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Book: An Astrologer’s Day and Other Stories (1947)

Author: R.K.Narayan

Genre: Short stories

Story from the Collection: Fellow-Feeling

Critical Appreciation of the short story ‘Fellow-Feeling’:

‘An Astrologer’s Day and other Stories’ are a collection of short stories written by R.K.Narayan. ‘Fellow-Feeling’ is a story from the collection.

 Preface: Experiencing a train journey in a third-class unreserved compartment is one of the best ways of exploring the “Incredible India”.

The pandemonium and stampede created while reserving a (unreserved) train seat on the arrival of the train; the novel methods adopted by the commuters right from flinging a handkerchief onto the seat of a moving train to God alone knows what other methods to reserve the seat; the brawls over the seat ownership….and how can one leave out the factor of infinity number of people occupying a single berth which might not only baffle mathematical physicists but disproves many laws and theorems; and hats off to the people who manage to curl themselves in the unimaginable available space and sleep like a log amidst the commotion and buzzing vendors. All these factors are what make the journey an experience.

Summary: This story is about the uncommonly common train encounters usually experienced in third-class train compartments (especially in unreserved compartments).

 Plot:

1.Exposition: The story begins within a Railway station setting with a train about to depart and how Mr.Rajam Iyer who arrived late, gets into the moving train and finds himself a seat.

Illustrations:

In reality and as mentioned in this review preface, some people in India adopt novel methods to catch a train but the way Mr.Rajam Iyer heroically boarded the train by jumping through the train window is unbelievable and does not fit well with the description of the character (realized later through the story).Although the mention about the congestion of train door is very close to reality.

“He ran to the first third-class compartment that caught his eye, peered in and, since the door could not be opened on account of the congestion inside, flung himself in through the window”.

 It is noteworthy where Rajam Iyer finds a seat in the train because the development of the plot begins from here.

“He found a seat and made himself comfortable opposite a sallow meek passenger, who suddenly removed his coat, folded it and placed it under his head and lay down, shrinking himself to the area he had occupied while he was sitting. With his knees drawn up almost to his chin, he rolled himself into a ball”

2.Complication:

The complication begins when a new passenger boards the train at Katpadi station looking for a seat and he gets irritated by the spectacle of the meek passenger asleep and growls at him while encroaching on most of the latter’s space. Rajam Iyer questions the bully’s speech startled by his behaviour. One point led to another creating a verbal brawl between Rajam Iyer and the new passenger.

The fight which started with ribald comments from the new passenger targeted at the meek asleep passenger soon turned into mocking the Brahmin community targeted at Rajam Iyer. Rajam Iyer did not fall behind in the fight and called insulting names to the former and finally threatened to kick him.

3.Climax:

Did the verbal brawl lead to a physical scuffle? Did Rajam Iyer really kick the new passenger as threatened?

The author has brilliantly scripted the fight plot to show how a simple point could lead to a verbal brawl and thereby leading to a stage of physical scuffle.

Rajam Iyer, who threatened to kick the new passenger soon felt inferior and realized that his stature was no match to the nine inches taller newcomer and started ingenious talks to baffle the new passenger. He used conundrums to explain how ju-jitsu was worse than the effects of a kick, brought out the sentiments of the latter’s children and wife’s agony due to his suffering from the after-effects and also created a fear saying that no doctor could cure him. The plot reached its climax when the train reached Jalarpat station. Rajam Iyer had decided to leave the compartment at the station but to his surprise the new passenger grabbed his bag and jumped out of the train saying that his ticket was for Jalarpet station.

4.Denouement:

The story concludes with Rajam Iyer rising doubts about the ‘newcomer’ lying about his train ticket for Jalarpet station as he saw him get into the fourth compartment from theirs while the meek passenger continued to sleep shrinking in the corner after hearing the former’s remarks about the newcomer.

Atmosphere:

In the beginning of the story it is difficult for the reader to infer it is a railway station setting unless one links the descriptions:

  • “Madras-Bangalore Express” and
  • “The engine added to the general noise with the low monotonous hum of its boiler; the first bell rang, the guard looked at his watch”.

The author has described the train compartments which is not self-explanatory and does not add any value to the story and could have been eliminated.

“The compartment built to “seat 8 passengers, 4 British Troops, or 6 Indian Troops,’ now carried only nine”.

 The train halts at different stations giving the feel of a train journey and also acts as a junction when the plot develops.

  • Madras, the station where Mr.Rajam Iyer boarded the train
  • Mandhakam, where most of the passengers got down
  • Katpadi, the station where the new passenger, who got into a brawl with Rajam Iyer, boarded the train
  • Jalarpet station where the new passenger grabbed his bag and jumped out of the train

 Characterization:

The method of characterization adopted by the author is a combination of expository and dramatic.

There are three characters in the story:

1.Mr.Rajam Iyer:  From the story the reader gets to know that Mr.Rajam Iyer belonged to the Brahmin caste and a staunch follower, could read Tamil language, and also wore spectacles for reading (I infer it as presbyopia).

