Sixty-three-year-old G. Paramasivan, a tarot reader, looks forward to a busy day as he sits with his parrot cage on a pavement near the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple in the afternoon.
Minutes later, his parrot catches the attention of six-year-old Praveen, who is visiting the temple with his family.
As Praveen stands struck by the parrot, his parents offer Rs.10 to Paramasivan to read the boy’s fortune.
As the parrot walks out of its cage to pick a card, Praveen’s face beams with joy. Soon the excitement catches up with Praveen’s teenage sister Kala, and the family checks her fortune as well.
A family from Nepal, watching the scene, approaches the fortune teller. Paramasivan tells them he cannot speak Hindi or English.
One of them has a smattering of Tamil and proceeds to interpret the fortunes of the others as told by Paramasivan.
This is a daily happening around the temple, says Paramasivan.
“My father was in the military. I am the only person in my family who is an astrologer”, Paramasivan recounts. He has been in the trade for 55 years and practising it near the Meenakshi Temple for three years.
“I learnt the trade from a Pandit in Madurai when I was young. It takes a few months to learn to train the parrots and to learn fortune telling. I also studied astrology from books. One of my three sons has learnt the trade from me”, he adds.
In the past, Paramasivan has travelled from Madurai to Puducherry, Chennai and Coimbatore to pursue his trade. The number of followers of tarot reading has dwindled, but tourists and the curiosity of the public keep the trade alive, he notes.
“Though the business is not as good as in my early days of practice, the income is decent. People like me, who have been in the trade from a young age, do not know any other business. Sometimes foreigners and tourists from other States approach me to tell their future. Unless they are accompanied by a local guide or they know Tamil, I cannot communicate with them because of the language barrier”, he says. An ash-smeared and bead-sporting S. Madasamy(57) has been reading tarot cards near the Rajaji Park for close to 10 years. “It is difficult to put a number on how many people come to us daily. And it is difficult also to categorise the crowd. Sometimes, they are college students, housewives. Sometimes, businessmen and government staff. But we earn at the most Rs.150 a day”, he says.
His parrot — Kamatchi — is a tame, withered old bird of 31 years. “The lifespan of a parrot is that of humans. We use trained Indian green parrots in our trade. It might take six months to a year to train a parrot to pick cards. Some of these birds live for 100 years,” he says.
Though most of the tarot readers in Madurai know how to train the parrots to pick fortune cards, they prefer buying trained birds from ‘the Pandits’. “We can buy a trained parrot for Rs 1,000 from the Pandits in Chennai. We cannot invest much time in training the birds ourselves”, Mr. Madasamy says.
P. Sundar (27) hails from a family of tarot readers from Sankarankovil in Tirunelveli district. He now practises his trade near the Meenakshi Temple.
“I learnt the trade from my father. To learn the trade, we need divine intervention. I underwent fasting for 41 days and visited an Amman temple every day. I sat with my father at the temple for three months to learn the trade”, he recalls.
In addition to his parrot, Sundar also has a guinea pig to pick fortune cards.
“I charge Rs.20 for the parrot and Rs.30 for the guinea pig. Sometimes, I have 50 visitors a day and sometimes 10. Every day, I go to Amman temple before starting my business. Even the birds need divine powers to pick the cards. Finding a bird with divine powers could be challenging. Then they should be trained in a temple for months before being able to pick cards. That is why I buy trained birds”, he adds.
When business is dull near the temple, he wanders along the streets of Madurai looking for customers, he says. “There are first generation astrologers who learnt the art from the Pandits, but we do not know how far their predictions are accurate”, he adds.
Antony Raj (37) is a tarot reader from Sankarankovil. His family has been practising the trade for several generations, he says.
“We belong to the Hindu Malai Vedan community. Our community’s profession, from ancient times, is fortune-telling. Our ancestors got the birds from the wild and trained them. We buy trained parrots now”, he says.
According to G. Lakshmanan (40), another migrant from Sankarankovil, only tame parrots can be trained to pick cards. “Tarot readers are always on the lookout for birds that are obedient. When they see a parrot that is more docile than the one they own, they buy the bird. For some parrots, we offer paddy to pick the cards and some birds wait for the hand gestures of the tarot reader to come out of the cage and pick the cards. Once they pick the cards, they are trained to return to their cage. Aggressive parrots cannot be trained”, he says.
The parrots eat rice, fruit and grain three times a day and need no special care, the tarot readers say.
Lakshmanan says more than 2,000 families from Sankarankovil have migrated in the last two decades. “Tarot readers from Sankarankovil are spread all over the State now. We do not restrict fortune-telling to people from the Hindu religion. We have Muslims and Christians approaching us too”, he adds.
G. Gurusamy is an octogenarian tarot reader with impaired hearing. But he is a seasoned reader. He can be seen on most days prescribing remedies to customers near the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple.
Tarot reading is a trade dominated by men. “Women from our community have been practising palmistry, but tarot reading is usually done by men”, says Sundar.
Most tarot readers shy away from passing on the secrets of their trade to the next generation. Therefore, the trade is fading. “With the advent of computer horoscopes and other advanced forms, we are losing our customers”, says Madasamy.
Sundar’s family might have pursued tarot reading for several generations, but he is sure he will not pass the trade to his children. “I want my children to study and take up some other profession. We cannot rely on tarot reading as a profession any more because it is only a tourist attraction these days”, he says.
Antony Raj feels neglected by the government. “I have three children who are studying in primary school. I approached the officials seeking community certificates for my children, but they flatly said my community does not exist in the government gazette. Without community certificates we cannot get educational loans for our children and educate them”, he laments.
Whether the next generation of tarot readers will have a better future, only their parrots might know.