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Saturday, June 15, 2013
The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan
Krishna, the central character in The English Teacher,
by R. K. Narayan (1906-2001) undertakes an emotional, intellectual, and
spiritual journey during the course of the novel. At the start of the novel he
is an English teacher, living and teaching at the same school where he was once
a pupil, and at the end we see him resigning his post, beginning work at a
nursery school, and learning to communicate psychically with his dead wife. He
learns and changes during the course of the novel in a way which he could not
have predicted at the beginning. The journey takes him from a lifestyle which
he found unsatisfactory to finding a set of values and a way of life that he
feels he can believe in wholly.
Krishna's change comes about not as a result of any grand
plan or ambition, but as a result of his response to a series of challenging
circumstances which arise once he begins to take steps away from the cloistered
and protective environment of his school.
This day-by-day, unforeseen-event by unforeseen-event
progress is reflected in Narayan's approach to the novel itself. Narayan gives
the impression that he has no pre-planned plot in mind when the story opens,
but instead focuses on a meticulously detailed depiction of Krishna's experiences,
keeping to the observable surface reality of his perceptions, thoughts, and
feelings, without digression or analysis or interpretation. This rigorous
unadorned focus on observable phenomena results in some stunningly beautiful
But although Krishna's journey takes place as a result of
a series of unpredictable events, a number of recurring themes are being worked
out in the course of the novel. These themes might be said to be Krishna's
progress from predictability to unpredictability, from the academic world to
the real world of life and death, from adulthood to childhood, and from a
western mentality to an eastern mentality.
From predictability to unpredictability
Krishna repeatedly finds himself being drawn out of
situations which ought to have been predictable and ordered by events which are
spontaneous and unpredictable, and it is clear that he finds spontaneity and
unpredictability to be stimulating and life-enhancing, while predictability and
order, although providing a cushion of comfort and security, is ultimately
stifling and deadening
Krishna is roused from his predictable and ordered life
at his school, where he had come to feel he lived 'like a cow', and had a
continuous 'sense of something missing' [Ch 1. p. 295], and where a pupil spelling
'honour' without the 'u' is seen as a catastrophe by his colleagues, by the
unexpected news that his wife and child, both of whom are to be sources of
spontaneity and unpredictability throughout the novel, are coming to join him,
and that he will need to move out of his lodgings at the school and find a
house for them. This marks the first step of what becomes a journey out of the
cloistered world of the school and into the real world of ordinary people
leading ordinary lives.
Susila, his wife, brings unpredictability into his life
at every turn. For example when they go to look at a house she wants to make a
long diversion to walk by the river and bathe her feet, where the rational
orderly Krishna would have naturally taken the most direct route, and it is
clear that he finds her unpredictable behaviour a source of delight and
Krishna does not adjust to this new influence without a
struggle, however, as is seen in the episode where she gets rid of the
predictably-unpredictable alarm clock he had kept on his desk for years. This
clock, which was liable to set off its alarm at arbitrary times of day and
night, seems to symbolise his old attitude to predictability versus
spontaneity. He held onto the clock for years, as if its unpredictable
behaviour were precious to him, and yet he stifled it with a literary tome
whenever it sounded its alarm. He seems to have cherished it for its
unpredictability, even though that unpredictability was inappropriate and
ineffective, without quite realising why, and when his wife gets rid of it
behind his back it comes as a great shock to him and causes a row which drags
on for several days before he can accept her act with equanimity.
This jarring episode seems to mark his transition from a
world dominated by predictability to a world dominated by unpredictability, and
from that point on he has to start actually living day to day on the basis of
the truth which he may have previously intuitively sensed, but stifled, that
there is a severe limit to what can be achieved in life through any system
which is ordered, predictable, and knowable.
The turning point of the story arises from Susila's
unpredictability. When they go to look at the house we could not possibly
predict that she would go for a walk on her own, get stuck in a contaminated
lavatory, and then become ill. When they prepare for the journey it might have
seemed that Narayan was preparing for a plot in which something bad happened to
their child while they were away, but in the event the important incident is
not something that could have been guessed beforehand, either by the reader or
by Krishna, but an unpredictable event which arises on the spur of the moment.
