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Nov 4, 2014

Critical Appreciation of the short story ‘An Astrologer’s Day by R.K.Narayan

Source: https://baarchana.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/critical-appreciation-of-an-astrologers-day-by-r-k-narayan/
Book: An Astrologer’s Day and Other Stories (1947)
Author: R.K.Narayan

Genre: Short stories
Story from the Collection: An Astrologer’s Day

Critical Appreciation of the short story ‘An Astrologer’s Day’

‘An Astrologer’s Day and other Stories’ are a collection of short stories written by R.K.Narayan. ‘An Astrologer’s Day’ is the first story from the collection.
Summary: The story is about an astrologer, who chose to be one not out of choice but past mysterious situations in life forced him to be one. So it goes without saying that he was a stranger to the stars as much his gullible clients, but he did know how to carry out his profession. What baffles the reader and everyone is how he could correctly read an unusual client’s past and even known his name? Had he studied the stars and mastered the art, contrary to the common belief? Did he possess some uncanny powers, which could be put to good use, when needed?
Plot:
1.Exposition: In the beginning of the story we are introduced to the astrologer. All others transacting their business nearby are there to create the right atmosphere and provide the setting necessary for the development of the plot. The crafty ways in which the astrologer transcends his work and endeared to his gullible customers is very well described.
“He was as much a stranger to the stars as were his innocent customer. But it didn’t seem to matter at all. He said things which pleased and astonished everyone: that was more a matter of study, practice and shrewd guesswork”.
The writer paints a perfect picture of an astrologer- the con men, the likes of whom we come across in the marketplace and towns. Even though we may harbour doubts about their knowledge of stars, we do feel tempted to consult them to know what future has in store for us!
2. Complication: A sense of suspense is created about the personal life or past history of the astrologer. All that we are told in the beginning of the story is that he had not in the least intended to be an astrologer when he began life.
He had left his village stealthily without any previous thought or plan. He had to leave home without telling anyone and had to cover a safe distance before he could recollect himself and his life. We are also told that astrology was not his family business. If he had continued to live in his village, he would have tilled the land and tended his cornfields like his forefathers. So this creates curiosity in the minds of the reader as to what had happened in his past that had broken this ancestral cycle and forced him to leave all of a sudden?
3. Climax: The narration continues at its normal expected pace until an unusual client appears in the scene to consult the astrologer when the astrologer was packing up his astrology paraphernalia and was ready to call it a day. This client was no usual casual client wanting temporary respite but had specific questions and challenged the astrologer to provide specific answers.
The critical scene which drives the plot ahead: As the stranger lit his cheroot, the astrologer caught a glimpse of his face by the matchlight and for some obscure reason the astrologer now felt uncomfortable and tried to wriggle out of the whole thing.
(The work place setting described in the beginning of the story is very well gelled in evolving the critical scene of the story).
The stranger won’t let go the astrologer. “Challenge is challenge”.
What the astrologer says hereafter takes the client as well as the reader by surprise. He was left for dead, a knife had passed through him once, he was pushed into a well nearby in the field. The effect is further heightened when the astrologer even gives out his correct name. Guru Nayak is completely stumped. When asked about the whereabouts of the man who stabbed him and left him for dead, the astrologer confidently tells Guru Nayak to give up the hunt because the assailant had died four months ago, crushed under a lorry in a far-off town. The astrologer also advices Guru Nayak to go home and stay up there and never travel southward again.
This episode leaves us with new-found admiration for the astrologer. How could he so correctly read the stranger’s past and even known his name? Had he studied the stars and mastered the art, contrary to the common belief? Did he possess some uncanny powers, which could be put to good use, when needed?
4.Denouement: The story takes another twist when the astrologer reaches home and confides with his wife the reason why he had run away from home, settled here, and married her. All these years he had thought that the blood of a man was on his hands. This past incidence had happened when he was a youngster, got drunk, gambled and got into a quarrel. But now the man he thought he had killed was alive. Thus a great load was off his chest.
This is the reason why the astrologer had to leave his village without any plan or preparation. And this was how he could so correctly talk of Guru Nayak’s troubled past.
The story thus ends with an incredible twist: “a murdered man” turns up to consult his “murderer”, who is now an astrologer, regarding when he will be able to have his revenge; the “murderer” recognizes him by the matchlight when the former had lit his cheroot but he cannot recognize his old enemy in his garb as an astrologer. The client is astonished to be told about his previous history by the astrologer, and meekly agrees to give up his search for his enemy declared to have been crushed under a lorry months ago. Thus the astrologer ensured for himself a safe and secure life hereafter. Convinced that his assailant had been crushed under a lorry months ago, Guru Nayak would not want to venture out of his village when it forebode gave risk to his life. Thus all the mystery begins to fall in place and the loose ends are tied into a unified whole.
Atmosphere: The author, R.K.Narayan, has an eye for detail. He creates an atmosphere of a perfect work place for the astrologer.
Illustrations:
  • His professional equipment consisted of “a dozen cowrie shells, a square piece of cloth with obscure mystic charts on it, a notebook, and a bundle of palmyra writing”.
  • The boughs of the spreading tamarind tree, the surging crowd moving up and down the narrow road morning till night, the variety of traders- medicine sellers, sellers of stolen hardware and junk, magicians, auctioneers of cheap cloth, and vendors of fried groundnut- vociferously vying with each other to attract the crowd created a remarkable work place for the astrologer.
