R. K. Narayan

What about our own roots? Krishna's journey in
The English Teacher

by Ian Mackean

Additional commentary on the novel, and comments from Indian literary critics by S. N. Radhika Lakshmi

. . . something has been drained from the adult heart.
Belief in the miraculous closes down

Krishna, the central character in The English Teacher, by R. K. Narayan (1906-2001) 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.

Susila, his wife, brings unpredictability into his life at every turn. 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, where the rational orderly Krishna would have naturally taken the most direct route, and it is clear that he finds her unpredictable behaviour a source of delight and inspiration.

Krishna does not adjust to this new influence without a struggle, however, as is seen in the episode where she gets rid of the predictably-unpredictable alarm clock he had kept on his desk for years. This clock, which was liable to set off its alarm at arbitrary times of day and night, seems to symbolise his old attitude to predictability versus spontaneity. He held onto the clock for years, as if its unpredictable behaviour were precious to him, and yet he stifled it with a literary tome whenever it sounded its alarm. He seems to have cherished it for its unpredictability, even though that unpredictability was inappropriate and ineffective, without quite realising why, 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.

This jarring episode seems to mark his transition from a world dominated by predictability to a world dominated by unpredictability, 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, but stifled, that there is a severe limit to what can be achieved in life through any system which is ordered, predictable, and knowable.

The turning point of the story arises from Susila's unpredictability. When they go to look at the house we could not possibly predict that she would go for a walk on her own, get stuck in a contaminated lavatory, and then become ill. 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, but in the event the important incident is not something that could have been guessed beforehand, either by the reader or by Krishna, but an unpredictable event which arises on the spur of the moment.

Krishna's intention was that their visits to view houses should proceed in an ordered, predictable, rational way, but Susila brought unpredictability to the occasions, resulting in moments of beauty, such as the walk by the river, but also in the awful tragedy of her becoming infected by a fatal illness. She brings reality into his life, which was previously protected from reality by the enclosed ordered world of the school, and later she initiates the most unpredictable event of all, her psychic communication with him from beyond death.

The futility of clinging to the belief that life can be orderly, predictable, and knowable is shown in two central, and symmetrical, predictions which occupy a prominent place in the novel. The first is the doctor's assertion that typhoid, which Susila has contracted, 'is the one fever which goes strictly by its own rules. It follows a time-table . . . ' [Ch 3. p.366] and that Susila will be well in a few weeks. But in spite of his further assurances that her attack is 'Absolutely normal course. No complications. A perfect typhoid run . . . ' [Ch 3. p.369] Susila dies.

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, 'who can see past present and future as one, and give everything its true value' [Ch 7. p. 450] that he will die on a given date. But 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. p. 450], the headmaster lives.

Both predictions are propounded with certainly, and both prove to be false. The scientifically-based prediction of life is thwarted by death, and the mystical prediction of death is thwarted by in life.

Both of these episodes show the limitations of man's ability to know and predict the world. The truth is that we cannot know, and cannot predict, and any view of life, whether deriving from modern western science, or ancient eastern mysticism, which disregards the unknowable and sees only what is supposedly known, and supposedly predictable, is hopelessly inadequate.

From the academic world to the 'law of life'

While these episodes fail to provide Krishna with anything rational to believe in, they do bring him face to face with the reality of life and death, and confronting the realities of life without retreating into the safe cerebral world of literature and philosophy is an important component of his journey. His unsatisfying immersion in a sterile literary approach to life is shown in a number of ways. For example the novel opens with him wearily facing the fact that he is reading 'for the fiftieth time, Milton, Carlyle and Shakespeare' [Ch 1. p. 295]. Later he tries to write a love poem for his wife, but it is simply a copy of a poem by Wordsworth, and later still he tries to read a book on Plato, but gives up on the very first sentence.

Now he is discovering how ordinary people encounter the big issues of life and death, not as seen through the perspective of literature or philosophy, and not in a way that would imply that some profound universal conclusions could be drawn, but as they actually experience it in everyday life.

And Narayan himself, insofar as we can identify him with the character of Krishna, is writing at the level of those ordinary people. He does not adopt the position of a novelist presenting the reader with fictitious characters which he has created, and which are under his control, as for example Charles Dickens does, but in the guise of Krishna he places himself firmly among the ordinary people, and breaks down the boundaries between real life outside his novel and the life within the novel. Just as Krishna faces life without illusions, so Narayan seems to create his novel without the usual illusions of the novelist, such as pre-planned plot and fictitious characters.

In an outburst with one of his students Krishna says of literature: 'Don't worry so much about these things - they are trash, we are obliged to go through and pretend we like them, but all the time the problem of living and dying is crushing us.' [Ch 7. p.438]

In coming to terms with the death of his wife literature, philosophy, and rationalism, are no use to him. They are all illusions, and the journey he is on involves leaving illusions behind.

