Thoughts: The English Teacher

narayan

It’s been a busy week for me and between migraine season kicking off and helping my family move stuff, I haven’t had the energy to blog. But I did manage to finish the lovely and heartbreaking The English Teacher, so here is a quick pot about my thoughts! This is my first time reading R.K. Narayan and it was high time! Luckily, Deepika is hosting this readalong and I am currently reading through Narayan’s short story collection Malgudi Days. Oh Malgudi! I will definitely be reading more Narayan.

The English Teacher is set in India of the 150s and we meet Krishna, our protagonist, as he is living in a college hostel and teaching English at the school where he himself used to be a pupil. Despite living in this enclosed environment, he is married and has a young child. We see Krishna taking small steps, making preparations for his wife and child to join him and so setting off to find a good house, where they can be together as well as have a space away from each other. The discussions with his fellow teachers and Krishna’s thoughts about teaching and family were amusing and I was all in the mood for this novel to be a delightful read. Well, it was but it took a decidedly darker turn quite soon. Since these events can be found in summaries and even the goodreads description, I will not regard my thoughts here as spoilers. Nevertheless, if you truly wish to go into reading this novel blind, then please stop reading here!

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The first chapters show us how Krishna deals with leaving his prolonged bachelor life in the hostel to become a family man. Although this does not leave him any more time for writing poetry than his somewhat unsatisfying job, he reaches a stage of contented domesticity. Up until this point, I was utterly enthralled reading about such ordinary things as the family’s domestic happiness, written with a humorous touch in Narayan’s skilled prose. And then Krishna’s wife Sushila became ill and died. It was such a shocking twist and I was not at all prepared for the heartbreak and felt for Krisha and his sudden grief. It is heartbreaking to read his thoughts about learning life’s lessons:

“We come together only to go apart again. It is one continuous movement. They move away from us as we move away from them. The law of life can’t be avoided. The law comes into operation the moment we detach ourselves from our mother’s womb. All struggle and misery in life is due to our attempt to arrest this law or get away from it or in allowing ourselves to be hurt by it. The fact must be recognized. A profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life.”

It was all the more shocking to learn about the parallels to the author’s life. The English Teacher is not autobiographical but it may as well be. And as such the sudden turn the novel took towards the spiritual made me react with compassion rather than dissatisfaction or skepticism. So even if Narayan was always trying to contact his wife in the spiritual realm, I was happy it worked out for Krishna and gave him a the possibility for closure. He also finds his place in caring for his daughter Leela and working in the nursery, learning from the way children interact with the world.

Another aspect that drew me in was how Narayan would treat colonialism, especially regarding Krishna’s occupation as an  English teacher. Without making this the focus of the novel or taking a stance directly, Narayan does criticize the educational system colonialism has put into place:

“This education has 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 (…) What about our own roots? (…) I am up against the system, the whole method and approach of a system of education which makes us morons, cultural morons, but efficient clerks for all your business and administration offices.”

Without taking issue with English literature and the greats such as Shakespeare, this quote does seem to call for a turn towards the roots and the culture(s) of India. I know Narayan is celebrated in both India and the western world, but I don’t really have much knowledge about the stance he took on these issues and how Indian novelists writing in English are regarded nowadays. There were several critical comments made by Krishna throughout the novel and though I would have liked to explore this issue more, the way the ordinary becomes extraordinary in Narayan’s writing was a joy to discover.

What are your thoughts on The English Teacher? Let me know in the comments!

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18 thoughts on “Thoughts: The English Teacher

    1. Thanks so much, Rowena! Hope the migraine gives you a break atm 🙂
      Hope you’ll enjoy The English Teacher. It reminded me to read more Indian lit.

