Bring out the thematic importance of the character of the Headmaster in The English Teacher.
According to M.N. Srinivas, R.K. Narayan was “always writing to listen to someone who had a story or an incident to narrate. And he knew many of the people he ran into on his walks”. Narayan’s long time friend M.N. Srinivas sees these walks as “ethnographic forays” as they provided him “with material for his stories or column. He also Strange enjoyed his encounters with idiosyncratic acquaintances and friends…” For, Narayan’s ‘serious comedies’, as William Walsh calls them, depict the revelation of his most intimate experiences through the re-composition of his characters who live their day to day life in a strange way. The character of Headmaster in The English Teacher can be cited as a good case in point.
The Headmaster in The English Teacher has a distinct identity as an eccentric. He, as a headmaster, seems to have a double in the real life as Narayan talks about one of his memoirs, My Days: “I never knew what his name was: one never thinks that a headmaster could have any other name”. He is introduced as Leela’s teacher happily – engrossed in his experimental school for children, called meaningfully, Leave Them Alone. Despite his own children, the Headmaster was ironically destined to shape and look after other people, thanks mainly to his termagant wife. He exemplifies a life of ironies and paradoxes. He serves the astrologer’s predicted death and despite the pleadings and entreaties of the members of his family, resolves to renounce the household for good and devote to Leave Them Alone.
As an eccentric character, the Headmaster rings authentic while talking to Krishnan tin his house. When his children tell him that their mother was not at home, the father says, “Excellent”. Krishnan was also surprised to see him reading a critical book on Beaumont and Fletcher. “The dullest work”, the Headmaster reveals the mystery by saying: “If I open a book like this and allow my eyes to rest on the lines, it helps me to do a lot of private thinking. I read very few books for any other purpose”. An eccentric that he is, the Headmaster tells Krishnan that he never uses a towel at the bathroom because he enjoys “wholesale drying”.
The Headmaster believes in primeval simplicity. He has done away in his school with tables and chairs. He has arranged a seat in the corner of a room for visitors. Instead of the costly material used, he has thatched roofs. Being a citizen of a poor country, he knows it very well that he can get on with life without luxuries. He condemns those persons who looked to the government for aid and sell their souls. The Headmaster concedes the value of games and sports but he does not want any fuss to be made about them: “The main business of an educational institution is to shape the mind and character and of course, games have their value: why worships sports and the eleven stalwart idiots who bring in a shield or a cup.” An idealist that he appears to be, the Headmaster to a born sage. Desolate and uprooted Krishnan only finds solace in the companionship of the headmaster. The protagonist’s assessment that “the headmaster’s presence was always most soothing” may sum up the nature and thematic importance of the Headmaster in the novel.
Narayan makes his symbolic intentions clear by giving the eccentric no name. Read in this sense, the headmaster plays Krishnan’s alter-ego. He may also be regarded as a catalyst as he opens a window on the innocent world of children for Krishnan. Significantly, he seems, in a way like the eccentric Dr. Shankar, to be related to Krishnan through the death motif. Symbolically, if the Headmaster survives his own death, the English Teacher survives that of his wife’s. Ironically, however, if the English Teacher succeeds in communicating with his wife, even after her death, the Headmaster, despite his living wife, is destined to have no communication with her.
The Headmaster seems to be a spiritualistic idealist, having a vision for a more perfect model of education. He seems at times silly when he believes ardently on a Horoscope made by a hermit describing each of his future activities to the extent of predicting the hour of his death. He visited Krishnan with the request to look after the school after his death. The Headmaster emerges as around. character providing his share in the narrative and in offering an alternative view on life and education.
In the final analysis, although the two-liner eccentric creates subdued laughter, he reflects the inevitable sadness in human life underlined in Narayan’s notion of comedy. Hazlitt’s words appear quite meaningful in this context as he says: “We cannot suppress the smile on the lip; but the tear should also stand ready to start from the eye”.