Living without illusions seemed to be the greatest task for me in life now . . . humanity, nurtured in illusions from beginning to end! The twists and turns of fate would cease to shock us if we knew, and expected nothing more than, the barest truths and facts of life. [Ch 4. p. 387]

Narayan's writing style, which is inseparable from the observations of Krishna, the first-person narrator, has been showing us this all along. Right from page one Narayan has presented us with only 'the barest truths and facts of life'.

The truth Krishna wants to discover cannot be found in Shakespeare, Carlyle, or Plato, it is found only among real people leading real lives, it is 'the law of life'.

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 . . . [Ch 7. p. 465]

From adulthood to childhood

Children are very much in evidence throughout 'The English Teacher', and are important guides for Krishna on his journey. At the beginning he is with the boys at his school, but they are no longer children but young adults, already entangled in the system from which he needs to escape. The children who help to show him the way are the younger children, his own daughter, Leela, and the children at the nursery school she attends. The young children are important because they are spontaneous and natural. They have not yet had their natural energy stifled and diverted by the deadening educational system, and are free from rationalism, religion, and other systems of thought.

The most prominent character in the novel, after Krishna and his family, is the headmaster of Leela's school. He is a champion of childhood, having devoted his life to children since receiving the prediction that he would die, and believes they are 'angels' [Ch 6. p. 434], 'the real gods on earth' [Ch 6. p. 423], and employs what he calls 'The Leave Alone System' in his school

The Leave Alone System, which will make them wholesome human beings, and also help us, those who work along with them, to work off the curse of adulthood. [Ch 6. p. 436]

Krishna befriends the headmaster, and although at one point he fears that the headmaster is 'a man mentally unsound' [Ch 7. p. 449] he is drawn towards the headmaster's views, which are reinforced by his wife's psychic communication that children are more in tune with the psychic side of life than adults, and at the climax of the novel he decides to work with the headmaster in his nursery school.

In the second half of the novel Krishna's discovery of children as an effective countermeasure against 'the curse of adulthood', and the opening of his mind that he is experiencing through meditation, pave the way for his resignation from his old job and the adoption of a more genuine lifestyle.

We might also see in the headmaster's comment: 'Children have taught me to speak plainly, without the varnish of the adult world.' [Ch 6. p. 433] a clue as to the inspiration behind Narayan's direct, factual, unadorned style of writing.

From west to east

Another component of Krishna's journey is that he encounters the coexistence of western and native cultural attitudes, which also represent the attitudes of Indians of a newer and older generation. For example when Susila is ill she is treated both by a doctor who practises western scientific medicine, and by a Swamiji who uses mystical methods of healing. The Swamiji is summoned by Susila's mother, representing an older generation than Krishna himself, who believes the 'Evil Eye' [Ch 3. p. 372] has fallen on her daughter, and it is notable that Krishna feels 'ashamed' [Ch 3. p. 373] that the doctor finds the Swamiji in the house, showing that he is alienated from, and embarrassed by, the native culture of the older generation of his own country.

In the event, both the scientific and the mystical attempts at healing fail, and Susila dies. Narayan presents us with the coexistence of these two systems of thought in Indian culture, 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.

Other instances of the juxtaposition of English and native cultures arise in the novel. For example it may be significant that the street where the headmaster lives, with its poor sanitation, and where 'unkempt and wild-looking children rolled about in the dust' [Ch 6. p. 431] is named Anderson Street, and Anderson may have been 'some gentleman of the East India Company's days!' [Ch 6. p. 431]. But while this observation is potent, 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.

The final stage of Krishna's journey takes him further from the from the western intellectual frame of mind, inherited from the British, in which he was embedded at the opening of the novel, and further towards native Indian spiritual practices. To reach his goal of 'a harmonious existence' [Ch 8. p. 467] he takes up his deceased wife's psychically-communicated challenge, which he receives initially through a medium, to develop his mind sufficiently to communicate with her psychically himself, and bridge the gap between life and life-after-death. Although initially he had been bemused by his wife's devotional practices, mocking her with 'Oh! Becoming a yogi!' [Ch 2. p.325] he now relies on her to guide him, from beyond the grave, in his 'self-development'.

This self-development consists of Zen-like meditation in which, for a certain amount of time each day, he empties his mind. His main motive for undertaking this development is to reach closer psychic communication with his wife, but he also experiences a general improvement in his state of mind as a result.

It was a perpetual excitement, ever promising some new riches in the realm of experience and understanding . . . There was a real cheerfulness growing within me, memory hurt less . . . [Ch 7. 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. The simple message of 'belief' which his wife offers as the key to his progress also shows how inadequate the western approach, with its 'classifying, labelling, departmentalising' [Ch 8. p. 468] was for his real needs:

'Belief, belief.' Above reason, scepticism, and even immediate failures, I clung to it. [Ch 7. p. 457]


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. 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, or Ode to the West Wind' [Ch 8. p. 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; 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. [Ch 8. pp. 467-8]

Having thrown off this cultural inheritance from the west, and decided to 'withdraw from the adult world and adult work into the world of children' [Ch 8. p. 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. p. 473]. He finally learns to experience at the psychic level, and when his wife appears before him he reaches 'a moment of rare, immutable joy - a moment for which one feels grateful to Life and Death.' [Ch 8. p. 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. It could apply to all of us as adults, alienated from our roots in childhood; to modern Indians, alienated from their native cultural roots; and to humanity as a whole, in that we have become rational human beings, alienated from our roots in the unknown.

