My Days by R. K. Narayan

  At about this time one of my father’s efforts to place me bore fruit. I received a government order appointing me as a teacher at a government school in our old Chennapatna, where I used to spend my vacations as a schoolboy. So I was going back one fine morning by train from Mysore to the land of my grasshopper collections. I was seen off at Mysore with great enthusiasm by everyone in the family; everybody was happy that I was to work in Chennapatna, familiar ground, only half-way between Mysore and Bangalore; it would be like being in both places at once. Many were the benefits and blessings of being posted to Chennapatna rather than anywhere else, and of course I caught a part of their enthusiasm and had pictured Chennapatna as a haven of pleasant prospects. But the memories and impressions created in childhood could be very misleading. My train arrived at Chennapatna at about ten-thirty in the morning, and I had to climb into a jutka with a roll of bedding and my trunk, and drive straight to the high school in order to report for duty before eleven. The government order had said, “You must report yourself in the forenoon on the first of December.” This was the first of December, and forenoon. I paid off the jutka and left my baggage on the school verandah and went into the headmaster’s room, announced myself, and signed a register of service. The headmaster gave me a few words of welcome and advice, and sent me off to a sixth-form class to teach Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur.” I had no notion how I should teach. An old servant of the school, whom we used to call Venkata, followed me uttering advice in a menacing undertone. He had survived since the days of my father’s headmastership. He said in a warning manner, “Take care that you don’t let down your great father’s reputation.” He used to escort us when we were children during our evening walks, and now did not seem to recognize that I was a grown-up and a teacher appointed by the government. He warned me, “If you don’t maintain the reputation of my old master, I will not let you off lightly, remember!” While I took my seat in the teacher’s chair, he stood at the door surveying me with great satisfaction, and nodded his head approvingly when I tapped the table with my hands and cried, “Silence!” Somehow it had an effect. An eerie silence ensued as the boys studied their new master with interest. “Page seventy . . . I hope all of you have your copies ready. Never come to the class without your books,” I said, discovering a new principle for myself. “I am very strict about it.”

  “Yes sir,” said a few voices in a chorus. I didn’t like it. Perhaps they were being ironical. There was a tall Muslim boy in a last row. I looked at him and said, “You read out on page seventy.” He got up. Too old for his class. He was slow in taking out his book and turning the pages. The boys looked around with smiling faces. I didn’t know why. The tall boy was also smiling without reading out. I felt I had committed a mistake, but how could a teacher go back on his command? “What is your name?” I asked.


  “Anweruddin,” I said, “I hope you have your poetry book.”

  “No sir,” he said.

  “Then what is that book in your hand?”

  He held it up for me to see. I could not make out at this distance what he was displaying.

  “Bring it here,” I said. He stepped forward and walked up. The class was enjoying the scene. I could hear giggling and whispers. I took it and said, “Why don’t you try and fetch the right book? I don’t like people coming in without their books.” I had enunciated a principle and had to stick to it. Moreover, old Venkata’s words about living up to my father’s reputation still rankled in my mind. I was going to prove who was the real master here. He hesitated, and I said rather firmly, “Now you may go and fetch the poetry book if you have left it somewhere.”

  “Yes sir,” he said and turned on his heels and went back to his seat. Giggles and whispers and a mild excitement running through the class. I felt victorious. On the very first occasion one should establish one’s superiority. If that was delayed, one would forever be taken for a milksop. In spite of the giggling, I felt relieved at the prompt manner in which Anweruddin had obeyed me. Now he came back from his seat holding up the right book. I didn’t ask for any explanation of his conduct; it was not necessary. I met his challenge by briskly taking the book, turning to page seventy, and saying, “Now read aloud to the class, face the class.” Still with a leer, he took the book, but instead of reading said, “Please let me go out,” and held up his forefinger, which indicates from time immemorial that one wants to be let out for “Number One.” I had done the same thing at Lutheran Mission whenever I wished to leave the classroom; and the worst teacher in the world cannot reject that request. I let him go. He walked off majestically, but before the class could continue in this mood of entertainment, I read out, “‘So all day long the noise of battle roll’d/. . . until King Arthur’s table . . .’” et cetera et cetera. A few boys listened to my reading, a few talked among themselves. I raised the pitch of my voice and, “This poem by Tennyson . . .” Two more boys stood in their seats holding up their forefingers. “Yes,” I said, and announced, “Whoever wishes to go out, may go, but don’t disturb the other classes.” Half the class walked out and never came back, and I read on about twenty lines, wondering in what manner I should explain their meaning to whoever cared to stay. They didn’t seem to care for Tennyson or anyone, but were chatting among themselves. Luckily for me the bell rang, and thus concluded my first experience of teaching. It was also perhaps the last.

