Susila: Character Analysis - The English Teacher

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      Susila is the major woman character in the novel, The English Teacher, while Krishnan's mother, the old cook, Susila's mother, Krishnan's sister-in-law, a village woman and the Headmaster's wife are minor characters. Susila is the wife of Krishnan who teaches English literature in Albert Mission College in Malgudi. Her influence pervades all the major events of the novel both while she is alive and dead after her sudden, unexpected illness. She is with Krishnan in all the experiences that he undergoes in the course of the narrative. She is depicted in various roles of a considerate, dutiful, conscientious and charming wife, a loving mother, a reverential daughter-in-law and a darling daughter of her parents. She is amiable by temperament. She is an ideal woman who carries out successfully the different proverbial roles of a Hindu woman in a middle-class family. She annoys none and radiates an aura of joy, peace and cordiality around her. Susila possesses great physical charms. She is tall, slim and of dusky complexion. She looks bewitching dressed in indigo-coloured saree. Krishnan is struck with her attractive physical beauty when he meets her at the railway station on her arrival from her father's home. He says, "I gazed on my wife, fresh and beautiful, her hair shining, her dress without a wrinkle on it, and her face fresh, without a sign of fatigue."

The wife-husband relationship between Susila and Krishnan is emotionally too deep. They enjoy the thrills of romantic love-making in their married life. That is why, Krishnan speaks about her in a romantic idiom.

      The wife-husband relationship between Susila and Krishnan is emotionally too deep. They enjoy the thrills of romantic love-making in their married life. That is why, Krishnan speaks about her in a romantic idiom. He calls her "The Divine Creature", "Jasmine" and in parody of Wordsworth's poem composes a poem on her calling her " "a phantom of delight" that is suddenly seen. One Sunday early in the morning, they set out for Lawley Extension in search of a new house or site as Krishnan's father proposes to buy one for them. Their trip is like going on a love-making spree. On the way, Krishnan feels highly elated and thrilled by the cool breeze, the fresh sun morning light and above all the presence of his wife whom he describes as one "who looked so lovely even an unearthly loveliness-her tall form, dusky complexion and the small diamond ear rings." He further remarks about her that her eyes always laugh as "there was a perpetual smile in her eyes." Her smiling eyes (a physical form) are expressive of the inner purity, joy and serenity of her soul. He underscores this point while remarking. "The soul laughs through the eyes. It is the body that laughs through lips." Thus, Susila is an intermingling of both physical and spiritual beauties.

      She is educated and has love for books. Before the birth of her daughter, Leela, she keeps absorbed in studies and starts reading ivanhoe. But later on, maternal duties and domestic responsibilities hinder her pursuit of knowledge. She possesses an impressive stock of books in her library such as Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, Palgrave's Golden Treasury, a book of hymns by a Tamil poet, a few select stanzas of Kamban's Kamayana and a leather-bound Bhagwad-Gita in Sanskrit. She can read Tamil classics and texts in Sanskrit without any other's help but in reading English books she needs the help of her husband. She has taste for learning traditional knowledge of Hindu scriptures.

      Susila is modest, undemonstrative and deeply religious. Like a Hindu woman, she believes in the worship of gods as a part of her daily routine. She fixes up in an alcove in a corner of the hall of the house a shrine where she keeps the images of gods and prays before them devoutly. She offers flowers to these images and two small lamps are lit before them every morning. The protagonist describes her standing before the images "with the light in her face, her eyes closed and lips lightly moving." On their way back home from the journey to Lawley Extension, she happens to see a temple. This is Srinivasa temple. She goes there, prays and feels refreshed and rejuvenated even after her horrifying experience in the defiled lavatory of the abandoned house shown to them by Sastri, a logic teacher and a colleague of Krishnan in the college. Her visit to the temple is described in these words:

She received the holy water from the priest and touched her lips and eyes, put a vermilion dot on her forehead and tricked the flower offered to the god in her hair.

      Performance of a religious ritual is to her a source of spiritual energy, peace and joy. This aspect of her personality is evident in Krishnan's comment about her. He says, "She seemed to have a deep secret life."

      She is a queer mixture of the 'mundane' and the 'spiritual'. As a housewife, she performs her domestic duties par excellence. She is thrifty by habit and has the far-sight to think that savings are necessary for a smooth family life in future. She is aware that they will need money at the time of marriage of their daughter in future and hence an urgency for saving. Her far-sightedness and saving disposition are depicted like this:

With the future so much in mind she planned all our finances. She kept a watch over every rupee as it arrived, and never let it depart lightly, and as far as possible tried to end its career in the savings bank.

