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Krishna in the English Teacher

Krishna in the English Teacher

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Published by Vineet Mehta
character analysis of Krishna in R K Narayan's The English Teacher
character analysis of Krishna in R K Narayan's The English Teacher

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Published by: Vineet Mehta on Mar 24, 2013
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. . . something has been drained from the adult heart.

Belief in the miraculous closes down [2] Krishna, the central character in The English Teacher, by R. K. Narayan (19062001) undertakes an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual journey during the course of the novel. At the start of the novel he is an English teacher, living and teaching at the same school where he was once a pupil, and at the end we see him resigning his post, beginning work at a nursery school, and learning to communicate psychically with his dead wife. He learns and changes during the course of the novel in a way which he could not have predicted at the beginning. The journey takes him from a lifestyle which he found unsatisfactory to finding a set of values and a way of life that he feels he can believe in wholly.

Krishna's change comes about not as a result of any grand plan or ambition, but as a result of his response to a series of challenging circumstances which arise once he begins to take steps away from the cloistered and protective environment of his school. This day-by-day, unforeseen-event by unforeseen-event progress is reflected in Narayan's approach to the novel itself. Narayan gives the impression that he has no pre-planned plot in mind when the story opens, but instead focuses on a meticulously detailed depiction of Krishna's experiences, keeping to the observable surface reality of his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, without digression or analysis or interpretation. This rigorous unadorned focus on observable phenomena results in some stunningly beautiful writing. But although Krishna's journey takes place as a result of a series of unpredictable events, a number of recurring themes are being worked out in the course of the novel. These themes might be said to be Krishna's progress from predictability to unpredictability, from the academic world to the real world of life and death, from adulthood to childhood, and from a western mentality to an eastern mentality. From predictability to unpredictability Krishna repeatedly finds himself being drawn out of situations which ought to have been predictable and ordered by events which are spontaneous and unpredictable, and it is clear that he finds spontaneity and unpredictability to be stimulating and life-enhancing, while predictability and order, although providing a cushion of comfort and security, is ultimately stifling and deadening Krishna is roused from his predictable and ordered life at his school, where he had come to feel he lived 'like a cow', and had a continuous 'sense of something missing' [Ch 1. p. 295], and where a pupil spelling 'honour' without the 'u' is seen as a catastrophe by his colleagues, by the unexpected news that his wife and child, both of whom are to be sources of spontaneity and unpredictability throughout the novel, are coming to join him, and that he will need to move out of his lodgings at the school and find a house for them. This marks the first step of what becomes a journey out of the cloistered world of the school and into the real world of ordinary people leading ordinary lives.

