RK Narayan’s The English Teacher came sometime after The Dark Room as the author had a tough time dealing with the death of his wife Rajam.
This story is an autobiography of Narayan and he has used his pain and travails into the narration. This is a unique love story of a 30 something, English lecturer named Krishna in Malgudi’s Albert Mission College.
The story starts in the hostel of Albert Mission College located in Malgudi. Krishna had been a student in the same college. Now, he is a lecturer. He finds his job and life tiresome and filled with boredom.
One of the reasons being that he cannot work on his own poems and intellectual pursuits as teaching demands its own energy and time. He is uninterested in his students is happy to hear the bell ring to the end the class.
He is self-critical compares himself to a “cow” that does nothing but ruminate on dead grass. He is particular about his ways and almost trying too hard to fit himself in a Western mould.
This adds to his frustrations and makes him feel pessimistic about his circumstance. It is a dream to become a poet even though he struggles to write voraciously. But he has a good sense of humour and uses it cleverly to always spread a cheer in his college and students.
Krishna is going through a midlife crisis and feels uninspired and lonely. He is away from his family and misses living with his loving wife, Susila and young daughter, Lela.
One day he gets a letter from his father telling about his wife and daughter. They are coming to live with him in Malgudi. His mother also comes to stay with them. Krishna is happy, at least for some time.
He seems to get a new lease on life. Susila is an exact opposite of Krishna, spiritual and impulsive. The character sketch of Susila is emblematic of Indian woman, culture and tradition.
Krishna is a dreamer and lacks a grasp of the practical life while Susila exhibits common sense and practical wisdom. She compliments and fulfils the shortcomings of Krishna. This is what makes their bond strong and enduring.
But soon the tide turns for the worst. First, due to the number of bodies, the current house is not suited and fit for their family. Hence, they look for a new house.
While they are on their search, Susila is stung by an insect and falls sick. She gets typhoid and unfortunately cannot recover. Tragedy strikes their home and Susila dies due to her illness. The loss of his beloved wife derails Krishna.
He is disconsolate and stricken with incurable grief. He becomes disenchanted with his job and personal life. His only refuge and reason to live is his baby daughter. Therefore, he spends all his energy and affection on her as she becomes the centre of his world.
The Communication Beyond the Veil
Krishna often loiters around a pond. On his frequent visits, he encounters a hermit or Sanyasi. The Sanyasi claims to necromancy or his ability to communicate with the dead and their spirits.
Unable to resist the temptation, he decides to try the spiritual route in order to reach his beloved wife. Krishna yearns to talk to his departed wife and entertains the Sanyasi’s claim.
He successfully communicates with Susila’s spirit. This acts as a shot in the arm of Krishna who is reinvigorated to turn his life for the better.
The New Beginning
Revitalized Krishna goes and interviews for a job at a new children’s school. It is the same place where his daughter Leela studies. Interestingly the headmaster of the school has a contrasting character is to Krishna.
He is eccentric in his approach and committed to his students. He has a far more optimistic outlook on life and is a lot happier than Krishna. He knows that the beauty of life is in enjoying brief moments of happiness.
He is spiritual and pursues to obtain inner satisfaction. But Krishna is a changed man by now. The headmaster of the school is delighted to learn about Krishna’s inspired theories and plans for imparting education to the young kids.
Krishna quits his job in the college and joins the new school. To add another boost to his spirits he is directly converse with the spirit of his dead wife for the first time. He forgets his sorrows and develops a fresh and positive outlook on life, vocation and purpose.
The English Teacher: Key Thoughts
The English Teacher is a remarkably exultant account of the love shared between a man and his wife. It honours the mundane details of a homely life infused with momentary tiffs, activities like reading and shopping together, childcare, house hunting etc.
Narayan is able to extract and use the tranquil contentment out of his own marital experience. He, too, was an uninspired and unsatisfied English teacher once. His wife Rajam and their marriage transformed him both as a person and writer.
The story of Krishna’s life, happiness and grief are both relatable and inspirational for many. Even the flirtations with the supernatural, philosophical and metaphysical are understandable.
The tragedy of human loss and the yearning to regain the lost love is not subject to mortality of flesh and bones. Narayan gives a theory of death where it is just the culmination of the physical existence. The soul remains eternal and preserves the emotional synapses within it.
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