      Despite her husband's advice that she should travel to Malgudi from her parents home in second class compartment, she travels in third class because by doing so she will be saving an unnecessary expense.

      Susila has a remarkable expertise in household- management. She is meticulously attentive to household things. She can make a correct estimate about her family's requirements for foodstuff and other provisions for the month. Hence, she prepares a list of provisions which are to be purchased every month. She can brook no alteration in her list. She shows "an autocratic strain in her nature, and unsuspected depths of rage" in such matter. Such an incident takes place once when Krishnan comes back after making monthly purchases of provisions. The shop-keeper gives one measure of the Bengal gram instead of two she has mentioned in the list and to make up the deficiency he adds an equal quantity to jaggery. This infuriates her beyond all limits. She insists upon her husband to change purchasing from the National Provision Stores to the Co-operative Store to which he yields despite his own preference for the first one. She enjoys keeping a well-ordered household. All the provisions are kept properly in different containers and she can judge well in advance for how long a particular commodity will last. The tidiness and orderliness of her house-management is expressed in these words:

She watched these containers as a sort of barometer, the level of their contents indicating the progress of the month. Each had to be at a particular level on a particular date: and on the last date of the month-just enough for another day, when they would be replenished.

      Susila enjoys doing culinary jobs for her husband. She feels satisfied that she has full control over the things in the kitchen. She is able to save wastage in kitchen operations. She feels upset when her mother-in-law sends an old cook to assist her in kitchen work and child-bearing. She expresses her anxiety to her husband as the engagement of the old cook will mean extra expenses by way of salary and possibility of greater wastage in kitchen jobs. Still, she accepts the old cook in deference to her mother-in-law's wishes on a salary of six rupees per month.

      Coupled with her calculating domestic shrewdness is her spiritual depth and emotional potency which inspire her husband, Krishnan, to greater heights of joy and self-fulfilment. She is a source of freshness and an agent of replenishment of physical and spiritual power to him. In the opening of the novel, Krishnan is shown to be a sceptic engaged in "a remorseless self-analysis" and "self-criticism." Despite his achievement as a teacher of English literature in Albert Mission College, he is always pestered by "a sense of something missing" and therefore he resolves, "I should cease to live like a cow-eating, working, talking etc. all done to perfection." His love for his subject and his interest in his students are thinning out. He argues within himself that he does this work because he is paid a hundred rupees per month. He thinks that if he is paid the same one hundred rupees for "stringing beads together or tearing up paper bits everyday for a few hours, I would perhaps be doing it with equal fervour." He further confesses that he is teaching English literature to students not "out of love for them or for Shakespeare but only out of love for myself." The life of formal relationships in the college hostel has sapped up his emotional capabilities and creative urges.

      The opportunity to start his home life with his wife and child offers him a new opening to the world of emotional human ties. He overcomes his initial hesitation for a life outside the hostel where he will have to shoulder, till now unknown, responsibilities of looking after his wife and his seven-month-old child. He succeeds in getting a suitable house in Sarayu street. Arrival of Susila and the child into Krishnan's life saves him from the dissipation and benumbing dullness of formal relationships of the college hostel life. The strong emotional ties established with his wife revive his creative energies. His disenchantment with his hostel life is clear in his query "numerous discussions going on night and day among my colleagues, leading God knew where." He interrogates with himself, "What pleasure or profit did they get by it?" He avoids a discussion with his colleague, Rangappa, on "Is a hundred percent materialism compatible with our best traditions?" on the pretext that he will answer him later on after due consideration of the subject.

      The married domestic life of Susila and Krishnan is replete with idyllic romance, joy and profound emotional strength. It serves as a redemption for the protagonist. The development of this association leads to the trust and the spirit of companionship that each comes to acquire for the other. It is a fusion of two individualities into one. Small incidents of daily recurrence in routine chores of life go a long way in cementing such undying relationship. The wife and the husband are left to each other after the departure of Krishnan's mother for the village. Susila will wait for him at the house gate when he is to return from the college after his day's work. She does it undemonstratively. That is why, she makes some other excuse when Krishnan asks her if she is waiting there for him. After washing and taking coffee, both of them sit in the verandah. She sits in the doorway leaning against the door and watching the street. She listens eagerly to all that Krishnan tells her about his work, day's incidents and persons in the college. She tells him about neighbours, their problems, joys and sorrows. They continue talking till it is dark. The child does not interrupt them as she is busy playing with her dolls in the wooden box. Their mutual understanding matures to the extent that Susila likes or dislikes persons that her husband does. This relationship gets further thickened while doing domestic chores like purchasing provisions or cooking delicacies for her husband.