  Soon I got into trouble with the headmaster. He sent me next to a fifth form to handle a physics class. When I pleaded that I was a history man, he brushed aside my objection and said that since the physics teacher was absent, I should take on his duties and keep the class engaged. It sounded silly to me, but I obeyed him. The fifth-form juniors were a more disorderly crowd than the sixth-form boys whom I had taught first. The boys kept pouncing on each other, grabbing, flinging their caps in the air, shouting challenges, and denouncing one another; it looked less like a classroom, more like a festival crowd on rampage. I wondered if the physics teacher purposely kept away rather than deal with these young devils. I resented the headmaster’s devilry in sending me into this confusion on my very first day.

  I hammered the table with my fist several times and shouted, “Silence, silence!” That produced silence for a brief second while the boys paused to stare at the teacher with wonder and contempt. Then they resumed the hubbub, which rose like an ocean’s roar, fifty boys jabbering away at different pitches. I watched them for a little while and said, “You must all write a composition now, ten lines on how you spent your last holiday, now out with your notebooks and pencils, come on.” A handful displayed some response, and took out their notebooks and turned the pages and bit their pencil points, but many others, watching these conformists with interest, made no move to start writing. I repeated the theme of the composition and then added, “Whoever has finished the writing may show it to me and go.” This was a good incentive as presently they all came over to my table and piled their notebooks on it. I felt smothered, to read fifty compositions! I quickly added, “Take away your notebooks and leave. Show them to me later.” “When?” someone asked, and before I could muster an answer they left their notebooks on the table and fled like a flock of released birds. I painstakingly collected the notebooks and left them in the custody of the school clerk at the administrative office. I spent the rest of the day in the room of a colleague who was trying to guide me in this wilderness. We went for a walk in the evening along the bazaar, and dined at a restaurant—which was the dirtiest in my experience, the food being served on a dried banana leaf spread out on the floor of a dusty back verandah. I bore it patiently, my friend saying, “In a week you can ask for a room at the school hostel. At the moment there is no vacancy.” Next morning I was back trying to teach English to the sixth form again when a servant brought me a register to sign. I thought at first that it might be some routine office memo, but when I looked carefully, it said, “You are hereby warned that your letting off of the Fifth A was unauthorized and
is likely to affect the discipline of the school. If there is a repetition of such an act, matter will be reported to higher authorities. This is the first warning.” It was signed by the headmaster. The servant insisted on my signing it. I pushed it away saying, “No, I won’t.” When the hour ended, I stormed into the headmaster’s room. He said, “You have returned the register without signing. It is your service register,” and he pushed it towards me. I signed it with an angry flourish.

  “Is there anything else?” I asked. “Give me anything, I will sign it. I am only a day old in service and you want me to start my career with a black mark, is it?”

  “Oh, no, don’t take it to heart, young man. It is just a formality, a formal record. It means nothing.”

  “I don’t care either way. I want fifteen days’ leave.”

  “You are not entitled to any leave yet.”

  “Leave without pay.”

  “You can’t take any sort of leave.”

  This irritated me and I said haughtily, “I am going away and you may do what you like.”

  The headmaster softened. “Don’t be rash, young man. You must learn by experience; you will understand in due course that these things do not matter. You must do your duty with conscience and diligence. Of course we are here to help you if you have any difficulties. We are interested in seeing you prosper. Don’t do anything rash. These days are difficult for Brahmins to get jobs in the government.”

  “I know Mr. Wadia and he was my professor and my father’s friend; I can ask him for a transfer.” The mention of this name shook the headmaster. He became pale. Wadia was the Director of Public Instruction and at the apex of the entire educational edifice.

