How Does Narayan Portray Krishna at the Start of the Novel?

R.K. Narayan, born on the 10th of October 1906, is considered one of the “best and most widely-read” Indian novelists of the 20th century. His narrative works of fiction have gained so much fame that - to echo Narayan’s ironic views of literature analysis - they have been promoted to the hallowed sect of High-School-English Scrutiny, an honour he shares with literary giants such as Shakespeare and Chaucer. Hence the existence of this essay.

Narayan’s almost autobiographical novel published in 1980, The English Teacher, features a very human protagonist, facing not ‘the end of Middle Earth as we know it’, but mundane, relevant matters such as finances and raising a child. The antagonists in the novel don’t hold the exotica of a ‘Dark Lord’ but instead-take the commonplace form of fellow human beings, such as the-protagonist’s bureaucratic boss, or even the undiscriminating hand of Mother Nature herself. It is therefore no surprise that The English Teacher is most known for its poignancy and surprising depth in its explorations of human existence.

Krishna, the protagonist, however is not merely a relatable character with - aptly enough, considering the title - a career in English education, but also an extremely complex individual with surprising, at times conflicting, reactions to everything life throws at him. The reader’s initial perception of Krishna is of an extremely lacklustre, unenthusiastic individual who finds himself trudging through the humdrum quagmire of life, merely ‘going through the motions’ of human existence. Only a paragraph into the book, Narayan has already established that Krishna was living “like a cow” and that, indeed, the “cow... might feel hurt at the comparison.” References to cattle is something one would not expect a satisfied, self-fulfilled individual to use in relation to himself, and one already wonders just what kind of mundane existence Krishna really lives.


The choice of Krishna’s first words strike the reader as dispassionate and unsatisfied, with his basic day consisting of ‘read(ing) for the fiftieth time Milton...swallowing a meal.. .and browbeating a few hundred boys.’ Initially, it does not seem-like Krishna is a man taken to savouring the moments of life, and his lack of adjectives in describing his routine seem to reflect this.


Krishna furthermore comes across as uncertain and confused, with no sense of focus and decision in the majority of his sentences: he found his day “on the whole” pleasing; he had done “almost all” the things he wanted to do. He even-holds debates with himself on the highly controversial topic, “what was wrong with (him)?”, and this, I believe fully sums up the overall perplexity his mind seems to be in.


The lack of confidence in this venerable English teacher’s life, too, is extremely obvious in the first page of the book alone. The man is pleased by the fact that his day held “not too much self-criticism,” and this ironically makes him feel “heroic and satisfied”. In making sure his day was above negative, Krishna already feels a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment, something that the reader could correctly interpret as a very narrow, clouded paradigm of life. One could echo Krishna’s assertion that his life seems as if it has “a sense of something missing.”


To fully explore how every nuance of Krishna’s actions and thoughts at the novel’s start help Narayan further portray the character, one must take a look at the key themes that run throughout the novel. Firstly, an ancient matriarch in the family of universal themes, the millennia-old debate of ‘order against chaos’ is featured virtually on every page of Narayan’s novel. Everything - “eating, working... speaking, walking” - in Krishna’s life seems extremely structured, with Krishna himself saying that it was all “done to perfection.” And yet, throughout the account of Krishna’s perfect routine, he constantly mentions how he felt a “vague dissatisfaction,” a “self-rebellion” and how in fact “such repose was not in (his) nature.”


The reader-is then informed that Krishna is actually a poet, and this seems extremely paradoxical to the initial impression of Krishna being a man who does not savour the moments of life. Some of Krishna’s very confusion seems to rub off on the reader at this point: were-not poets the individuals in our society who could not even eat without writing about the ecstasy - or otherwise - the taste of the food gave? Then what had affected this poet so much that he spent his time simply “swallow(ing his) meals?”


Narayan’s use of commonplace objects as major symbols in Krishna’s life further explores how the above theme runs through the whole novel. An example would be Krishna’s idiosyncratic alarm clock which seems to be the epitome of chaos itself. Our introduction to it begins by being told that one could ‘sometimes depend’ on it ‘giving the alarm at the set time.’ The use of the word ‘sometimes’ is already paradoxical since the only reason for alarm clocks to exist is to set a routine for us. Therefore, one can easily connote, anything that sets our routine has to be-constant and trustworthy with no surprises whatsoever hidden up its metaphorical sleeves.


And yet, Krishna’s clock is exactly the opposite of this. One wonders how he could set any sort of routine when his routine-setter constantly “butted into a conversation,” “went ringing.. .till exhaustion overcame it” and, most shocking of all, had “no way of stopping it by pressing a button.” In fact, the only thing that could once again restore order to this maddening chaos was Taine’s “History of English Literature”. The irony of the whole image is impressed upon us, and one imagines that, if one’s life was as methodical as Krishna’s, one would have gotten rid of the offending article straightaway. Nevertheless, Krishna once again stubbornly decides to flout the assertions of our imagination with his apparent fondness for the clock, personifying if in all his descriptions of it and even speaking to it like an errant child: “much depends on you,” he said the night he wished to “cultivate new habits”.


This reflects the idea that Krishna is exceedingly dissatisfied with his routine, or even the simple fact that his life is routine and methodical. One wonders if perhaps the alarm clock foreshadows a substantial change in Krishna’s paradigm and character in the future, and whether it indicates how his internal battle of order against chaos would eventually conclude.