      As a passing phase of their married life, their domestic harmony is temporarily threatened by an occasional quarrel. Susila acts with restraint when Krishnan feels highly upset to find that his wife has disposed of the old dilapidated clock which he has preserved since his student days in the college. She sells away some old useless papers lying on his table. She does this in order to tidy up his table which is always littered with books and papers lying disorderly. Krishnan goes out of his house in ill-temper and and reaches the college common room where he keeps himself busy with doing correction work in composition exercise-books of the students till nine o'clock in the night. He comes back home, avoids his wife and retires to bed after taking rice and buttermilk. For the next forty eight hours, he does not speak to her. When Susila is sobbing in her bed, he feels repentant in his heart for having hurt her feelings. But the sense of pride does not allow him to relent demonstratively. Next evening after returning from the college, he asks her to accompany him to the cinema to which she readily agrees. They, thus, are reunited and feel sorry for what has happened. Such quarrels are like a storm in tea-cup.

      Their married life replete with love-making, courtship and a romantic lover's hyperbolic flight is in keeping with the traditional milieu of the Indian society where courtship or wooing is considered as a taboo before marriage. Love-making as a prelude to marriage is a Western thought and is not unequivocally absorbed in the Indian tradition. In such a society, love-making can take place only in a married life. Krishnan indulges in romantic pranks with his wife off and on. On their way to Lawley Extension in search of a new house, they visit Bombay Anand Bhavan restaurant and enjoy eating together there. They go to the river side for a walk. Susila feels high-spirited and enjoys dipping her feet into refreshing river water and walking on the sandy bank.Their journey to the Lawley Extension in search of a new house is like going on a love-making picnic. The dramatic anti-climax of this romantic trip occurs when Krishnan finds Susila shut up in a defiled lavatory of the abandoned house they are surveying for the purpose of purchasing it. She is highly upset because of the filth and flies inside the lavatory. She falls ill.

      The mishap of Susila's protracted sickness and the ungrudging service rendered to her by Krishnan illustrate the strength and depth of relationship between wife and the husband. Her illness provides an opportunity to Krishnan when he comes closest to her since he serves her as a nurse. After her return home, she is not able to eat anything despite Krishnan's insistence. She reaches. Her fever continues for days together. On the old cook's persistent suggestion, he goes to Dr. Shankar for getting some medicine for his wife. The doctor misdiagnoses her as a patient of malaria and gives pills and mixture likewise. But fever does not come down. After blood-test, it is found to be typhoid. Krishnan sets up a sick-room with his wife on a cot, a table with a glucose tin, barley water, a basin of water with drops of Lintel in it and a chair for him to sit beside her cot. He keeps attendance on his ailing wife till nine o'clock in the night when his father-in-law and mother-in-law will take over from him.The child is kept away from mother for fear of catching infection. He is so much absorbed in his attention to his ailing wife that he loses "touch with the calendar" and "count of days". Moreover, this constant contact gives him satisfaction as he says, "It kept me so close to my wife." He further states, "This sickness seemed to bind us together more closely than ever." Ultimately, she dies in a state of delirium. The cremation ceremonies with all its paraphernalia of a priest, a bier, pall-bearers, a pyre, cow-dung cakes and the act of putting it to fire influence Krishnan's mind without agitation. He ruminates soberly, "There are no more surprises and shocks in life. For me the greatest reality is this and nothing else." The sudden, untimely death of his wife, Susila, leaves Krishnan a despondent man. Still, the child proves a source of some relief to him as she resembles her mother a lot. He resolves not to go in for a second marriage and takes upon himself the arduous task of bringing up the child on his own.

