February 20, 2020
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The Future Is Big

It's India's fastest-growing industry. Insecurity, uncertainty, innovation, technology: it's present perfect for those catering to the future-tense.

The Future Is Big
Atul Loke
The Future Is Big
Tomorrow, suddenly, is today's fastest growing business. The future, in India today, is worth Rs 40,000 crore and counting. Literally. It's your future and mine—health, education, careers, relationships; the fate of the share investment your uncle made last week; the outcome of decisions taken in corner offices of giant corporations; fortunes to be fashioned, formed, finished. If karma is a chameleon, the destiny industry is T-Rex on turbo. There has never been a more profitable present for Indian future-tellers.Elderly bare-torsoed men sitting under trees? Parrots picking cards spread out on the pavement? Well-thumbed palmistry primers from Cheiro? Wake up, smell the coffee. We are talk-ing call centres crammed with clairvoyants forecasting for those with the mobiles and the mind to ring in. R&D labs where newer software, to help the computer calculate horoscopes more accurately, are in perpetual make. University-affiliated classes crowded with wannabe oracles. Swank seminars in posh hotels, where delegates who refer to themselves as jyotishpandits, jyotishacharyas and jyotishmartands make Powerpoint presentations of their prognoses. Television studios continuously beaming into homes what the planets have in store. Astrologers, palmists, numerologists, tarot-card readers fronted by sleek public relations executives.

The Indian Future Telling business is on a bull run threatening to become a stampede. There's an unprecedented rush of customers, young and old, men and women, willing to pay whatever it costs to know fortune's impending intent. Enthusiastic purchasers of soothsayers' skills, skills that are being bought to map and minimise the many risks that riddle life today. And the Future Telling Industry is repackaging its products vigorously to cater to this, its expanding, and exacting, new clientele.

Enter Future Point's hi-tech Delhi office and savour soothsaying as off-the-shelf retail. "Your Happy Future is Our Concern," advertise its brochures. The "products and services" on offer: consultation sessions, computer horoscopes, astrological software, remedial gems, yantras, rosaries, a monthly magazine on astrology and occultism, a directory of astrologers and Mewar varsity-affiliated courses on astrology, palmistry, numerology, vaastushastra. Arun K. Bansal, "topper in both MSc and MPhil physics", presides over these operations with his wife Abha, and spends most of his work hours on product development, the latest addition in his portfolio being an astro pocket computer, Leo Palm—"its usp: making horoscopes in a minute, anywhere, anytime".

Arun K. Bansal, Cyber Astrologer For this "MSc MPhil physics topper", powerful computer software generates predictions that are "authentic, accurate, accessible".

"Esoteric mumbo-jumbo, panditjis who count on fingers, newspaper forecasts that divide entire humanity into 12 types are for pastime and frivolous curiosity," shrugs Bansal. "Serious players in the predictions business today have to deliver services that are authentic, accurate and accessible. We have to be seen as spiritual scientists, professionals who not only predict your future but also tell you how to better it."

Future-telling and insurance, foretells sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, are primed to be the two fastest growing industries this decade: "Because both have recognised the mammoth marketing possibilities around today's most urgent human need—the need to feel some control over life so rife with unexpected variables. Jobs, businesses, marriages, relationships, are all more fickle than they ever were, making for very stressful times. And both these industries have taken to selling stressbusters by providing some semblance of certainty in uncertain times". McCann Erickson president Santosh Desai, a keen researcher of consumer psyche, takes Visvanathan's point further: "The need to have control over one's life runs into becoming a growing obsession with the Self today.Everything centres around 'My Life' and its perfectibility. Follows that we now also want to buy information on our future, to be able to customise and perfect it".

K.N. Rao, Astrologer-Teacher Rao is advisor to an astrology institute that began with 40 students and six teachers in 1987. Today it boasts 900 students and 26 teachers.

That's why future-readers have expanded the scope of their business, from just prediction to supplying correctives, says Parveen Chopra, editor of Life Positive, a spiritual magazine. "Correct predictions might make for a future-teller's fame today, but his prescriptives for a better future make him his fortune." Because the world is for your asking once those angry planets are propitiated through the appropriate yagnas, havans, pujas, mantra therapies, yantras and gems that the soothsayer points you to. Add it all up, and the industry estimates its own size as around Rs 40,000 crore at least.

So, the right stone on a finger can obliterate Saturn's ill will? "What's there to disbelieve?" counters Delhi-based remedial astrologer R.K. Sharma. "All genuine future-tellers should be able to predict, and heal, the future. Or else, they are as ridiculous as doctors who know how to diagnose an illness but not to cure it!" A pharma graduate, Sharma assigns his clients prescriptive gemstones to "counterbalance the malefic effects of planets and stars" after "deep study" of the clients' horoscopes, "because prescribing the wrong gem can bring devastating harm to its wearer, and many amateur astrologers are wreaking havoc". His success rate? Well, he had a two-wheeler in 1978, he rides a Toyota now. Or, a more appropriate measure, he could barely afford the Rs 11,000 worth of emeralds he'd prescribed himself in 1978, while today his body carries emeralds worth over Rs 5 lakh: "My affluence accrues from the affluence I bring to others."