Additional commentary on The English Teacher and excerpts from comments from Indian critics by S. N. 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. 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. But after his wife's death he is forced to face the harsh realities of life and is tortured by feelings of loneliness. He leads a mechanical existence, attending college and looking after his daughter, to whom he is both a mother and father. Krishna was on the verge of committing suicide after his wife's death, but he resisted the temptation because he felt it was his responsibility to bring up his daughter.

Krishna receives a message from an old man that his dead wife is trying to communicate with him through the old man. During their psychic meetings, with the old man acting as a medium, Susila's spirit infuses into the almost-suicidal Krishna the strength and courage to face the harsh realities of life.

Susila's spirit expresses her inability to communicate with Krishna as he is not in the right state of mind to receive her messages. First of all Krishna should rid his mind of all trace of sorrow about her untimely death. In course of time Krishna attains a state of mental readiness to receive her messages without the intervention of the medium.

Krishna develops friendship with a headmaster who runs a kindergarten school. He admits his daughter in the same school. The eccentric headmaster is a refreshing contrast to Krishna. The headmaster doesn't believe in spoon-feeding or excessive discipline and allows the children to play games most of the time, teaching them lessons in between their play. This mode of learning seems to be effective.

The headmaster is a hen-pecked husband. He does not go home for lunch, knowing that his wife will be waiting for him, and chooses to have his meal with Krishna instead. When he goes home the first question he asks his children is, "Is your mother at home?" When they reply, "No" he says, "Excellent" with great relief. His termagant wife does not allow their children to study in his school and brings them up in a wild and barbaric manner.

The headmaster tells Krishna that according to an astrologer's prediction, he will die in a few days' time. His feelings about his own death may perhaps be a psychic phenomenon, or a suicidal wish to escape from his worries and miseries. 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. The irony lies in the fact that although he proves to be a good teacher and a good headmaster to his students, he is a failure in the role of a father to his own children, for he fails miserably in bringing them up.

The headmaster exerts a distinct influence in transforming Krishna's life. Krishna resigns his job at college as he finds it meaningless, and joins the headmaster's school as a teacher. He finally attains peace of mind and realises that life will have meaning for him from then onwards. 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, though Susila's spirit remains with him forever.

Comments on The English Teacher by some Indian literary critics

According to Harish Raizada The English Teacher, as an autobiographical novel, completes a trilogy along with his other two novels 'Swami and Friends' and 'The Bachelor of Arts'. It depicts man as bearing 'the sweet and bitter fruits of life.'

K R Srinivasa lyengar

[3] says that the description of Krishna's married life - the first few years of happiness, the excruciating agony during the weeks of Susila's illness, the 'last journey' to the cremation ground - is one of the most moving and flawless pieces of writing in modern English fiction. Not a word is wasted and not a word rings false. The second half of the novel, however, takes us to unfamiliar regions. Krishna's numbed misery and his wish to be both a mother and a father to Leela are understandable enough, but the experiments in psychic communication with Susila with the help of a medium introduce a whimsical or fantastic element into a story which, up to that point, had been transparently true to life. The eccentric headmaster of the 'pyol' school and his termagant wife and their wild children make for further seemingly incongruous elements.

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, waif and vagabond. 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, and her 'resurrection' in the second half. Paradise Lost being followed by paradise Regained. Krishna loses Susila in the flesh, but on the last page of the novel she comes back to him, to be with him forever.

'Susila! Susila!' I cried. 'You here!' 'Yes, I'm here, have always been here.'

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. 'It was a moment of rare, immutable joy - a moment for which one feels grateful to life and death'.

According to Professor P S Sundaram, The English Teacher is a novel with a difference, not only in the type of love between Krishna and Susila that is depicted, but also in the author's bold excursion into the realms of the dead. But then one is inclined to accept K. R. 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!'


Narayan, R. K. The English Teacher, in A Malgudi Omnibus. London: Vintage, Random House. 1999. First published in England by Eyre and Spottiswoode 1945
[2] Patten, Brian. 'An Incident', from Armada. London: Flamingo. 1996
[3] K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. R. K. Narayan: Indian Writing in English. 6th ed. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers pvt ltd. 1987.

© Ian Mackean, January 2001
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© S. N. Radhika Lakshmi, January 2001
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Essays on Indian Literature
R K Narayan The English Teacher
Krishna's Journey
R K Narayan The English Teacher
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R K Narayan's Vision of Life  
R K Narayan The Guide Early Indian Women Writers Modern Indian Women Writers  

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