17 Apr, 2005 

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Wizards of West Bengal Some legislators are close to Satyananda
Astrologers' boom
Fortune-tellers do business worth Rs 15 crore a month in the red state

By Tapash Ganguly

Acharya Satyananda is a favourite fortune-teller of the high and mighty of West Bengal. Yet on March 9, he failed to foresee what lay in store for him as he let French Robert, staff director of National Geographic, shoot his interactions with customers at his ashram in Barasat. The footage was part of a documentary on Prabir Ghosh, general secretary of Bharatiya Vijnan O Yuktibadi Samity, a rationalist movement that has been crusading against godmen and astrologers.

Caught unawares: Satyananda has customers among thr powerful

Even as the camera recorded Satyananda taking Rs 300 each from four customers and offering sanctified amulets that cost Rs 5,500 each to avert problems, Ghosh barged in and called him a cheat. According to Ghosh, Satyananda had worked for a porn magazine in Allahabad and was arrested for obscene writing about 15 years ago.

Satyananda snatched the camera from Robert, without knowing that two other cassettes were safe with the crew who had in the meantime left the ashram. The police did not go beyond securing Robert’s release from the ashram.

Three days later, Satyananda, in his hour-long programme on a Bengali television channel at 9.10 p.m., urged his followers "to kill Prabir Ghosh as he is more dangerous than an extremist". The channel repeated the programme with the threat the following morning. Ghosh lodged a complaint with Kolkata Police who arrested Satyananda—for attempt to murder—after Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya intervened. He got bail on March 19.

Marxism may have no place for the supernatural but the Left-ruled West Bengal has hundreds of such soothsayers. Kolkata has about two dozen high profile astrologers who splurge on promotionals in newspapers and television and make a fortune by selling hopes in the form of amulets, gems and pujas to the gullible. "Two dozen astrologers together earn at least Rs 15 crore a month," said Ghosh. "Satyananda owns two aircraft besides a fleet of limousines."

Satyananda spends around Rs 18,000 every week on ads, and according to a senior police officer, makes around Rs 35 lakh a month and has assets in Kolkata and Barasat worth Rs 5 crore. About half of his customers—around 60 a day—buy his amulets.

"The impact of television is more extensive than that of newspapers," said Dr Sandipan Chowdhury, whose weekly advertorial expense is Rs 12,000. "For the last year and a half, my programme is telecast every Wednesday at 11 a.m. Without publicity it is impossible to survive in this highly competitive world." Chowdhury has been in this business for the past 28 years—as old as the Communist rule in the state!

Chowdhury, who owns two apartments in south Kolkata, takes between Rs 201 and Rs 301 per sitting. "I charge Rs 2,001 for a full horoscope and Rs 1,001 for a half horoscope," he said. "I never fail in my predictions." But when this correspondent met him on October 28 last year at his Lake Gardens office before the US presidential elections, Chowdhury predicted defeat for George Bush.

Present perfect: Khana Ma has three offices in Kolkata. Nearly 40 per cent of the city's high profile astrologers are women

On inquiry, Chowdhury’s claims of MA in geography from Calcutta University in 1982 and a doctorate proved to be false. Satyananda had a murky pre-soothsaying life as Pradip Biswas. According to the police officer, he vanished from Kolkata following the scurrilous writing episode and resurfaced a decade ago in Barasat in his new Rajneesh look-alike avatar.

Another high profile astrologer, Subhash Shastry, has offices in Bhavanipur, Dum Dum and Howrah, and charges Rs 401 as registration fee. "He has enhanced the rate [from Rs 351] to avoid rush," said Shastry’s secretary. Special pujas cost up to Rs 50,000. Amritalal, who works from Ballygunj, has an entire television channel called Fortune to himself, and, according to Ghosh, he pays Rs 50 lakh as annual fees to the service provider. Amritalal began his career in the 70s with an astrology column in a newspaper and is one of the richest astrologers in Kolkata.

If men are doing roaring business, do not underestimate women; 40 per cent of Kolkata’s high profile soothsayers are women, the more popular among them being Khana Ma, Srimati Chandana, Madhumita Bhattacharya, Sravani Debnath and Paramita.