Talking of affluence, there's news for those who thought astrology was, or is, for old-mould traders: many companies today have future-tellers on retainers. And the supply side has innovated to cater to this new corporate demand.

R.K. Sharma, Remedial Astrologer The Toyota-riding pharmaceutical studies graduate-turned-gemstone specialist puts his money where his mouth is. He wears Rs 5 lakh worth of "energy-enhancing" emeralds on his body.

Meet Mumbai-based "astro-finance specialist" Pandit Raj Kumar Sharma, known for his predictions on the euro, the dollar, and bourses like the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, nyse and Nasdaq. A columnist in two German financial magazines, Die Telebrose and DM Euro, Sharma has conducted seminars in companies like BMW, and is under contract with various foreign companies for an annual fee of $4,000-5,000: "I provide them 25 to 30 special services and tips on business growth. My finance predictions have a 95 per cent accuracy rate." He claims to have predicted the Columbia shuttle disaster, the Congress victory in the last Lok Sabha elections, and Manmohan Singh's prime ministership.

Nambungal Narayanan, Corporate Astrologer Narayanan, who predicted MGR’s election defeat in 1980, counts Polaris Software, Apollo Tyres and The Hindu Group among his clients.

Chennai's Nambungal Narayanan, who shot to fame in 1980 when he predicted that MGR would lose power, earns the majority of his income now from companies: he advises them on names, name amendments and logo designs. Says software firm Polaris' K. Govindarajan, senior VP, special projects, "We consult Narayanan on every new name and design. He is our friend, philosopher and guide." Other major clients include K.G. Balakrishnan, CMD of KG Denim, Oswal Spinning and Weaving Mills and Mehta Jewellery.Claims Narayanan: "I told Omkar Singh Kanwar to shorten his company's name Apollo Tyres Limited to Apollo Tyres Ltd. And I suggested the name 'Frontline' when The Hindu group launched their magazine."

Dubbed India's most influential corporate astrologer in many a headline, Daivajna K.N. Somayaji is tight-lipped about the company he keeps. He'll only tell you that he advises professionals on venture capital, portfolio management, investment banking, mergers and international trading.That he's meeting Outlook in Reliance's Delhi guesthouse, however, does give some indication of his clientele profile. And his cellphone never stops buzzing: "Time's instant today.People don't want to consult the astrologer for what's going to happen 30 years later, they want to know what will happen, what's to be done, three hours away."

Bejan Daruwalla, Ganesha’s Man India’s most famous astrologer says he predicted the Kargil war, the Gujarat earthquake, and the deaths of Indira Gandhi and her two sons.

Urgent customer needs that are being supplied through many delivery channels.Star-teller Bejan Daruwalla of Mumbai recently did live shows in four metros where he predicted people's future on stage, on the spot! On a less theatrical note, he says he prefers to answer questions by email these days: "Some basic information about themselves, a list of questions, a demand draft and I answer in four weeks from the date of receipt." Charges range from Rs 250 for suggesting "auspicious mahurat" to Rs 1,000 for "marital problems/couple compatibility". Daruwalla's website GaneshaSpeaks.com generates over 200 demand drafts a day. And the telephonic astrological service he runs, after having tied up with leading mobile phone operators, gets 10,000 calls daily. Among Daruwalla's big bulls' eyes over the years: predicting the Kargil war, the Gujarat earthquake, and the deaths of Indira Gandhi and her two sons.

Vivek Dhir, chemical engineer and MBA, runs a "telecom services company and provides astrological content to leading cellphone companies". His office in Delhi is packed with young T-shirted men who peer into computers while advising callers on the future. Who are these recruits? Meet one: Dr Kala, who's done his PhD on 'The Effects of Planets on Human Life' from Delhi's Lal Bahadur Shastri Sanskrit Vidyapeeth, and whose core belief while attending to callers is that "life has hidden diamonds, and as an astrologer I should guide people where to dig for them". Sure, but does it really work for those who're paying Rs 6 a minute to avail of such advice? "Well, obviously it does," says Dhir. "Sixty per cent of those who ring in are repeat callers."

Amrita Lal, Astro-TV Entrepreneur Calcutta’s most famous soothsayer is so successful that he spends Rs 50 lakh a year on a TV channel of his own, dedicated to future-telling.

And if phones never stop ringing, television is abuzz with the soothsayer's sound bites. In Calcutta, five local cable channels run phone-in programmes with astro-palmists and astro-tantriks. Then, there's the future-dedicated Fortune Channel, owned by astrologer Amritalal ("correct name for child: Rs 500; special computerised horoscope: Rs 1,500"). "Roughly 65 per cent of your destiny can't be changed," he says, sitting in his air-conditioned office with a large picture of Kali behind him. "This is linked to your karma in your past life. But the remaining 35 per cent can be changed, and a good astrologer can guide you to avoid mistakes and misfortunes."