A further theme in the novel, that one could argue is a subset of the previous one, is that of “Predictability versus Unpredictability.” Narayan seems content in initially letting Krishna seesaw between the two, with the fulcrum his highly eclectic mix of emotions. Although Krishna, taking “stock of (his) daily life” in the beginning of the book, systematically lists through the events in his highly predictable day, and although he concedes that “one ought … to be thankful and .. content,” his conflicting emotions declare that he was “doing the wrong work”. This, the reader gathers, leads to seemingly random, unpredictable desires to finally do something about it, a litany of “half a dozen … resolves in the past and … lapses.”


Furthermore, one can argue that Krishna’s natural spontaneity and unpredictability are slowly being strangled by excessive thought and analysis. The morning when Krishna’s general air of altruism and contentment overflowed and manifested itself into a poem of “the cold water’s touch on the skin … magic of the morning light … inexplicable joy,” his brain stepped in and brutally slaughtered his muse. He starts to wonder “how this poem would be received in a classroom,” and then one watches as his high spirits disintegrated slowly at the thought of the “experience lost in all (the) handling.” Ironically, the poems selected for analysis are never those made for such - these thoughts rarely enter any poet’s head. One wonders why Krishna is wasting time wondering over these things when he has not even written a line of poetry yet!


Moreover, one notices that Krishna’s friends are more of the logical persuasion than anything else. One meets the philosophy teacher, Rangappa, and “Gopal of the mathematics section”. Though both widely different subjects, no a single one of his friends is a fellow poet or even one who was of the artistic persuasion. This, again, is a paradox to what appears to be Krishna’s inner being.


Nevertheless, Krishna’s view of himself varies, at times significantly, to that, of the reader. He firstly realises he is dissatisfied, which leads to an air of general restlessness. He admits that he constantly has a “sense of something missing,” therefore Krishna’s alacrity in finding a different house, something one would expect would be a significant change of routine and therefore not ‘in Krishna’s ‘ballpark’, is somehow not surprising.


Secondly, Krishna feels that people don’t recognise his full potential. When he endures Mr. Brown’s lectures and argues with Gajapathy’s views, the words ‘irritated and upset’ crop up more than once. He even admits to wanting to “prick (Gajapath) so that he might vanish like a bubble,” an antagonised individual if ever there was one - and yet he refuses to do anything significant about this. Instead, he merely sits (or as it were, walks) and holds nonexistent arguments inside his head. The full irony, however, is that Krishna realises that he goes off on tangents too often, even asserting that this showed “a  weak controlled mind,” and yet sardonically chooses to underline this by brooding over this, too!


The reader comprehends that all this is due to his lack of a purpose in life, which in turn reflects on Krishna’s thoughts. Because he does not consider his work itself of any real satisfaction - in fact dryly stating in one of the most well-loved quotes of the book that, “for this pain the authorities kindly paid me a hundred rupees … and dubbed me a lecturer,” - his thoughts meander and he achieves nothing with his internal debates.


Through his thoughts of himself, the reader gathers that Krishna is an extremely emotional, dryly humorous individual with a sense of wasted self potential. The former could be the reason for his being a poet, and the latter for his roundabout nature However, neither of Krishna’s companions, though widely different, seem to recognise this. When Krishna proposed changing his routine, Rangappa the philosopher, taken aback, asks him, “what has come over you?” and “what’s wrong with the present (habits)?” Gopal, in the meanwhile, merely “stood ready to depart.”


It is as if. Krishna’s regular companions themselves don’t see his inner fire straining to come out. Again, ironically, Krishna recognises this and brands the philosopher “a hopeless man,” and Gopal the mathematician he dismisses as “very dumb and stupid in (matters other than mathematics).” Again, though, Krishna does nothing about this and continues his association with them.


One can, to conclude, take all these contrasting images of Krishna’s character and create a variety of different people. What truly is Krishna? Is he merely an arrogant snob, as some may say? His cutting remarks – albeit in his head - and on occasion, debasing views of his companions seem to underline this. Why should he judge them when he himself is nowhere near perfect? Yet the overall tone of the novel does not seem to suggest this. Instead, it seems more confused and musing, with long paragraphs of pure prose to establish this.


Or perhaps one can accuse Krishna of being a man who finds the complaints of his own voice music to his ears, and discovers a secret pleasure in wallowing in his own misery. Although there are occasional regions of depression throughout the novel, an example being when Krishna grumbles about being “more exhausted and miserable at the end of the day,” this conclusion does not seem to fit the character at all. Again, the tone of the novel is not entirely miserable; in fact it seems light and dryly humorous a lot of the time. There are, moreover, a number of instances where Krishna himself seems “very well satisfied indeed with (his) performance,” not the mark of a chronic complainer.


Finally, one can conclude that-Krishna is a bemused and distracted individual, searching for some meaning in his existence, and yet holding on too tightly to the routine of his monotonous - albeit secure - life, to find it. This is underlined by his seemingly paradoxical ways and thoughts and the overall current of restlessness that runs throughout the first few pages of the novel. One almost has the impression that the whole novel itself is a cathartic process initiated by Narayan, one he wrote in order to purge himself of the emotions that came with the death of his wife. Many of the underlying opinions - that of Chief Brown, uselessly obsessing with the purity of the English language, and Gajapathy, the British sycophant, may reflect Narayan’s views on the British rule in India in general. All of Krishna’s frustration and existential angst may merely-be paving the road to a higher, more self-fulfilled state of being he will reach in the future.