R. K. Narayan
The English Teacher

Two Teachers: A comparison between the characters and philosophies of Krishna and the Headmaster.

by Deepa Patel

My mind was made up. I was in search of a harmonious existence and everything that disturbed that harmony was to be rigorously excluded, even my college work . . . I could no longer stuff Shakespeare and Elizabethan metre and Romantic poetry for the hundredth time into young minds and feed them on the dead mutton of literary analysis and theories and histories, while what they needed was lessons in the fullest use of the mind. This education had 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. (Chapter 8)

The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan is set in a fictional town of Malgudi portrayed as a microcosm of India during colonial rule. Indians reading this novel will be able to relate to each character's experiences with life because of the familiarity of their actions and outlook. Through the narrative commentary of Krishna the protagonist, his innermost dissatisfaction, desire and dismay are revealed. Krishna's painful journey in search of true identity begins with dissatisfaction with his career, desire to keep his wife Susila and "the child" Leela happy, dismay at the death of his wife. In this depressed state he looks for spiritual means to survive in order to keep himself and Leela happy. He finds a way to "communicate" with his dead wife who ultimately leads him to "immutable joy".

Although both Krishna and the Headmaster are in the same profession of teaching their outlook and philosophies on school and the schooling system are contrasting. While the former is dissatisfied with his teaching profession the latter loves it passionately. Krishna works at Albert Mission College for a "monthly wage of 100 rupees" for a comfortable life, viewing his profession as superficial because the purpose of education is "to pass exams.... mugging up Shakespeare before teaching". There comes a time when Krishna feels he can "no longer stuff Shakespeare and Elizabethan metre and Romantic poetry" in fact he believes they are becoming "strangers to their own culture and camp followers of another culture." He finds nothing inspiring in his chosen profession and teaches it without emotion.  He "doesn't care about these children" all he does is to make them sit in rows and "take attendance" every lesson and is flooded with the "greatest relief" when the bell rings to signify the end of a lesson. This is a very Westernised way of portraying school and schooling and Narayan tries to mock this as it gives an impression that he does not agree with the system.

When Krishna is introduced to the reader in the opening paragraph of the novel, his character comes across  as excessively self critical with extreme reactions to life, comparing himself to a "cow" who is dull and sits around  regurgitating much like his own routines, which are described as fairly mundane  and lacklustre. His dry sense of humour comes to light when mentioning even a "cow might feel hurt at the comparison". Krishna seems to be stifled with excessive order and routine further illustrating his dissatisfaction and wants to "cultivate new habits", thus looking for energy and vigour through his "morning walk". As an English educated Indian Krishna feels he  is "eating, working, speaking, walking, talking ...to perfection"  trying to fit in the Western system and mannerisms as a result constantly reflecting his own actions and the pretentious life  which  frustrates him thus creating pessimism.

On the other hand the Headmaster who teaches Leela is fully devoted to his students and does not charge his students any money in spite of living a basic lifestyle. His philosophy on the "business of education is to shape the mind and character of a child" so that they are prepared to handle the pressures and problems of life.  He believes the purpose of education is for "elders to learn".  The fact that he makes up his own stories and illustrates them shows the reader that he cares for these children. Krishna asks himself "Does he ever sleep?" indicating that the Headmaster is so caught up with his work he doesn't even sleep. Also he describes the children's art work as "glittering" and always compliments them as "wonderful creatures" which implies that he is proud to be their teacher or, in fact their student. Therefore Narayan hints that the "Leave Alone System" of schooling seems a friendlier approach to education for the children. The effect that this type of schooling has on the children is that they become more motivated. As Leela "left me [Krishna] without a thought" shows how eager and disciplined she is. Additionally, when the Headmaster stopped telling the story, there was "dead silence" amongst the children which shows that they were really engrossed with the story and understood everything fully. Indeed they even want to come to school on Sunday. This is in contrast, to Krishna's teaching style, where he tell his students to "shut up and  don't ask questions" when they need clarification. This sort of reaction definitely has a negative effect on the motivation of the students as they are not enjoying or fully understanding their education. This is obvious because when Krishna himself is not motivated he is going to have difficulty motivating his students.

When the Headmaster is introduced to the reader he comes across as an eccentric character. He is so deeply rooted to his tradition, that he "prays and meditates 15 minutes before a meal"  living his life in harmony with nature "leaving his face wet...hands dripping...to evaporate" with no illusions of what he wants from life values hence a happier man than Krishna. Moreover the Headmaster does not need any superficial input for energy. He is always full of life and enjoys every small moments life brings to him. In fact he overlooks social norms and likes "to speak plainly without the varnish of the adult world". Nevertheless he is a very profound man believing in a spiritual philosophy that it is up to one's self to make one happy and attain inner satisfaction. Unlike Krishna who enjoys adult company the Headmaster has difficulty conducting himself appropriately in "adult society" because he is abrupt and straightforward almost comes across as rude, making others uncomfortable in his company.  The source of the headmaster's energy comes from his school children who he considers as "real Gods on Earth". Thus conceding the fact that when one is stable with one's roots there is no confusion with true identity, self expectations and beliefs. That is why when it comes to family life Krishna's character is in contrast to his professional life likewise the headmaster's character is transformed when he is with his wife

