The English Teacher

No matter how far go you in life, no matter how much ahead you move on, your childhood always beckons you somewhere or the other; reminding you of all its experiences, sweetness and charms. Its memories could fill your eyes with tears, make you burst into laughter or even take you to a thoughtful journey down your memory lane. But something which remains unchanged, through and through, is the memories of the tales which one used to listen in her or his childhood. And when it comes to children’s literature in India, there are very few who can write them with a more gentleness and empathy for children than late R. K. Narayan.

This novel, The English Teacher (1945) by R. K. Narayan (1905-2001), is the third and final part in the series preceded by Swami and Friends (1935) and the Bachelor of Arts (1937). It is said to have an autobiographical element in it and is very poignant in its intensity of feelings too.

The story revolves around Krishna and his experiences as an English teacher, as a husband, as a son, as a friend and as a father. While Krishna teaches at the Albert Mission College and lives and faces ennui every day, his wife and daughter- Leela, who is an infant, live away from him with his parents-in-law. But his move to enjoy a life of marital bliss with his wife to a small rented house allows the couple to share many nicer but short-lived experiences together. He realizes that there are many things which they need to know about as well as appreciate in each other. Not much time passes between the two that Susila- his wife, falls severely ill with typhoid and becomes bed-ridden. His constant nursing to his wife makes him all the more responsible and a better family-man. Happiness had not even showered all its magic upon this newly formed small family that a big tragedy viewed them with an evil eye and caste its spell upon it which leaves Krishna completely hopeless and alone for a lot of time.

Much after that tragic incident takes place; an unexpected incident also takes place in his life. He receives a letter from a stranger asking him to meet him. After his meeting, he starts believing that there is a world beyond this world. He develops a belief in psychic powers, communication with spirits, occult, etc. He learns much more about the three levels of a human mind- the conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious. He learns many more such things which he never had even imagined or thought of.

All the incidents which take place in the novel follow a strict linearity in case of time, action and place. Although, a constant reference to the incidents of the past by Krishna, who narrates the incidents of his life, makes the flow of his description mark stoppages and breaks from time to time. There is one more remarkable thing about this story and that is that despite of being written and published in the British India, it makes absolutely no reference to the political upheavals of the then India. It seems that Krishna had not been touched by the country’s conditions. In fact, R. K. Narayan has been very honest to all his characters. He, though, tried to vent his personal feelings into the story and express them through its characters but at the same time, he knew what had to be kept at bay. The philosophizing of all the aspects of life gives a surreal feeling to the readers.

One more typical characteristic of this novelist, as most of us already know, is that all his stories of his novels are set in the imaginary town of Malgudi. His tendency to bring the different stories together through inter-textuality is also very remarkable. While he describes the world of nature or even common places, some magic of his words never fails to keep the reader glued to the content of the book. His reference to another novel named “A Tiger for Malgudi” in this novel has been gelled extremely well. It quickly and easily reminds one of his other works. While reading this novel, a patient reader discovers that never has the magical storyteller of imaginary Malgudi woven tragedy and humor so deftly together. The end of this novel is not hap hazardous like the beginning of it but is rather much more serene, easy to grasp and sweetly blissful.

His work is an idyll as delicious as anything that one could meet in modern literature for a long time. The atmosphere and texture of happiness, and above all, its elusiveness, have seldom been so perfectly transcribed. According to many critics, the hardest of all things for a novelist is to communicate the extra-ordinary ordinariness of human happiness and very few prove themselves successful in doing that. Authors like Jane Austen, Soseki, Chekov, etc have brought it off beautifully and Narayan is also one of them.

Aditi Swami