Krishna's intention was that their visits to view houses
should proceed in an ordered, predictable, rational way, but Susila brought
unpredictability to the occasions, resulting in moments of beauty, such as the
walk by the river, but also in the awful tragedy of her becoming infected by a
fatal illness. She brings reality into his life, which was previously protected
from reality by the enclosed ordered world of the school, and later she
initiates the most unpredictable event of all, her psychic communication with
him from beyond death.
The futility of clinging to the belief that life can be orderly,
predictable, and knowable is shown in two central, and symmetrical, predictions
which occupy a prominent place in the novel. The first is the doctor's
assertion that typhoid, which Susila has contracted, 'is the one fever which
goes strictly by its own rules. It follows a time-table . . . ' [Ch 3. p.366]
and that Susila will be well in a few weeks. But in spite of his further
assurances that her attack is 'Absolutely normal course. No complications. A
perfect typhoid run . . . ' [Ch 3. p.369] Susila dies.
The other prominent demonstration of the futility of
believing that life can be knowable and predictable is seen in the headmaster's
belief in a prediction made by an astrologer, 'who can see past present and
future as one, and give everything its true value' [Ch 7. p. 450] that he will
die on a given date. But although (just as the doctor had asserted that
Susila's typhoid was 'A perfect typhoid run') the headmaster has found that his
'life has gone precisely as he predicted' [Ch 7. p. 450], the headmaster lives.
Both predictions are propounded with certainly, and both
prove to be false. The scientifically-based prediction of life is thwarted by
death, and the mystical prediction of death is thwarted by in life.
Both of these episodes show the limitations of man's
ability to know and predict the world. The truth is that we cannot know, and
cannot predict, and any view of life, whether deriving from modern western
science, or ancient eastern mysticism, which disregards the unknowable and sees
only what is supposedly known, and supposedly predictable, is hopelessly
From the academic world to the 'law of life'
While these episodes fail to provide Krishna with
anything rational to believe in, they do bring him face to face with the
reality of life and death, and confronting the realities of life without
retreating into the safe cerebral world of literature and philosophy is an
important component of his journey. His unsatisfying immersion in a sterile
literary approach to life is shown in a number of ways. For example the novel
opens with him wearily facing the fact that he is reading 'for the fiftieth
time, Milton, Carlyle and Shakespeare' [Ch 1. p. 295]. Later he tries to write
a love poem for his wife, but it is simply a copy of a poem by Wordsworth, and
later still he tries to read a book on Plato, but gives up on the very first
Now he is discovering how ordinary people encounter the
big issues of life and death, not as seen through the perspective of literature
or philosophy, and not in a way that would imply that some profound universal
conclusions could be drawn, but as they actually experience it in everyday
And Narayan himself, insofar as we can identify him with
the character of Krishna, is writing at the level of those ordinary people. He
does not adopt the position of a novelist presenting the reader with fictitious
characters which he has created, and which are under his control, as for
example Charles Dickens does, but in the guise of Krishna he places himself firmly
among the ordinary people, and breaks down the boundaries between real life
outside his novel and the life within the novel. Just as Krishna faces life
without illusions, so Narayan seems to create his novel without the usual
illusions of the novelist, such as pre-planned plot and fictitious characters.
In an outburst with one of his students Krishna says of
literature: 'Don't worry so much about these things - they are trash, we are
obliged to go through and pretend we like them, but all the time the problem of
living and dying is crushing us.' [Ch 7. p.438]
In coming to terms with the death of his wife literature,
philosophy, and rationalism, are no use to him. They are all illusions, and the
journey he is on involves leaving illusions behind.
Living without illusions seemed to be
the greatest task for me in life now . . . humanity, nurtured in illusions from
beginning to end! The twists and turns of fate would cease to shock us if we
knew, and expected nothing more than, the barest truths and facts of life. [Ch
4. p. 387]
Narayan's writing style, which is inseparable from the
observations of Krishna, the first-person narrator, has been showing us this
all along. Right from page one Narayan has presented us with only 'the barest
truths and facts of life'.
