English Teacher is the third of the trilogy that began with Swami and
Friends, and The Bachelor of Arts. This novel dedicated to Narayan's wife
Rajam is not only autobiographical but also poignant in its intensity
of feeling. The story is a series of experiences in Krishna's life - some
joyful, some sorrowful; and his journey towards achieving inner peace
and self-development, in the traditional Indian sense.
About the Author
Rasipuram, Krishnaswami Narayanaswami, or R K Narayan as he is widely
known was born during the British colonial rule in India. In his obituary
Barbara Crosette writes about Narayan and Malgudi thus: 'In the 1930's,
he (RK Narayan) created a town in South India that he called Malgudi and
populated it with characters who could be fussy, tricky, harmlessly rebellious
or philosophical - but who were always believable. Mr. Narayan would return
again and again to Malgudi in many of his 34 novels and hundreds of short
stories. His books accurately portray an India that hovers between the
unchangingly rural and the newly industrial and that is still filled with
individualistic, often eccentric personalities that recall his imagined
This novel is however more autobiographical than others. It recounts Narayan's
own happy days with his wife Rajam, who died after contracting typhoid.
They had only 5 short years before she passed away. He sincerely and truly
loved her, and after her demise Narayan plunged into a period of 'darkness'
and was obsessed by the thought of communicating with her. One of the
glaring facts that meets the reader's eye is the restrain with which the
married couple express their love so unlike the demonstrative love that
is seen today both in real life and the media.
Krishna the central
character of the novel is an English teacher at the same college he attended
as an under graduate student. Krishna's wife Susila is with her parents,
some miles away as she had recently given birth to their daughter Leela.
(It is an Indian custom that a pregnant mother should stay with her own
mother, and the midwife still takes precedence over a hospital, a doctor
or nurse). When the story opens we see a very nervous and anxious Krishna
expecting the arrival of his wife and daughter to Malgudi where he is
an English Teacher in the Albert Mission College. His visions of the misfortunes
that would befall on mother and child on their train journey are almost
comical to the point of being preposterous.
However, as the days go by Krishna learns that his love for his wife and
child surpasses everything he imagined previously. The early years of
marital bliss and the deep bond that develops between the husband and
wife becomes the center of Krishna's life. He feels Leela, his daughter
completes his perfect world. But as all good things must come to an end,
so does his, with the mysterious ailment that comes over Susila. In the
days before antibiotics were discovered, it was not until late that a
proper diagnosis was made as to the exact nature of the ailment, which
they later learned was typhoid. After a long period of illness she finally
dies bringing nothing but sorrow and misery to Krishna. His grief was
boundless and infinite; Krishna almost sank to the depths of melancholy
and desolation. He then decided to put all his love and zest for life
to bringing up his daughter who in her innocence did not know or question
about her mother. He became both mother and father to the child and did
not wish his parents to bring her up. Although eventually after a period
of time relents and decides that the best course of action is for his
parents to bring up Leela.
Events take an unexpected turn when he is able to 'communicate' with his
dead wife through a medium. This brings him solace and he lives to 'communicate'
with her during the weekly 'sittings' as he calls them. It is unknown
why Narayan included an episode such as this, full of the fantastic, to
an otherwise 'believable' story. However it is a known fact that he was
obsessed by the thought of communicating with his own wife, in his misery.
This puzzles the reader, especially the Western reader, who is brought
up with a solid disbelief of anything from the nether world. Though to
the Indian reader, and most importantly to Narayan, who actually experienced
this tragedy and wrote after it, the communication between his dead wife
and himself was nothing out of the ordinary, but a means of achieving
solace and reconciling life and death as we see at the end of the novel.
From a man dependent on his wife and daughter for happiness, and later
the medium he becomes self-reliant and realizes that happiness- or in
his case peace of mind and equanimity comes from within. He strives to
achieve this sense of peace, very unlike the effervescent one he experienced
with his wife and daughter, through meditation and 'withdrawing from adult
world and adult work into the world of children.' But this serenity, the
'inner peace' that so eludes him at first comes to him when he least expects
it, in the middle of the night when he has given up everything - cleansed
himself of all worldly possessions, his wife, his daughter, a good income
in the form of a respected job and salary. He truly transcends life and
death when he is finally able to communicate with Susila his wife, and
now his mentor. Narayan explains it thus: "The boundaries of our
personalities suddenly dissolved. It was a moment of rare, immutable joy
- a moment for which one feels grateful for Life and Death.
While literary critics argue about the exact nature of this 'meeting'
stating that it is real, unreal, unbelievable & dreamlike; it is more
appropriate to view in terms of Krishna's inner self-development. He has
finally reached that stage of self-reliance, where he is able to be whole
by himself, to find happiness within, where he believes his dearest wife,
his companion in life, is with him always.
Life under the
As in all of Narayan's novels, colonial rule plays a main role in The
English Teacher as well. The name of the novel itself signifies, the influence
of the unwelcome British ruler.
The first part of the novel is light-hearted and humorous with the recounting
of Krishna's early marriage life with Susila and daughter Leela. After
the death of Susila the story becomes somber and serious. Towards the
end Krishna realizes that his profession as an English teacher is actually
worthless. In a scathing attack on the education system brought about
by the colonial ruler Narayan writes his reasons. "
no longer stuff Shakespeare and Elizabethan metre and Romantic poetry
for the hundredth time into young minds and feed them on the dead mutton
of literary analysis
while what they needed was lessons in the fullest
use of the mind. This education had 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." Narayan's perception of English
education could not be clearer than this. Like most of his countrymen
he too detested the promotion of British culture which will effectively
help keep the country in subjugation and servility. This English education
bred a class of youngsters revering the British culture, disregarding
their own heritage and in some cases even showing contempt to their own.
However, Krishna (and Narayan) is not ignorant of the aesthetic value
of English literature and is not opposed to teaching it as a matter of
pride or principle. His opposition to English education is a well-informed
decision. As Krishna later says to Mr. Brown who has been the principal
of Albert Mission College for nearly 30 years; "I revere them (i.e.
the English dramatists and poets) and I hope to give them to these children
for their delight and entertainment, but in a different measure and in
a different manner." Krishna also knows that Mr. Brown will not be
able to grasp the idea of self-development, inner peace and service in
the Indian sense despite living in India for three decades. "His
western mind, classifying, labeling, departmentalizing
so unlike Krishna's Indian mind. The subjugated native understands the
western conqueror, whereas the latter hardly makes an effort to learn
the true culture, in his superiority - a fact that Indians vehemently
resented at the time.
What about our
The issue of roots
is an important theme discussed in the novel. For Krishna, who studied
in the English language, the English writers, poets and the Bible, and
who made a career out of the same education, did not bring him comfort
or support or relief at his time of need. He realized education and his
choice of career have actually removed him from his roots and culture
- and ultimately from reality. He realizes the futility of an education
such as this that serves to effectively keep them in subjugation not only
physically, but also in their approach to life and mind-set, being discontent
with their lot and hankering after another culture which will not sustain
them. It is to Narayan's credit that he had interwoven this the theme
of roots, with the major theme of 'paradise lost and regained', so effectively,
that the novel is not a contemptuous and spiteful account of the hatred
of the British ruler.