At midday, the astrologer lays out his equipment and readies for the day. He has brought a dozen cowrie shells, mystical-looking but unreadable charts, parchments, and other accoutrements. His forehead is painted with sacred ash and he wears a saffron-colored turban. The astrologer’s garb, in combination with his keen eyes and long beard, give him an enigmatic and comforting appearance to potential customers. He seems prophetic and wise, though “even a half-wit’s eyes would sparkle in such a setting.”
Narayan vividly describes the way in which the astrologer’s appearance and equipment lend him a quasi-supernatural presence. Although the author leaves no room for doubt that the astrologer is indeed a fraud, the description of him is so compelling that it is easy to see how people would be fooled into regarding him as more than a mere man.
The astrologer is seated beneath a large tamarind tree near a road that leads through the Town Hall Park. Around him is a marketplace with similarly fraudulent characters, including an auctioneer of cheap cloth and a man who sells the same fried food every day but each day gives it a new luxurious name such as “Bombay Ice-Cream.” The lights in the marketplace flicker and dance from dozens of sources, creating an enchanted feeling—a feeling bolstered by the fact that the marketplace lacks “the benefit of municipal lighting.”
All the vendors are in the practice of overselling their own value. Both the cloth vendor and the food seller create the illusion of luxury, while the astrologer creates the illusion of wisdom and power. Catering to a poor demographic, each vendor exploits a desire for the trappings of a more privileged life. Note the contrast of the astrologer, representing ancient tradition, with the Town Hall Park, representing modern administration.
The astrologer prefers the indirect lighting, since he never aspired to be an astrologer at all, nor has he any business being one. He does not know any more about the stars than any customer who may come to him. Rather, he has a store of general platitudes and a practiced ear for guessing at people’s problems, since they are very often all the same. He tells people the things they want to hear. Even so, the author surprisingly interjects, his labor is as “honest” as any other, and his wages were earned.
The astrologer’s preference for indirect, arguably poor lighting is two-fold. It both enhances the mysticism and helps conceal the fact that he is not actually a true astrologer at all. Despite this, the author sympathizes with him, noting the ways in which he acts as a therapist, listening to the problems of his customers and offering advice that may soothe them for a time.
Years before, the astrologer had to leave his home suddenly, without telling anyone and without preparation. Had he stayed, he would have been a farmer like his forefathers, working, marrying, dying, but it was not to be. Instead, he had to flee several hundred miles, an immense distance for a villager, and take up a new life.
Though it is later revealed that the astrologer fled after attempting murder, this foreshadow of it is dismissive, reflecting his own current feelings toward the situation. He seems to blame his departure on fate. Yet, he left the only honest life he could have lived.
The astrologer has formed a “working analysis” of humanity’s problems, being as they all relate to marriage, money, or messy human affairs. When someone comes to him, he first listens for ten minutes before speaking, by which point he has many things that could be said and passed off as cosmological wisdom. Often his answers are vague but sufficiently satisfying to give comfort to people; otherwise, they are self-affirming to the listener and as such leave them satisfied. He endears his customer to himself, but is careful to tie such praise to a cosmological symbol, such as the position of Saturn.
Although the astrologer has no ancient wisdom, he does not seem to need it. The problems of mankind are the same as they have always been. Perhaps the astrologer’s customers do not actually need an astrologer at all, but merely a listening ear and a soothing voice to calm their nerves. But recognizing the desire for the illusion of control and significance, the astrologer manipulates his customers to their mutual benefit.
At the day’s end, the nuts vendor next to the astrologer blows out his flare and goes home, meaning it is time for the astrologer to go home as well. There is no more light available to him, save for a small shaft of green light that strayed to the ground in front of him.
With the fading of the light, the astrologer has successfully upheld his ruse for another day. Yet under the cover of darkness, he is perhaps now bolder than he ought to be.
As the astrologer is packing his garb and equipment, a stranger blots out the green light. The astrologer summons him to sit down, hoping to make money off of him. The stranger resists but the astrologer presses, until finally the stranger steps to him and aggressively offers a challenge.