“He then fumbled for his glasses and pulled out of his pocket a small book, which set forth in clear Tamil the significance of the obscure Sindhi rites that every Brahmin worth the name performs thrice daily”.

 Rajam Iyer is portrayed as a man who stood up against a bully, the newcomer, though the issue was in no way targeted at him. Although Rajam Iyer lacks in stature he makes it up with his ingenious talks.

“Rajam Iyer was seized by a sense of inferiority…..He began to feel ridiculous, short and fat wearing a loose dhoti and a green coat”.

 2. Meek Passenger: He is the passenger who was already sitting in the train when Mr.Rajam Iyer boarded the train looking for a seat. This character is more like a silent character in the story but acts as a catalyzer for the development of the plot. The name of this passenger is not mentioned in the story and is addressed as ‘meek passenger’ in the narration.

As we know from the narration he is a sallow meek passenger who enforced the un-spoken law of third-class compartment by curling himself and sleeping in his limited sitting space.

“He found a seat and made himself comfortable opposite a sallow meek passenger, who suddenly removed his coat, folded it and placed it under his head and lay down, shrinking himself to the area he had occupied while he was sitting. With his knees drawn up almost to his chin, he rolled himself into a ball”.

 The new passenger’s growls were intended at the meek asleep passenger but soon became a topic of fight between Rajam Iyer and the new passenger and finally the meek asleep passenger was no where drawn into the fight.

 3.The new passenger: He is the passenger who boarded the train at Katpadi station and is portrayed as a bully whose talks are impudent and ribald. The name of this passenger is not mentioned in the story and is addressed as a ‘newcomer’ or ‘new passenger’ in the narration.

 The newcomer is a non-Brahmin which is known during the fight when he accuses the Brahmin community for stealthily eating meat and fish which according to him has led to the increase in the price of meat.

“And we non-Brahmins have to pay the same price, though we don’t care for the secrecy”.

 The new passenger is of stronger stature in comparison to Rajam Iyer but hearing the latter’s conundrum talks escaped at the next station.

“The newcomer stood nine clean inches over him….while the newcomer towered above him in his grease-spotted khaki suit”.

 All the characters mentioned in the story except for the ‘new passenger’ are flat characters. The ‘newcomer’ is a round character who is portrayed as a bully in the beginning of the story but ends up jumping out of the train and running away scared of Rajam Iyer’s talks.

Narrative Techniques:

The story follows a third-party narration but during certain instances provides a subjective view of the characters. It can be termed as the ‘comedies of manners’ where the ‘newcomer’ mocks the Brahmin community targeting Rajam Iyer and in turn Rajam Iyer satirizes the former’s bullying and rabid talks. The author builds up the conflict and tension and shows the readers what the characters are doing and why they are doing it.

Figurative Language:

  • Satire: The newcomer mocks the Brahmin community about stealthily eating meat and fish.

“I have with my own eyes seen Brahmins, pukkah Brahmins with sacred threads on their bodies, carrying fish under their arms, ofcourse all wrapped up in a towel. Ask them what it is, and they will tell you that it is plantain. Plantain that has life, I suppose”.

“Didn’t I see you this morning going home from the market with a banana, a water banana, wrapped up in a towel, under your arm?”

  • Localized language: Localized words are used in the newcomer’s talks to match his uncouth behaviour.

Illustration: ‘Pukkah Brahmin’, ‘Mayn’t a man ask another what he had for his morning meal’.

  • Proverb: Rajam Iyer reminds himself of a proverb when the newcomer provokes him with irrelevant mockery but knowing the proverb did not stop Rjam Iyer from continuing the brawl.

“If you threw a stone into a gutter it would only spurt filth in your face”.

My Point of View:

The story leaves me with two questions:

  • Is it worth standing up for someone when the person involved itself is unperturbed by the situation?

Rajam Iyer stood up against the bully newcomer and displayed his ‘Fellow-Feeling’ towards the meek passenger. But was this ‘Fellow-Feeling’ reciprocated by the meek passenger?

I doubt so!!! He seemed to be unperturbed by any happenings around him: rolled himself and slept like a log which led to the fight, continued to sleep during the fight and proceeded to sleep even after the fight was over.

Minding one’s own business, as the newcomer tells Rajam Iyer “You mind your business”, would have been the smart thing to do thereby averting the fight. This also leaves one in a dilemma if the bully’s in the society are to be left to have their way.

  • Does word power triumph over physical strength? Are words such a powerful tool as to create a fight or scare a mighty person?

What Rajam Iyer lacked in stature he made it up with his ingenious talks and scared away the much taller newcomer, forcing him to leave the compartment. The author has brilliantly scripted the fight plot to show how a simple point could lead to a verbal brawl thereby leading to a stage of physical scuffle.

If Rajam Iyer with his ingenious talks could scare the newcomer away then could he not avert the fight in the first place?

The ugly fight could have been averted if Rajam Iyer adhered to what he reminded himself:

“If you threw a stone into a gutter it would only spurt filth in your face”.

 The story has an impressive train journey fight plot but has a weak ending and displays incoherent character traits.

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