  “Don’t do anything rash. If you would like to go away on Friday afternoon, I will make some special concession and see what I can do. Spend two days at home, but be back on Monday noon. I will see that you have no class until noon.” He was scared out of his wits, he felt I might complain and get him into trouble. I did not wait until Friday afternoon. An hour later, I stood at the bus stand with my trunk and roll of bedding, waiting for a bus to take me to Mysore. I felt a little nervous lest my colleagues should discover me under the tree on the roadside by which the bus was to pass. Some people passed unnoticing; a few students of the high school, passing, looked at me curiously. Suddenly hefty Anweruddin turned up with a couple of his followers and stood before me, his eyes full of surprise. I could not pretend not to notice him. He saluted me courteously and grinned. I asked, “What are you doing here instead of being in your class?”

  “We had no class, sir, the teacher was absent. You had to teach us at this hour.” He appeared grateful that I had helped him to wander about freely. “Why, sir, where are you going?”

  “To Mysore. I am not coming back. Go and tell the headmaster that you saw me go away.” Anweruddin looked unhappy at the parting and mumbled something. He lifted my baggage and placed it on the bus when it arrived and stood aside morosely until the bus started. “Good-bye, sir,” he said, rather subdued, and made a deep salaam.

  Back at home in Mysore, I became an object of much speculation. They seemed to suspect my sanity. I spent most of my time lounging on a canvas chair in my room for fear of being asked to explain myself. I was tired of the subject and avoided people. My mother, who could always be counted upon to be sympathetic, said, “Your father is very worried about you. Chennapatna is an inexpensive place; I’m sure if you stuck on, you would get a higher grade and save enough to make you comfortable and spare for others too. Your father will speak to Wadia and see if you can be transferred to a Mysore school soon. It will be helpful to everyone. But you must be patient for some time.” She was persuasive, and it disturbed my complacency a little. I went back to my brooding chamber to think it over. I avoided encountering my father by staying in my room. He was not the kind to intrude into our domains. But one afternoon he suddenly called, “Kunjappa [my name in domestic circles]! Come here.” He was in the hall. He looked up at me with some amusement and said, “What do you propose to do?” He jingled his key-bunch. “Give Chennapatna another trial. Not a bad place. I have spoken to people and they will treat you with special consideration. I have also spoken to Mukund Rao, who has his brother at Chennapatna in a bank, and he will put you up at his home until you get used to the place, until you can make some other arrangement. Good people. You will feel at home.” His attitude seemed to have changed. He had never sounded more friendly in his life.

  So I decided to give Chennapatna another trial. Mr. Mukund Rao, a minor official in the Revenue Department, but practically my father’s devoted slave for thirty years since his student days, saw me off at the railway station with many words of advice. I was received at the other end by his replica, his brother, in a close coat and lace-edged turban, who took charge of me without a word, placed my baggage on a coolie’s head, conducted me to his house, just fifteen minutes from the railway station. (Oh, that was a pleasant discovery, not too far to go if I wished to take a train back to Mysore!) This man and his young wife occupied a small house—mud-walled, lime-washed, with a low tiled roof, smoky and ancient—in a side-street of Chennapatna Town. You could see the school building, too, from his little window. Their house had a little front room, and a back room which served as kitchen. Those two were the meekest pair I have ever met in my life. The wife was orthodox and would not come before a stranger except to serve food, and would not look at you or speak. That was understandable, being a part of a lady’s good behaviour, but what I could not understand was why the gentleman was equally meek and speechless. He seemed to have surrendered his only room to me and kept himself mostly on the front steps leading to the street. I was, perhaps, the first guest in their lives, and they looked panicky, concerned, and overwhelmed. I seemed to have shaken the equanimity of their lives and caused them a profound disturbance. The man left after our first meal—no word being spoken during, before, or after it. Soon after eating, he picked up a coat and turban, went into the kitchen, and came out dressed for his bank. I sat on the floor leaning against the inevitable roll of bedding that I had carried with me. He whispered timidly an adieu and left. His wife concealed herself in the kitchen. I was oppressed with the thought that I had, perhaps, imposed myself on this light, birdlike couple. I had still an hour for the school. I dressed and left, announcing my departure by pulling the street door behind me with a bang; the lady stole up softly from the kitchen and bolted it. I imagined that she might now sing and dance to celebrate the exit (though temporary) of her guest.

