The Elements of Humour and Pathos

Humour and pathos are the integral parts of Narayan’s work. Narayan’s earlier novels like Swami and Friends and The Bachelor of Arts are mainly comic. In his third novel, The English Teacher, there is a judicious blend of comedy and pathos because it is based on a personal tragedy. Here the humour mingles with pathos, and there is, almost a Shakespearean inter-penetration of the comic and the tragic in the novel.

Here we have the humour of character, humour of situation or farcical humour, irony wit and satire. For instance, Mr. Brown, the Principal of Albert Mission College, is concerned with the dropping of the vowel “u” in spelling “honours” by students. He believes that it would a serious enough blunder even for a mathematics honours man. Gopal, the mathematics teacher, is the butt of Narayan’s humour when Krishna says: His precise, literal brain refused to move where it had no concrete facts or figures to trip. Symbols, if they entered his brain at all, entered only as mathematical symbols.

Krishna’s old table clock shows the correct time but is eccentric to its alarm arrangement. It lets out a “shattering amount of noise” and sometimes goes off by itself and butts into a conversation. Narayan writes: There was no way of stopping it… short of dashing it down … But one day I learnt… that if I placed a heavy book like Taine’s History of English Literature on its crest, it stopped shrieking (Narayan: ). No wonder, Susila sells it when it starts ringing on its own when the child is asleep. This leads to their first serious quarrel after marriage because Krishna is attached to it.

Then Krishna comments on his wife’s habit of underlining the town three times in her letter to him as she seemed to be anxious lest the letter should go off to some other town. Later when he does not care to explain the contents of a poem to her, Susila remarks: Perhaps you don’t care to explain English unless you are paid a hundred rupees a month for it. When Krishna tells Susila that the coloured marble tiles used on the walls of Bombay Ananda Bhavan are used in bathrooms but he will have them fitted along the walls of the house they are going to buy, Susila says: So that you may call it a bathroom.

The sick Susila’s sides ache with laughter when Dr. Shankar relates the anecdote of a sick daughter-in-law to cheer her: Her (the ailing daughter-inlaw’s) husband came to him privately and said, ‘Doctor, please keep her in bed for a fortnight more. It is almost her only chance of being free from the harassment of her mother-in-law’.

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Krishna’s account of the travelling pain is equally humorous: Last night, the other began and gave a long-winded account of a pain in the back of his head, which travelled all the way down to his ankle and went up again. The boy who accompanies him to the old, half-blind landlord is described thus: He had his pockets filled with fried nuts, and was ceaselessly transferring them to his mouth. And then: If I hear that you have broken any leg, I will break your head,” says the old peon Singaram to “the creaking cart driver” when he is putting Krishna’s luggage in the cart.

Krishna’s childhood recollection of his elder brother is tinged with irony: My elder brother would extract obedience and we would have to take our seats in the cart according to his directions. The way he handled us we always expected he would become a commander of an army or a police officer, but the poor fellow settled as auditor in Hyderabad and was nose-bed by his wife.

Krishna wonders how his colleague at college, Sastri, a logic’ teacher, has got into the building of houses. He is rather rude when he asks him: Oh, Sastri, how did this house-salesmanship get into your blood instead of logic?. Then he comments: He had taken upon himself this task for scores of people, and some uncharitable ones remarked that he made a better living out of this than as a logic lecturer. Dr. Shankar, otherwise, a cheerful person, becomes “an automaton” once he sits in his “official seat”. The headmaster’s wife sounds bitter when he returns home with Krishna and Leela after dinner: “So you have found your way home after all.” When she continues her tirade the headmaster says: I can’t bring a gentlemen to visit me without driving him away with your fine behaviour.

Along with such abundant use of humour and irony in the novel, Narayan does not miss a chance to have a dig at his surroundings. For example, he speaks of the hostel of Albert Mission College thus: “Hostel bathrooms are hell on earth… [God said to his assistants, ‘Take this man away to hell’, and they brought him down to the hostel bathroom passage, and God said, ‘torture him’, and they opened the room and pushed him in… No, no, at this moment the angels said ‘the room is engaged’… God waited as long as a god can wait and asked ‘Have you finished’ and they replied ‘still engaged’, and in due course they could not see where their victim* was, for grass had grown and covered him up completely while he waited outside the bathroom door… . Krishna has a similar experience waiting outside the bathroom’ door in his hostel while a student is busy singing inside. When at last the student comes out and apologises to Krishna for having made him wait, Krishna replies: Yes, my dear fellow, but how could you come; out before finishing that masterpiece of a song?

