This is a profile I had done while I was studying in college in 2014. It becomes relevant today as the Forest Department of Tamil Nadu and police along with activists have been seizing the parrots from parrot astrologers, leaving many of them like the man I profiled years ago wondering what to do now that they have been stolen of their livelihood.
M Pichaya – Profile of a Kili Josiyam (Parrot Astrologer)
At 5 p.m. Kalakshetra Road in Chennai is buzzing with activity. A narrow, bustling street that boasts of one of the premier Bharatnatyam institutes in the country has school children recounting the highlight of their day, impatient drivers honking incessantly, flower and fruit vendors trying to lure passersby to purchase their perishable goods before dark, a group of women dressed in bright sarees cackling loudly and there, beside the road, sat M. Pichaya.
With his white beard and thick rimmed glasses, 72 year old Pichaya is a kili josiyam (parrot astrologer). He sat on a banner that he had cleverly flipped over to put the blank side up. Placed before him were a stack of red cards and to his left, a wooden cage with bars behind which stood two parrots, and a large framed photograph of Lord Murugan. Sitting cross-legged, dressed in a crisp crème shirt and white veshti with a thin blue border he looked like a saint performing a sacrifice, completely unperturbed on his island of tranquillity amidst the ocean of chaos.
Three months ago, the Blue Cross campaigned to free parrots from being caged by astrologers. Pichaya spoke of it as a period of “great trouble” for people like him as many kili josiyams had their birds taken away from them and had to pay fines to get them back.
“Nearly 1,000 of us went to the Wildlife Department Minister with a petition explaining that we should be allowed to practice our profession because without it we will lose our livelihood. We assured the Minister that we would take very good care of the birds.” The Wildlife Department managed to convince the Blue Cross and there has been no problem ever since.
““I belong to the Vedan community. We worship Goddess Jakkamma and according to our custom men become parrot astrologers while women become palmists. My parents were agriculturalists in a small village close to Madurai. I learnt this art from my relatives when I shifted to Chennai and have been doing this for 25 years.” He gestures towards a woman on the other side of the road looking intently at the fine lines on the palm of a woman. “That is my wife. She is a palmist.”
Constant chirping made him shift his attention to the birds. Though a cage with bars brings images of jail convicts to mind; no jail convicts are spoken to with such love. “Lakshmi,” Pichaya gently coaxed. Lakshmi responded chirping cheerily. When the bar was lifted it revealed a bright eyed parrot with a flame-red beak, and a small ring around its neck.
She hopped onto the ground and walked to the stack of red cards with such ease, oblivious to the anticipation that the believer who had come to determine his or her fortune faced with her every move!
Slowly, ever so slowly, she picked up a card, paused to consider if it was the appropriate card, decided that it was not and discarded it. She did the same with the second one. And the
third. And the fourth. And the fifth. Finally, she picked up the sixth card and just when one expected her to put it aside she held on to it for a while longer than usual, indicating that it was the right card.
As if on cue, Pichaya asked her, “Is this the right card, Lakshmi?” Lakshmi looked at her master and chirped. What followed was right out of Kaun Banega Crorepati (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?), Pichaya asked, “Are you sure, Lakshmi?” This time, almost impatient with her master, Lakshmi chirped louder.
Finally convinced, Pichaya instructed Lakshmi to pay obeisance to Lord Murugan. The nimble-footed parrot touched the card to the picture in reverence. Just as she was about to hand over the card to Pichaya, he asked her to pay her respects to the Lord again and without the slightest flinch she repeated the drill and gently placed the card in Pichaya’s palm. The proud master rewarded her handsomely with paddy grains that she gleefully gobbled up much to the envy of the other parrot who complained from her cage. “She is under training,” Pichaya explained and gave her a few grains to pacify her.
“Parrots need to be taught when they are young. They are trained to pick up sheets of paper and gradually the size of the paper is increased. Later they are trained to give the paper in the hand. I bought Lakshmi a year ago for Rs. 200 and it took me roughly six months to train her.”
Pichaya knows the art of keeping someone at the edge of their seat. To heighten the suspense, he takes his time to pull out the tarot card. When it is a good fortune, a smile spreads across his face that makes his eyes crinkle at the corners, whereas if it is a bad fortune, frown lines are visible on his forehead and his voice becomes soft, serious and sympathetic. He then fishes out a red book where he relates the card to the description and reads out what one can expect over the next week or so.
J. Kamala, an ardent believer in parrot astrology said, “I have been visiting him (Pichaya) for the last few months. I come at least 4-5 times in a month because he gives me an idea of what to expect in the future and how to handle things.”
“I see about 40-50 people a day and earn about Rs. 500. I used to have a small tea stall to supplement my income earlier but it did not do well so I had to close it down.” He even worked at a wine shop for 3 years to make ends meet. Now, he only practices this.
A resident of MGR Nagar, he lives with five other family members and generally works outside the popular Murugan temple in Vadapalani and only visits Kalakshetra road during Pournami (full moon nights).
He has two married girls and a son who is a carpenter. One of his sons-in-law, however, belongs to a different community and is a palm reader. He talks about his grandchildren with pride and a hint of loss. “I have three grandsons who are all working but I wish they would practice my profession.”
“The number of people who visit me has reduced but I am not complaining because when I started off I charged 50 paise. Later that went up to Re 1, then Rs. 5, further to Rs. 10 and now I charge Rs. 20. So I am content.”
Parrot astrologers like Pichaya might be losing customers but in a nation where many are superstitious, as long as there are believers like Kamala, their trade will thrive. And if the parrots are treated well, no one seems to be complaining whether it is those who depend on them for a livelihood or those who come to them for hope, solace or a miracle.
Picture Courtesy: Sushmitha Ramakrishnan