An Astrologer's Day by R. K. Narayan

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Summary

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

"An Astrologer's Day" has a deceptively simple plot, although the full significance of the story becomes evident only after a second or even third reading. Part of the difficulty arises from the fact that the author deliberately avoids markers that would benefit the reader: there is no clear indication where the story occurs or when it does, although it is possible to make an educated guess about both. The story begins almost in medias res (in the middle) and concludes on what appears to be an ambiguous note. But, in fact, the story is a tightly knit one in which all parts fit together.

Description
The story begins with a description of the astrologer, who is the central character in the story. In minute detail, his appearance, his clothes, and all the materials he uses to ply his trade are described. The astrologer, who is not given a name, comes across as a type, one of the many street vendors in India, who sit under the shade of a tree or a temporary shed and sell anything from vegetables to newspapers. This astrologer belongs to the same category although, given the nature of his trade, there is a need to dress and behave in a particular manner. He does that effectively by giving the impression of a holy man whose special powers enable him to function as an astrologer.

Almost casually, the surroundings of the astrologer begin to take shape. While there are no clear references to a particular city, it is likely, since Narayan consistently uses the fictional city of Malgudi, that this story too takes place in Malgudi. In any event, one gets the impression of a somewhat backward city which still retains a measure of its rural character. The reference to "municipal lighting" is one of the strategies employed by the author to suggest a sense of the place. In addition, the reference to other vendors who sell a variety of goods gives a sense of a bustling community in which the astrologer operates.

Dialogue
The first part of the story provides a sense of the setting and background without providing any real information about the astrologer. In very broad terms, the daily activities of the astrologer are told. The narrator makes it very clear that the astrologer is a charlatan who knows nothing about the future but is a shrewd judge of character. The transition from a type to sharply defined individual occurs when the astrologer is ready to leave for home and one last client stops in front of him. At that stage, omniscient narration gives way to dialogue and the astrologer and client become involved in a discussion. The astrologer treats this client like any other and begins with the same platitudes and comments he always uses, only to find that the client is unusually aggressive and mean-spirited. This client insists on his money's worth and states that if the astrologer does not tell the truth, he should not only return the money given to him but also give an additional sum for having lied. Realizing that he is likely to be exposed, the astrologer gets nervous and does his best to back out of the transaction. The client, on the other hand, is adamant and insists that a challenge is a challenge. The astrologer then has no choice except to agree to the terms.

Just when the reader feels that the client has called the astrologer's bluff, the story takes on a new dimension. The astrologer begins by recounting the story of the client's past and describes how a long time ago he had been stabbed and thrown into a well and left for dead. It was the assistance of a passerby that saved him. The client, who is tremendously impressed by this revelation, is stunned when the astrologer addresses him by name, calls him Guru Nayak, and advises him to go back home and stop looking for the man who stabbed him since he had died in an accident. To further reinforce his point, the astrologer says that if Nayak leaves his village again, he is likely to face considerable danger. By now, the reader is quite mystified and begins to wonder whether the astrologer...

(The entire section is 1,540 words.)