R K Narayan’s ‘The English Teacher’

‘The hardest of all things for a novelist to communicate is the extra-ordinary ordinariness of human happiness. Jane Austen, Soseki, Chekhov: a few bring it off. Narayan is one of them’.

– Spectator

So reads the blurb on the novel’s back-cover. Well, for once there is very little happiness in the novel and it evaporates fairly early once Krishna’s – the English Teacher – wife Susila falls ill. But we are back in Malgudi to complete the trilogy in a sense that began with the adventures of Swami and Friends, continued as Chandran in ‘The Bachelor of Arts’ and culminates now with Krishna as ‘The English Teacher’.

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The English Teacher                                                Image Courtesy – Amazon.in

The novel begins with a description of Krishna’s bovine existence as The English Teacher at Albert Mission College in Malgudi. Nearing the age of thirty, Krishna stays in the college hostel, and has a fairly light routine as an English lecturer. He has been whiling away time in leisurely manner in the company of his colleagues, Rangappa and Gopal.

There is a comical episode when the British Principal, Mr. Brown, discovers that a second year B.A. English Honours student can’t spell Honours correctly – he spells it as honors. While Krishna doesn’t condone the lapse he has fun with the subject – to begin with Americans do spell it as ‘honors’ for one, more importantly the entire curriculum is alien to the land and its students who have forgotten their own roots and culture to adapt of British ways and hope to gain employment as one among the vast army of clerical staff serving the world of commerce.

Things change fairly soon as Krishna’s family arranges for his wife (Susila) and toddling daughter (Leela) to join him at Malgudi. Krishna manages to find a suitable accommodation and anxiously awaits their arrival at the Malgudi Railway Station. He is in utter despair as the train stops only for 7 minutes and he worries on whether his family will be able to alight the train along with their luggage. He is in silent rage about his wife’s habit of travelling with huge amount of luggage – indeed something that is very relatable for most Indian men.

Well he settles down with the family in domestic bliss with the occasional blips – he alters the grocery list ordered by Susila and finds her to be cross, the couple have one of the routine fights and find it difficult to reconcile due to their egos but not for long. Soon enough they plan the next big step – acquiring an own house and by now the narrative seems to run on the pleasant terms that we usually find in a Narayan novel though there are always some bittersweet moments.

Things go horribly awry – Susila falls sick and never quite recovers. Initially Malaria is suspected though later the doctor concludes it to be Typhoid. Narayan describes the ordeal in crystal clear narrative and we are on the edge with him. Finally just when she seems to be recovering, the fatal blow falls as Susila passes away. It is a heartfelt trauma and discerning readers do know that it reflects the personal tragedy faced by young Narayan in real life as well.

Krishna decides to carry on with the job and daughter’s care without taking anybody’s help except the occasional visits by his mother and the help of the old lady who works an ayah-cum-cook at his place. He is disconsolate and in deep grief about his loss. He chances upon an acquaintance who suggests that is possible to communicate with the spirit of his wife by using a medium – a variation to the spiritual séance route.

By now the novel has taken a serious turn and what follows is a long account of how Krishna’s manages to ‘communicate’ with his dead wife. He is sceptical to begin with but a series of episodes convince him that this is not a crazy venture and indeed it is possible to have such a communication. Intermittently there are strands of interest – his daughter is growing up and has a sensitive relationship with him. She attends an unconventional ‘play school’ and her ‘Headmaster’, who is more of a 1-Man army trying to teach kids though the play method, is yet another interesting character.

Well the novel is set in Malgudi only in name – it lacks the familiar characters and warmth that we associate with Malgudi. In fact the fun moments run out of stock fairly early and towards the end we have long narrations about communicating with spirits through a medium – obviously something that won’t hold a popular appeal to the minds of the average reader. Such a novel also cannot quite have a conventional climax – indeed things come to an abrupt end with Krishna deciding to quit college and help the Headmaster with the ‘children play school’ movement. So the ‘The English Teacher’ draws to a grinding halt when Krishna ceases to be one.

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