Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine, May 2010

"Only God knows better" - palm reading in Muree, Pakistan

When I first allowed someone to test their psychic powers on me I was in the southern Chinese city of Guilin. It was 2006. The fortune teller was very old, completely blind and his left arm was severed at the elbow. Communicating the predictions was a team effort – the fortune teller spoke the local dialect, which was translated by his assistant into “city” Cantonese, and my Chinese student friend whispered it into my ear in English. It felt more like a game of Chinese Whispers than anything else and I was thoroughly amused. I was told that I would become a professor, which wasn’t something I’d specifically written off. In fact I was secretly quite pleased, though far less convinced than I would have been if I wasn’t in the city’s university grounds at the time.

My second mystic experience occurred several months later, in Muree, Pakistan. I dropped in off the street to see a palmist, whose back wall had a sign that claimed, “Only God Knows Better.” The most specific thing he said was that I would be suited to computer studies or business administration. Not on my life!

And yet it seems I’m becoming something of a mystic tourist, because I opted for another encounter last week. A number of my friends here in Dhaka read their daily horoscopes with a sense of compulsion and I know others who visit palmists. Several do both. I have one friend in particular who extols the wisdom of both practices most frequently, and his parents engage a family palmist rather than a family doctor. My friend was recently advised that he “wouldn’t last the year as a bachelor.” Naturally (perhaps), I wondered what such a person might tell me.

So I spent last Tuesday night in the home of Dhaka’s best known palmist, Kausar Ahmed Chaudhury. Kauser began studying astrology as a 10-year-old, and over the decades he has expanded his repertoire to include numerology, physiognomy (judging a character based on a person’s figure, gait and facial features), palmistry, graphology (the study of a person’s handwriting to judge character), Greek zodiac signs, and even ESP (extra-sensory perception). Kausar has been Prothom Alo’s psychic columnist, as well the author of its daily horoscopes, for the last 11 years. According to his daughter-in-law who trawled the internet, his predictions are republished in many countries around the world. I was confident that my palms were in good hands.

Business was brisk that evening – when I arrived I was third in line. I sat in his small living-room-cum-waiting-room and stared at a pair of stuffed toy dogs. On either side of a window leading to a balcony are portraits of Che Guevara and the palmist himself. Kauser, wearing a green beret and sporting facial hair and a deadly serious expression, looks remarkably like the Cuban revolutionary. I had a chat with my friend Kabir, whose contacts had allowed me to see the palmist who does not advertise his services. Kabir, 26, prefers only to be known by his first name, because his father is “extremely religious” and would not permit him to visit a palmist. However Kabir’s faith in palmistry is strong – he measured it for me as a “seven or eight out of ten.” He said, “I visit a palmist once or twice a year – when something bothers me and I need clarification.” Kabir’s faith in palmistry has developed over time. He reeled off the predictions that have come true: he did not become a doctor or an engineer, he did not go abroad to study, and a specific female friend fell in love with him. Kabir said, “You want to believe the positive stuff and not so much the negative stuff. I do believe strongly. But I also think there are things that we can’t control.” When I asked Kabir whether he believes that palmists have special powers, he said, “I don’t know whether it’s that rather than dedication and hard work. Of course, anyone can read a book about palm reading and then come up with some sort of conclusion. But having said that, there are some people who are really good at it. Palmistry can be like a gift.” Kabir also said that palmistry offers him some sort of consolation and a sense of optimism that good things will come his way. Who would want to deny that to anyone?

I knew it was nearly my turn and I became conscious of the fact that I was anxious. Coincidentally, my palms sweat when I’m in such a state. I’m not a spiritual or superstitious person, so why was this so? I wondered whether Kauser would tell me something awful, even though I’d decided to resist any (unlikely) attempt to tell me when I might die. But even if he was to say something mildly negative, I knew I’d have to battle to expel the statement from my consciousness. And why was I simultaneously looking forward to it? I thought of the saying, “Doctors will always be popular because humans love hearing something about themselves.” Perhaps this applies equally to palmists (and hairdressers).

At any rate, here are the best bits of my palm reading, which Kauser relayed to me in his throaty voice, no doubt all the deeper and more authoritative due to the numerous cigarettes he puffs while predicting:

Kauser: Who died in your family last year?

Jessica: My aunt.

Kauser: Do you have a problem with one of your legs?

Jessica: I hurt my leg many years ago. It’s fine now.

Kauser: You were in a big confusion about your marriage.

Jessica: I’m not married.

Kauser: But the question of marriage – to do it or not to do it, that was the question. That has all passed.

Jessica: Yes.

Kauser: What I see in your face is that you are going to be an international figure. It may be the Pulitzer Prize.

Me: Righto.

Kauser: In the future, freedom may be the only barrier in your career. Freedom from your family or your husband.

He concluded by advising me to drink at least two glasses of water before breakfast. Would I like to believe all this? Of course – and no doubt Kauser would like me to. But though it’s tempting, I can’t. I am simply encouraged that Dhaka’s most famous palmist didn’t take one look at me and pronounce me a loser destined for misery and mediocrity. Yet somehow that was never an option – I have a sneaking suspicion that palmists flatter us.

However another client that evening was downright disappointed by her experience. The 28-year-old marketing consultant had come to the palmist with very specific and important questions, and frankly, she felt short-changed of her Tk 1,000. In a honey-soaked voice, Laila said, “I fight with my husband often, so I asked Kauser about the future of my marriage. I also told him that I have changed jobs too many times in the last five months, so I asked him what my career would be like.” Kauser asked for the date of Laila’s birthday, her full name, the names of her family members, plus her husband’s birthday and her house number. He jotted it all down and then did a calculation. Laila quoted Kauser as saying, “You will be successful in your career and your marriage will be okay. No couple is perfect.” Laila said, “It was a very general finding. I was looking for a specific answer but I didn’t get one and I’m not fully satisfied. I wouldn’t come back.”

I promised Kauser that I would print the following statement from him, “This is not science.” Indeed, had he said it was, I’d have to argue the case for fraud. It was a fun and interesting experience, but like Laila, I wouldn’t return. But I don’t doubt for a second that there are many who will.