The truth Krishna wants to discover cannot be found in
Shakespeare, Carlyle, or Plato, it is found only among real people leading real
lives, it is 'the law of life'.
The law of life can't be avoided. The
law comes into operation the moment we detach ourselves from our mother's womb.
All struggle and misery in life is due to our attempt to arrest this law or get
away from it . . . [Ch 7. p. 465]
From adulthood to childhood
Children are very much in evidence throughout 'The
English Teacher', and are important guides for Krishna on his journey. At the
beginning he is with the boys at his school, but they are no longer children
but young adults, already entangled in the system from which he needs to
escape. The children who help to show him the way are the younger children, his
own daughter, Leela, and the children at the nursery school she attends. The
young children are important because they are spontaneous and natural. They
have not yet had their natural energy stifled and diverted by the deadening
educational system, and are free from rationalism, religion, and other systems
The most prominent character in the novel, after Krishna
and his family, is the headmaster of Leela's school. He is a champion of
childhood, having devoted his life to children since receiving the prediction
that he would die, and believes they are 'angels' [Ch 6. p. 434], 'the real
gods on earth' [Ch 6. p. 423], and employs what he calls 'The Leave Alone
System' in his school
The Leave Alone System, which will make
them wholesome human beings, and also help us, those who work along with them,
to work off the curse of adulthood. [Ch 6. p. 436]
Krishna befriends the headmaster, and although at one
point he fears that the headmaster is 'a man mentally unsound' [Ch 7. p. 449]
he is drawn towards the headmaster's views, which are reinforced by his wife's
psychic communication that children are more in tune with the psychic side of
life than adults, and at the climax of the novel he decides to work with the
headmaster in his nursery school.
In the second half of the novel Krishna's discovery of
children as an effective countermeasure against 'the curse of adulthood', and
the opening of his mind that he is experiencing through meditation, pave the
way for his resignation from his old job and the adoption of a more genuine
We might also see in the headmaster's comment: 'Children
have taught me to speak plainly, without the varnish of the adult world.'
From west to east
Another component of Krishna's journey is that he
encounters the coexistence of western and native cultural attitudes, which also
represent the attitudes of Indians of a newer and older generation. For example
when Susila is ill she is treated both by a doctor who practises western
scientific medicine, and by a Swamiji who uses mystical methods of healing. The
Swamiji is summoned by Susila's mother, representing an older generation than
Krishna himself, who believes the 'Evil Eye' [Ch 3. p. 372] has fallen on her
daughter, and it is notable that Krishna feels 'ashamed' [Ch 3. p. 373] that
the doctor finds the Swamiji in the house, showing that he is alienated from,
and embarrassed by, the native culture of the older generation of his own
In the event, both the scientific and the mystical
attempts at healing fail, and Susila dies. Narayan presents us with the
coexistence of these two systems of thought in Indian culture, but does not
make an issue of being 'for' one and 'against' another because in the matters
of life and death that he wants to focus on here the distinction between
western and eastern thought pales into insignificance.
Other instances of the juxtaposition of English and
native cultures arise in the novel. For example it may be significant that the
street where the headmaster lives, with its poor sanitation, and where 'unkempt
and wild-looking children rolled about in the dust' [Ch 6. p. 431] is named
Anderson Street, and Anderson may have been 'some gentleman of the East India
Company's days!' [Ch 6. p. 431]. But while this observation is potent, it is
the observations he wishes to make on the educational system towards the end of
the novel which represent the main focus of his attack.
The final stage of Krishna's journey takes him further
from the from the western intellectual frame of mind, inherited from the
British, in which he was embedded at the opening of the novel, and further
towards native Indian spiritual practices. To reach his goal of 'a harmonious
existence' [Ch 8. p. 467] he takes up his deceased wife's
psychically-communicated challenge, which he receives initially through a
medium, to develop his mind sufficiently to communicate with her psychically
himself, and bridge the gap between life and life-after-death. Although
initially he had been bemused by his wife's devotional practices, mocking her
with 'Oh! Becoming a yogi!' [Ch 2. p.325] he now relies on her to guide him,
from beyond the grave, in his 'self-development'.
