By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘An Astrologer’s Day’ is a story from the Indian author R. K. Narayan’s 1943 collection Malgudi Days. The Malgudi of the collection’s title is a fictional city in India, where all of the stories in the collection take place. The opening story in the book, ‘An Astrologer’s Day’ is about an unnamed astrologer who is confronted by a stranger who questions his abilities.
The story is about revenge, the past, and the reasons why we make the decisions we make in our lives. If you find this analysis helpful, we also recommend this discussion of another R. K. Narayan story, ‘The Doctor’s Word’.
‘An Astrologer’s Day’: plot summary
The story is about a man who makes a living as an astrologer, sitting under a tree in a busy street every day and offering to tell the fortune of any passer-by who is willing to pay for him to do so. However, the ‘astrologer’ in reality knows little of the stars, and instead tends to rely on shrewd guesses, cold reading, and letting his clients talk for long enough for him to gain enough background to their lives in order to create the illusion that he somehow knows things about them which they have not told him.
He also tends to tell them things which he senses they want to hear, knowing that people are more likely to be willing to hand over money to someone who tells them positive things rather than someone who delivers bad news.
One night, as he is preparing to head home having finished his evening’s work, the astrologer spots a man and invites him to sit with him and have his fortune read. However, the stranger calls into doubt the astrologer’s abilities, and challenges him. He will give him an anna (one-sixteenth of a rupee) but if the astrologer’s answer is unsatisfactory, the astrologer must pay him the anna back, with interest.
They negotiate, and the stranger agrees to pay the astrologer eight annas if he gives him satisfactory answers, but the astrologer must give the stranger more than that if he fails to prove his talents.
After an unpromising start, which fails to impress the stranger, the astrologer correctly identifies that the man was stabbed and then thrown into a well, where he was left for dead. He also tells the man his name, Guru Nayak. When Nayak asks the astrologer when he will meet the man who tried to kill him so he can exact his revenge, the astrologer replies that the man died four months ago in a far-off town.
The astrologer then tells Nayak to return home to his village and never leave again. If he does this, he will live to be a hundred. Nayak is only too happy to agree to this, revealing that he only left his village to try to locate the man who almost killed him. Now he knows the man is dead (the astrologer tells him he was crushed under a lorry), he is satisfied.
When the astrologer arrives home to his wife, there is a twist. It turns out that he was the man who attacked Guru Nayak and left him for dead. This is how he knew the man’s identity. He was able to throw Nayak off the scent and save himself from the man’s vengeance, using his authority as an astrologer to advise the man to return home.
‘An Astrologer’s Day’: analysis
Narayan’s story is a short tale with a twist, and its plot is neat in the way it brings together its several strands. We learn at the end of ‘An Astrologer’s Day’ that the title character only left home and became an astrologer in the first place because he feared he had killed Guru Nayak after they drunkenly quarrelled. That one moment of anger determined the subsequent path of his life, and forced him to move to a new town and to alter his identity, so nobody from his village would chance to recognise him.
But he is able to recognise Guru Nayak when this figure from his youth turns up one night. Faced with a tricky customer who is sceptical of his abilities (quite rightly, it turns out, since the astrologer is essentially a blagger), he is backed into a corner and only saved from humiliation when he recognises his client as the very figure from his past who had set his life on its subsequent course.
This chance encounter is significant because, oddly enough, it ends up doing exactly what an encounter with an astrologer is meant to do: it gives the client clarity regarding his future, and he is now happy to return to his village, safe in the knowledge that his wrongdoer is dead.
Of course, this ‘knowledge’ is actually lies, but Narayan appears to be suggesting that the astrologer’s actions, performed out of cowardice and a desire to save his own skin, also avert the wrongful execution of vengeance. It is better for Guru Nayak to believe his would-be murderer dead and let go of the past, after all these years.
Similarly, the astrologer’s recognition of Nayak enables him to assume the role of a genuine astrologer, if only for one night, and speak with the air of an oracle or seer. Nayak is utterly convinced that the man is genuine clairvoyant, after he revealed he knew so much about his life. The astrologer is thus given a chance to be relieved of the burden of guilt he has carried around with him for all these years.
In ‘An Astrologer’s Day’, Narayan makes effective use of light and dark symbolism. But light can be misleading as well as illuminating. At the beginning of the story, Narayan’s third-person narrator tells us that the ‘gleam’ in the astrologer’s eyes is often interpreted by clients as a sign of his ‘prophetic light’, but is in reality his keen eyes searching for more customers.
We are told that the lack of ‘municipal lighting’ in the area is part of its charm: the light comes from the nearby shops, and not all of these have their own lights, so the street is plunged in a curious mixture of light and shadow.
This is symbolic of the story itself, where truth and lies, like those lights and shadows, are conflated and confused. It is significant that it is when the stranger (later identified as Guru Nayak) lights his cheroot pipe that the astrologer recognises him as the old associate from his past: the light here illuminates his old adversary but Nayak himself remains in the dark concerning the true identity of his interlocutor.