How does Narayan portray the character of Krishna at the start of the novel?

‘The English Teacher’, written by R. K. Narayan, is based in a fictional town in South India; its protagonist, Krishna, is a complex character. He is by profession both English teacher and a poet; the book has been interpreted as a form of catharsis for Narayan, and indeed Krishna’s life seems at times parallel to the author’s; not only do  they share the name ‘Krishna’, but they have been through similar experiences. For example, Krishna’s wife dies at a young age, leaving him to care for their daughter; this happened to Narayan, too. The book is not only about the events in Krishna’s life, but also (and perhaps more importantly) about how they affected and changed him.


Immediately, the first sentence depicts Krishna as man lacking confidence living a lacklustre life. He is ‘pleased with his day’ because there were not ‘too many conflicts and worries … not  to much self criticism.’ The fact that he is made happy by a day that was not really happy but simply not negative, shows he lives a dreary life, or so he feels. He does not seem very self-assured, and he is constantly scrutinising himself: he feels positive because he has not done much that was wrong in his perspective.


That he feels ‘heroic and satisfied’ because he has done ‘almost all the things [he] wanted to’ only highlights this. The hyperbole is almost sarcastic: it makes the reader wonder, is he really feeling so at having not even completed his tasks for the day, but only come close to finishing? He seems to the reader rather confused, and lacking a sense of purpose and determination in life. His uncertainty is emphasised by his consistent use of quantitative words such as ‘almost’ and ‘on the whole’; nothing seems definite to him.


Krishna seems to recognise this apathy, as he goes on to say that he felt he should ‘cease to live like a cow’, this implying that he realises the monotony of his life, its pointlessness in the Grand Scheme of Things. He elaborates on his schedule and his sense of dissatisfaction with the tedium of it. He ‘got up at eight everyday’, to read ‘for the fiftieth time Carlyle and Milton’; he seems to be stuck on the same recurring day. He does not enjoy work; he has to ‘mug up Shakespeare’ prior to lectures. He finds no pleasure in it, he is simply doing his job. His sense of restlessness and his views of his job leave the reader with the feeling that Krishna believes he is above his job; he feels as if he has wasted potential, he is not doing anything that challenges him. Due to this, Krishna comes across as somewhat pompous, and arrogant.


He recounts his day, and tells the reader about a meeting he had with his ‘good chief Brown’, who was shocked because he had found that day a student who spelt ‘honours’ without a ‘u’. Krishna, feeling very wronged by the blame he was receiving for not ‘dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s’ for his students, quite obviously does not respect his ‘good chief’ very much. He does not agree with Brown’s opinion of where the importance of the English language lies; where Brown feels he is ‘preserving’ the culture of Britain and enlightening Indian students by teaching them the ‘correct’ way. He almost seems like a personification of the British rule. Krishna seems to look at English more as a means to communicate, and is not overly concerned about exact spelling. He does not approve of Brown’s obsession with petty details and his pedantry; it is exaggerated, ridiculous to Krishna. Contradicting the previous impression given by Narayan, Krishna now seems to believe the task Brown has set for him is impossible; he is below his job, unable to competently fulfill his duty.


Krishna is of the opinion that there are ‘blacker sins than a dropped vowel.’ He tells the Assistant Professor Gajapathy as much, but Gajapathy disagrees. At this, Krishna says ‘I felt like pricking him so that he might vanish like a bubble and leave no trace behind.’ This is quite surprising for the reader; this vicious impulse seems almost out of character for the languid man of which they had been given the impression.


Krishna continues brooding on this meeting until he decides that it shows him as ‘incapable of controlling his own thoughts’, and that this lack of discipline can be fixed by regulating his habits and exercising. This new goal leaves him feeling more in charge of his own life.