This self-development consists of Zen-like meditation in
which, for a certain amount of time each day, he empties his mind. His main
motive for undertaking this development is to reach closer psychic
communication with his wife, but he also experiences a general improvement in
his state of mind as a result.
It was a perpetual excitement, ever
promising some new riches in the realm of experience and understanding . . .
There was a real cheerfulness growing within me, memory hurt less . . . [Ch 7.
Compare this to the boredom and spiritual deadness he had
come to find in western literature and philosophy and we see how he has found
something truly enriching in his native culture. The simple message of 'belief'
which his wife offers as the key to his progress also shows how inadequate the
western approach, with its 'classifying, labelling, departmentalising' [Ch 8.
p. 468] was for his real needs:
In the final chapter the issues of the novel come to a
head with Krishna's resignation from his post as English teacher and his
psychic reunion with his wife. In his attack on the system he is rebelling
against he criticises not English Literature itself 'for who could be
insensible to Shakespeare's sonnets, or Ode to the West Wind' [Ch 8. p. 467]
but India's adherence to an educational system which stifles the spirit of its
students and alienates them from their native culture:
This education has reduced us to a
nation of morons; we were strangers to our own culture and camp followers of
another culture, feeding on leavings and garbage . . . What about our own
roots? . . . I am up against the system, the whole method and approach of a
system of education which makes us morons, cultural morons, but efficient
clerks for all your business and administration offices. [Ch 8. pp. 467-8]
Having thrown off this cultural inheritance from the
west, and decided to 'withdraw from the adult world and adult work into the
world of children' [Ch 8. p. 472] he is free to take a further step in his
traditional Indian self-development and reach a state in which 'one's mind
became clean and bare and a mere chamber of fragrance' [Ch 8. p. 473]. He
finally learns to experience at the psychic level, and when his wife appears
before him he reaches 'a moment of rare, immutable joy - a moment for which one
feels grateful to Life and Death.' [Ch 8. p. 474]
In conclusion we might say that the quote 'What about our
own roots?' which I chose as the title for this essay could apply to Krishna's
journey on a number of levels. It could apply to all of us as adults, alienated
from our roots in childhood; to modern Indians, alienated from their native
cultural roots; and to humanity as a whole, in that we have become rational
human beings, alienated from our roots in the unknown.
Additional commentary on The English Teacher and
excerpts from comments from Indian critics by S. N. Radhika Lakshmi
At the beginning of The English Teacher we find
Krishna to be a sensitive and sincere teacher who is completely wrapped in his
work of teaching Carlyle and Milton to the students of Albert Mission College
at Malgudi. In the first half of the story Krishna is portrayed as an
affectionate and protective father to Leela as well as a doting husband to
Susila. But after his wife's death he is forced to face the harsh realities of
life and is tortured by feelings of loneliness. He leads a mechanical
existence, attending college and looking after his daughter, to whom he is both
a mother and father. Krishna was on the verge of committing suicide after his
wife's death, but he resisted the temptation because he felt it was his
responsibility to bring up his daughter.
Krishna receives a message from an old man that his dead
wife is trying to communicate with him through the old man. During their
psychic meetings, with the old man acting as a medium, Susila's spirit infuses
into the almost-suicidal Krishna the strength and courage to face the harsh
realities of life.
Susila's spirit expresses her inability to communicate
with Krishna as he is not in the right state of mind to receive her messages.
First of all Krishna should rid his mind of all trace of sorrow about her
untimely death. In course of time Krishna attains a state of mental readiness
to receive her messages without the intervention of the medium.
Krishna develops friendship with a headmaster who runs a
kindergarten school. He admits his daughter in the same school. The eccentric
headmaster is a refreshing contrast to Krishna. The headmaster doesn't believe
in spoon-feeding or excessive discipline and allows the children to play games
most of the time, teaching them lessons in between their play. This mode of
learning seems to be effective.