      The phenomenon of Susila-Krishnan's undying relationship is reinforced through the psychic experiments described in the second part of the nove! which enables the protagonist to establish 'spiritual communion' with the spirit of his dead wife. She meets her physical death but her spirit survives. Initially, these psychic contacts take place through the medium of a gentleman farmer in the village nearby. The setting of a deserted temple near a pond, casuarina bushes, calm and loneliness of the place provides a proper background for such contacts. The spirit, of his dead wife inspires and guides him to conduct these spiritual experiments on his own. After repeated failures in the beginning, he succeeds in the end. On the night after his resignation from the college, he is in a mood of unusual joy and elation. He has been presented the garlands which he brings home. The smell of the flowers makes him remember his wife with ardour. With a deep feeling for his wife, he falls into sleep. He feels her presence near him on his bed and thereafter her departure at dawn. Such a moment of sudden illumination is depicted in the novel in these words:

"We stood at the window, gazing on the 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."

      The moments of "a profound, unmitigated loneliness" as the only truth of life seize him off and on, especially, after his esoteric contacts with his wife.

      These spiritual experiences of the protagonist come close to the Hindu philosophical belief in the immortality of soul. They may defy the normal scientific rational thinking, but they have been a reality in the life of the author. He conducted them under the guidance of a mystic, Raghunatha Rao. He writes about them in his memoir, My days. He states:

"The toll that typhoid took and all the desolation that followed, with a child to look after, and the psychic adjustments, are based upon my own experience.

      He further states the principle of survival of one's personality in some form even after physical death. Such a belief, he says, succeeded in re-establishing his mental equanimity and making him survive the death of his wife. He says:

"Perhaps death may not be the end to everything as it seems personality may have other structures and other planes of existence, and the decay of the physical body through disease or senility may mean nothing more than a change of vehicle. This outlook may be unscientific, but it helped me survive the death of my wife - I could somehow manage to live after death and, eventually, also attain a philosophical understanding."

      The protagonist like the author is able to achieve mental equilibrium, emotional stability and moral strength from these spiritual contacts. He rededicates himself to the fulfilment of his cherished ambition of writing poetry. He takes to a new way of life. He resigns his job in Albert Mission College and takes upon himself the responsibility of running the Headmaster's children school to watch children's mind unfold. Thus, Susila whether alive or dead, continues in close proximity with her husband. Their wife-husband relationship survives even the eventuality of death. Some critics do not react favourably to the nebulous, unreal, spiritual experiences in the second part of the novel which are markedly different from the realistic, scintillating and charming experiences of wife-husband relationship depicted in the first part.

      As a daughter-in-law, Susila is respectful and accommodating, She gets uninhibited admiration from her mother-in-law. In matters of hospitality and household management, she obeys her mother-in-law to the extent that she uses a tumbler given to her by the latter as a measure for domestic provisions. Despite her personal unwillingness, she agrees to employ the old cook sent by her mother-in-law in deference to her being the elderly lady of the house. Of course, this employment will mean more expenses because of her salary and the likelihood of more wastage in kitchen jobs. She differs from the elder daughter-in-law of the house who is often querulous with her mother-in-law. The latter lives at Hyderabad with her family and maintains no connection with her in-laws.

      As a mother, Susila is full of love, affection and tender consideration for the child, Leela. She is very deft at handling the baby in a crowded place like the railway compartment. Krishnan is unduly panicky about the safety of the baby while Susila is alighting from the train at Malgudi railway station. He cautions her that the head of the child may not collide against the gate. Susila does not have such needless fears. She handles the baby harmlessly without any sign of agitation. She is so much mindful of the welfare of the child that she insists on savings which will be needed when the child grows up and is to be married. The same sense of concern for the child is manifested when they set out for Lawley Extension in search of a new house leaving Leela to the care of the servant as the old cook has already gone out of the house the previous evening. She gives necessary instructions to the servant as to how he has to take care of the child. On the way, she feels uneasy fearing that the old cook may not come back in time which will mean inconvenience to their daughter. Krishnan has to reassure her on this score. During her illness, she is bothered about the convenience and upkeep of their child. She is weak and cannot move. When she catches sight of the child, she calls her and asks for a comb to do her hair, water to wash her mud-stained mouth and puts on her new clothes. She comes to know that she sitters from typhoid and not from malaria. The first thought that comes to her mind is that she tells her husband to keep away Leela from her lest she should catch infection. Even in her delirious condition in sick-bed, she keeps on muttering her old memories about the child in her infancy and warns that the infant (Leela) may not fall down and get hurt. Her concern for the daughter is also expressed through Krishnan's spiritual communion with her spirit after the latter's death. She tells him that she is always by the side of the child and the latter has a feeling of her presence but she does not expose it to Krishnan. After her death, she has lost physical association with the child but her spirit continues to shower benedictions on her. She gives instructions to her husband about the upkeep of Leela. Thus, the relationship depicted between the mother and the child lasts beyond the inevitable exigency of death. It is undying spiritual one like the wife-husband association between Susila and Krishnan.

