R.K. Narayan is best remembered for The Guide and the fictional town of Malgudi, in which almost all his stories are set. He is also the author of one of the sweetest love stories in the English language.
The plot of The English Teacher is simple. Krishna is an English teacher at the Albert Mission College in Malgudi. He lives in the college hostel while his young wife is staying with her parents after giving birth to a daughter. Then one day he receives a letter from his father advising him to set up a house of his own. So he rents a house, where he lives happily with his wife, Susila, and daughter, Leela.
His mother, however, coming on a visit from the village where she lives with his father, thinks the house is too small. His father then, on his daughter’s third birthday, offers him money to buy a house of his own. So he goes househunting with his wife and finds one on the edge of the town which they both like. Unfortunately, while inspecting the house, Susila walks into a lavatory in the backyard. It has been left foul and dirty by trespassers sneaking into the empty house. Susila falls ill and is found to be suffering from typhoid, contracted from the germs in the lavatory.
The illness proves fatal. After several days of high fever, despite the ministrations of the doctor and her loved ones, Susila dies. Krishna is devastated. His mother wants to take care of his daughter, but he can’t bear to part with her. The rest of the slim novel describes his life with his daughter, with occasional visits from his mother, who eventually takes away the child – but not before he is able to communicate with his wife again.
The transition from the cheerful domesticity of the early chapters to Krishna’s spiritual experiences after his wife’s death when he learns to communicate with her spirit disconcerted some of the early readers. The English Teacher – the fourth of Narayan’s novels after Swami and Friends (1935), The Bachelor of Arts (1937) and The Dark Room (1938) – had a mixed reception when it was first published in 1945. In his memoirs, My Days (1974), Narayan recalled:
The book falls into two parts – one half is domestic and the other half is ‘spiritual’. Many readers have gone through the first half with interest and the second half with bewilderment and even resentment, perhaps feeling that they have been baited with the domestic picture into tragedy, death, and nebulous, impossible speculations (about afterlife).
The early chapters are captivating indeed. Consider this scene, for example, where Susila tests her husband’s writing skills.
She drew herself up and asked: “Let me see if you can write about me.”
“A beautiful idea,” I cried. “Let me see you.”… I drew up the notebook, ran the fountain pen hurriedly over it and filled a whole page beginning:
She was a phantom of delight
When first she gleamed upon my sight:
A lovely apparition, sent
To be a moment’s ornament…
“Oh, how fast you write!” she said admiringly.
And then she discovers the poem was actually written by Wordsworth. “I wouldn’t do such a thing as copying,” she tells her husband.
She wins you over completely with her femininity. So it’s a harrowing experience when she dies.
But this is a novel Narayan had to write. For, as he mentioned in My Days: “More than any other book, The English Teacher is autobiographical in content, very little part of it being fiction.”
The English Teacher is dedicated to his wife, Rajam, who died of typhoid in 1939, leaving him with their three-year-old daughter, Hema.
Narayan had met Rajam only six years earlier, in 1933, when she was just 15. Straight away, he had fallen in love with her and proposed to her father, a family friend. The father, a school headmaster, was taken aback. Young men were not expected to propose marriage then – that was for elders to discuss. Moreover, as the father, an amateur astrologer, found, their horoscopes did not match.
Narayan wrote in My Days: “My horoscope had the Seventh House occupied by Mars, the Seventh House being the one that indicated matrimonial aspects. The astrological texts plainly stated that Mars in the Seventh House indicated nothing but disaster unless the partner’s horoscope also contained the same flaw, a case in which two wrongs make one right.”
The father relented in the end, however, and the couple were happily married. But their happiness did not last. After a visit to her parents’ in Coimbatore, Rajam returned to her husband in Mysore, came down with typhoid and died. Narayan recalled in My Days: “I could somehow manage to live after her death and, eventually, also attain a philosophical understanding.
“But it was not easily attained. The course was full of hardship, doubts and despair against a perpetual, unrelenting climate of loneliness.”
The spiritual communion with his wife after her death began by chance. One of his sisters invited him to stay with her in Madras (now Chennai), where a cousin put him in touch with a couple interested in spiritualism. Narayan described the encounter in My Days. He sat with the couple while the man wrote rapidly with a pencil. Narayan recalled: “At one stage, the pencil said: ‘The lady is here, but will not communicate with her husband directly yet… She is somewhat agitated today, since this is her first effort to communicate with her husband. She is disturbed by the grief of her husband….”
Narayan added: “I began to sense Rajam’s presence at that table… When I went home that evening, I felt lighter at heart.”
The English Teacher also describes similar automatic – or spirit – writing whereby Krishna communicates with Susila.