  At school, a repetition of my previous performance. Old Venkata demanded to know where I had gone, and I told him I had had fever. The additional worry this time was that I was asked to conduct drill for some class at the end of the day. I protested. The headmaster said, “Every member of the staff is expected to handle drill classes once a week by turn.”

  “I don’t know any drill—never attended any class even as a schoolboy.”

  “Keep them engaged for an hour. Don’t let them off. We are trying to teach them also Surya Namaskar.”

  “I know nothing about it.”

  “We will help you to learn it by and by. Today keep them engaged. Take the roll-call and make note of the absentees.”

  And so I found myself in the drill field surveying an array of fifty boys standing in two rows under the evening sun. The sun hit us from the west. Many others, including teachers, stood around to watch my performance. I inspected the boys closely, like a commander reviewing an army, cried “Right, left, right, left,” marched them, made them perform high jumps, long jumps, swing their arms, kick their legs in the air. I engaged them as long as I could; still no bell rang to indicate the end of the hour. I cried, “Stand at ease!” and then, “Dismissed!” and the whole crowd vanished in a second.

  I slept in my host’s house in the hall, the meek man curling up in a corner, and his wife sleeping beside the oven on the kitchen floor, perhaps. I felt guilty to be separating the pair thus. In t
he morning it was especially embarrassing to get started with one’s washing and toilet since they had a minimal arrangement for such activities. The latrine was at the back yard, four dwarfish mud walls screening you but without a door, open to the sky; you were visible outside over the short wall until you squatted down. I had a fear of being seen by the lady in this situation. For my bath, I had to go behind a tin screen. My host and hostess kept themselves rigorously in the background while I was getting through my ablutions, but still I felt extremely nervous and exposed to public view.

  I got ready for the school. The man left for his bank. I suddenly felt it would be impossible to spend another day at school or in this house. I knew the bus would be coming in half an hour under the tree. Got a coolie to carry my box and roll of bedding, banged the street door until the lady came up behind it, mentioned to her I was leaving for Mysore, and caught the bus for Mysore again.


  That settled it. After the final and irrevocable stand I took, I felt lighter and happier. I did not encourage anyone to comment on my deed or involve myself in any discussion. I sensed that I was respected for it. At least there was an appreciation of the fact that I knew my mind. I went through my day in a business-like manner, with a serious face. Soon after my morning coffee and bath I took my umbrella and started out for a walk. I needed the umbrella to protect my head from the sun. Sometimes I carried a pen and pad and sat down under the shade of a tree at the foot of Chamundi Hill and wrote. Some days I took out a cycle and rode ten miles along the Karapur Forest Road, sat on a wayside culvert, and wrote or brooded over life and literature, watching some peasant ploughing his field, with a canal flowing glitteringly in the sun. My needs were nil, I did not have plans, there was a delight in being just alive and free from employment. That was a great luxury. I returned home at noon in time for lunch, read something inconsequential for an hour or two. I took care not to read too much or anything that might influence my writing at the moment. I was trying to progress with my first novel. At three o’clock after a cup of coffee I wrote. Day by day Swami was developing. The pure delight of watching a novel grow can never be duplicated by any other experience. I cannot recollect how much I wrote each day, perhaps a few hundred words, or a thousand. Swami, my first character, grew up and kept himself alive and active; the novel was episodic, but that was how it naturally shaped itself; a series of episodes, escapades, and adventures of Swami and his companions. Each day as I sat down to write, I had no notion of what would be coming. All that I could be certain of was the central character. I reread the first draft at night to make out how it was shaping and undertook, until far into the night, corrections, revisions, and tightening up of sentences. I began to notice that the sentences acquired a new strength and finality while being rewritten, and the real, final version could emerge only between the original lines and then again in what developed in the jumble of rewritten lines, and above and below them. It was, on the whole, a pleasant experience—which is later lost, to some extent, when one becomes established, with some awareness of one’s publishers, methods, transactions, the trappings of publicity and reviews, and above all a public.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]