The English Teacher, by Indian novelist R.
K. Narayan, tells the story of a young professor, Krishna, who must adapt first to family life with his wife and daughter and then to his wife's death. This short novel, written in simple prose, examines many large issues–love, death, loyalty, fate–but always with equanimity. Krishna teaches himself, and the novel tries to teach us, to be, as it is put by the novel's last words, "grateful to life and death." Set a few years before India gained its independence, the novel begins with Krishna living in a hostel near his university, the same one he had occupied as a student, and going about his routine. He is not very happy as an English teacher.
He soon learns that his wife and daughter are coming to live with him, and with this his life gently changes. The now-united family rents a house, and Krishna finds contentment in their daily affairs. He and his wife Susila raise their daughter Leela from an infant to a boisterous young girl, and they even think of purchasing a new, bigger house, but Susila contracts typhoid and after a long illness dies. All this occupies the first half of the novel, and provides a foundation of normalcy, of everyday lived reality, for the more philosophical second half. After the poignantly precise imagery of the mourners' journey to the cremation grounds, the reader emerges into a vague and dismal retrospect.
Feverless days pass unwanted; the professor endures his classes; the child grows. Then one day a boy accosts Krishna after class: He has a letter to him from his wife. A local man, this boy's father, has accidentally found a contact with the afterlife and has received a message specifically for some man named Krishna. So Krishna begins anew, making regular visits to this medium, conversing with his wife in eloquent detail. Although the possibility of fraud is left open until the end, when Krishna has a vision of Susila, his life and spirits improve; this second half of the novel is thematically richer, investigating just what is necessary for happiness. There is also a schoolmaster, a somewhat ineffective character, whose quasi-breakdown occasions Krishna's departure from the university to work with small children. My reaction to the novel, the second half of it at least, was ambivalent.
Death, after all of the grief it causes, proves to be nothing more than a new address for Susila, and her life with Krishna continues without too much change. On the one hand, I can imagine that this is my Western rationalistic bias, that by showing that their relationship endures Narayan is making a legitimate point, something to the effect that death is a change, not an end. On the other hand, it still smacks of escapism; I doubt dead wives return to see their husbands any more often in India than they do in America. What irks me is not the presence of a supernatural element, but that the novel is presented realistically; it limns a simple, unromantic world and sets the death of a spouse in the midst of it, as the central issue.
The convenient vision that ends the novel strikes me as an evasion. That is not to say the novel is simplistic. Indeed, I hesitate to point out that fault, because I was kept in moral suspense till the end. As I said, it is not clear for a long while whether his otherworldlycommunication is real or simulated, and the novel's themes are urgent and complex, the happy ending notwithstanding. Besides, the ending has some lyrical beauty.
The most interesting part of the novel is doubtless the anxious beginnings of Krishna's spiritual experiment. That the results of this experiment turn out to have empirical foundations (more or less: a certain.