The English Teacher by RK Narayan reminds me of Erich Segal’s Love Story and the Bobby Goldsboro classic, Honey. One may even be reminded of David Copperfield and Dora. Narayan has been compared to Charles Dickens. But the relationship between the couple at the centre of this story is more profoundly moving.
I have not come across a more romantic English novel by an Indian author.
Set in Narayan's fictional town of Malgudi, the plot is simple. A man teaching English in a college gets married, has a daughter and a few years later his wife dies of typhoid. The rest of the story, told by the man himself, is about his raising his daughter and holding on to his wife’s memories.
What makes it remarkable is the love that pours out of every page.
The man describes the beauty of his wife and the happiness they had known with an ardour and a lack of inhibition that's extraordinary for a book by an Indian author published in 1945.
Narayan's own story
It's said to be Narayan's own story: his wife died of typhoid, leaving behind a little daughter, a few years after their marriage.
Indeed, Narayan dedicated the book to his wife, Rajam.
Narayan captures the ardour of the young couple. Krishna, the English teacher, virtually worships his wife, Susila, who is beautiful, charming, a perfect homemaker, and enjoys the attention of the man she loves. Outwardly though she defers to him, she has him completely under her thumb.
When he is sitting at his table, trying to write a poem, she comes up and says: “Let me see if you can write about me.”
She is simply adorable.
Here they are out on a walk. Krishna, the narrator, writes:
“I was highly elated. The fresh sun, morning light, the breeze, and my wife’s presence, who looked so lovely – even an unearthly loveliness – her tall form, dusky complexion, and the small diamond ear-rings – Jasmine, Jasmine…”I will call you Jasmine, hereafter,” I said. “I’ve long waited to tell you that…”
“Remember, we are in a public road, and don’t start any of your pranks here,” she warned, throwing at me a laughing glance. Her eyes always laughed – there was a perpetual smile in her eyes.”
The story loses its sparkle after her death. Not even the playfulness of her little daughter can sustain the charm of the earlier chapters.
The story takes a spiritual turn.
By chance, Krishna meets a man who helps him communicate with his wife through seances. These scenes may seem a little awkward after the youthful romance of the earlier chapters.
But the ending is pure romance.
Not content with just communicating with his wife, Krishna wants to see her. He gets his wish. It happens one night when he returns home with a garland after a farewell party in his honour at the college from which he has just resigned. This is how it ends.
I softly called, ‘Susila! Susila, my wife…’ with all my being. It sounded as if it were a hypnotic melody. ‘My wife… my wife, my wife..’ My mind trembled with this rhythm, I forgot myself and my own existence. I fell into a drowse, whispering, ‘My wife, wife,’ How long? How could I say? When I opened my eyes again she was sitting on my bed with an extraordinary smile in her eyes.
‘Susila! Susila!’ I cried. ‘You here!’ ‘Yes, I’m here, have always been here.’ I sat up leaning on my pillow. ‘Why do you disturb yourself?’ she asked.
‘I am making a place for you,’ I said, edging away a little. I looked her up and down and said: ‘How well you look!’ Her complexion had a golden glow, her eyes sparkled with a new light, her saree shimmered with blue interwoven with ‘light’ as she had termed it. ‘How beautiful!’ I said looking at it. ‘Yes, I always wear this when I come to you. I know you like it very much,’ she said. I gazed on her face. There was an overwhelming fragrance of jasmine surrounding her. ‘Still jasmine-scented!’ I commented.
‘Oh wait,’ I said and got up. I picked up the garland from the nail and returned to bed. I held it up to her. ‘For you as ever. I somehow feared you wouldn’t take it…’ She received it with a smile, cut off a piece of it and stuck it in a curve on the back of her head. She turned her head and asked: ‘Is this all right?’
‘Wonderful,’ I said, smelling it.
A cock crew. The first purple of the dawn came through our window, and faintly touched the walls of our room. ‘Dawn!’ she whispered and rose to her feet.
We stood at the window, gazing on a slender, red streak over the eastern rim of the earth. A cool breeze lapped our faces. The boundaries of our personalities suddenly dissolved. It was a moment of rare, immutable joy – a moment for which one feels grateful to Life and Death.