There was an early evening calm and a pale glow of autumn in the sky. This was before the coronavirus outbreak. My wife and I were in mid-town Manhattan, walking back home from somewhere. This is a somewhat run-down part of New York, with old, European-style cafes and shabby night-clubs. There are some grand buildings, with large windows and curtains but through the windows you see chandeliers blemished and dim, reminders of better times.
My mind drifted to the fascinating fact that Swami Vivekananda had lived here for several months, starting in November 1894, in a nondescript, two-room, rented apartment. I had read descriptions of Vivekananda’s life here, about his laughing and joking with neighbours and street vendors mystified by his dark-skin and strange-attire, his friendship with the mercurial Russian-Jewish art critic, Leon Landsberg, also known as Swami Kripananda, and his many interactions with Josephine Macleod.
As I walked, I visualised New York of that era and marveled at the sense of romance and adventure that made Vivekananda travel all the way from India and arrive, virtually penniless, in this distant land, set up home, and make friends with people with whom he had, at least superficially, little in common. It was his love of human beings, irrespective of race and religion, that made him travel far and wide. I thought how different he must have been from the militant groups that spread the message of hate and religious bigotry, and chant his name. A feeling of history and mystique enveloped me, and, maybe because of that, my attention was drawn to a dingy apartment on the roadside, with signs saying “Psychic”, “Tarot-card reading”, “Know your future for $20”.
I have an interest in psychics. It is an anthropologist’s interest. I want to know about them, instead of wanting to know something about myself from them. I want to know what goes on in their heads. Do they believe in what they say, or are they just profit-maximisers, as neoclassical economics tells us all human beings are? Do they really manage to make a living out of their psychic practice? Since anthropologists spend so much money to go to faraway societies to study them, spending $20 to collect information on one data point seemed worth it.
I told Alaka I wanted to consult the psychic and that she should go home. Outside the psychic’s door, I added that if I was not back home in an hour, she should call the police. She laughed nervously and left.
It was a dimly-lit room, with blue lace curtains, frayed at the edges. The psychic sat in one corner on a large, old-styled sofa. Dressed like a character in an 18th-century English novel, sinking into the ample sofa, she looked charming in a quaint way. She welcomed me with a broad, sad smile. I got the impression that I was the first customer of the day.
In one corner of the room some candles flickered, and there were incense sticks, with a grey heap of ash at their base. This must have been the source of the smokiness in the room and the fragrance, which reminded me of Indian evenings. A hint of the mysterious orient is a good idea for this business, I thought to myself.
As I sat down, she peered into my eyes and asked what was troubling me, and assured me that she could solve my problems. This caught me off guard. The truth, namely that nothing was troubling me, would hurt her deeply, and also make me appear a boring person. So I hummed and hawed and muttered some trivia for a while. She was smart enough to see I was trying too hard. So she changed tack. She shut her eyes, as though she was peering through her psychic lens, though I suspect she had seen me with Alaka through her lace-curtained window, and said, “At a personal level you are happy, I can see.” And she added “I predict you will have a long life.”
She went up in my esteem. To predict that I will die in one year is a bad idea. If she got it wrong, I would be there to accost her and tell people she got it wrong. But if I died soon after she predicted a long life, the main witness to her wrong forecast would be gone.
She went on, “but life is complicated. Unfortunately, someone is casting an evil eye on you.” She created terrifying scenarios, and quickly came to the point — for $120 she could do some special rituals which would negate those forces. I pretended to be scared. It is not that I would not be frightened if those scenarios were a reality, but I do not believe anyone is privy to such psychic information. I politely declined her offer.
She spoke about God and Hinduism and even chanted some Sanskrit. Her accent and my lack of knowledge of Sanskrit meant there was no way of knowing what that was. I told her I was a non- believer. She gave me a lecture on why I was wrong.
I changed the topic by asking her about her life. She hesitated first, but slowly warmed up to it, and talked at length about growing up in the mid-west, in poverty, moving to New York, and her hard life. She added that I was her first customer that day. I gave her some advice as best as I could, aware that our roles were getting reversed. I looked at my watch; I had been there close to an hour. I said I would have to go, paid my fee of $20 and left.
As I walked out onto the street and made my way home, lights had come on in many windows. Amidst peddlers and pedestrians, a homeless man sat on the roadside with a wan look, and a lonely man, silhouetted against a large window, peered down at him.
I could have been in Cavafy’s Alexandria or Auden’s Fifty-second Street. Life goes on as it did then. We have no idea why and what tomorrow holds. I thought about my psychic “friend” and felt sad. She was not trying to cheat but struggled to believe she had psychic powers. She needed that not just for her livelihood but for the company of the occasional stranger who would stop by to seek her counsel.
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This article first appeared in the print edition on March 13, 2020 under the title: ‘Company of strangers’. The writer is C Marks Professor at Cornell University and former chief economist and senior vice president, World Bank.
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