Jul 24, 2008

World - Mystical mischief in New York

Julia, who sits at an outdoor table with a sign that says PSYCHIC READING AND PALMISTRY, has been watching me each day as I walk past her to the subway in this Brooklyn neighborhood. When I finally stop at her table, she tightens her head scarf and gives me a big smile. "How much for a palm reading?" I ask. "We will talk about money later, darling," she says, grabbing my hand with delight. Behind her is a shop full of Indian paraphernalia — a Ganesha idol, incense sticks and OM signs, along with Tibetan scrolls of the Buddha. It strikes me that an American psychic in New York City must regard it as a coup to be seen in public with an Indian customer like me — the same rush that a white basketball trainer would get if LeBron James stopped by for a lesson.

"You are entering a difficult period in your relationships," she says, looking at my palm. "Why?" I ask, and she points to a line on my hand: "Your love line is weak in the period ahead." "That, in India, is the destiny line," I say. "It's the love line, darling." "Are you arguing with someone from India? It's the destiny line." Only then does Julia look up and realize: this is one trouble-making Indian she's got in front of her.
I am coming back to New York after five years, and it seems that psychics are taking over the city. From their center in the East Village, where there are more places to have your palm read than to check your e-mail, they have radiated all over New York, which teems with "Eastern" medicinal and future-telling establishments of every kind, ranging from the dubious (reiki, scented-candle therapy, acupuncture) to the bogus (palmistry, psychic reading.) Greenwich Village always had its share of mind readers, but there are many more these days, and they seem to have moved closer to the mainstream of life in the city. What was crazy 10 years ago is now respectable, even among the best-educated New Yorkers. I find that an old friend of mine in the city, once a strident atheist and rationalist, is getting absorbed in Jewish mysticism; he tells me approvingly that his wife has rejected "Western" medicine and now goes to a medicine man in Chinatown for roots and crystals.
As the son of a "Western" doctor from India, I am appalled by this. Technology may be vibrantly alive in the U.S. — cell phones and laptops are everywhere — but faith in the science that produces this technology has weakened in the past decade. Evidence ranges from the proliferation of street-side palmists all the way to the White House: in 2005, the religious fundamentalists who oppose Darwin's theory of evolution got a boost when President Bush suggested that American schools should have the freedom to choose instead to teach intelligent design — a slick, pseudoscientific version of Biblical creationism. To a visitor from the supposedly mystical East, all this is disturbing — even repulsive.
In my family, as in most middle-class Indian families I knew when I was growing up, science and mathematics were held in awe. One of my grandfathers kept evolutionary tomes by T.H. Huxley and Darwin in his reading cabinet; another broke with family tradition by disallowing my mother's marriage to a first cousin on the grounds that it was "unscientific." Both men held on to their old Brahmin religion, but with a consciousness that it was antiquated and would pass. This thought did not cause them much unhappiness. Integral to their — and my — conception of "progress" was the belief that India would become both a richer place and a more rational one; the superstition and mumbo jumbo that traps so many poorer Indians in the medieval past would be blasted away by literacy and logical thinking. Reason has replaced God for many Indians of my generation. Nothing gives us greater pride than the importance of India's scientific and engineering colleges, or the army of Indian scientists at organizations such as Microsoft and NASA. Our temples are not the god-encrusted shrines of Varanasi, but Western scientific institutions like Caltech and MIT, and magazines like Nature and Scientific American.
How disturbing, then, to come to the U.S. in 2008, and find that faith in science has diminished from the White House to this hip Brooklyn neighborhood where numerous palmists operate. One part of me wants to laugh at what is happening and to make trouble for poor Julia. But another part whispers: Wait. Why blow the whistle as the West declines into mumbo jumbo? Let them take our dozen-armed deities and magic incense sticks; we'll transfer their busts of Galileo and Descartes to our engineering colleges and outsourcing companies. One day soon, their mystical children will wear turbans and serve our rational children at restaurants in Mumbai. So I smile at Julia and say, "You're right. It is the love line." And she glows with the pride of the American psychic who has just vanquished a visitor from the East.

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