A Commentary on ‘An Astrologer’s Day’ Essay
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The writer’s description of the astrologer leaves us in no doubt that he is a charlatan – his equipment, costume and appearance all have a deliberate, theatrical quality designed to convey the impression of a mystic power which he does not possess. Notice the author’s wryly ironic comment that the abnormal gleam in his eye is “really an outcome of a continual searching for customers” and his dry observation that “even a half wit’s eyes would sparkle” between such a painted forehead and dark whiskers.
The deliberate artifice of the astrologer is further underlined by the author’s use of phrases such as “To crown the effect” and “This color scheme”. The illusion is enhanced by the fact that the astrologer works in the eerie glow of a smoky flare which adds to the “enchantment” of the place.
The astrologer’s customers are depicted as gullible creatures who are irresistibly attracted to him like bees. But although the author portrays the astrologer as a fraud, his innocent customers are not shown in the light of hapless victims.
The writer does not condemn or deride the astrologer as a parasite but sees him as a businessman who gives his customers value for money: 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 labor as any other, and he deserved the wages he carried home at the end of the day.
We are told that the astrologer has not chosen his profession by design. Intriguingly, the author informs us that he was once a simple farmer who “had to leave home without telling anyone”. Although the fact that he had to depart hurriedly and travel far suggests that something dire occurred, the actual reason for his flight is not given, thus arousing our curiosity and conferring upon the exiled stranger a sense of mystery, more real than he could possibly create for himself in his bogus role of astrologer.
Whilst he has no mystical powers, the astrologer is a shrewd psychologist. He diagnoses his customers’ problems by listening to their troubles and supplies them with solace and reassurance. Notice how he is careful to either blame his clients’ woes on other people, or attribute their troubles to elements beyond their control. In this way, they all depart as satisfied customers.
Our expectation is aroused by the suitably dramatic entrance of the astrologer’s antagonist. For reasons which become apparent later, the author has cleverly contrived the scene so that the man is initially no more than a dark shape who blots out the solitary shaft of light which remains after the nut vendor’s departure. Our initial impression of the stranger is unsympathetic – he grumbles and truculently challenges the astrologer to prove his worth in the form of a bet. It is only after the bet has been agreed that the astrologer glimpses the man’s face whilst the latter is lighting a charoot. The sight of the man’s face seems to shock the astrologer but again we are purposely given no explanation why.
The astrologer is so dismayed that he tries to retract the wager and hurriedly leave but the man is ruthlessly insistent and becomes threatening. Surprisingly, the astrologer agrees to speak but only if the wager is increased to one rupee. Both the reader and the man are surprised to hear the astrologer’s seemingly miraculous divinations as he accurately describes the man’s grisly past. The man is dismayed to learn that his thirst for revenge cannot be quenched since his enemy is already dead. He is further stunned to discover that the astrologer knows his name and accepts his admonition to return home and never travel southward again. The astrologer leaves the man with one consolation: he tells him that his enemy received his just deserts by dying a deservedly painful death.
Our curiosity is finally satisfied at the end of the story when the astrologer goes home and reveals to his wife that the man in question was in fact the reason why he fled his village. Unbeknown to the man, he had ironically been consulting the very person he had been relentlessly searching for all these years! For the astrologer, meeting his old enemy has been doubly rewarding: firstly, the knowledge that he is not a murderer has lifted a great burden of guilt from his mind; secondly, he has assured his future safety by tricking his antagonist into believing that he is dead. The story fittingly ends with the astrologer sleeping contentedly, having finally laid to rest the ghost of his guilt and successfully warded off the menacing specter of revenge.
The author’s technique in this story is more subtle than it first appears. Although we are just as surprised as the client when we first hear the astrologer’s uncannily accurate comments, our surprise is of a different nature since we know what Guru Nayak does not – that the astrologer is a definite fraud. Hence, there is an ironic distancing between the reader and the astrologer’s antagonist which is further stretched by the fact that he is portrayed as an unsympathetic character.
Whereas the initially skeptical Guru Nayak becomes increasingly convinced of the astrologer’s mystic power, the reader becomes increasingly suspicious, especially when the astrologer correctly gives his client’s name. Unlike Guru Nayak, the reader has not become increasingly mystified and overawed by the astrologer’s knowledge, but gradually realises that a connection must exist between Guru Nayak’s story and the secret of the astrologer’s past. Hence, whilst the ending satisfies our curiosity, it does not come as a total surprise.
We also share the astrologer’s final sense of relief, partly because we find Guru Nayak unpleasant but mainly because we admire the way in which he skilfully and successfully handles such a crisis of circumstance and manages to extricate himself from an extremely dangerous situation. Rising to the occasion, he uses his “professional” acting skills and sharp wits to turn the tables on his overawed antagonist and transform a perilous predicament into godsend.
Finally, the author’s effective use of irony is worth commenting. Near the beginning of the story, he writes that the astrologer “… knew no more of what was going to happen to others than he knew what was going to happen to himself next minute”. Given what is about to occur, these words become prophetically ironic. Note also the wry irony of the astrologer’s final complaint to his wife (“The swine has cheated me!”) when he himself had perpetrated the greater deception and cleverly cheated Guru Nayak of his revenge
. Lastly, the matter-of-fact title is a masterpiece of ironic understatement. “An Astrologer’s Day” implies that the story will describe an average or “typical” day in the astrologer’ life whereas the event related is both extraordinary and fateful.