The English Teacher

by R. K. Narayan

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Last Updated November 7, 2023.

R.K. Narayan's The English Teacher is set in the made-up Indian town of Malgudi, a common setting for his stories, and gives a glimpse into India's education system during the 1940s. The book, written in 1945, also reflects on India's language variety and the stark social and economic differences of its characters, illustrating the contrasting lifestyles from simple teachers to wealthy individuals.

The English Teacher was renamed Grateful to Life and Death in 1953. The renaming is appropriate because Krishna, the main character, learns to make sense of death as the novel progresses. The story draws from Narayan's personal experience of grief when he lost his wife to typhoid in the year 1939.

The English Teacher follows the life of Krishna, a teacher at Albert Mission College. Krishna's parents choose a wife for him, Susila, and eventually, she and their daughter, Leela, live with him. Initially, Krishna is hesitant to leave his bachelor-like existence but soon grows to love his new family life. 

While looking for a new family home, Susila comes down with Typhoid fever. She is bedridden for weeks on end. Krishna has genuinely grown to love his wife, even though when they met, he thought her too traditional and submissive. Even though he remains optimistic through her illness, it ultimately takes her life. Much of the novel focuses on how Krishna copes with this loss.

Susila's passing leads Krishna onto a grief-filled and spiritual journey of self-discovery. Krishna confronts the discontent with his job as a teacher, questioning the relevance of teaching English literature in India. He criticizes the educational system for disconnecting people from their culture and mindlessly following another, declaring it a form of intellectual subservience. This clash of cultures is a common thread in Narayan's stories and speaks to Narayan's broader discussion of English colonialism and his patriotic spirit as an Indian writer.

The story takes a mystical turn when a stranger reaches out to Krishna, letting him know they have been in contact with Susila after her death. Having access to the spirit world gives Krishna hope, something he lost after Susila's death. A series of supernatural and mystical events happen to him, leading him to believe that he can regularly communicate with Susila in the spirit world via this medium. This communication brings him comfort. 

Krishna eventually learns to talk to Susila without the help of the medium, leading him to quit his detested teaching position and become a teacher at an experimental school operated by a spiritual leader. Readers are left feeling that he is the happiest in this moment of his life. 

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