This jarring episode seems to mark his transition from a world dominated by predictability to a world dominated by unpredictability. which was liable to set off its alarm at arbitrary times of day and night. This clock. and knowable. . his wife. The first is the doctor's assertion that typhoid. such as the walk by the river. which was previously protected from reality by the enclosed ordered world of the school. p. and later she initiates the most unpredictable event of all. even though that unpredictability was inappropriate and ineffective. but in the event the important incident is not something that could have been guessed beforehand. but also in the awful tragedy of her becoming infected by a fatal illness. but stifled. and give everything its true value' [Ch 7. that there is a severe limit to what can be achieved in life through any system which is ordered. but an unpredictable event which arises on the spur of the moment. where the rational orderly Krishna would have naturally taken the most direct route. Krishna's intention was that their visits to view houses should proceed in an ordered. For example when they go to look at a house she wants to make a long diversion to walk by the river and bathe her feet. She brings reality into his life. The turning point of the story arises from Susila's unpredictability. No complications. The futility of clinging to the belief that life can be orderly. and then become ill. resulting in moments of beauty. however. It follows a time-table . ' [Ch 3. He held onto the clock for years. either by the reader or by Krishna. as if its unpredictable behaviour were precious to him. as is seen in the episode where she gets rid of the predictably-unpredictable alarm clock he had kept on his desk for years. p. which Susila has contracted. p. A perfect typhoid run .369] Susila dies.366] and that Susila will be well in a few weeks. brings unpredictability into his life at every turn. ' [Ch 3. 450] that he will die on a given date. The other prominent demonstration of the futility of believing that life can be knowable and predictable is seen in the headmaster's belief in a prediction made by an astrologer. and symmetrical. . and when his wife gets rid of it behind his back it comes as a great shock to him and causes a row which drags on for several days before he can accept her act with equanimity. But . 'is the one fever which goes strictly by its own rules. predictable. When they go to look at the house we could not possibly predict that she would go for a walk on her own. and yet he stifled it with a literary tome whenever it sounded its alarm. predictions which occupy a prominent place in the novel. seems to symbolise his old attitude to predictability versus spontaneity. rational way. but Susila brought unpredictability to the occasions. without quite realising why. her psychic communication with him from beyond death. get stuck in a contaminated lavatory.Susila. But in spite of his further assurances that her attack is 'Absolutely normal course. Krishna does not adjust to this new influence without a struggle. predictable. When they prepare for the journey it might have seemed that Narayan was preparing for a plot in which something bad happened to their child while they were away. 'who can see past present and future as one. and from that point on he has to start actually living day to day on the basis of the truth which he may have previously intuitively sensed. predictable. . and knowable is shown in two central. He seems to have cherished it for its unpredictability. . and it is clear that he finds her unpredictable behaviour a source of delight and inspiration.

they do bring him face to face with the reality of life and death. Just as Krishna faces life without illusions. Both of these episodes show the limitations of man's ability to know and predict the world. but gives up on the very first sentence. are no use to him. the barest truths and facts of life. They are all illusions. and the journey he is on involves leaving illusions behind. 387] . p. as for example Charles Dickens does. the headmaster lives.although (just as the doctor had asserted that Susila's typhoid was 'A perfect typhoid run') the headmaster has found that his 'life has gone precisely as he predicted' [Ch 7.438] In coming to terms with the death of his wife literature. but as they actually experience it in everyday life. [Ch 4. whether deriving from modern western science. The scientifically-based prediction of life is thwarted by death. humanity. and confronting the realities of life without retreating into the safe cerebral world of literature and philosophy is an important component of his journey. and the mystical prediction of death is thwarted by in life. 295]. From the academic world to the 'law of life' While these episodes fail to provide Krishna with anything rational to believe in.' [Ch 7. and not in a way that would imply that some profound universal conclusions could be drawn. p. and later still he tries to read a book on Plato. and breaks down the boundaries between real life outside his novel and the life within the novel. which disregards the unknowable and sees only what is supposedly known. Both predictions are propounded with certainly. so Narayan seems to create his novel without the usual illusions of the novelist. Living without illusions seemed to be the greatest task for me in life now . And Narayan himself. . such as pre-planned plot and fictitious characters. The truth is that we cannot know. p.they are trash. In an outburst with one of his students Krishna says of literature: 'Don't worry so much about these things . nurtured in illusions from beginning to end! The twists and turns of fate would cease to shock us if we knew. Carlyle and Shakespeare' [Ch 1. and rationalism. insofar as we can identify him with the character of Krishna. Milton. Later he tries to write a love poem for his wife. 450]. is hopelessly inadequate. Now he is discovering how ordinary people encounter the big issues of life and death. and cannot predict. or ancient eastern mysticism. and which are under his control. but in the guise of Krishna he places himself firmly among the ordinary people. and expected nothing more than. we are obliged to go through and pretend we like them. and any view of life. not as seen through the perspective of literature or philosophy. He does not adopt the position of a novelist presenting the reader with fictitious characters which he has created. For example the novel opens with him wearily facing the fact that he is reading 'for the fiftieth time. and both prove to be false. philosophy. but it is simply a copy of a poem by Wordsworth. p. . but all the time the problem of living and dying is crushing us. and supposedly predictable. His unsatisfying immersion in a sterile literary approach to life is shown in a number of ways. is writing at the level of those ordinary people.

