‘Finding out about oneself is the main theme of The English Teacher.’ How far do you agree with this statement?


Initially it seems to be quite clearly the case that “finding out about oneself is the main theme of The English Teacher” as the novel mainly revolves around Krishna’s journey towards enlightenment. At the beginning of the novel we see him living in a hostel, dissatisfied with his life which he compares to “living like a cow.” In addition, he is never truly satisfied with teaching his class and admits that he “[hasn’t] prepared even a page of lecture” despite having four hours of teaching that day. Furthermore he believes that his job as a “fraud” and one in which he will help to create “a nation of morons”. As such he “dawdle[s] over the attendance for quarter of an hour” at the start of a lesson and feels that he’d be “stringing beads together or tearing up bits of paper” for the “same hundred rupees” and “perhaps with an equal fervor”. These quotations clearly show that he is unsatisfied with his life as he has not discovered what he truly wants to do and what is true passion is. He calls himself a poet but being a teacher and “dubbed a lecturer” does not allow him to fully spend his time on this passion. However, as the novel progresses (especially following the death of his wife) we see that Krishna begins to move away from his unsatisfactory lifestyle of teaching at the Albert Mission College to one where he is fulfilled and truly happy which suggests that the novel is primarily concerned with Krishna’s journey of self discovery.


This main theme is further explored through Krishna’s progression through the stages of his life. When he moves out of the hostel to start a suburban life with Susila and his daughter, we can see that his life has slowed down and is no longer running to such a strict schedule. Now, instead of living his life according to the dictates of the bells, he would leave the college at the more vague time of “around four” and when he arrives home, we see that Krishna’s life is structured much more spontaneously than it was before. There are no definite times for things and Krishna and Susila talk until nightfall and put Leela to bed when she falls asleep rather than at a specific bed time. Krishna is noticeably happier in his life with Susila and begins to write poems and is able to spend more time with his daughter. He turns into a caring father, for example when he says “we will buy biscuits for the baby” while out house hunting, and we see him become even more anxious about the welfare of his daughter, especially after Susila’s death, when he states that looking after Leela is his ‘chief occupation in life’ and that he feels ‘a thrill of pride whenever he had to work and look after the child.’


Krishna finds out even more about himself when he meets the Headmaster who is used in the novel to contrast with Krishna. The Headmaster is fulfilled and loves the children he teaches. “They are the real gods on earth” he tells Krishna and he claims that just by looking at them he “can get a glimpse of the purpose of our existence” and that children are really “joy in its purest sense”. Krishna learns through the Headmaster who “spends even [his] Sundays” looking around the school that joy isn’t about the hundred rupees that the officials pay him on the first of every month but it’s about the love of doing the job and the fulfillment to be gotten from this. Krishna begins to realize that when he is at Albert Mission College, his “words [ring] hollow in his ears” and when he comes to the end of a lesson “he close[s] the book with great relief” and thus is clearly not satisfied with his life. With Susila having passed on and Leela moving in to stay with her grandmother, he no longer needs the hundred rupees and therefore resigns from his job as he no longer wants to teach “literary garbage” nor be a part of an education system that produces students who are “efficient clerks but cultural morons.” Clearly, therefore, by the end of the novel, Krishna has found out about himself and about his passion which is wanting to engage his students and learn to think like them instead of just “copying, copying, copying” other people.


However, it is actually more convincing to argue that the main theme of the novel is not simply finding out about oneself but instead learning the message that we should embrace death as an inevitable and necessary part of life. Krishna is able to contact Susila’s spirit after she dies through the help of the medium and she tells him to accept her death and that he shouldn’t “abolish memory” by burning the letters from the fear that it “would torment him”. Susila teaches him that later on he will be filled with “a desire to be surrounded by everything belonging to the departed”. The idea that Krishna has to accept Susila’s death is further explored when he was not able to contact Susila which fills him with misery and makes his days “bleak, dreary and unhappy”. “Oh, God, send me to those flames at once” Krishna says to himself, showing that after being unable to contact his wife, he is extremely miserable and thinks about committing suicide by means of “a finger poked into a snake hole”. At first it is clear that Krishna is unable to accept his separation from Susila however, he eventually realizes that in order to move on and be able to contact Susila’s spirit himself he has to accept that her death is an inevitable part of the cycle of life rather than the end of it. He is ultimately able to do this and the fact that the closing lines of the novel occur when Krishna is able to see Susila for the first time in ‘a moment of rare, immutable joy’ a moment in which he feels ‘grateful to Life and Death,’ suggests that this is actually the climactic realisation that Krishna has been striving towards all along. Read in this light the novel can be seen as clearly autobiographical with Krishna representing Narayan and Susila symbolising Rajam, Narayan’s own wife who also died at a young age. In this way Krishna’s ability to reconcile himself with the loss of his wife may reflect Narayan’s own personal realisation of the necessity of death. It is therefore this strongly personal element that marks this them out as clearly the most significant in the novel.