An Astrologer's Day Questions and Answers

R. K. Narayan

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting An Astrologer's Day questions.

In what way is the Astrologer's narrative comparable to others?

“An Astrologer’s Day” is a story of survival:

He had left his village without any previous thought or plan. If he had continued there he would have carried on the work of his forefathers namely, tilling the land, living, marrying, and ripening in his cornfield and ancestral home . . . he could not rest till he left it behind a couple of hundred miles.

The protagonist may have had nothing but the clothes on his back when he arrived in the big, strange, crowded, noisy city. He probably had to beg for food along the way. He must have ended up as an astrologer by the purest chance. Possibly he found some “professional equipment” abandoned by another self-styled astrologer who gave up or starved to death. The newcomer might have decided to try this role in hopes of garnering just enough to buy something to eat and found that he had a talent he never knew he possessed. He has been relatively successful. He has not only managed to support himself, but now he is supporting a wife and a child.

The story faintly resembles “The Verger” by Somerset Maugham. The protagonist loses his job as verger because his new pastor discovers he is illiterate. How does the poor man survive after all these years in a safe, simple occupation? Like the astrologer, he is smart and adaptable. He opens a tea shop. People like the place. The business expands. The ex-verger becomes rich. What is true for the hero of "The Verger" is not necessarily true for everyone; however, there are a lot of men like Maugham's Albert Edward Foreman who have little book-learning but plenty of worldly wisdom obtained through intelligent observation of the real world. 

If the astrologer had remained in his village he would have remained an ignorant peasant. We can imagine what that would be like, following an emaciated cow with a wooden plow through land that had already been exhausted by countless centuries of tillage. If the verger had remained in the church he would have remained a verger. In both cases what seemed like adversity was an opportunity in disguise. The astrologer is not rich, but he has become sophisticated and urbane. And his daughter has a chance at a much better life.

In As You Like It, Shakespeare has Duke Senior say the following wise words:

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

And according to the great Buddha:

People naturally fear misfortune and long for good fortune; but if the distinction is carefully studied, misfortune often turns out to be good fortune and good fortune to be misfortune.

Survival is the iron law of life. Adversity can stimulate new survival strategies. There is no security in life. Everyone lives from day to day. In Macbeth, Shakespeare has Hecate tell the three witches:

And you all know security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy. 

What is the setting of An Astrologer's Day?

R. K. Narayan creates a strong impression of the throngs of poor people of India by giving descriptions of what there is in the park for them to see and hear. The sights and sounds include the following:

medicine sellers, sellers of stolen hardware and junk, magicians, and, above all, an auctioneer of cheap cloth, who created enough din all day to attract the whole town.

This is their entertainment. There is also a vociferous vendor of groundnuts. These nuts must be the same as, or similar to, our peanuts, which also grow underground. The picture we get it one of extreme poverty and empty lives. The people are here because they have very little money. Yet the quack medicine sellers and the various vendors are desperately trying to get whatever they can out of them. The groundnuts are probably the cheapest kind of nuts and might attract buyers who could not pay anything more for any kind of food. The astrologer himself is desperate for customers, even though "a surging crowd was always moving up and down this narrow road morning till night." He is usually surrounded by curious spectators, but none of them ventures to ask a question or part with the smallest coin.

The lighting also shows the poverty of the setting. The astrologer cannot even afford to have his own light at night.

The astrologer transacted his business by the light of a flare which crackled and smoked up above the groundnut heap nearby.

Evidently the groundnut vendor does not have a stall but dumps his merchandise directly onto the ground and lights it at night with a flare. Hardly any of the businesses had really decent lighting. Some had no lights at all but, like the astrologer, depended on other people's lights. One might think that those who were providing the lighting would resent the parasitism of their neighbors. But this would only happen if a neighbor happened to be a competitor. The astrologer did not compete with the groundnuts vendor. Instead, by attracting people and causing them to linger, the astrologer might have helped the groundnuts dealer a little—and vice versa. 

When Guru Nayak bursts upon the scene, he is quite different from the other listless, impoverished people. The newcomer has money. And he is not just another idler. He seems to be in a great hurry. He has places to go. Guru Nayak seems relatively affluent, and he has a specific purpose for being there. He is looking for the astrologer—but does not know he has found him. 

Why does Guru Nayak not recognize the Astrologer?

For some years Guru Nayak has been searching for the man posing as the astrologer. It was not a strange coincidence, but a strong likelihood that Guru Nayak would eventually come into contact with the very man he was seeking, since he has obviously been consulting many astrologers and has become familiar with all their tricks. Why does he not recognize the protagonist as the man he has been searching for?

Fortunately for the astrologer, the encounter takes place late at night. As a matter of fact, the astrologer is getting ready to quit for the night:

The nuts vendor blew out his flare and rose to go home. It was a signal for the astrologer to bundle up too, since it left him in darkness except for a little shaft of green light which strayed in from somewhere and touched the ground before him.

The visibility at night is poor at best. There is no municipal lighting. Some shops have their own crude lighting, but the astrologer depends on "the light of a flare which crackled and smoked up above the groundnut heap nearby."

The astrologer has changed, too. He has gotten older, of course. He has grown a beard to make himself look more impressive. He also paints his forehead and winds a saffron-colored turban around his head.

But his manner has changed as well. He speaks with authority. He has acquired a larger vocabulary which contains a lot of astrological terminology. Guru Nayak has remained a simple villager, but the astrologer has become urbanized. He is no longer a peasant. A big city can have that effect on a person. It is the result of having to deal with so many different types of people in order to survive.

The astrologer has acquired "street smarts" and big-city toughness. Even if Guru Nayak could see him better, he still would not recognize this urbanite as the peasant he knew. When the astrologer argues about money with his difficult client, the purpose is to distract him, to keep him from asking awkward questions or from wondering what it was about this astrologer that seemed familiar. It takes steel nerves to survive in a big city, especially with no education and no trade. 

It is important, not only that Guru Nayak should not recognize the astrologer while he is talking to him, but that he should not have second thoughts about him after he has paid him and departed. Guru Nayak has gotten his money's worth. He feels satisfied that the man who stabbed him is dead:

"He died four months ago in a far-off town. You will never see any more of him."

There is a certain amount of truth in the astrologer's statement. The ignorant peasant whom Guru Nayak has been searching for no longer exists. An entirely different man—an urbanite, an astrologer, a husband, a father—has taken his place.

Stadtluft macht frei
(Urban air makes one free)
Old German saying