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In Modern India, Two Busy Paths To Mental Peace

K.B.'s grandson Digant Parsai, 27, was recently in a near fatal car accident and his grandfather predicted he would survive. Here three generations spend time together in the family living room.
K.B.'s grandson Digant Parsai, 27, was recently in a near fatal car accident and his grandfather predicted he would survive. Here three generations spend time together in the family living room. (Emily Wax - The Washington Post)
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"Today, if you need an accountant or lawyer, then you need an astrologer," said Sunita Chabra, a husky-voiced astrologer who hosts a Hindi-language cable show called "Future." "Indians want everything these days: a good house, a good car, a good business. Expectations are very high. Everyone could use a good astrological reading."

Chabra said that she respects psychology but that it's just not the same as what she does.

"If you go to a shrink, you have to vomit out whatever is bothering you," she said. "An astrologer has to look into your past, your future, and tell you what's wrong. What's lovely is that educated people in India accept both the therapist and the guru fortuneteller."

Samir Parikh, a psychiatrist and chief of the mental health department at Max medical center in New Delhi, said the "common man" is beginning to appreciate the value of mental health services.

"Everyone would benefit from therapy, so I say let's bring a shoe cobbler to the couch and get them talking," said Parikh, who has been doing outreach work with schools and farmers in rural areas, offering counseling at reduced rates.

In the Parsai family home, with his father in another room, VK said he was skeptical of astrology.

"When I didn't become an astrologer, well, it's such a sore spot that we can't talk about it in the same room," VK whispered, shaking his head. "The thing is, I had this feeling inside of me that until I got down to the nuts and bolts, I have no right to play with someone else's future. You see, my father was already a master. It was like he was saying to me: 'I'm a great swimmer. You should be a great swimmer, too.' "

He tried astrology for a time but ended up pursuing psychology. "I felt that I really enjoyed counseling people," he said. "Something was there in my blood."

On a recent night, the family ate a dinner of bright yellow pulses and piping-hot fried dough filled with potatoes, along with a leafy salad sprinkled with peanuts. During the meal, K.B. instructed a visiting reporter to remove one of her silver bangles because according to the planetary movements she should have been wearing an odd number of bracelets. She listened, fearing for her karma.

Asked if he was hurt when his son didn't choose astrology, K.B. quoted a Sanskrit saying to the effect that a teacher is always disappointed in a student. But then he added: "I am proud of him for his success in the psychology field. I am."

His son blushed.

"Even therapists want parental approval," VK said, smiling.


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