In the Ground

In Narayan's The English Teacher, writing with, and for, the dead in the background.

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The writer R.K. Narayan was not prone to supernatural thoughts. He understood as well as anyone why The English Teacher — his 1944 novel about a grieving professor who learns to communicate with his recently deceased wife through trance writing — would inspire bewilderment in his readers, and even rage. In the first half of the book (the “domestic” half), a benignly self-absorbed English teacher of thirty, Krishna, living in the fictional Indian town of Malgudi, decides to devote himself more fully to his wife and child. In the second half (the “spiritual” half), the happy domestic picture dissolves into — as Narayan wrote in his memoir My Days — “tragedy, death, and nebulous, impossible speculations.” Readers might feel, wrote Narayan, as if they had been baited into the second half by the first. But he hoped readers would find an explanation knowing that, of all his novels, The English Teacher was the most autobiographical.

Months after his own wife’s death from typhoid, Narayan found himself walking down a private road in Mylapore, toward the house of a cousin’s friend. Narayan, convinced that his writing days were done, had taken to idle walks. He had no curiosity, no inspiration, no interest in the future nor anything related to the world of the living, save the life of his young daughter. All his mind was grief. Walking, wrote Narayan in My Days, temporarily cleared his mind from the grief, making it more passive and receptive. Besides, walking was all he could do. When he arrived at the house of Mr. Rao, Narayan was taken into a small room. There, on a round table, were sheets of paper and a dozen pencils. I myself am a skeptical man, explained Mr. Rao to Narayan, and have only been experimenting. Some months ago, at the table, while keeping his mind clear of thoughts, Mr. Rao felt his pencil being taken across the paper by an external force. Perhaps, Mr. Rao told Narayan, if Narayan could keep his mind free of negative thoughts for about half an hour, he could receive communication from his wife.

Through the pencil of Mr. Rao, Narayan did receive a message from his wife that day and for many days thereafter. Thus began Narayan’s training and thus, his transformation. He devoted himself to direct communication with his wife, without the need for Mr. Rao. Every night, regularly, for some years, Narayan practiced “psychic contacts.”

“I found it possible,” he wrote, “to abstract myself from my physical body and experience a strange sense of deliverance. And then, gradually the interest diminished when I began to feel satisfied that I had attained an understanding of life and death.”

No one likes to accept death, wrote Narayan. Yet, it is part of accepting life. And maybe, wrote Narayan, personality had “other structures.” Maybe the decay of the physical body was nothing more than a change of vehicle. “This outlook may be unscientific,” wrote Narayan, “but it helped me survive the death of my wife.”

Where are the dead? This is a question we want answered. We ask this question in the name of the dead, and also for ourselves. We know wherever they are, so will we go. We want to know where the dead have traveled and most importantly, when and if they will return. We want them to return — and yet, we don’t. That the dead are in heaven, or hell, or dispersed into the mystical Oneness of creation — these thoughts give us comfort. The dead are in the places we have made just for them, happy like children in their playroom, and we are happy too, knowing they are there, safely preserved but tucked away from the world of the living, which is really no place for the dead.

Grief keeps our beloved dead in a holding pattern. The pain of grief comforts us, because it is better than letting go. Grief brings our ideas about the dead closer, our memories and our perceptions. But grief also has a way of blocking the dead, the real presence of the dead as they are, and not just our pictures of them.

In The English Teacher, Krishna endeavors to make contact with his wife for two weeks. He sets his mind rigidly to the task, but always his grief gets in the way of writing. “I struggled to keep the mind receptive,” says Krishna. “It was a desperate fight…. I tried to improve matters by picking up a pencil and poising it over the paper. Beyond the scratch that I inadvertently made, there was no result.”

“How can I help having you as the permanent background to my thoughts?” Krishna pleads to his dead wife. And she says, “Just as I am thinking of you, I know you will also be thinking of me. But I want this thought to be coupled with the desire to commune with me…then by and by you will feel that I’m by your side.”

As both Narayan and his English teacher learned to clear their minds of worry, of fixed notions, of grief, the writing eventually happened. “There was a real cheerfulness growing within me…” says Krishna, “I was more and more aware of vague perceptions, like a three-quarter deaf man catching the rustle of the dress of someone he loves.” In this, The English Teacher is a book about grief, and it is also a book about writing, where writing comes from. You think you will never write again, a friend told the grieving Narayan, but a book is already in you. It is bound to come out sooner or later, said the friend, whenever you give it the chance. Five years later, after he had satisfactorily “attained an understanding of life and death,” Narayan published The English Teacher.

Writing sometimes feels like the loneliest art. But when we write, we do not write alone, because we do not live alone. We write with and for all the creatures with whom we share this Earth, and also we write with the dead. The dead are the background to our thoughts; they are our teachers, the writer’s guide to vague perceptions.

“For the sake of a few lines,” wrote the poet Rilke, “one must see many cities, men and things… one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings which one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained…”

But one must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not enough to have memories… For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not until they have turned to blood within us, to glance, to gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves — not until then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

Three-quarters deaf, the writer must always listen for the rustle of a dress of the beloved. And then, maybe, when the rustle becomes us, and we become the rustle, maybe a line will happen.

“It is a secondary matter,” Krishna’s wife tells him, “pencil, paper and the rest. The most important thing is to get the mind ready and receptive, the actual form will follow…”

“Some day,” says Krishna’s wife one Monday morning, “I hope we shall together produce a great epic.” • 9 March 2015

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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