should get out of the shroud before it got too dark. Uncle got up at last – it seemed almost like a resurrection – muttering something about “wrong calculations.” When the people hurled insults and abuse at him and his stars, Uncle was unperturbed. Auntie howled, not with grief, but with rage. The angry guests were a little placated after Auntie had given them the dinner as promised. As for Uncle, he went straight to his room to find out where his calculations had gone wrong. Before the night was over he found out that he had actually five more years to live. He announced this heartening news to his guests, who received it sullenly. One of them went as far as to remark rather unkindly: “Yes, yes. We know. But for the stars you might have died.”

Undaunted, Uncle still went round proclaiming that at the end of five years he would die. Whenever someone made fun of his by reminding him about his “starry blunder” he defended the stars and blamed his weakness at figures. In fact, Uncle Ram embraced astrology with greater fervor than ever in the face of so much ridicule and vicious skepticism.

Then one day, two years after the great fiasco, the stars struck him another cruel blow. He was in the midst of his calculations when he died. Auntie found him with his head resting on his horoscope. The heartless stars, to which Uncle had given a lifetime of unselfish service and devotion, had struck too soon. I can imagine Uncle protesting: “No. No. The stars are never wrong. It’s I who am wrong. I am so bad with figures. Some undetected flaw…a small fraction overlooked in my calculation…”

 

By S. Rajaratnam