“The Fortune Teller”
By Sumit D Chowdhury
It was written on a 15-paisa postcard - a life’s commitment of unending love, a last desperate measure to make sure that my love just did not vanish into the world of better opportunities.
I don’t remember getting a specific response back.
I realized that in the great circus of life, everything has a purpose and in most instances you realize that purpose in posterity; after the time is over. One outcome of my giving up other options to study at IIT, and Kanpur in particular, was to find my life partner. Two years of “half-girlfriend” type romance followed by a year of relationship where nothing else mattered. The reason I might be calling it “half-girlfriend” since my other girl-friends were my extra-curricular activities – Indian and Western Music groups, SPICMACAY and also activities involving managing Hall and Institute activities. On most occasions those took precedence over any studies, girlfriend or my family.
Once day we found a palm-reader roaming in the campus. After our early morning jalebi and chai, out of sheer curiosity, we sat down next to him on the sidewalk to just talk to him. One thing led to another and he was reading our palms and our future. He predicted that it was almost certain she would go abroad and for me he could not find that ‘line’ that showed that I will ever leave India.
Then came the inevitable separation after graduation. I pragmatically declared that I did not want to go to the US since being 16th in the Department does not get you a scholarship. The palm-reader’s prediction had weighed in my mind. She was at the top of her department and therefore nothing but the best mattered. Her dream college had accepted her with full scholarship. There was no way anything would or should have stopped her from going. I never met her after the graduation day, hence the consequential above-mentioned post-card.
I was working in Pune. She was in California. Her phone-bills started piling up despite the Friends & Family discounts and weekend calling. The ultimatum and realization had come in one of those calls. ‘Pack your bags and come to the US – or else… !’ I don’t remember if it was this older Indian guy or the handsome Pakistani millionaire that she talked about one too many times, that got me convinced that I had to act.
Applications, recommendations, essays –it was a nightmare to coordinate these after leaving IIT. I got admitted to a Ph.D. program. What was I going to do the Ph.D. in? Who cared really! All that mattered was that I had a piece of paper called the I-20 that outlined the terms of the admission and financial aid to meet her.
I rushed to Kolkata. Paperwork in hand, I stood in the line for an F-1 visa at the Kolkata Consulate. I waited my turn, heart pounding, for the endless questions asking the whys of my choice and whether I intended to return to India, and not stay back to burden Uncle Sam’s coffers. How impossible was it to prove, and yet I rallied on with my answers. Then from nowhere, came a question about the evening course in Marketing Management, I was doing at an institute in Pune and the insinuation that the institute was fake! They just needed a reason, any reason those days.
REJECTED … the sound of the stamp pad being inked and the inevitable ‘thump’ on the passport can make the most determined romantic heart miss a beat. I remembered the palm-reader. Had he not predicted my destiny? My palm did not have that ‘line’.
What next? How?
I went back to Pune, finished my course, got the certificate, and planned another trip to the Mumbai consulate. Lincoln House was majestic. Monsoon had set in with full fury. I arrived promptly at 8am, only to see a half-a-kilometer long queue ahead of me. Someone had forgotten to tell me that it was first-come-first-served. I stood in line. By 11am it was evident that I wouldn’t be served. People had been standing since 5am. Next week I reached at 3am to stand in queue in pouring rain. I was the only one in the queue. Obviously – no one came at 3am! When the doors opened, I was the first person to be called. Heart beating fast again, I presented my papers including the newly acquired certificate from my bona fide evening course.
REJECTED … once again.
It happened so fast that I did not even have time to hear my heart miss a beat. The reason was even more bizarre. The US Consulate in Mumbai had called up the US Consulate in Kolkata to find out why I had been rejected the first time. Guess what? Kolkata Consulate had still not opened at 8am and those lazy Bengali Americans in Kolkata were not there to respond. So instead of asking me to wait, the officer simply ‘Rejected’. Fate was telling me something again and again. The missing ‘line’ on my palm?
Process and rules kicked in. Those rejected twice cannot apply again for three years. Then, after my fifth walk-up to clarify the rules, the guy at the security counter casually told me that I could apply by post and appeal with additional documentation.
The following week had been one of extreme bravado. I told my boss and his secretary what had happened and I couldn’t believe their help in filing the appeal. They practically wrote the letter to the US Consulate. Then I waited and prayed.
No answer came. I called again and again to find the status. One day someone took pity and pulled out my letter and said that it had not been processed yet and I could hear back. By then, my heart had given up. Just my mind rallied on. A week later I got a letter in the mail asking me to reappear. The next day, I was in the Consulate queue, but with hope in my heart. No questions were asked. I stood at the counter and a beautiful blonde woman stamped my passport.
The rest remains a blur- the mad rush to wrap up and board the KLM flight on a one-way ticket to the US and $100 in my pocket. My girlfriend had almost stopped believing I would make it to the US. She was on the West Coast. I was going to the East Coast yet she had hinted she might come to meet me at the airport.
The flight landed. I collected my luggage and walked out of the airport. Then I waited. I waited some more. She was not there. My heart started pounding again. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe it was a setup. Could a hundred dollars have bought a return flight to Bombay? Maybe that is why the palm-reader could not find the fateful ‘line’ on my hand!
I decided to nap in the airport arrivals hall.
Maybe life would be different when I woke up!
Twenty-two years have passed since that fateful August that changed the trajectory of our life. I am married to her now with two wonderful children and not only was she there for me that day, she remains there for me throughout life. And, we have lived in many countries and visited scores more. But yes, we are back in India now. Maybe the fortune-teller was reading the distant future. There are periods of extraordinary effort in life that redefine the lines on our palm. Trying to know your future is hazardous and sometimes weighs you down and mutes the kind of effort you will put to achieve an outcome and we miss life’s colorful journey as it unfolds.
I have stopped visiting astrologers or palm-readers. There is wonder in the unknown.