Krishna’s views on his friend Gopal are very interesting. He likes and respects him, and acknowledges that he is ‘sharp as a knife-edge where mathematical manners are concerned’. However, he goes on to say that, Gopal is really quite ‘dumb’ and stupid’ in other matters. His conceit again comes through at this degradation of his friend. It feels to the reader as though Krishna is taking advantage of the fact that Gopal is lost in his world of mathematics to abuse him.


Already there is an underlying theme of the chaotic order in Krishna’s life: he goes through the motions of his day repetitively. However, his mind wanders; and his thought process is erratic. Krishna’s alarm clock, which ‘shrieks’ only sometimes at the correct time, emphasises this theme. The instrument is supposed to bring regularity into Krishna life. However, its unpredictable nature - much like Krishna’s - does this inconsistently, which defies the purpose of its existence at all. That Kishna endures this alarm clock, however, and even seems to be rather fond of it – an affection which becomes more apparent later on in the book suggests that he craves the unpredictability it brings, and treats it like an important part of his life, as a friend or child experiencing the same problem he is. Ironically, the way Krishna gets it to cease its noise is by placing a ‘heavy book such as Taine’s History of English Literature’ on it: by placing order on top of chaos.


Krishna enjoys writing poetry. This again reveals the autobiographical aspect of the book: in the same way that Narayan wrote the book as a form of catharsis, Krishna seems to be writing poetry to purge himself of his emotions. Writing satisfies him, it is something which makes him feel as though he has ‘discharged a duty assigned to [him]’. It gives his life a momentary focus, and fills him with a more genuine sense of achievement than that attained by having had a moderate day.


The protagonist does not live with his family, but contacts them through letters. Krishna states that ‘letters are very important things to [him]’. This shows that he does miss his family, and shows a degree of enthusiasm for their missives that surpasses any pleasure so far experienced by him in the book. This line alone highlights the significance of his family in his life, even though they do not reside with him. The detailed account of his family that follows the mention of the arrival of the letters agrees with this.


It is at this point that we realise Krishna is actually married, and has a child of seven months living in the village with his parents. He seems very detached from his daughter: he refers to her as ‘it’ and ‘the child’, and seems not to know too much about her. The fact that when he last met her he ‘had to pinch its cheeks’ solely ‘for [his) wife’s sake’ depicts him as indifferent to the child, and Krishna’s personality comes through as cold and unemotional.


The fact that he smells his wife’s missive before opening it for the mild jasmine smell that ‘surrounded her and all her possessions’ clearly shows their separation as the result of circumstance, rather than choice. He must feel some affection for her to appreciate subtle scents and hints of her, and is gleaning as much from the letter that can remind him of her as possible. The letter contained ‘a good deal about the child’, and this makes Krishna ‘want to see her at once.’ The reader realises that, despite Krishna’s previous claims of having only a ‘mild affection for it’, and not knowing ‘how to manage these things’, he really does long to see her as well as his wife.


Krishna is both directly and indirectly being told by both his wife and his father that it is now time for him to ‘set up a family’, to find a house for him and his family instead of staying at the university’s bachelor lodgings. Although he does not seem very keen on assuming the responsibility of his family, he does not seem averse to it, and his wife’s letter induces him to feel his ‘plans and determinations were of the utmost importance’. This feeling is certainly a positive change from him feeling as though his life has no point. His enthusiasm grows, and he ‘fell to feverish anxiety over the house’: he mentally lists all the qualities the house must/should possess. The work of settling his family in a place suitable to them fills him with a sense of purpose and importance, feelings that consume him. Perhaps this is, in a way, a manner of delaying thoughts about how he feels about his daughter, and how he will react to her and adjust to life with his family, with the excuse that he is already doing all that he can for their welfare.


Krishna’s personality is conveyed very subtly, manly by deductions made from the way he reacts to various people in his town, and his thoughts on events occurring around him. Very often, the reader is given an impression of him, which is very quickly contradicted by Narayan suddenly displaying an aspect of his character that has not before been seen. The depth to which his character can be explored, I feel, is astounding.