An Astrologer’s Day


R. K. Narayan

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An Astrologer’s Day Study Guide

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Brief Biography of R. K. Narayan

R.K. Narayan was born to a large, well-educated family in South India. His father was a school headmaster who constantly traveled, so Narayan spent much of his childhood in the care of his grandmother; she schooled him in mythology, arithmetic, classical music, and Indian languages (the family mostly conversed in English). Narayan earned his bachelor’s degree and briefly worked as a school teacher, though he soon quit to pursue his dream of being a writer. With the support of his family, Narayan wrote several novels about a fictional Indian town, commenting on issues such as the abuse of students in schools and the imbalance of power between men and women in marriage. Though these works were rejected by many publishers, English novelist Graham Greene helped Narayan find publication in Europe. Narayan’s novels were well-reviewed but did not sell. At 29, the author married and took a job as a journalist to support his new family; his wife died of typhoid five years later, however, sending him into a deep depression. Around this time Narayan produced the autobiographical fiction The English Teacher. The events of World War II meant that for several years, Narayan was unable to work with his English publishers. To solve this problem, he started his own publishing house, Indian Thought Publications, which still exists and is operated by his granddaughter. Narayan also began to adapt his writing to suit a more creative, less introspective style, but still made commentary on sociopolitical issues and the irony of Indian life. Narayan’s prolific career spanned over six decades, producing novels, short story anthologies, and even the screenplay for the Indian feature film Miss Malini (1947). He received numerous awards, including India’s highest literary honor and several Nobel Prize nominations, and his novel The Guide (1958) saw both film and Broadway adaptations. Narayan died in 2001.
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Historical Context of An Astrologer’s Day

Britain, as a method of culling the strength and will of the Indian population, catalyzed Hindu caste philosophy into the legally-binding system it is today. As instituted by the British rulers in the 19th century, Indian citizens are assigned a social caste (or class) from birth, depending on lineage and family ties. Higher castes are afforded more economic and educational opportunities, better support from the government, and greater freedom. Low castes are oppressed and devalued, with far fewer opportunities for success or advancement in life. Although British colonial rule was thrown off when India declared independence in 1947, and discrimination (particularly violence) based on caste was outlawed in 1989, the caste system remains a dominant social force to this day. “An Astrologer’s Day” was published in 1947, a significant and tumultuous year for India: already reeling from World War II and the Bengali famine that killed millions, India also began its existence as an independent nation. The Indian subcontinent was partitioned between the Hindu and Muslim populations so that each could have their own self-governing states, creating modern-day India and Pakistan. This process of division, known as Partition, grew extremely violent, resulting in the deaths and displacement of millions.

Other Books Related to An Astrologer’s Day

Narayan was one of three formative leaders in the development of Indian literature written in English in the 20th Century. His work stands next to the writing of his contemporaries Raja Rao, whose novel The Serpent and the Rope (1960) set the benchmark for English prose in India, and Mulk Raj Anand, whose novel Untouchable (1935) exposed the darkest aspects of the caste system. Like Narayan, both authors gave international audiences a first-hand examination of the lives of middle and lower-class Indians and the perversities and ironies of such an ancient culture living in the modern world. Narayan, Rao, and Anand’s groundbreaking work paved the way for many modern authors who do the same work of bringing Indian history, culture, and identity to the wider literary world. Examples include Salman Rushdie, whose novel Midnight’s Children (1981) uses magical realism to tell the story of India’s post-colonial struggle for independence, and Aravind Adiga, whose unflinching The White Tiger (2008) depicts the struggle of the poor in modern India to rise above their station.
Key Facts about An Astrologer’s Day
  • Full Title: “An Astrologer’s Day”
  • Where Written: Madras, India
  • When Published: 1947
  • Literary Period: Early Indian English literature
  • Genre: Short story
  • Setting: An unnamed Indian village
  • Climax: Guru Nayak bets the astrologer a large sum of money that he cannot foretell anything worthwhile or true. The astrologer draws on the experience of a secret past and wins the bet.
  • Antagonist: Guru Nayak
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for An Astrologer’s Day

Self-Deprecating. In the story, Narayan is quite critical of both religion and the practice of astrology, both of which were the domain of high-level Brahmin caste. Narayan himself was a Brahmin, though none of his family were astrologers or priests, and seems to be poking fun at his own upbringing and peers.

Natural Rebel. Though his family tried to remain apolitical, Narayan always had a progressive bent. At 12, he marched in a pro-independence rally, to his family’s chagrin. After his marriage, he worked as a reporter for a journal that championed the rights of non-Brahmin citizens; his employers were ecstatic to have a Brahmin writer join their ranks.