Kanaganayakam is an associate professor at the University of Toronto and has written for a wide variety of academic journals. In the following essay, he discusses the themes of irony and cosmic harmony in "An Astrologer's Day."
Among Indian writers in English, R. K. Narayan is probably one of the most prolific, and he has the distinction of having written fiction for more than sixty years. His first novel, Swami and Friends, appeared in 1935, and since then he has written novels, short stories, and essays, totaling more than thirty books in all. Although known predominantly as a novelist in India and the West, his short stories are no less significant than his longer works, and the story "An Astrologer's Day" continues to be a heavily anthologized piece. It is of considerable significance that a story which first appeared in 1947 should retain its appeal after more than fifty years.The curious inversion of light and darkness leads to the notion of irony which is central to an understanding of Narayan's strategy. If there is one aspect of his work that has been praised by critics, that is his unique use of irony. It is unique in that it comes out of a predominantly Hindu sensibility.
The deceptive simplicity of "An Astrologer's Day" is one aspect of the story that continues to baffle critics. Typically, Narayan's fiction does not depend extensively on the plot to sustain itself. Not much happens in the narrative, and the storyline is relatively straightforward and quite often linear. Sometimes the forward movement of time is arrested, as in this story, but the disruption is such that the reader perceives no real discontinuity in the overall movement of the plot. The shift from the present to the past is necessitated by the plot itself, and as soon as some aspect of the past that needs elaboration is mentioned, the story moves to the present. The spatial element too is kept relatively simple. Despite references to other settings--such as the village--all the action of this story happens in two places which are logically connected to each other. The first is the street where the astrologer runs his "shop" and the second is the astrologer's home to which he returns after work. Thus the spatial and temporal aspects of the story are traditional and uncomplicated.
Nonetheless, the story is far from simple. Every facet of the story is crucial to the overall thematic preoccupations of the author. For instance, the astrologer leaves for home when the groundnut vendor closes shop, simply because he is dependent on...