The novel also shows how their daughter comes to terms with her mother’s death. Her father and her grandparents try to hide her mother’s death from her. A nurse is looking after her mother in a locked room, she is told. But four days later the girl whispers to her father she had pushed the door open and “Mother is not there!” “She shook with suppressed glee, at the thought of her own escapade,” adds the narrator.
That is exactly what Narayan’s daughter did. Narayan recalled in My Days: “… the child gleefully confided to me, “ I know she is not there. I pushed the door, it opened, and I peeped in.”
The English Teacher ends with Krishna giving up his college job to teach village children. He returns from his college farewell party to an empty home since his daughter is living his parents. He has a garland of jasmines – his wife’s favourite flowers. The ending is sheer romance:
I softly called, ‘Susila! Susila, my wife…’ with all my being. It sounded as if it were a hypnotic melody. ‘My wife… my wife, my wife..’ My mind trembled with this rhythm, I forgot myself and my own existence. I fell into a drowse, whispering, ‘My wife, wife,’ How long? How could I say? When I opened my eyes again she was sitting on my bed with an extraordinary smile in her eyes.
‘Susila! Susila!’ I cried. ‘You here!’ ‘Yes, I’m here, have always been here.’ I sat up leaning on my pillow. ‘Why do you disturb yourself?’ she asked…
Her complexion had a golden glow, her eyes sparkled with a new light, her saree shimmered with blue interwoven with ‘light’ as she had termed it. ‘How beautiful!’ I said looking at it. ‘Yes, I always wear this when I come to you. I know you like it very much,’ she said. I gazed on her face. There was an overwhelming fragrance of jasmine surrounding her. ‘Still jasmine-scented!’ I commented.
‘Oh wait,’ I said and got up. I picked up the garland from the nail and returned to bed. I held it up to her. ‘For you as ever. I somehow feared you wouldn’t take it…’ She received it with a smile, cut off a piece of it and stuck it in a curve on the back of her head. She turned her head and asked: ‘Is this all right?’
‘Wonderful,’ I said, smelling it.
A cock crew. The first purple of the dawn came through our window, and faintly touched the walls of our room. ‘Dawn!’ she whispered and rose to her feet.
We stood at the window, gazing on a slender, red streak over the eastern rim of the earth. A cool breeze lapped our faces. The boundaries of our personalities suddenly dissolved. It was a moment of rare, immutable joy – a moment for which one feels grateful to Life and Death.
This joyous reunion of husband and wife on a spiritual plane may seem fanciful or wishful thinking, but this is what enabled Narayan to carry on. This fervent belief in an afterlife and spiritual communion. As Narayan wrote in My Days: “This outlook may be unscientific, but it helped me survive the death of my wife…”
Narayan won the appreciation of writers like Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and John Updike for his unadorned prose, his humour and tales of everyday life. Updike in the foreword to My Days wrote: “Few writers since Dickens can match the effect of colourful teeming that Narayan’s fictional city of Malgudi conveys: its population is as sharply chiselled as a temple frieze, and as endless, with always, one feels, more characters around the corner.” Yes, Narayan’s characters ring true to life. True to life, also, are his romantic encounters. With a few, deft strokes, he can convey the romantic frisson a woman arouses in a man. Readers of The Guide will remember Railway Raju’s first encounter with Rosie:
“The moment she got down from the train I wished I had hidden myself somewhere. She was not very glamorous, if that is what you expect, but she did have a figure, a slight and slender one, beautifully fashioned, eyes that sparkled, a complexion not white, but dusky, which made her only half visible – as if you saw her through a film of coconut juice. Forgive me if you find me waxing poetic. I gave some excuse and sent them off to the hotel, and stayed back to run home and tidy up my appearance.”
It is love at first sight also in Waiting for the Mahatma, where young Sriram falls in love with the girl standing next to Gandhiji as he addresses the crowd. Sriram wastes no time seeking her out after the meeting and tells her he wants to work with her. “But why?” she asks. “Because I like you, and like to be with you,” he blurts out. She bursts into a laugh. “That won’t be sufficient,” she says. Thus begins a romance which wins the approval of Gandhiji himself.
There is romance also in The Painter of Signs, where Raman the sign painter falls in love with Daisy, who runs a family planning centre when India is under Indira Gandhi. It is comic the way he hides his eyes behind sunglasses so she cannot catch him ogling. But she pulls off his sunglasses to see what is wrong with his eyes.
Love and tenderness, comedy and tragedy, all come into play in Narayan’s world. The Malgudi of his creation is a microcosm of life itself, rooted in his own experience. The English Teacher, dedicated to his wife, is a poignant reminder that “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”