“The Postmaster,” a story by Rabindranath Tagore,( 1861-1941) a gifted Indian writer and thinker, achieved a world-wide reputation when he as awarded the Nobel Prize. The Postmaster is a story of a city-bred young man forced to live in a remote village. Necessity drove him to spend his evenings in the company of a simple orphan girl Ratan.
The Postmaster short story is about an unnamed postmaster who was transfered to a remote post office in a small rural Indian village. The village was near a factory, and the owner of the factory where Englishmen. The postmaster was from the huge city of Calcutta and feels out of place in such a distant rural village. The post office seems to contain only two rooms: the office itself, and the postmaster’s living quarters made of “thatched shed” near a stagnant pond circled by thick foliage.
The workers in the nearby factory were so much busy with their work that they have no time to make friendship with anyone. Besides, they were not good company for “decent folk.” In addition, people from Calcutta were not particularly good at socializing. They appear to be arrogant or uncomfortable. In any case, the postmaster had few companions, and he does not have many activities to keep him occupied.
Occasionally he tried to write a bit of poetry. The rural landscape have inspired the kind of happy poetry he sought to compose. But the postmaster is uninterested in the landscape and would be happy if it were replaced by a paved road and numerous tall buildings. His salary was not great; so, he had to cook his own food and would share his suppers with Ratan – an orphan girl of the village. She did odd jobs for the Postmaster. In the evening, when the village was filled with appealing sights and sounds, the postmaster lights his lamp and called for Ratan.
Ratan, who has been waiting for the nightly call, typically asks whether she has indeed been called. She then routinely lights the fire needed for cooking. The postmaster tells her to wait till he smoke his pipe, which Ratan always lights for him. The postmaster used to talk with Ratan while smoking. He asked Ratan about her early life which She loved to share with him . The postmaster himself recalls his home, his mother and sister and discuss about them with Ratan.
She used to call the Postmaster “Dada” meaning ‘elder brother’. She obeyed her master. The postmaster taught her how to read. Ratan begins to learn about double consonants. They develop a bond of trust and friendship. They have meals together and Ratan runs small errands for the postmaster.
One day, postmaster falls ill due to the showers of the season. Ratan took care of him like a mother when he was sick. She sat beside him the whole night during the time until he was cured completely. The Postmaster decided to apply for a transfer back to Calcutta. His application for transfer gets rejected, thus he resigns from the job.
Finally the time came when our postmaster decided to return to his city. Ratan was deeply hurt but didn’t express it. She asked him to take her with him to his city. He laughed at her request. While leaving he offered her his entire salary but Ratan denied it and ran away crying. The kind gesture made her cry! She wandered about the post office with tears trickling down her cheeks. Poor Ratan! Her affection was not reciprocated. At the end, Ratan gets heart-broken to know that her master left her forever.
This short story was full of pathos and moves the readers to tears. This story shows the difficulties which a city person faces when migrate to the remote place and the life of an orphan girl Ratan whose life is full of numberless meetings and partings. She knew no philosophy of life. Her fondness for the postmaster may be regarded as a one sided affection of a thirteen year old girl which indeed was selfless and innocent.
A woman’s heart is indeed difficult to understand!
For his first job, the Postmaster is assigned to work in the village of Ulapur, a quiet backwater with an indigo factory. He feels sorely out of place in the village, feeling both too sophisticated as a Calcutta man amongst uneducated villagers, and needlessly arrogant to the very people who he might turn to, hoping for friendship.
For lack of anything better to do, the Postmaster takes to writing poetry about his scenic surroundings, pontificating on rain-soaked leaves and the like as a way to express his deepest sorrows. Since he doesn’t make much money, the Postmaster cooks for himself and enlists a young orphan girl named Ratan to help him with housework in exchange for some food.
One night while Ratan is preparing his hookah, the Postmaster asks her to describe her family. This begins a relationship where the two share intimate details about their families, with the Postmaster divulging how much he misses his mother and sister back in Calcutta. The rapport develops to such an extent that Ratan starts to consider the Postmaster’s family her own.
One day while watching a bird in a tree, the Postmaster is taken by a desperate need for female companionship, for someone who he could share this sighting of a bird with. He calls Ratan into his office and informs her that he’s going to teach her how to read. These lessons continue until the Postmaster falls ill and he grows unable and unwilling to continue. Ratan, regardless, practices what he has taught her. Fed up with the village and his illness, the Postmaster applies for a transfer and is denied.
Nonetheless, he quits the job to return home, and tells Ratan as much. Ratan begs him to take her with him, but he smugly tells her that’s impossible. He promises her that the next Postmaster will take care of her, but that does nothing to comfort her. Upon leaving, he tries to give Ratan money, but she refuses.
As the Postmaster is leaving, he is struck by a feeling that he should go back and take Ratan, but concludes that life is full of separations and endings, so what’s the point? Ratan doesn’t have the same view though, and holds out, in anguish, for the possibility that the Postmaster will return to take her to Calcutta.
“The Postmaster” is one of Tagore’s bleaker stories, spun around two immensely lonely characters whose only chance to end their loneliness is squandered. While as readers we may yearn for the happy ending where the Postmaster returns to the village to whisk Ratan away, Tagore instead uses these characters to lay out a parable about interpersonal relationships in developing modernity under British imperial rule of India.
Key here is the fact that the Postmaster is sent to the village of Ulapur as a colonial agent of the British, so that this little industry town can have a functioning post office. The Postmaster is, in turn, an agent of the British economic and colonial projects in India. Naturally they would select an educated man, but the price of the Postmaster putting that education to good use is finding working conditions that alienate him. Such alienation was a common condition of people involved with industry in the late 1800s (the time this story was written), and was a trope explored by writers ranging from Charles Dickens to Karl Marx.
At the end of the story, we get a contrast between the educated Postmaster’s “philosophy” and Ratan’s uneducated naivete. These are cast as equal burdens, with the Postmaster’s flippant decision to leave Ratan behind because life is full of separations and deaths portrayed as comparably tragic to Ratan’s delusional hope that Ratan might one day return to the village for her. It’s a mysterious little parable that doesn’t have a clear moral, but rather offers a meditation on a fundamental human tragedy that undergirds both loneliness and desire.
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