Themes and Meanings
The story turns on a most important human weakness: the desire to know the future. This weakness is greater among the sick, the suffering, and the poverty-stricken. In a poor country such as India, astrologers, palmists, and numerologists, as well as others who claim to know the future (for example, fortune-tellers assisted by birds in drawing cards), assume a great significance in society. Fortune-tellers offer hope to those leading tragic lives, giving them reason to continue their existence, and offer solace where it otherwise does not exist. They also find a means of survival in taking advantage of the misfortunes of millions, by listening to their tales of woe (particularly significant in a culture where psychiatrists are not common and would not command confidence even if they were). Astrology, in particular, has played a crucial role in the lives of many, and has long been an integral part of Indian life (so much so that, tradition has it, the horoscopes not only of Buddha—who lived five hundred years before the birth of Christ—but even of epic heroes dating back at least a thousand years before Christ have been maintained). In “An Astrologer’s Day,” Narayan not only touches on a tradition that has existed since antiquity but also comments on its debased modern version. Emphasizing a social reality, Narayan exploits, with a comic eye, a common foible of Indians and writes a happy-ending story with a double twist and double surprise. The astrologer in the story is not a Brahman (a traditional astrologer) but one of the more common kind found on the roadside who has been forced to run away from an appointed role to a new destiny, and who adroitly uses the opportunity to thwart permanently a calamity that was hanging over his head. Even as others have their ups and downs, the astrologer has his ups and downs in life, and as the narrator says, “He knew no more of what was going to happen to others than he knew what was going to happen to himself next minute.” In the story, significantly enough, the astrologer’s would-be assailant unwittingly comes to the man whom he is seeking in revenge and misses the opportunity to kill him. Astrology deflects him from his violent purpose, giving him the illusion of tasting revenge, and also helps the astrologer to resolve an old, burning conflict; so, both are happy.
Narayan's world is predominantly a Hindu one in which fate plays an important role. Nothing happens by accident and all human actions have consequences. The entire story is based on the astrologer's sense of guilt at having stabbed another young man in the village and then having absconded in order to avoid punishment. The stabbing is later seen to be an act of youthful folly. Nonetheless, the astrologer lives with the fear of being identified, and the curious irony is that it is he who identifies the victim and not the other way about. He does not pay for his crime, but the story ends on the note that he had spent years regretting his deed and that in itself is punishment enough. The story demands a suspension of disbelief, and if credibility is strained at certain points, it is because the author's notion of fate transcends rational explanation. Narayan's depiction of fate does not lead to an attitude of resignation, and it does not preclude the importance of individual actions. There is, however, a sense of a larger scheme within which human actions function.
Although religion is never emphasized in this story, or for that matter in most of his fiction , it remains a constant preoccupation in Narayan' s writing. In the world that the author depicts religion is a way of life and it becomes an integral part of everyday life. Everything about the astrologer—his palmyra leaves, the holy ash on his forehead, the vermillion—all these are suggestive of an engagement with religion....
(The entire section is 1,060 words.)