In ‘the English Teacher’ the profound writer R.K. Narayan gently probes the reader trying, in earnest, to “revolutionize” ideas on education. He challenges them by questioning what education truly means and the purposed of it. While it is true that in the novel, education poses a threat to Krishna’s journey for growth, it is also only through education that he attains his goal. However there are two systems of education presented in the novel: the British system and the “Leave Alone” System. In his journey for growth Krishna must renounce one and come to respect the other.
The novel opens with Krishna’s confession that he feels a “vague” sort of “self disaffection”, a constant sense that “something was missing.” He says that he knows he is not doing his life’s work as a teacher for the British Albert Mission College. Krishna, once a pupil at the very school, seems to be full of “inertia”. He knows that he is unhappy and yet cannot change it. Very Western in his ideals, Krishna’s main source of satisfaction from his job is his 100 rupee salary. He did not do the job “out of love for the boys” or out of love for Shakespeare but “only out of a love for myself.” Later in the novel he cynically criticizes the schoolmaster saying “who looks for contentment in their work.” Krishna’s materialistic way of life has stifled his ability to grow.
Narayan fuels this perspective early on as he presents us with the story of the “jasmine plant” which Krishna took care of as a pupil. The plant needed help to grow and so Krishna constructed a bamboo stile to help it along. The plant seems almost reflective of Krishna who needs the bamboo of the Leave Alone System to activate his stagnant life.
The problems with the British System of Education are clearly outlined in the novel. It is a one-sided sloppy education that Krishna accuses of turning the Indians into “a nation of morons” fed on the “dead mutton of literary analysis.” At the school Krishna sees his role as a teacher as akin to a “lion tamer’s touch.” He “browbeats admonished and cajoles” he boys into action. As an English teacher Krishna teaches them Shakespeare, Milton and Carlyle- the great British writers. However it is an isolated education, one that the boys could not relate to. In one memorable passage Krishna laughs at a boy who writes a whole essay on a poem he does not understand. There is nothing of the Indian culture in this education and proper flawless English is expected of them at all times.
It is the isolation that is the tragic flaw of the British System for as seen with Krishna it removed the student from his community and his people. Indeed for Krishna to find inner peace he must first reconnect with himself as a Hindu man. In this regard his mother and wife Susila become his teachers who educate him on his traditional duties as father and husband. Here Narayan shows his reader that education must be wholesome and perhaps unconventional for growth to be sustained.
The other system of education in the novel is the Leave Alone System which the schoolmaster of Leela’s nursing school has developed. His unconventional methods of teaching are quite effective. The passage in which Krishna first sees the inside of the school is filled with descriptions of gold and glittering objects, interesting pictures and arts and crafts items. Even the children are colourful as they run around in their “regalia.” The atmosphere is light and fun and the children feel at home with the schoolmaster who they are free to speak openly with. While Narayan does not blatantly contrast the two systems it is clear that he invites the readers to do so for they are in direct contrast to one another. The strict teacher-student relations of Krishna’s college are lost in this carefree world of the child at play. Furthermore the schoolmaster teaches through stories and games; enticing the children to listen and inviting them to question and give their own perspectives on the matter.
Whereas in all of the scenes of Krishna’s college there is never any kind of class discussion or interaction between him and the boys about the text in question. At the nursery the children learn respect for the beauty of nature through the cultivation of a garden. In the novel Krishna’s education must encompass this respect for nature and its soothing elements for as he rightly acknowledges “it is the highest form of peace that we can comprehend.”However while Narayan invites this comparison of the two systems and accuses the British system of hindering Krishna’s growth, the schoolmaster is also presented as a flawed character who must embark on his own journey.
Narayan presents Krishna and the schoolmaster’s philosophies openly for the readers’ perusal. After Susila’s death Krishna goes through a period of depression where he views death as the ultimate end. “The awful irresponsiveness of death overwhelmed me,” he reflects in one lonely passage. He mourns Susila bitterly and cannot view death as traditionally seen by Hinduism as a release. Similarly, the schoolmaster’s take on death is equally as bleak. An astrologer foretells the death of the schoolmaster, who as a way of dealing with this harsh reality, comes to view death as “a full stop.” The schoolmaster does not seem to believe in the immortality of the soul or of an afterlife as he wishes to be one with the elements of air and water in death.
These two misguided views are used to show that neither of the systems of education is infallible. Narayan rejects the idea that one of these systems is superior to the other. For just as the British system had clouded Krishna’s view of life, so had the leave Alone system prevented the schoolmaster from true spiritual growth. Both must rise above their conventional ideas of what education is in order to achieve balance and peace in their life. Krishna must learn to communicate with Susila and change his perspective on death while the schoolmaster must ultimately reject the prophecy of the astrologer as truth.
Thus the typically subtle and cryptic Narayan seems to indeed revolutionize the idea of education. For as Krishna must eventually accept, true education and development cannot be taught or learnt but must be experienced. Krishna must educate himself by experiencing the addictive peace of the murmuring casuarina; by opening his senses to nature and the harmony it provides. He must experience love and family life, change and death for him to experience “a rare moment of immutable joy.” Thus it is not education that hinders one’s growth but rather one’s approach towards gaining the education. Neither British nor the Leave Alone System could truly bring Krishna the peace he so desperately sought but rather it was the education he acquired through his experience that made him “thankful for Life and Death.”
The English Teacher by R.K. NarayanFirst Published in Great Britain by Eyre and Spottiswoode 1945