The Indian Quarterly
The Fortune Teller Image Credit: The Indian Quarterly
The Fortune Teller Image Credit: The Indian Quarterly

The Fortune Teller

Much before iPhones and YouTube, a gaudy machine on our railway platforms provided entertainment and information. It’s all but gone, but a fortuitous meeting makes Pallavi Aiyar’s childhood spring to life.

Pallavi Aiyar

NOSTALGIA TRANSFORMS ordinary objects into talismans. The constituents of the material life of one’s childhood can, just by the feel of their names rolling in the mouth, evoke pathos: a longing for the past, its innocent excitements and vast promise.

I grew up in the pre-liberalisation Delhi of the 1980s. Childhood in those days meant Ambassador cars with seats so high that little legs couldn’t touch the floor. It recalls a white heat, relieved only by chilled banta, spicy lemonade in glass bottles, stoppered with a marble. There were Harrison talas with which to lock cupboards, 150-gram Nirma detergent tikiyas to wash clothes and Hawkins pressure cookers for the kitchen.

There was also the railway-station weighing machine. This was a time when to travel meant taking a train (airplanes were objects of almost unbearable, and unattainable, luxury). But train stations with their red-coated coolies weaving through the throngs, piles of suitcases balanced on their turbans, the balletic steam of spicy chai wafting in the air, the aural assault of train announcements and people yelling to each other to be careful and eat well and not to forget to write, were an intrinsic part of the weft of life.

But for me the greatest thrill was receiving a one rupee (or was it 50 paise?) coin from my parents to slot into one of the ubiquitous weighing machines that dotted train stations. Once the coin was in, the multicoloured p


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