The English Teacher—R K Narayan

[I decided to read this 1946 novel in two halves. I read the first half, and wrote about it, before going on to read the second.]

21st October 2020: Chapters 1-3

For the first two (long) chapters I was wondering where Narayan was going with this. Nowhere very exciting, it would seem, as the first-person narrator describes his ordinary life. We’ve joined him just as he realises that as he’s approaching 30, he has to accept he’s an adult now. He’s living a bachelor life in the teachers’ hostel, making lists of how he’s going to stop wasting his time. He must read more, do more exercises, write more poetry. He considers himself a poet, on very little evidence that we’ve seen—he’s much more likely to quote from the English canon than write anything original—and he has a big manuscript book he imagines will one day contain masterpieces. So far, it contains hardly anything.

We find out he isn’t a bachelor, in fact, but married with a daughter of a few months. His wife, Susila, lives with her daughter in her parents’ house, and when they suggest it might be time for Krishna to set up home, all he can think of is the disruption for him. Isn’t childcare supposed to be really hard? Not that he’ll be expected to do that, but he’s heard that having children in the house is always demanding…. And so on. 

But he goes along with what’s expected, soon gets to like the idea of being the head of the family, and by the end of Chapter 2 he’s living such a yawningly conventional life I began to think that’s all we were going to get. Was this just a slice of lower middle class life in the final decades of British rule in India? Maybe, I thought—and it might still turn out to be this—it’s a satire of Indian attitudes to colonial rule. Our man, Krishna, argues with the British head of department at his school on the importance or otherwise of some aspect of English punctuation. He even makes a joke to a colleague about how their masters expect a thorough knowledge of English, but know nothing of any Indian languages. The irony isn’t lost on us that Krishna is more than happy to teach only English literature.

But life outside college soon becomes conventionally Indian. Not that our man really thinks about it, or very much at all on the domestic front. He rents a house, is happy to let their parents move his wife and daughter in, and is gratified by the thought that his own mother has taught Susila all she needs to know about running a household. His mother moves in for a while to help them settle, and later sends a former servant to be their cook. There are regular letters so Krishna is kept in touch about the family. He is always happy to hear that his older brother, the one who was always very overbearing towards him, continues to be henpecked by his wife and mother-in-law. The fact that he is harassed with the difficulties of looking after a family of twelve children contributes to Krishna’s decision to have only one child.

Fine, I was thinking, but dull. Chapter 3 seemed to be a continuation, as a couple of years have passed and the parents offer to help them buy a house of their own. It’s a college vacation, so they leave their daughter with the cook, they can set off early go the part of town where there’s new building going on—Narayan takes pains to render the details of ordinary lives—and they meet the agent, a work colleague earning extra income. And soon, they seem to have found a house that would suit.

And it’s just after this that the novel changes direction. It’s a gradual process, because the change that’s coming seems like nothing much at first. Susila, having been accidentally shut into a filthy latrine for something like half an hour, has a fever that hasn’t gone away after five days. At last, she agrees that he should go to fetch a doctor. He has plenty of time, talks on the street with people he knows, then is slightly embarrassed to realise that anybody as important as a doctor is not going to be rushing to anybody’s house. The doctor assumes it’s malaria, although he doesn’t say this, plays down the seriousness of it, prescribes simple treatments and a change of diet…. And for the next 30 pages, day by day and by way of detailed descriptions of the increasingly serious arrangements Krishna and Susila’s parents have to make for her care, we learn of her typhoid fever, worsening condition and, inevitably, death.

The final few pages of the chapter take us to the exact halfway point of the novel. And, for the first time, we get what is presented as an extract from Krishna’s diary. Until now, this isn’t what we’ve had. It’s been a series of unremarkable episodes in a rather ordinary, humdrum life. As I’ve already implied, it’s been difficult to care about either Krishna or his wife. I’m not sure whether this is deliberate on Narayan’s part—it’s certainly a risk if it is deliberate—but I’m guessing that by including the diary extract he’s signalling a change of gear. It’s still episodes, but written in the present tense and with all the immediacy of ongoing grief. The funeral arrangements, right down to the laying and partial covering of the body on the pyre, are described matter-of-factly. And then this, to end the chapter:

‘There are no more surprises and shocks in life, so that I watch the flame without agitation. For me the greatest reality is this and nothing else…. Nothing else in life will worry me or interest me in life hereafter.’

Perhaps this novel, the one with which Narayan first achieved success, might be the one in which he describes how he found his voice. Perhaps, until his 30s, Narayan was an English teacher going nowhere and fantasising about poetic success. Perhaps, as for Krishna, life took a turn that made him realise his subject had been staring him in the face all along. 

Time to read on.

22 October: Chapters 4-8—to the end

I was mostly wrong, but that’s OK. After that brief flirtation with a different voice in the diary extract, Narayan returns to his accustomed matter-of-fact narration. Except something’s different, because our man’s life is no longer quite as ordinary as it used to be. Or, rather, while he carries on along the same tramlines for many months, teaching his college classes and taking home his 100 rupees per month, he hadn’t been entirely wrong in his prediction. ‘Nothing else will worry me or interest me in life hereafter’ isn’t quite true, but his very non-British way of coming to terms with Susila’s death takes this novel in a completely new direction.