Narayan feels that railway carriages are not safe for mothers carrying small children when they are travelling. So he makes Krishna say when Susila arrives in Malgudi with the child: This seemed to my fevered imagination the all-important thing to say on arrival, as I otherwise fancied the child’s head was sure to be banged against the doorway… And how many infants were damaged and destroyed by careless mothers in the process of coming out of trains! Why couldn’t they make these railway carriages of safer dimensions? It ought to be done in the interests of baby welfare in India.

Then, there is the habit of women travelling with a lot of luggage. As Narayan writes: Women never understood the importance of travelling light.

Why should they? As long as there were men to bear all the anxieties and bother and see them through their travails! It would teach, them a lesson to be left to shift for themselves.

When she sets up home, Susila, like her mother-in-law, does not trust the government measures. She is convinced that they weightless; so she uses her own measure. As Narayan puts: She had a bronze tumbler, which she always declared as a correct half-measure, and she would never recognise other standards and measures. She insisted upon making all her purchases… with the aid of this measure, and declared that all other measures, including the government-stamped ones, were incorrect, and were kept maliciously incorrect because some municipal members were businessmen!. Narayan’s scathing criticism, however, is reserved for the municipality of Malgudi about whom he says: Malgudi had earned notoriety for its municipal affairs. The management was in the hands of a council with a president, a vice-president, and ten elected members; they met on the last Saturday of every month and battled against each other. One constantly read of disputed elections, walk-outs, and no confidence motions. Otherwise they seemed to do little by way of municipal work. There are also some quacks dispensing medicines “under no known system” in Malgudi. The headmaster’s remarks on the prevailing system of education in the country are as valid today as they were when the novel was written. He tells Krishna that they are poor country man and they do not have luxury of life. They want only water, food and open air. This is not a cold country for the heavy furniture and elaborate buildings. He is against the undue importance given to sports and games.

Humour interpenetrates tragedy when Susila falls ill and eventually dies of wrong diagnoses when malaria that she is supposed to suffer from turns out to be typhoid. Her room is turned into a sick ward and Krishna congratulates himself on how meticulously he has done it and with what precision he goes about his nursing duties. The underlying pathos behind all this is unmistakable. It is pathetic that the lovely and sprightly Susila is now called a “patient” throughout her illness; no one refers to her real name.

When Krishna gets a letter from his elder brother enquiring after Susila’s health, his childhood memories are tinged with pathos: Good fellow – I remember the bullying he had practised me in the cart… remember him helplessly pacing up and down when his wife and mother had heated arguments over trifles and now auditing, henpecked, and with twelve children – a life of worry-so good of him to have thought of me in all this distress. Susila’s death leaves Krishna blind, dumb, and dazed. He is unhinged physically, mentally and spiritually. As Susila’s dead body lies on the ground: We mutter, talk among ourselves, and wail between convulsions of grief. All sensations are blurred and vague…. as he accompanies the bier to the cremation ground across the river. With Susila gone, Krishna loses his zest for life; he is miserable and contemplates suicide. But the thought of the child prevents him from taking this extreme step.

It is only when a letter from a stronger arrives and he is able to communicate with his dead wife’s spirit that he finds his moorings. Whenever he cannot communicate with her, he feels miserable. Finally, when Leela goes to the village with her grandmother, Krishna realises that no one can escape from the loneliness and separation i.e. from wife, husband, child, brothers, parents etc. One day we all have to separate from all the family members. Loneliness and separation are the continuous movements of the life. No one can stop it. No one can break the law of life and no one can battle against it. Krishna attains mental peace at last. He resigns from his well-paid college job and takes up work in the headmaster’s school at a quarter of his present salary in order to satisfy his inner urge. Susila’s spirit is present with him and he has found a purpose in life. It is “a moment of rare, immutable joy – a moment for which one feels grateful to Life and Death”. Thus, humour and pathos are woven in the works of Narayan. With the elements of humour and pathos his works have become so famous not only in India but also on the foreign land.


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