The English Teacher

Dialogues

The 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 universe.'


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.

 

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  Dialogues

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.


  Notes

Life under the Colonial Rule

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. " …I could 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…" is 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 own roots?

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.


  Links

http://dmoz.org/Arts/Literature/Authors/N/Narayan,_R._K./
This site contains many articles on R K Narayan and his works, as they relate to colonialism, post-colonialism and English literature.

  Teaching

1. Discuss the marital relationship between Krishna and Susila, as it relates to the domestic life portrayed in the novel. How is it different from the Western way of life?

2. What do you think about the episode with the medium through which Krishna contact his dead wife? How does Krishna and his creator Narayan view this?

3. The elements of predictable and unpredictable are unfolded through out the novel. List these.

4. Discuss what elements of life have been changed by the British colonial rule. Do you think Krishna's discontent is to a great extent, the result of colonial rule?

5. The plot in this novel is decidedly different. How is the story kept together, in a plot such as this?

  Citations

Narayan, P. K. The English Teacher. Chicago: The university of Chicago Press, 1980

Mackean, Ian. "What about our own roots? Krishna's journey in The English Teacher"
http://www.english-literature.org/narayan.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/14/obituaries/14NARA.html

www.britannica.com

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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Last Updated: 6/10/02