The headmaster is a hen-pecked husband. He does not go
home for lunch, knowing that his wife will be waiting for him, and chooses to
have his meal with Krishna instead. When he goes home the first question he
asks his children is, "Is your mother at home?" When they reply,
"No" he says, "Excellent" with great relief. His termagant
wife does not allow their children to study in his school and brings them up in
a wild and barbaric manner.
The headmaster tells Krishna that according to an
astrologer's prediction, he will die in a few days' time. His feelings about
his own death may perhaps be a psychic phenomenon, or a suicidal wish to escape
from his worries and miseries. When the death for which he waits so calmly does
not come, he cuts off all his connections with his family and treats himself as
dead and his life as a new birth. The irony lies in the fact that although he
proves to be a good teacher and a good headmaster to his students, he is a
failure in the role of a father to his own children, for he fails miserably in
bringing them up.
The headmaster exerts a distinct influence in
transforming Krishna's life. Krishna resigns his job at college as he finds it
meaningless, and joins the headmaster's school as a teacher. He finally attains
peace of mind and realises that life will have meaning for him from then
onwards. He gradually overcomes his grief over the loss of his wife and finds
happiness and fulfilment in bringing up his young daughter. He no longer
requires the presence of Susila's spirit to infuse confidence in him to face
life, though Susila's spirit remains with him forever.
Comments on The English Teacher by some Indian
According to Harish RaizadaThe English Teacher,
as an autobiographical novel, completes a trilogy along with his other two
novels 'Swami and Friends' and 'The Bachelor of Arts'. It depicts man as
bearing 'the sweet and bitter fruits of life.'
K R Srinivasa lyengar
says that the description of Krishna's married life -
the first few years of happiness, the excruciating agony during the weeks of
Susila's illness, the 'last journey' to the cremation ground - is one of the
most moving and flawless pieces of writing in modern English fiction. Not a
word is wasted and not a word rings false. The second half of the novel,
however, takes us to unfamiliar regions. Krishna's numbed misery and his wish
to be both a mother and a father to Leela are understandable enough, but the
experiments in psychic communication with Susila with the help of a medium
introduce a whimsical or fantastic element into a story which, up to that
point, had been transparently true to life. The eccentric headmaster of the
'pyol' school and his termagant wife and their wild children make for further
seemingly incongruous elements.
Automatic writing and attempts at psychic contact with
the dead are not altogether uncommon: and the soil of India doubtless breeds
every type of idealist and eccentric, waif and vagabond. Nevertheless it is
difficult to feel that the first and second halves of 'The English Teacher'
blend naturally and make an artistic whole. The theme of the novel is obviously
the 'death' of Susila in the first half, and her 'resurrection' in the second
half. Paradise Lost being followed by paradise Regained. Krishna loses Susila
in the flesh, but on the last page of the novel she comes back to him, to be
with him forever.
'Susila! Susila!' I cried. 'You here!'
'Yes, I'm here, have always been here.'
Is Krishna dreaming? Is it anything more than the
physical projection of Krishna's psychic ecstasy? Isn't this a resurrection
greater than life? 'The boundaries of our personalities suddenly dissolved'
Krishna concludes his autobiographical narrative. 'It was a moment of rare,
immutable joy - a moment for which one feels grateful to life and death'.
According to Professor P S Sundaram, The
English Teacher is a novel with a difference, not only in the type of love
between Krishna and Susila that is depicted, but also in the author's bold
excursion into the realms of the dead. But then one is inclined to accept K. R.
Srinivasa Iyengar's view when he asks 'Is Krishna dreaming? Is it any more than
an apocalyptic vision of Krishna's psychic ecstasy? Isn't this a resurrection
greater than life?'
Narayan, R. K.
The English Teacher, in A Malgudi Omnibus. London: Vintage, Random House. 1999.
First published in England by Eyre and Spottiswoode 1945
Patten, Brian. 'An Incident', from Armada. London: Flamingo. 1996
K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. R. K. Narayan: Indian Writing in English. 6th ed.
New Delhi: Sterling Publishers pvt ltd. 1987.