Ironically, it is the astrologer’s greed which brings him to an encounter that almost costs him both his false identity and his life. That the stranger blots out the light is significant, given that light throughout the story has signified the illusion of cosmic wisdom; the blocking of the light aligns with the stranger’s skepticism.
The stranger offers a large sum on the cynical wager that the astrologer cannot tell him anything worthwhile. They haggle over the wager, eventually raising the price and the stakes.
An immediate contrast to everyone else in the story, the stranger is instantly skeptical of the astrologer’s authenticity, and rightly so. Again, the astrologer’s greed intervenes as he keeps haggling for greater sums.
The stranger strikes a match to light his cheroot, and the brief light of the flame illuminates his face enough for the astrologer to see his identity. The astrologer gets very uncomfortable and tries to wriggle out of the wager and go home. The stranger will not allow it, grabbing him by the arm and keeping him there, determined to expose the astrologer as a fraud or learn something useful.
Had the astrologer not pushed the stakes so high, it is possible that the stranger—later revealed to be Guru Nayak, a man the astrologer thought he’d killed—would have let him leave, but his self-interest has trapped him. The fear he now feels is in part for his own safety, but also of the prospect of shedding his false identity and facing his past, as well as his guilt.
The astrologer, fearful now, tries several times to offer the same vague, placating advice that has satisfied other customers in the past. The stranger, however, will have none of it. The astrologer says a silent prayer and then changes tactic, revealing to the stranger that he knows that he was stabbed and left for dead some years ago.
Although the astrologer has been offered the opportunity to take responsibility for his crimes and be an honest man, he never even appears to consider it. Instead, he goes the opposite route, using his own experience to craft a more convincing lie.
The stranger is now filled with enthusiasm, convinced that the astrologer must truly possess cosmic wisdom. He inquires when he will be able to find the man who attacked him, so that he may kill him. The astrologer replies that it will not be until the next life, because his attacker died several months ago in a different village. The stranger is disappointed at this news. However, the astrologer offers him some satisfaction by telling him that the man he seeks was crushed under a lorry, and at least met a grisly, undignified end.
Guru Nayak nearly exposed the astrologer and forced him to the truth. Alas, the astrologer misses his chance to live with sincerity. Worse yet, he uses his past connection with Guru Nayak to permanently put to death his true identity. The astrologer will never live up to what he has done; he has killed the man he used to be and sated Guru Nayak with false justice.
The astrologer reveals that he knows the man’s name is Guru Nayak as well, crediting his own omniscience. He warns Guru Nayak to return to his village and never venture this way again or great harm will befall him. Guru Nayak concedes, for now that his assailant is dead he has no more reason to wander about. Guru Nayak gives the astrologer a fistful of coins and leaves while the astrologer packs his equipment. The last shaft of green light has also vanished.
The use of Guru Nayak’s name implies that the astrologer had a reasonably close relationship with him. He was not a stranger when the astrologer tried to murder him, making the astrologer a fairly villainous character. Beyond rejecting his chance for confession, the astrologer delivers what amounts to an astrological threat to Guru Nayak to give up his search. The light has all gone from the marketplace, as has the astrologer’s potential for virtue.
The astrologer returns home to his wife and daughter in the dark of midnight. His wife is angry at him until she sees the money he has made from Guru Nayak, though the astrologer curses Nayak when he realizes that Nayak has slightly underpaid him. She remarks that her husband seems troubled, though he brushes it off. As they are lying down to sleep, the astrologer tells his wife that a great weight has been lifted from him today. For years he had believed he had murdered Guru Nayak when he lived in his home village, but now he sees that he is not a murderer after all. His wife is shocked at the revelation that her husband once attempted murder, but the astrologer dismisses his crime as the folly of youth.
Though it could be surmised earlier, his wife’s response to the money confirms that their family is quite poor. The astrologer is also quite petty for a holy man, cursing Guru Nayak that his large sum of money wasn’t large enough, rather than being thankful for escaping with his life. When the astrologer reveals his past crime, his wife is shocked, but he does not seem to understand the severity of what he has done. He is satisfied merely in the fact that he is not a true murderer, and goes to sleep a thoroughly false and hypocritical man. He has destroyed any opportunity for an honest, authentic life.