It must have been Narayan’s explicit choice to edge towards an early version of magic realism—if that’s what the incontrovertible evidence of Krishna’s close contact with his dead wife really represents. Maybe it’s simply a genre-shift. Instead of the conventions of the standard mid-20th Century western novel, this Indian writer chooses something more home-grown. In the second half of this novel, it’s perfectly natural for the dead to be as real and present as the living. And it’s possible for a different man, also a teacher, to base his whole life on the predictions of a hermit he met only once. Not that Narayan is narrowing down his own options. Instead, he is able to present an Indian take on how we might come to terms with the losses in life that begin, according to Krishna, at the moment we leave the womb.

Susila’s death from typhoid, and the plight of his three-year-old daughter, are entirely autobiographical elements. The presentation of his grief is realistic—in that, for weeks and months, Krishna can neither talk about nor come to terms with the death. He and all the other adults pretend to Leela, the daughter, that her mother is simply ill in her locked room, then in hospital. The child is too young to understand, of course, and nobody makes any comment when she starts calling her grandmother the same name that her father calls her, Mother. Meanwhile there’s hardly any mention of the college, as Krishna focuses on Leela’s daily needs. Again, a convincing portrayal of how grief forces the mind to choose its preoccupations.

And, as it happens, this is the beginning of a real disaffection. We’ve never seen him take a lesson in which he and the students share the joy of great writing, only plodding time-filling. Meanwhile, one of the important people he meets is his daughter’s teacher. Leela is too young for school, but the teacher is as enthusiastic about the power of early education as Krishna is demoralised, and welcomes any young mind. He is genuinely in love with the way children learn through being given the chance to share what they see through play and story. It isn’t some academic lecture on child-centred learning—he, or Krishna, mocks such posturing—and Krishna is impressed. In the final chapter of the novel, after a lot of other things have happened, Krishna decides to leave his college job, take a 75 per cent pay cut, and join his school.

But that’s in the future. What happens in Chapter 5 is he gets a letter purporting to be from a man who doesn’t know him, but has a message from his dead wife. To a western reader, raised in a different world, we’re looking for the scam. A boy has delivered the letter, not even knowing whether Krishna, living at a particular address, is a real person. The man who sent the letter had been told the details in a message from the world of the dead. And, reader, it’s genuine. Krishna meets him and, over the course of many weekly visits, hears factual and emotional information only Susila could know. But the narrative doesn’t make a big thing of it. It’s simply presented as a part of normal life, the normality that takes the medium away from town for weeks on end, as he has to deal with a legal dispute.

And, over months, Susila teaches him how to communicate with her directly. The medium has had to write her words, because she’s not well practised in getting him to speak directly. It’s all, as ever, pretty matter-of-fact. It takes the whole of the rest of the novel for Krishna to be able to reach the point where he can perceive as reality her presence next to him. The final page has him seeing her for the first time, and go outside with her to look at the moon. During his leaving celebration that same evening he has received a garland of jasmine, her favourite flowers, and which he has always associated with her. Now he is able to give her some to put in her hair—I’m not asking questions about the physics or metaphysics of any of this—and his joy is complete.

I think Narayan is doing several things at once in this second half of the novel. The invented characters, the medium and the teacher of young children, provide him with an original way of showing how Krishna has to go about a painful reassessment of his life. What he learns from Susila, through the medium, is a very Indian way of clearing the mind of extraneous matters. It’s a poetic representation of something that perhaps Narayan himself had to learn, here choosing a deliberately un-British narrative form to do it in. Meanwhile the primary teacher succeeds not only in offering an attractive alternative to the rule-bound British education system, but in reinventing himself to. He had set up the school when it was foreseen that he only had a limited time to live. He had believed in everything because every single detail of it had come true. Except…

…when the day of his predicted death arrives, nothing happens. But he decides to be re-born, leaving his shrewish wife and the children whose unruliness he roundly blames on her. From now on he will live in a hut at the school. Krishna himself has fewer commitments, having finally accepted that Leela will have a better life with her grandparents and the extended family a four-hour bus journey away. There, she will have a grandmother as loving as any mother, and what sounds like a dozen cousins to learn from.

So, what’s a disaffected English teacher to do? Don’t get him wrong, he loves the canon of English Literature, and the English language too—but that isn’t all he loves, and a colonial system has worn him down. Like the primary teacher, he needs to start again from basic principles. That’s what the other teacher, surviving a death wrongly foretold—Krishna, too, had contemplated suicide—represents. The end of the novel is full of optimism, as Krishna and Susila become magically closer than ever: ‘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.’

My goodness, you wouldn’t get that in a British novel of the 1940s. A year before Indian Independence, Narayan seems to have it in mind to demonstrate that Indians, even lovers of English culture, can do things differently. It’s a novel written in English but, like the English Teacher, that doesn’t stop it being thoroughly Indian.