      Susila is a darling daughter of her parents. She gets all the attention and good wishes from them. When she falls sick, her parents come and live with her throughout her illness. They keep attendance on her sick-bed. They leave their comforts and suffer so that their daughter may get well. Her mother credulous believes that her illness may be due to the influence of some malignant spirit in the defiled lavatory of the abandoned house. She calls an exorcist to cure her with his incantations and talisman. Her father, even at the age of sixty, takes pains for her. He takes Leela out to amuse her with peppermints and toys. They propose to Krishnan to take Leela with them for bringing her up after the death of Susila but the latter does not agree to part with her.

      A salient feature of Susila's character is her capability to establish strong human ties with persons who come in contact with her in different family positions. This is possible because of her sympathetic, amiable and tolerant disposition. She is free from rancour for anyone. Like a light-house, she sends out rays of lights of joy, friendliness, humanity and love. Susila is distinct from Savitri in The Dark Room as Savitri has been portrayed by Narayan to project a definite philosophy about the orthodox milieu of the Indian society where woman, as opposed to man who is her constant oppressor, is delineated in the role of a wife who can be an ideal victim of such social circumstances. Hence, Savitri undergoes a series of harassment, mental torture, humiliation and physical suffering at the hands of an autocratic, self-conceited, domineering and dictatorial husband, Ramani. Susila, on the other hand, does not confront such dilemma. Rather she is a cynosure of her husband, Krishnan's eye. She enjoys unstinted love, consideration and sympathy from her culturally refined, sensitive, philosophical, sincere and emotionally sound husband. The wife-husband relationship between Susila and Krishnan is built upon mutual understanding, tender feelings and deep-rooted sense of attachment with each other. The intensity of their association is so strong and unchangeable that it out-lives the physical death of Susila through the medium of Krishnan's spiritual communion with her spirit. All such characteristics are missing in Savitri-Ramani marital relationship.

      Susila's portrayal as a character is a distinct improvement upon the characterisation of Malathi in The Bachelor of Arts. Susila is a concretised woman character who possesses an individuality of her own. She lives, acts, participates, enjoys, fumes and fears like a normal human being. She is a living social entity who performs various social roles of a wife, a daughter-in-law, a mother and a daughter. In the case of Malathi, all such conspicuous, concrete features of personality are non-existent. She is shown nowhere in the novel as actively participating, talking or performing. Her presence is through references, allusions and descriptions about her coming filtered through the protagonist, Chandran's eye, physical or mental. She is, in a way, a depersonalised, ethereal character. Moreover, a wide difference lies between Susila Krishnan association and the other one between Malathi and Chandran. No doubt, both Susila and Malathi are recipient of romantic love feelings from their respective male counterpart. But, Chandran's one-sided love-affair with Malathi fails to fructify into a stable matrimonial knot owing to the obstacle put up by a social customary requirement of compatibility of horoscopes of the would-be bride and the bridegroom. This failure leads the protagonist, Chandran, to a mood of despondency, frustration and listlessness in which he goes astray into the illusory world of strange experiences of a Sanyasi's life. Later on, disillusionment with the new way of life makes him resolve to get back to the real world of Malgudi where he settles down as a subscription collector for the Daily Messenger and marries a second girl. On the other hand, Susila-Krishnan marital relationship is positive, a source of moral and spiritual strength and a storehouse of sweet, refreshing memories, which keep the protagonist energetic and meaningfully employed in productive activity. The gloom caused by Susila's unexpected, untimely demise is removed by the inspiration he receives from his 'spiritual communion' with the spirit of his dead wife. Consequently, Krishnan's creative energies are revived. He takes to writing poetry and changes to a new enterprise of running the Headmaster's children's school. Moreover, Susila-Krishnan association has strong autobiographical overtones which Narayan admits explicitly in his memoir, My Days. He states:

"More than any other book, The English Teacher is 'autobiographical in content, very little part of it being fiction. The English Teacher of the novel, Krishna (i.e. Krishnan), is a fictional character in the fictional city of Malgudi, but he goes through the same experience I had gone through, and he calls his wife Susila, and the child Leela instead of Hema."

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