On a January morning, Mohammad Shahjalal, a 30-year-old man, came to a fortune-teller in the Gulistan area. He had just come to Dhaka looking for a job. He thought it would not be a bad idea to find out what his future held.
The fortune-teller told Shahjalal that if he wanted a parrot to read his future, he would have to pay Tk10. Curious, the man agreed.
The fortune-teller Monsur Ali led his parrot out of the cage to pick an envelope.The bird nonchalantly pecked at an envelope. The fortune-teller opened the envelope, pulled out a note and read it out. It appeared to be a generalised statement from a book of religion.
Unhappy with the reading, Shahjalal decided he wanted his palm read. The 58-year-old Masur Ali told him it would cost him an additional Tk50. Shahjalal agreed.
"You're struggling in life. You plan a lot but you cannot execute most of them. Nobody comes to your assistance; you love everyone but nobody loves in return. You are in a grave situation," the fortune-teller said in one breath.
"You will have to wear gemstone to overcome this bad situation," Monsur told him.
Not so fortune, fortune-tellers
Like Monsur, there are no less than a hundred fortune-tellers working in the city. Despite being a pseudoscience and often subject to ridicule, these fortune-tellers - palmists, astrologers, face readers, parrot keepers etc - draw a huge number of people everyday. Some like Monsur sit on footpaths, while a few have found so much success that they run lucrative practices from 'chambers' at upmarket shopping centres in the city. Their customers range from rickshaw pullers to successful businessmen to politicians.
Every morning, Monsur comes from Narayanganj by bus and sets up his makeshift shop on the footpath outside the Birshreshtha Shahid Motiur Rahman Park, popularly known as Gulistan Park.
He lays 30 envelopes in a line, with quotes and prophecies from different books of religion inside them. When he orders the parrot to pick an envelope, the parrot complies.
"Most of the people want to know about their future from the parrot, because it costs only Tk10," said Monsur, who has been making a living as a fortune-teller for the last 30 years. He earns more or less Tk500 every day by soothsaying.
Monsur was born in a family which suffered from grinding poverty. He dropped out of school when he was in class 3. Later, he got a job at an automobile battery charging shop. Then he switched a few more jobs.
One day, during the 1980s, one of his distant uncles who worked as a soothsayer left his bird and envelope at Monsur's house. He took the bird and envelopes to the Supreme Court area and sat on the ground, spreading the envelopes out.
"I did not know how to read someone's palm; the parrot picked the envelope and I read out the notes," said Monsur, adding that it would cost people 50 paisa to Tk1 back then. "Some days later, I bought a book on astrology and learned palmistry."
"The parrot picks an envelope randomly; we use the parrot only to draw the attention of people. The parrot has been trained to pick an envelope. It does not know more than that," admits Monsur, adding that he bought the parrot two years back for Tk5,000.
"People get pleasure by knowing about themselves from the parrot; they will not get rich or they will not become poor from this," said Monsur.
He has to spend Tk20 on the parrot every day because it loves to eat apple, banana, and rice. He was out of work for two months when his last parrot died. Then after a long search, he bought this new one.
"In most cases, young customers ask me whether they will be able to marry the girl they fell for, or they ask me if I can name the girl. How am I supposed to know that? I have to manage them by giving some general predictions," said Monsur.
The fortunate upmarket fortune-tellers
Liton Dewan Chisty is a hotshot fortune-teller who has a two-room chamber 'Sesh Darshan Ajmeri Gems House' in the upscale Bashundhara City Shopping Complex. Most of his clients are from the upper-class of the society. He runs advertisements on newspapers and television channels claiming that he can tell a person's past, present and future looking at the person's face.
"My father was the Peer (Sufi spiritual guide). I have automatically learned the art of fortune-telling from my ancestors. What I did is bring this thing into the digital sphere," said Liton speaking at his chamber recently.
According to Liton, there are at least 25 people who are running a thriving business of fortune-telling in the city, most of whom operate out of shopping malls, like him.
"If a dog can smell and spot a thief or drugs, we are human beings, why can't we?" said Liton about his alleged ability to tell a person's future by looking at the face. He added that every day, on an average, 10 clients come to visit him for a fee of Tk600. Most of the people come to him after failing to succeed in business.
"Some people come to me out of curiosity. Some believe it, some do not," said Liton. He said that every solution is in the hands of Allah, adding that this disclaimer is printed on his official pad as well.
When people fall in trouble, they tend to resort to anything to get out of it. Liton said that when people come to him in a helpless state, he listens carefully, with empathy. He then provides them with advice and prescribes gemstones.
"I always prescribe gemstones for better luck, whether they use it or not," said Liton who claimed to be in the profession over the last 33 years.
But the gemstone may not always work, warned Liton.
"You can wear a gemstone, but first you have to change your behaviour to overcome the problem you are in," said Liton. "If you cannot change your character, no gemstone will work."
"In addition to wearing the appropriate gemstone, you have to have faith in Allah, pray five times a day, walk in the right path." said the fortune-teller.
He said that people's curiosity about knowing their fate is increasing despite advancements in science. This is why national and international newspapers are publishing horoscopes, he said. The horoscopes have some generalised statements. Some people will find the predictions true for them, some will not.
"We serve mankind. If we cannot help a person, at least we do no harm," said the soothsayer.