his own daughter. 433] a clue as to the inspiration behind Narayan's direct. and also help us. factual.Narayan's writing style. or Plato. From west to east . We might also see in the headmaster's comment: 'Children have taught me to speak plainly. 449] he is drawn towards the headmaster's views. 434]. At the beginning he is with the boys at his school. . is the headmaster of Leela's school. which are reinforced by his wife's psychic communication that children are more in tune with the psychic side of life than adults. and although at one point he fears that the headmaster is 'a man mentally unsound' [Ch 7. 'the real gods on earth' [Ch 6. The most prominent character in the novel. p. p. after Krishna and his family. without the varnish of the adult world. The law of life can't be avoided. [Ch 7. which is inseparable from the observations of Krishna. those who work along with them. p. religion. All struggle and misery in life is due to our attempt to arrest this law or get away from it . The children who help to show him the way are the younger children. and other systems of thought. but they are no longer children but young adults. and employs what he calls 'The Leave Alone System' in his school The Leave Alone System. p. and believes they are 'angels' [Ch 6. [Ch 6. p. The young children are important because they are spontaneous and natural. already entangled in the system from which he needs to escape. it is 'the law of life'. He is a champion of childhood. Leela. In the second half of the novel Krishna's discovery of children as an effective countermeasure against 'the curse of adulthood'. Right from page one Narayan has presented us with only 'the barest truths and facts of life'. 465] From adulthood to childhood Children are very much in evidence throughout 'The English Teacher'. . to work off the curse of adulthood. 436] Krishna befriends the headmaster. and are free from rationalism. The truth Krishna wants to discover cannot be found in Shakespeare. which will make them wholesome human beings. and are important guides for Krishna on his journey.' [Ch 6. and at the climax of the novel he decides to work with the headmaster in his nursery school. unadorned style of writing. has been showing us this all along. p. the first-person narrator. having devoted his life to children since receiving the prediction that he would die. and the children at the nursery school she attends. pave the way for his resignation from his old job and the adoption of a more genuine lifestyle. They have not yet had their natural energy stifled and diverted by the deadening educational system. The law comes into operation the moment we detach ourselves from our mother's womb. 423]. Carlyle. and the opening of his mind that he is experiencing through meditation. it is found only among real people leading real lives.

Narayan presents us with the coexistence of these two systems of thought in Indian culture. memory hurt less . he empties his mind. to develop his mind sufficiently to communicate with her psychically himself. [Ch 7. and bridge the gap between life and life-after-death. in his 'self-development'. and embarrassed by. representing an older generation than Krishna himself. p. both the scientific and the mystical attempts at healing fail. and it is notable that Krishna feels 'ashamed' [Ch 3. Other instances of the juxtaposition of English and native cultures arise in the novel. 372] has fallen on her daughter. but does not make an issue of being 'for' one and 'against' another because in the matters of life and death that he wants to focus on here the distinction between western and eastern thought pales into insignificance. but he also experiences a general improvement in his state of mind as a result. 431]. 431] is named Anderson Street. p.' Above reason. departmentalising' [Ch 8. For example when Susila is ill she is treated both by a doctor who practises western scientific medicine. and Anderson may have been 'some gentleman of the East India Company's days!' [Ch 6. [Ch 7. and where 'unkempt and wild-looking children rolled about in the dust' [Ch 6. There was a real cheerfulness growing within me. . To reach his goal of 'a harmonious existence' [Ch 8. p. with its 'classifying. who believes the 'Evil Eye' [Ch 3. It was a perpetual excitement. Although initially he had been bemused by his wife's devotional practices. p. p. which he receives initially through a medium. p. 373] that the doctor finds the Swamiji in the house.Another component of Krishna's journey is that he encounters the coexistence of western and native cultural attitudes. inherited from the British. .325] he now relies on her to guide him. with its poor sanitation. His main motive for undertaking this development is to reach closer psychic communication with his wife. p. . 457] Compare this to the boredom and spiritual deadness he had come to find in western literature and philosophy and we see how he has found something truly enriching in his native culture. for a certain amount of time each day. and by a Swamiji who uses mystical methods of healing. . showing that he is alienated from. ever promising some new riches in the realm of experience and understanding . and further towards native Indian spiritual practices. 457] . labelling. p. p. 467] he takes up his deceased wife's psychically-communicated challenge. The final stage of Krishna's journey takes him further from the from the western intellectual frame of mind. 468] was for his real needs: 'Belief. In the event. it is the observations he wishes to make on the educational system towards the end of the novel which represent the main focus of his attack. scepticism. For example it may be significant that the street where the headmaster lives. The Swamiji is summoned by Susila's mother. mocking her with 'Oh! Becoming a yogi!' [Ch 2. which also represent the attitudes of Indians of a newer and older generation. and Susila dies. But while this observation is potent. This self-development consists of Zen-like meditation in which. I clung to it. from beyond the grave. belief. in which he was embedded at the opening of the novel. and even immediate failures. the native culture of the older generation of his own country. The simple message of 'belief' which his wife offers as the key to his progress also shows how inadequate the western approach.

