Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, September 26, 2011

R.K. Narayan : The English Teacher

“Oh wait,” I said and got up. I picked up the garland from
the nail and returned to bed. I held it 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.

And so ends one of my favorite books, which turns out to have been a ghost story, very much in the Chinese genre, featuring a poor, lonely scholar and a playful, beautiful young woman.

Except that the woman is not a fox spirit, but the man's wife whom we have spent many agonizing chapters watch die from cholera that she picked up in roadside outhouse.

Which is why, unlike the previous two volumes in Narayan's autobiographical trilogy, I have no intention of re-reading this one, even though it's my favorite.

I just can't return to the bedside and watch her die slowly all over again.

As in "Bachelor of Arts", the primary drama is internal. The author's mind is a runaway horse - will he ever tame it ?

This novel is so saturated by personal disaster and then recovery -- it's title didn't make any sense to me until the last two pages. What did being an 'English Teacher" have to do with this family drama? (and note --- as in the previous two books, the family is extremely supportive)

But happily, as it turned out -- yes, it was about being an English teacher -- i.e. the abuse of English literature by an educational system whose purpose is to qualify clerks to work for the railroad (or any other bureaucracy). It's an annoyance, rather than an enlightening experience for everyone involved - and so becomes a hindrance to inner development, which the author finally sloughs off as he joins his eccentric friend in running what we might call a "free school"


The ghost story part is especially fascinating because it seems like more than just a literary device. Great care is taken to convince us, as well as the protagonist, that yes, the spirit of his dead wife really is communicating to him through a kind of seance conducted by an amateur medium at a remote, lonely pond not far from a deserted shrine -- all of which is presumably more commonly found in southern India than it is in Illinois.

We might question whether the author ever actually experienced a ghost, medium, and seance - but, without a doubt, he badly needed it to happen. So I don't think this was written to entertain an audience so much as to comfort himself.