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


Finding out about oneself is a recurring theme in Narayan's 'The English Teacher'. Written in 1945, Narayan successfully expresses the struggle for Indian independence from the British throughout the text. By introducing a simple discussion of spelling ‘honours without the u’ in the initial chapter, Narayan artfully reveals the strength of Britain’s influence over India, a strength exemplified by Gajapathy’s comment that “American spelling is foolish buffoonery”  and accentuated by Brown’s outrage at the dropped ‘u.’ Additionally, since Indian independence was only established in 1947, one of Narayan’s main themes is to focus on the aspect of liberation and individuality. This theme is further conveyed through “I should cease to live like a cow”, where Krishna’s mundane routine implies a sense of order and repetition. This orderly routine reflects the influence of the British, contrasting with the chaos and freedom of India. This contrast again accentuates the importance of identity and uniqueness and implies that Krishna, perhaps like India as it begins to shake off the colonial rule of the British, needs to find out more about himself.


Subsequently, the theme of finding out about oneself is also communicated through Krishna’s role as a poet or a teacher. Evidently, Krishna is depicted as a character that is eager and passionate about poetry. Krishna’s love for poetry is clearly suggested by statements such as “I shall be able to write a hundred lines of poetry”, where his apparent passion for the subject caused him to be “five minutes late to class”. Narayan makes good use of this interest in poetry by contrasting it with Krishna’s attitude to teaching throughout the first half of the novel. “I could dawdle over the attendance” clearly portrays Krishna’s dread of teaching and this contrast between what he is doing and what he wants to be doing helps to establish Krishna at the start of the novel as a character who needs to find out more about himself.


However, although the idea of finding out about oneself and engaging in a journey of self-discovery is important, there are many other themes of equal importance that are also explored in ‘The English Teacher.’ For example, by introducing Krishna’s bath in the river in the first chapter Narayan indicates structurally to the readers that spirituality and religion are going to be one of the main themes of the novel as the river and bathing could be read as a symbol that suggests purification and the washing away of sins. Although he has not sinned, Narayan creates the impression that the water cleanses Krishna of his old influences and that his bathing is the start of a journey towards “a new lease of [more spiritual] life.”


The theme of the importance of spirituality and religion is further accentuated through Susila’s explicitly religious behaviour where “she seemed to have a deep secret life”. Religion often plays a key role in the Indian society, where it is interwoven with life and death which are often viewed as no more than ‘two sides of the same coin.’ Consequently, this theme of spirituality and religion is also illustrated in before and after of Susila’s death. From “We will go in, and see the god”, it is evident that only through Susila, does Krishna manage to be exposed to religion. Through his unconditional love for her as well as wanting to “yield completely to her wishes”, Krishna encounters the significance of religion.  Additionally, Krishna’s connection with spirituality and religion continues even after Susila’s death. Notified by a medium that his deceased wife was trying to communicate with him eventually led to his determination to develop and attain for a keener sense of spirituality which would enable him to commune with her directly. The line “I shall continue my attempts” suggests this determination while at the same time emphasising Krishna’s love for Susila.


Aside from spirituality and religion, the exploration of traditional Indian gender roles and the social hierarchy in place at the time of writing are an equally important theme. This can be seen in the way that Susila plays the role generally expected of women at the time which consists in “stocking the store-room and kitchen”, while Krishna, the man, focuses on his role as the breadwinner of the house. The importance of social hierarchy in India is also evident. Based on wealth, status and occupation, the caste system of Indian categorises everyone into different ranks of the social pyramid. An example of how the caste system permeates all of Indian society can be seen in the impressed old man Krishna meets while hunting for a house in Chapter One. The man’s claim that “I revere college teachers” reveals the importance of status and occupation in India at the time and reinforces a reading of ‘The English Teacher’ as a comment on the values of traditional India.


Narayan also explores the contrast between order and chaos as a principal theme of the novel. Krishna’s unpredictable alarm clock could be seen as representing India with its vibrant noise and spontaneity while Krishna’s use of “Taine every time” to silence the alarm clock could symbolise the triumph of order and organisation (as suggested by the British book) over chaos and disorder. This pair of symbols in turn suggests the clash between the British way of life with the Indian culture that was being played out in India at the time of writing. Distinguished as vividly chaotic with a lively culture, India is portrayed as a nation of freedom and Narayan celebrates this in his novel.


Ultimately, teaching and learning is also a significant theme in the novel. This is apparent from the very beginning in the title ‘The English Teacher’. The irony of the novel, however, is that although Krishna is the teacher he is also the one most in need of education and it is only through his contact with the headmaster and his newfound appreciation of the richer and more insightful vision of children that he finally becomes “qualified [to] enter their life.” Narayan’s use of ‘qualified’ suggests the superiority of the children and reveals that one of the things that Krishna needs to learn is how to ‘unblinker’ himself so that he can see the world as freely as someone like Leela.


Throughout the novel, finding out about oneself is clearly a significant theme. However, Narayan also explores other themes of similar importance such as spirituality, the contrast between the British and Indian cultures or the social rules of traditional Indian life. Ultimately, no one theme is more important than any of the others and it is only by paying attention the various lessons suggested by all of these ideas that Krishna eventually learns to become a better father and a better person.