Into another kind of cost-benefit analysis, meanwhile, Mumbai-based tarot card reader and numerologist Sunita Menon says her show "Kosmiic Chat" on Zoom channel "presents me with the unique opportunity of touching the lives of millions and generating positive vibes". Menon, a former air hostess, is a celebrity herself, and that too among celebrities. Gushes film director Karan Johar: "It gives me peace of mind to sometimes take an appointment with Sunita and sit and chat with her for hours." Usual sessions with Menon though last for an hour at Rs 1,000, and she meets four to five clients a day.

Sunita Menon, Tarot Card Reader Faithful clients include Karan Johar and Ektaa Kapoor, who latched onto "K" on Menon’s advice. She charges Rs 1K for an hour-long session.

It's luck maybe that the future-telling industry finds celebrity endorsements that corporations would die for.TV producer Ektaa Kapoor pins her spectacular success down to her serial titles, all beginning with 'K'. "Sunita said it'd always bring me success, and it does. I've booked every K title I could think of. I also consult the Jumanis who check my serial titles for numerical luck." The client testimonials with the astrologer-numerologist duo, Bansilal and Sanjay Jumaani, meanwhile, read like a rah-rah list.On their advice: author Shobhaa De has "a song on my lips" after adding an A to her name; an extra A and item girl Ishaa Koppikar's "struggling days were khallaas"; and actor Tusshar Kapoor's extra S has spelt stardom "and two awards" for him.Currently, the Jumanis want Saurav Ganguly to become Gangoly, Kashmir to be spelt as Kashmeir, and apparently it'll be much better for everyone if India changes its name to Bharat.

Adding to the future-teller's legitimacy is the politician. Not that he didn't rely on soothsayers earlier—Jawaharlal Nehru is known to have consulted astrologer B.V. Raman often through his sister and Gulzari Lal Nanda—but such associations are much more in the open now.

In Bhopal, a senior IAS officer's room in the secretariat turns into an astrologer's den at times of elections and political instability. He pores over horoscopes of chief minister-aspirants and rival politicians to predict who'll emerge on top (prized also by his colleagues because they get to know who to proactively please). Regular visitors at astrologer Radhey Sham Shashtri's Lucknow workspace are BJP leaders Kesri Nath Tripathi and Lalji Tandon. "For the last decade, the sun, moon and earth have been in a typical constellation which has increased the mind's curiosity about the future" is Shastri's explanation for the current future-telling boom.

This August, an astrology seminar titled 'The Future of the Present Government' in Delhi's Le Meridien hotel saw chief guest Murli Manohar Joshi telling astrologers to "refuse advising netas who come to you in the dark of the night for advice, and call you unscientific by the day". For his part, during his tenure as HRD minister, astrologers' poster-boy Joshi had mooted the idea that Vedic astrology (jyotir vigyan) be introduced in our universities. Long legal battles later, this May the Supreme Court upheld the introduction of astrology as a subject in varsities.

Something that Gayatri Devi Vasudev, editor of the 68-year-old Bangalore-headquartered The Astrological Magazine, had long been lobbying for. Like her late father, B.V. Raman, she thinks astrology is an academic discipline, and uses terms from astronomy, astrophysics and mathematics. When practicing, she uses techniques of modern psychological counselling to convey her advice. "My father's, and now my, endeavour has been to separate astrology from mumbo-jumbo, miracles and mystery. "

But the long, and interminable, debate on whether astrology is a science or not is best left to the worthies.The truth is that we in Outlook met many who had fraud written all over their faces while reading our future. Any luck they said we had was really about not having to pay them.

"An abhorrent commercialisation has set in," regrets K.N. Rao, advisor to the Institute of Astrology at Delhi's Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, "The science of divination when practised should be no more than a psychoanalytical counselling service.But fake astrologers today create a terrible fatalism in people's minds, depress them and then shove costly talismans and gems down their throats. Whereas all standard astrological classics, like the Brihat Parashara Shastra, Maansagari, Brihat Jatak, tell you that only prayers and charity are remedies to future crisis." Such unethical practices must be legislated against, the academic fulminates, and astrologers must be trained and licensed.

More ambitious, Bangalore's S.K. Jain—one of South India's best-known astrologers—demands industry status for astrology "because it plays an important role in Indian life, right from birth". Argues he: "The government treats us like cows, to be milked whenever needed. Ours is a mainstream profession and should be treated as one." The future will tell. Meanwhile, the present is propitious for India's Future-Telling Industry.

By Soma Wadhwa inputs by Harsh Kabra in Mumbai,Sugata Srinivasaraju in Bangalore, K.S. Shaini in Bhopal, Nikhil Mookerji in Calcutta, S. Anand in Chennai and Sutapa Mukherjee in Lucknow

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