473].' [Ch 8. Susila's spirit infuses into the almost-suicidal Krishna the strength and courage to face the harsh realities of life. in that we have become rational human beings. Krishna receives a message from an old man that his dead wife is trying to communicate with him through the old man. feeding on leavings and garbage . Radhika Lakshmi At the beginning of The English Teacher we find Krishna to be a sensitive and sincere teacher who is completely wrapped in his work of teaching Carlyle and Milton to the students of Albert Mission College at Malgudi. He finally learns to experience at the psychic level. but efficient clerks for all your business and administration offices. p. But after his wife's death he is forced to face the harsh realities of life and is tortured by feelings of loneliness. cultural morons. 467-8] Having thrown off this cultural inheritance from the west. with the old man acting as a medium. . to whom he is both a mother and father. we were strangers to our own culture and camp followers of another culture. . I am up against the system. 474] In conclusion we might say that the quote 'What about our own roots?' which I chose as the title for this essay could apply to Krishna's journey on a number of levels. immutable joy . alienated from our roots in childhood. alienated from our roots in the unknown. What about our own roots? . p. . the whole method and approach of a system of education which makes us morons. p. Krishna was on the verge of committing suicide after his wife's death. and when his wife appears before him he reaches 'a moment of rare. or Ode to the West Wind' [Ch 8. 467] but India's adherence to an educational system which stifles the spirit of its students and alienates them from their native culture: This education has reduced us to a nation of morons. [Ch 8. and decided to 'withdraw from the adult world and adult work into the world of children' [Ch 8. In the first half of the story Krishna is portrayed as an affectionate and protective father to Leela as well as a doting husband to Susila. 472] he is free to take a further step in his traditional Indian self-development and reach a state in which 'one's mind became clean and bare and a mere chamber of fragrance' [Ch 8. and to humanity as a whole. but he resisted the temptation because he felt it was his responsibility to bring up his daughter. During their psychic meetings. .Conclusion In the final chapter the issues of the novel come to a head with Krishna's resignation from his post as English teacher and his psychic reunion with his wife. pp. to modern Indians. In his attack on the system he is rebelling against he criticises not English Literature itself 'for who could be insensible to Shakespeare's sonnets. He leads a mechanical existence. It could apply to all of us as adults. N. alienated from their native cultural roots. attending college and looking after his daughter.a moment for which one feels grateful to Life and Death. . p. Additional commentary on The English Teacher and excerpts from comments from Indian critics by S.

