Postmaster is primarily a story dealing with human relationships---the relation between Ratan, the village girl and the postmaster. It is a peculiar but fascinating relation where more is left unspoken. It is almost impossible to categorize this encounter between the rural illiterate girl and the educated urban postmaster who has been posted at the village for the time being. Strictly speaking, it is a master-slave relation which soon converts into an educational process with the postmaster teaching Ratan alphabets to make her illiterate. When he falls sick, the relation takes another turn with Ratan treating and caring for her like a loving mother.
At the end of the story with the postmaster getting transferred to another place comes the moment of separation where Ratan remains an emblem of mute emotion. When he leaves on a boat on the river, Ratan runs all the way to the banks of the river and sees him go away.
The story, on a symbolic level, deals with the oddities of human desire. The last paragraph is a philosophical summation of the impossible quality of human desire where the more impossible the object of desire becomes, the more desparate becomes the desire itself. As Tagore brilliantly sums up, despite knowing the folly of something, the moment we disentangled from it, the desire to embrace that illusion grips us again.
For all his poetic notions about clouds and trembling leaves, the postmaster wants as little as possible to do with nature: "When in the evening the smoke began to curl up from the village cow-sheds, and the cicalas chirped in every bush; when the fakirs of the Baul sect sang their shrill songs in their daily meeting-place, when any poet, who had attempted to watch the movement of the leaves in the dense bamboo thickets, would have felt a ghostly shiver run down his back, the postmaster would light his little lamp, and call out 'Ratan.'"11 Ratan is the illiterate twelve-year-old orphan who is his housekeeper. In his utter boredom, exiled from the university circles of Calcutta to the only government appointment available to him, he begins to teach Ratan the Bengali alphabet. The reading lessons become the shining focus of her life.
When the postmaster contracts a fever she nurses him. As soon as he recovers he requests transfer to Calcutta. The transfer is refused, and he resigns from government service. Ratan asks him to take her home with him, to the mother and sisters he has so often described for her as a palliative for his own homesickness. He laughs off her request; it strikes him as so absurd that he sees no point in explaining his refusal. He commends her to his successor's care and on an impulse offers her his final month's salary. She refuses the gift and runs away to hide. As his boat departs, he has one more vague impulse: he will go back for Ratan. But the boat is caught up by the current; as it passes the cremation ground he soothes his conscience with platitudes about "life's many partings." After he has gone, Ratan wanders disconsolately about the post office, hoping in vain for his return.
This story was badly marred in the English translation.12 Yet the story is so striking that, even in the flawed translation, even in spite of a few unnecessary digressions, its point is abundantly clear: the postmaster never realizes what he has done for Ratan by giving her the reading lessons. The human element in the teaching has had a value for her that he, with all his sophisticated literary education, is incapable of comprehending. Sorrowfully, the reader knows that he will never comprehend it, no matter how many civil service posts he may eventually fill, no matter how much he may circulate among Calcutta's literati; the barely literate Ratan is far wiser than the postmaster can ever be.
Excerpt from:Lago, Mary M. "Tagore's Short Fiction." Rabindranath Tagore. Twayne, 1976. 80-114. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Justin Karr. Vol. 48. Detroit: Gale Group, 2002. Literature Resource Center. Web. 28 Apr. 2010.
Examinations of the psychological distance between the rural and urban appear again and again in Tagore's stories, of which three may be considered here as being splendidly representative: "The Postmaster" ["Postmastar"] (1891), "The Return of Khokababu" ["Khokababur Pratyabartan"] (1891), and "The Troublemaker" ["Apada"] (1895).8 All three convey the message that not all of society's strengths are to be found in the Westernized society of the cities. Each of these stories brings a citizen of Calcutta into close contact with a person from the countryside, in a situation with possibilities for genuine communication; in each, for various reasons, the opportunity is wasted.
"The Postmaster" has particular importance as the first of Tagore's East Bengal stories to speak out clearly with the voice of Rabindranath, the writer of modern short fiction. The genesis of the story is well documented. At Shelaidaha the estate post office was in the Tagore house. The only circumstance transferred literally to the story is that the Shelaidaha postmaster was a lonely young man from Calcutta. In 1936 Rabindranath recalled that the Shelaidaha postmaster "didn't like his surroundings. He thought he was forced to live among barbarians. And his desire to get leave was so intense that he even thought of resigning from his post. He used to relate to me the happenings of village life. He thus gave me material for a character in my story: Postmaster."9 To this rusticated young man, Rabindranath added details from the rural scene and a village orphan waif like so many he had observed during his travels from one part of the estate to another.
The Shelaidaha postmaster had Rabindranath to talk to. The fictional postmaster has no one:
Our postmaster belonged to Calcutta. He felt like a fish out of water in this remote village. ...The men employed in the indigo factory had no leisure; moreover, they were hardly desirable companions for decent folk. Nor is a Calcutta boy an adept in the art of associating with others. Among strangers he appears either proud or ill at ease. At any rate, the postmaster had but little company; nor had he much to do.At times he tried his hand at writing a verse or two. That the movement of the leaves and the clouds of the sky were enough to fill life with joy--such were the sentiments to which he sought to give expression. But God knows that the poor fellow would have felt it as the gift of a new life, if some genie of the Arabian Nights had in one night swept away the trees, leaves and all, and replaced them with a macadamised road, hiding the clouds from view with rows of tall houses.