Khana Ma, who has offices in Salt Lake, Dhakuria and Manoharpukur Road, meets only 25 customers a day for a consultation fee of Rs 201. Pujas cost extra. Paramita read this correspondent’s palm and recommended three rings studded with ruby, emerald and red coral. "I will sanctify these gems," she said, "so that nothing can harm you."

Without publicity it is impossible to survive competition. I charge Rs 2,001 for a full horoscope and Rs 1,001 for a half horoscope.
Dr sandipan chowdhury, astrologer

Troubleshooting rings cost a small fortune (Rs 53,200) and that perhaps explains why almost all major jewellery shops in West Bengal have in-house astrologers. Paramita, too, was attached to one before starting independent practice. "I don’t know how our in-house astrologer has altered the fate of our clients," said a floor manager of a big jewellery shop in Kolkata. "But he has helped us in building a large clientele."

Among people who seek fortune-tellers are bureaucrats, police officers and even some Marxist legislators. "Even those who denounce astrology and palmistry in public wear rings studded with gems," said Manju Kumar Mazumdar, Communist Party of India secretary in West Bengal, when told about Satyananda’s political connections. "In Asansol, I asked a party leader whether he got any benefits from wearing those rings, and he replied in the negative. If an astrologer can dupe a hardcore Communist, what can you say about common people burdened with problems?" Mazumdar has turned down requests for appearing in Amritalal’s channel.

Following Satyananda’s arrest, the chief minister has asked the police to bust soothsaying rackets. People are hardly aware of statutes—the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, and the Drugs and Magic Remedies (objectionable advertisement) Act, 1954—that contain provisions against black magic and claims to cure diseases. "We never knew whom to approach for remedies," said Anamika Rauth, a 40-year-old widow in Kolkata. The two expensive gems she is wearing at her astrologer’s instance for the past year have been of no help in her fight against cancer. In the case of Bijon Roy, a state government employee in Barasat, nothing has come of the kal sarpa yagna that Satyananda performed for Rs 5,500 to facilitate his promotion.

If an astrologer can dupe a hardcoreCommunist, what can you say about common people with problems?
Manju Kumar Mazumdar, CPI secretary, West Bengal

Some of the popular astrologers this correspondent contacted for an appointment refused to meet a journalist. "Those who come to us want to know about things like children’s education and marriage, employment, health and love life," said Sudhangshu Chattopadhyay, a Kolkata astrologer. "Some of these astrologers make money by exploiting their weaknesses. They bring a bad name to our profession."

"How can the government single out a particular class of clients, in this case astrologers, to stop telecasting their programmes?" asked the chief coordinator of a Bengali cable channel, adding that there are about a dozen such channels that survive by leasing out telecast time to professionals like doctors, beauticians and astrologers. "Many doctors come with their own anchors. Even the calls in phone-in programmes are made by their own people. Doctors are oath-bound but astrologers are not."

The solution lies in proper legislation, according to Mazumdar, and Kshiti Goswamy, state spokesperson for the RSP. "The Left Front should take a lead in this respect," they said, "and make West Bengal a model state."


Interview/prabir Ghosh

Some legislators are close to Satyananda

Prabir Ghosh, 61, quit his State Bank of India job to fight for the cause of science and rationalism. At least 20 attempts have been made on his life in the last two decades in which he has been crusading against soothsayers and godmen in eastern India. His efforts recently led to the arrest of Satyananda. Excerpts from an interview:

How did you begin your crusade?
In the early eighties, I wrote a column called Loukik Aloukik (Natural and the supernatural) in a Bengali magazine where I tried to expose godmen and astrologers. It became quite popular and people urged me to organise a movement.

Are you a member of a political party?
No. I believe in rationalism and humanism. I believe that any armed revolution must be preceded by a cultural revolution.

It is well known that an influential CPI(M) minister is very close to Satyananda. So the police initially refused to arrest Satyananda ever after he urged his followers to kill me. Several legislators, police officers, bureaucrats and even some judges are quite close to Satyananda.

How do you manage your expenses?
I was supposed to retire this year. But I quit in 1998 to devote myself fully to the cause of my life. Look, I didn’t go for VRS.

My family consists of my mother, wife and a son. I have about 40 books, each a weapon against these charlatans. Some of these have been in the bestseller list of the Ananda Bazar Patrika. I provide for my family with the royalties.


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