as an autobiographical novel. Comments on The English Teacher by some Indian literary critics According to Harish Raizada The English Teacher. "Excellent" with great relief. the 'last journey' to the cremation ground . He gradually overcomes his grief over the loss of his wife and finds happiness and fulfilment in bringing up his young daughter. He no longer requires the presence of Susila's spirit to infuse confidence in him to face life. The headmaster is a hen-pecked husband. He admits his daughter in the same school. The headmaster exerts a distinct influence in transforming Krishna's life. His termagant wife does not allow their children to study in his school and brings them up in a wild and barbaric manner.' K R Srinivasa lyengar [3] says that the description of Krishna's married life . or a suicidal wish to escape from his worries and miseries. Krishna develops friendship with a headmaster who runs a kindergarten school. and joins the headmaster's school as a teacher. the excruciating agony during the weeks of Susila's illness. and chooses to have his meal with Krishna instead. "Is your mother at home?" When they reply. though Susila's spirit remains with him forever. for he fails miserably in bringing them up. When the death for which he waits so calmly does not come. he cuts off all his connections with his family and treats himself as dead and his life as a new birth. He does not go home for lunch. The eccentric headmaster is a refreshing contrast to Krishna.is one of the most moving and flawless pieces of writing in modern English fiction. he will die in a few days' time. This mode of learning seems to be effective. The headmaster doesn't believe in spoon-feeding or excessive discipline and allows the children to play games most of the time. Krishna resigns his job at college as he finds it meaningless. He finally attains peace of mind and realises that life will have meaning for him from then onwards. The irony lies in the fact that although he proves to be a good teacher and a good headmaster to his students. teaching them lessons in between their play. It depicts man as bearing 'the sweet and bitter fruits of life. however. completes a trilogy along with his other two novels 'Swami and Friends' and 'The Bachelor of Arts'. In course of time Krishna attains a state of mental readiness to receive her messages without the intervention of the medium.Susila's spirit expresses her inability to communicate with Krishna as he is not in the right state of mind to receive her messages. knowing that his wife will be waiting for him. First of all Krishna should rid his mind of all trace of sorrow about her untimely death. he is a failure in the role of a father to his own children. His feelings about his own death may perhaps be a psychic phenomenon. Krishna's numbed misery and his wish to be both a mother and a father to Leela are understandable enough. The headmaster tells Krishna that according to an astrologer's prediction. The second half of the novel. takes us to unfamiliar regions. When he goes home the first question he asks his children is. "No" he says. but the experiments in psychic communication with Susila with the help of a medium introduce a whimsical or .the first few years of happiness. Not a word is wasted and not a word rings false.

Krishna loses Susila in the flesh. immutable joy . but also in the author's bold excursion into the realms of the dead. 'It was a moment of rare. 'Susila! Susila!' I cried. Srinivasa Iyengar's view when he asks 'Is Krishna dreaming? Is it any more than an apocalyptic vision of Krishna's psychic ecstasy? Isn't this a resurrection greater than life!' . 'You here!' 'Yes.fantastic element into a story which.a moment for which one feels grateful to life and death'. R. But then one is inclined to accept K. to be with him forever.' Is Krishna dreaming? Is it anything more than the physical projection of Krishna's psychic ecstasy? Isn't this a resurrection greater than life? 'The boundaries of our personalities suddenly dissolved' Krishna concludes his autobiographical narrative. have always been here. and her 'resurrection' in the second half. The English Teacher is a novel with a difference. The eccentric headmaster of the 'pyol' school and his termagant wife and their wild children make for further seemingly incongruous elements. but on the last page of the novel she comes back to him. According to Professor P S Sundaram. had been transparently true to life. waif and vagabond. I'm here. Nevertheless it is difficult to feel that the first and second halves of 'The English Teacher' blend naturally and make an artistic whole. The theme of the novel is obviously the 'death' of Susila in the first half. Automatic writing and attempts at psychic contact with the dead are not altogether uncommon: and the soil of India doubtless breeds every type of idealist and eccentric. Paradise Lost being followed by paradise Regained. not only in the type of love between Krishna and Susila that is depicted. up to that point.

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