Krishna loves his wife Susila immensely and has great desire to keep her and Leela happy and feels most comfortable around Susila because he can embrace his tradition through her. Whereas The Headmaster does not love his wife resulting in "terrible domestic" life so he tries his best to avoid her because she values western lifestyle.  Susila is presented as an immediate contrast to Krishna, being spiritual while he isn't; she is impulsive pleading recklessly "to wash her feet in the river today," Krishna is less so; she yearns for individuality and originality by wanting "bathroom tiles in her room" while Krishna a lateral thinker finds it hard to see past the fact that bathroom tiles are usually used in bathrooms. She possesses the economical and house-keeping common sense by "keeping a watch over every rupee as it arrives and never lets it depart lightly", Krishna is a poetic dreamer who seems to lack this sense.  Nevertheless it is due to Susila and her love and influence which create important developments in Krishna's character throughout the novel where he shows increasing ability to connect with other human beings. This is particularly demonstrated for the deepening love and desire he feels for Susila. From the action of "smelling his wife's letter before opening it" and an endearing picture of him playing with water with Leela and building a caring, loving, flirtatious relationship with Susila. Narayan's portrayal of Susila epitomises the representation of Indian culture and tradition, exemplifying everything in an Indian woman. Every time Krishna watches Susila or is in her company he feels contended and in "high spirits" proving that Krishna wants to cling to his tradition in spite of his western outlook. Although Krishna mocks Susila by calling her a "yogi" for observing prayer ritual each morning, in his heart he loves her traditional rituals as well as "the indigo sari, jasmine flowers tied on her long black plait, walking barefooted by the river".

Similarly the Headmaster and his wife have complex and contrasting characteristics but he shows no desire to keep her and his children happy.  The headmaster utters "inspirational" words of wisdom whereas his wife "grits her teeth" as her "rough tongue" constantly nags him for leaving a financially lucrative profession as a lawyer to become a non-fee paying pre-school Headmaster. Moreover she cannot forgive him for leaving his rich father's "fine house in Lawley Extension" and his "share of inheritance" to live in a filthy, run down place where the "gutter gurgled".  Narayan's use of alliteration emphasises the dirt and smell in the area his house is located, which the Headmaster apparently seems to be unaware of, but his wife cannot stand it. Since he was "hustled into a marriage which did not interest him", he chose to live in this horrible location "deliberately" making no attempt to build a better life for his family believing, "if we have any worth in us the place will change through our presence" and has given up hope of any "miraculous transformation" occurring in his wife. The Headmaster feels saddened every time he watches his wife and tries as much as possible to avoid her.  In fact "is relieved to hear she is not at home" because she is 'dominating and bossy'.  Her appearance, unlike Susila is of a "thirty five year old fat woman with sparse hair tied in a knot and her face shining with oil and perspiration" presenting her as a contrast to a typical India woman who will dress up for her husband. While the headmaster is fully devoted to his students, his flaws are evident when he neglects his own children. He "doesn't know their whereabouts" shocking the reader with his indifference by saying "I can't say - perhaps to the gutter, or to some low class den in the neighborhood. I've no control over them." Through the contrasting personalities of the wives Narayan seems to be drawing a contrast of people's mindset in those days that were either too traditional or too westernized. While the Headmaster has a depressed personal life, Krishna's life takes a turn after the death of Susila.

As the novel progresses both characters inspire each other and they endure transformation. Krishna's despair with life begins with Susila's prolonged illness and continues even after her death.  He becomes isolated, disillusioned and benumbed believing that life consists only in 'harsh truths and loneliness'. There were times when he wished to give up his life but only didn't do so because of Leela. Narayan effectively illustrates the emotions ordinary people like Krishna go through after a loved one has parted, consequently demonstrating his feelings after the death of his own wife Rajam.  Krishna's desire to communicate with Susila leads him to a "medium" and through these "sittings" she, from the other world beyond the world of living, encourages him to regain his emotions and sense of connection with other people. Krishna's path to enlightenment begins, subsequently ending in him changing his career to achieve true satisfaction and tolerance of people.

Whereas the Headmaster's "life underwent revolution" after he met the "astrologer" who noted down every "minute detail" even the "exact hour of my death".  After the prediction of the "hermit" he left home and family and became indifferent to his wife and children's needs and subconsciously began living his life "precisely as predicted...in the report". The reader could interpret Narayan's inclusion of superstitious elements of Indian culture through the Headmaster over the portrayal of Western-style ideas as cold and unfeeling through his wife hence directly attacking Western Imperialism and the British influence in India. It becomes apparent that because of the prediction he is an unhappy man living in despair, unable to enjoy his affluence and family.  However the accuracy of the astrologer is also called into question as the Headmaster does not die as predicted.  Nevertheless this brings about a transformation in him as he is relieved now that the burden of the 'timetable', juxtaposing his personal and professional life, has disappeared, finally experiencing a kind of re-birth. In a way it could be translated as a symbolic death of a 'weak' and arrogant husband into a 'happy man' treating his wife and children 'kindly', likewise his 'dominating' and rude'  wife is now a 'greatly chastened person'.

In conclusion Narayan's characterization on the liberation of emotions of both characters may be a representation of  true feeling of Indians during colonial rule.

© Deepa Patel, September 2010
Essays on Indian Literature
   
R K Narayan The English Teacher
Krishna's Journey
R K Narayan The English Teacher
Two Teachers
R K Narayan's Vision of Life  
R K Narayan The Guide Early Indian Women Writers Modern Indian Women Writers  
       
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