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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