  1. Ooooh, I shouldn’t have continued reading after the pause. D:
    The English teacher sounds like a great book overall, delightful yet moving and sad. I’m excited to read my first Narayan book as well

    The quote on colonialism’s effect on India’s education and culture was especially poignant. I couldn’t help but reflect on it personally, as a Mexican man who was born in Mexico. Spanish is my native tongue, yet now I think, communicate, dream, and aspire in English. What about my roots? Sometimes I feel so detached from them because growing up far away from my home country has changed my sense of cultural identity. I feel very conflicting and complex feelings about this and I have a difficult time articulating them. But yes, sometimes I do feel like a cultural moron.

    1. Heh hope you are better prepared now then I was. I thought this would be humorous light read!
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Naz! I can only imagine how difficult this situation must be. I very much admire Chican@ and Us Mexican authors who write in English with lots of code breaking and Spanish passages to show up the predominance of English and.colonialism and just thought maybe some of these mighy be a way for you to connect with this issue.

      1. Those are my favorite kinds of books to read, honestly. The ones that use Spanish unapologetically without translation feel like they’re speaking directly to me. ❤

        I need to make time to read more of those kinds of books… But I want to advocate for so many different marginalized people that time is sparse :/

        1. They definitely are! 🙂 I wish my Spanish was good enough to read in the language, but hopefully I’ll get there.at some.point. But with the code switching lit I don’t mind getting out the dictionary 🙂

  2. Everybody seems to really be enjoying the Narayan books! I had never heard of him before the readalong, but now I will be keeping my eye out for them!

    1. Hope you’ll enjoy Narayan’s works, Naomi! I’ve read him for the first time as well and want to read his other books too now 🙂

  3. Bina, I can’t possibly express how happy I am to learn that the book moved you. Although I love RK Narayan, perhaps ‘The English Teacher’ is the one that moved me the most. Because I didn’t expect the twist too. It was more heartbreaking to know that it was semi-autobiographical and some of friends in India think that it is RKN’s best work because it is HIS story and it carries his anguish, melancholy, loneliness, his quest… Utterly heartbreaking, isn’t it?

    I loved how you beautifully highlighted his views on Indian education system and colonialism. The man detested Indian education system and corporal punishment.

    Thank you very much for joining, Bina. I am so glad that you are reading ‘Malgudi Days’. That one has got quite a few gems in it. Happy reading! 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for your lovely comment and of course this amazing book, Deepika! This really was a lovely read, the way he picked up his life again after such a tragedy.
      I also finished Malgudi Days now and love that one, too. Thanks so much for introducing me to an amazing new writer 🙂

  4. I’m sorry to hear you’ve been suffering with migraines – I have been suffering with my sinuses and now a cold! I hope we both feel better soon and can throw ourselves back into our reading with even more relish 🙂

    1. Oh I hope you feel better now, Jess! It’s so horrible when one can’t even read when one needs to stay in bed anyway. Hope you’re reading again.:)

  5. Wonderful review, Bina! ‘The English Teacher’ is probably my favourite R.K.Narayan book and so I am glad that you like it too. I remember reading his memoir and finding that there were definitely parallels between this novel and his life. It is interesting that he comment on the Indian education system of his time and how it produces morons who are efficient clerks. I can’t remember that passage now as it has been years since I read the book, but it is interesting and thought-provoking. Thanks for this beautiful review. Happy reading ‘Malgudi Days’!

    1. Glad you live this book, Vishy! I’m glad I finally.got to reading Narayan. The tragic parallels made me so sad for Narayan.
      I also.read Malgudi Days now and enjoyed it almost as much as this one.
      Oh yes I thought this was excellent commentary on idiotic and stifling teaching methods and on colonialism in the education system reproducing itself.

  6. From my studies I would guess that commenting on the education system in place during colonialism would be a bigger cut than some would think. Education is the root of who we are and an effective way to change the masses, either by leaving prior uneducated or using education to control thought. A British education system would effectively wipe out a culture of it were allowed to continue. They nearly got the entire Irish language.

    1. Yes language definitely is one of the most effective and lasting methods of colonialism. You can see efforts of countries and peoples all over attempting to save their language and culture now. From gaelic to indigenous nations.

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