My ankles sink into the Marina sands as I walk around in search of a palm reader. I spot Chitra behind the skating rink. Our eyes meet, just as she rises, after finishing a session. “What do you want to know about me?” she asks, when she learns I want to talk about her. “Don’t write anything that will embarrass me,” she repeats many times, before settling down for a chat.

“I was born in Ettayapuram into a family of palm readers. I am not educated; I haven’t even taken shelter in a school. But I know joshiam. That’s an art I have learnt well!”

When Chitra was five, her family moved to Chennai. And for the past 43 years, the city has been her home. Chitra learnt to read palms from her paternal grandmother, and after her marriage to a fellow palm reader, she took to visiting the Marina for work. “My first son was just three months old when I went that side, to the MGR beach and read palms. I was determined to earn my own money!”

Chitra now charges Rs. 35 to read a palm, going up to Rs.55 if it includes the family’s fortunes. But since there’s no guarantee of a steady income – with some days fetching 10 to 15 customers, and other days none – she’s thinking of taking up another job.

As she speaks, Chitra quickly scans the beach for customers. The sunlight fades to evening grey. Around us, sugarcane juice machines whirr, roundabouts creak and beggars wait silently for alms. “I have the grace of Jakkamma – our goddess,” Chitra continues. “Just by looking at a palm, I can tell all about the person and his/her family, both good and bad.”

Rubbing some pain balm over her left knee, Chitra says her leg aches from all the walking she does on the beach, from 4.30 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. “But that’s my only complaint; otherwise, I’m healthy.”

Two women interrupt us. The older one asks Chitra to read her palm. “I can tell you the whole family rasi for Rs.55,” Chitra tells her, and the woman agrees.

“Jakkamma, Vaaku Nallaa Sollu,” Chitra calls out, and strokes the woman’s palm with her black wand. “You are as smart and as clever as a man; but you have an ootai-kai (spendthrift),” Chitra says, and the two women exchange smiles. Chitra completes her prediction in a singsong voice, and tells the woman to pay if her kuri is right. “You predicted about my life when I will be 51! That’s a long way off,” the woman protests, but hands over the money. “I will be right here, on the beach, even then,” Chitra says, putting the money in her wire basket.

Two young boys, selling books, wrestle nearby; one falls on my lap; they run away when Chitra starts talking. “There are perhaps 10 or 15 people on the beach who read palms. Among my six children, only two sons have taken this up,” she says, adding that she has no time for anything else. “I haven’t seen any movies in a long time; but a while ago, some college girls filmed me making predictions for a bajji vendor!” she laughs, posing for my pictures. “Use this picture, it is nice,” she says, examining the images on my phone.“Everything about our lives is pre-determined one hour before we are born. It is all written, we can’t rewrite anything!” she says, as she walks away.

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)

Keywords: palm reader