An Astrologer's Day

by R. K. Narayan

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The Astrologer

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The two main characters of the story are the astrologer, who is not given a name, and Guru Nayak, the client who turns out to be a former victim, now on a quest for revenge. The astrologer is not given a name partly because he is intended to be seen, for most of the story, as a typical figure, one of the many who conduct their business in makeshift locations in the city, and partly because the narrative mode does not require that he be given a name. It is only at the end of the story that the astrologer is given an individuality that makes him a distinctive figure. Also, in the story he interacts only with two characters: the first, a passerby who seeks his advice about the future. The relation between the two is purely functional, and there would be no need for the person to address the astrologer by name. The second is the astrologer's wife, who speaks to him at the end of the story. In this instance, convention demands that she should not use his name to address him: In a typical South Indian family it would be rare for a wife to address her husband by name. Hence, despite the latitude of omniscient narration, the author chooses to let the astrologer remain anonymous.

Nonetheless, the astrologer comes across as a sharply defined figure, mainly as a result of the assortment of objects he carries with him in order to create the illusion of spirituality and mystical knowledge. The care he takes over his personal appearance is yet another aspect of his charisma. The profession of an astrologer presupposes a commitment to religious observance, and that is precisely what this character achieves through his eclectic collection of articles. The bundle of palmyra writing (script on the leaves of a palmyra tree) in particular lends a very authentic touch, since such writings reflect both wisdom and a high degree of learning. The combination of holy ash and vermillion on his forehead, the turban on his head, and his whiskers, all taken together, give the impression of a man given to a holy life rather than business. The author ensures that despite the external trappings, the astrologer is not necessarily a negative or rogue figure. Telling the future is a job, not unlike selling peanuts or cloth, and he does this with a sense of purpose and commitment. Within the overall structure of the story, it is important for the astrologer to come across as a somewhat mild and inoffensive person who had left his village to escape a life of poverty. His portrayal as a positive character helps to offset the revelation at the end that he had left the village after having committed a crime. The important aspect of the astrologer's character is that as the story progresses he moves from being a type to a carefully individualized person.

The first three pages of the story are devoted to description of the astrologer and his surroundings. Roadside astrologers are a common sight in India, and the general perception is that they make their living by exploiting the gullibility of people who seek their advice. This astrologer is no different, except that he comes across as a shrewd and intelligent man whose livelihood depends on turning every occurrence to his advantage. Having no lighting system of his own, he manages to get by on his adjoining vendor's light. When the groundnut seller closes shop, he has no lighting to conduct his business, and he too leaves for home. Similarly, when his clients seek his advice, he lets them speak long enough in order to gather sufficient information to make an educated guess about their future. His intuitive understanding of human nature and his wit are crucial to the plot of the story, and the relevance of all the details becomes evident at the end of the story. Among the trickster figures that Narayan has created in his work, the astrologer is a memorable and likeable one.

Other Characters

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Guru Nayak
Guru Nayak is the antithesis of the astrologer. He appears in the story at midpoint, and almost immediately comes across as both aggressive and mean-spirited. Unlike the astrologer who is described through third-person narrative, Nayak is revealed through his own dialogue. He too remains nameless until the astrologer addresses him by name. The name itself is chosen carefully, for the term "Guru," with all its associations of spiritual leader or teacher, is noticeably different from what we see in the character. Nayak is on a quest for the person who harmed him, and his attempt to solicit the assistance of the astrologer is part of his quest. Unlike other clients, Nayak begins with a skeptical attitude, and rather than accept the astrologer or leave him altogether, insists on a wager. According to the wager, the astrologer must be accurate in his predictions or give up a substantial sum of money. The wager is carefully inserted in the story in order to reveal later that Nayak, with his penchant for gambling, would have been at least partly to blame for the altercation in the past. It is also significant that at the end of story, when the astrologer's wife adds up the coins given by Nayak and announces the total, the astrologer realizes that he has been cheated. A small detail in itself, it establishes that Nayak is the opposite of the astrologer, and in the overall moral scheme of the story, it is the astrologer who is the victim and not the other.

From the perspective of narrative strategy, it is remarkable that while the astrologer is revealed through his actions and the point of view of the narrator, Nayak is shown through his dialogue. Nayak's language is always abrupt and elliptical, and his short sentences suggest a pugnacious nature. Choosing a diction is always a challenge for the writer when the characters would have, in normal circumstances, spoken a different language and not English. In this instance, the chances are that Nayak would have spoken in Tamil. The language he speaks in English is thus a close approximation of the kind of language he would have used in Tamil.

Rather than seek the assistance of the astrologer, Nayak proposes a wager, with the intention of fleecing him. A bully by nature, his objective is to intimidate the astrologer in order to appropriate his money. Curiously enough, at the end of the exchange, it is the astrologer who wins the sympathy of the reader. One of the ironies of the story is that in this encounter, the astrologer's "supernatural" knowledge turns out to be the truth, and Nayak leaves after having accepted the astrologer's advice about the future. Nayak's attitude at the end also affirms an interesting aspect of astrological prediction, at least as it is often practiced: the importance of prediction is not so much objective truth as it is the capacity to state what will resolve the conflict in the mind of the client.

The only other character in the story is the wife of the astrologer, who is also nameless, mainly because husbands rarely refer to their wives by name in the social ethos of the story. The absence of a name also has the effect of casting her as a type, confined to the house, comfortable with attending to household chores, cooking and taking care of their daughter. She is also not from the village—a trivial detail but a necessary one in that it provides the occasion for the astrologer to confess his past indiscretion at the end of the story. Had the wife been from the same village (and this would be more typically the case), the astrologer's confession would have been redundant and would have ruined the economy of the story. The wife is also a means to suggest the overall economic standing of the family, since acquiring twelve and a half annas—a paltry sum by Indian standards—becomes an occasion for celebration. She also serves the fictional purpose of providing the occasion for the astrologer to reveal aspects of his past and the significance of having encountered Guru Nayak on that day. Narayan's women characters are not often as sharply defined as his male characters, and the woman in this story is no exception. She comes across as a type rather than as a sharply individualized person. The very fact that she belongs to the town rather than the city is of considerable sociological interest, although to pursue that would have destroyed the unity of the story.

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