  • The light and smoke of the crackling flare above the groundnut heap, enchantment of the place created by lack of lighting, hissing gaslights and bewildering criss-cross of light rays and moving shadows created the right setting for an astrologer.
Characterization:
The method of characterization adopted by the author is a combination of expository and dramatic.
There are three characters in the story:
1. The Astrologer :
The protagonist is an astrologer. The astrologer’s name is never mentioned and it doesn’t really matter that the reader knows it. He is a ‘round character’ with various facets of the personality being revealed and the character evolved with the development of the plot.
The appearance of the astrologer is very well described by the author.
  • “His forehead was resplendent with sacred ash and vermilion and his eyes sparkled with a sharp abnormal gleam” which his simple clients took to be prophetic light and felt comforted.
  • “Half-wit’s eyes would sparkle in such a setting”.
  • “To crown the effect he wound a saffron-coloured turban around his head. This colour scheme never failed. People were attracted to him as bees are attracted to cosmos or dahlia stalks”.
The only thing the astrologer didn’t know anything about was ‘Astrology’ but he was intelligent and had his crafty ways to go about his profession. He had a working analysis of mankind’s troubles and told the person before him, gazing at his palm:
  • “In many ways you are not getting the fullest results of your efforts”.
  • “Most of your troubles are due to your nature……Saturn……You have an impetuous nature and a rough exterior”.
These talks endeared to almost everyone’s hearts immediately.
Clever as he was, he never opened for atleast ten minutes which provided him enough stuff for “a dozen answers and advices”.
2. A prospective client of the Astrologer: The prospective client happened to be the person the astrologer had stabbed and left for being dead when they were youngsters. Therefore he was restless, furious and was searching for his assailant to take revenge. The astrologer recognized him but the he could not recognize his assailant in the garb of an astrologer. His name, ‘Guru Nayak’, is revealed when the astrologer was unraveling his past. He plays a pivotal role in the development and climax of the plot.
3.      Astrologer’s wife: Though a minuscule role, the astrologer’s wife plays an important part in the denouement of the story, helping the astrologer take the great load off his chest.
Is this character absolutely required in the story? The author could have eliminated this role altogether and allowed the astrologer heave a sigh of relief by talking to his conscience but confiding and sharing his relief with his wife brings the characters to life.
Narrative Techniques:
The story builds up certain suspense in the mind of the readers regarding the circumstances that had compelled the protagonist to leave his village all of a sudden without any plan or preparation and take to astrology to eke out a living in the town. The revelation unties many knots merely hinted at earlier and weaves the parts into a unified whole. It is a logical climax reached dramatically.
Figurative Language:
Irony: The author uses ironic comment on the astrologer’s crafty ways of carrying out his profession and the gullible people who came to him for solutions and finding respite:
  • “He knew no more of what was going to happen to others than he knew what was going to happen to himself next minute”.
  • “He was as much a stranger to the stars as were his innocent customers”.
  • “…his eyes sparkled with a sharp abnormal gleam which was really an outcome of a continual searching look for customers, which his simple clients took to be a prophetic light and felt comforted”.
Simile: The appearance of the astrologer wearing a saffron-coloured turban is described as:
“To crown the effect he wound a saffron-coloured turban around his head. This colour scheme never failed. People were attracted to him as bees are attracted to cosmos or dahlia stalks”.
The astrologer had left his home under mysterious circumstances and did not rest till he covered a couple of hundred miles. This enormous distance covered is emphasized as:
“To a villager it is a great deal, as if an ocean flowed between”.
Catchy Phrases: The work place setting is buzzing with activities consisting different traders. I personally liked the way the groundnut seller uses catchy phrases to transact business:
“He gave a fancy name each day, calling it ‘Bombay Ice-Cream’ one day, and on the next ‘Delhi Almond’ on the next, and ‘Raja’s Delicacy’”.
Innovative catch phrases are commonly used by many street vendors in the towns of India to lure customers. This vibrant marketing style has been very vividly captured by the author.
My Point of View:
Societal Satire: I have heard many quotes dealing with the past “Past being History and Future being Mystery…” and so and so forth. This story goes on to show how past can actually affect the present and future of one’s life.
The astrologer had committed a folly by getting into a quarrel when he was a drunk youngster, the result of which changed his entire path of life. If not for the past incidence he would have continued to live in that village carried on the work of his forefathers namely, tilling the land, living, marrying, and ripening in his cornfield and ancestral home. But now he had to leave his village stealthily and take up the profession of an astrologer which he least intended to in a far away village.
There is an element of social satire in the story: What happened in the past and how it affected the lives henceforth is for all of us to see.
Astrology as a profession: The author uses irony to show how the science of astrology has been misused by these conmen in the society thereby creating distrust in the people about astrology and astrologers. Though the author uses ironic comment on the astrologer’s crafty ways of carrying out his profession and the gullible people who came to him for solutions and finding respite but he has never been judgmental and undermined astrology as a profession.
Illustration: “He was as much a stranger to the stars as were his innocent customer. Yet he said things which pleased and astonished everyone: that was more a matter of study, practice, and shrewd guesswork. All the same, it was as much an honest man’s labour as any other, and he deserved the wages he carried home at the end of a day”.
What makes the story impressive is the interesting plot, element of suspense, logical climax, figurative language, importance to details, and the underlying meaning behind the story. These elements have been artistically interwoven in the story by the author, making it an interesting read.

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