Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1694
“The Postmaster,” a story by Rabindranath Tagore, concerns an unnamed postmaster who is assigned to a remote post office in a small rural Indian village. The village is near a factory, and the owner of the factory, who is English, manages to have the post office created. The narrator of the story seems to be a resident of the village, since the narrator refers to “our postmaster.” The postmaster is 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. These are located in a “thatched shed” near a stagnant pond circled by thick foliage.
The workers in the nearby factory work so much that they have no time to befriend anyone. Besides, they are not especially good company for “decent folk.” In addition, people from Calcutta are not particularly good at socializing. They can appear to be arrogant or uncomfortable. In any case, the postmaster has few companions, and he does not have many activities to keep him occupied.
Occasionally he tries to write a bit of poetry. The rural landscape might 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 wages are not great; he must do his own cooking, but he shares his suppers with “Ratan, an orphan girl of the village, who did odd jobs for him.” In the evening, when the village is filled with appealing sights and sounds—the kind that would inspire poets—the postmaster lights his lamp and calls 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, however, typically tells her to wait a while and let him smoke his pipe, which Ratan then always lights for him. After this nightly ritual has been completed, the postmaster usually talks with Ratan. He asks her whether she remembers her parents, discovering that she has fonder memories of her father than of her mother. She can even recall a little brother, with whom she would playfully fish. Often her conversations with the postmaster last a long time—so long that the postmaster doesn’t cook and Ratan instead prepares a very hasty light meal.
Sometimes in the evenings, the postmaster himself recalls his home, his mother and sister, and others whom he misses. He cannot share these thoughts with the local workers, but he feels comfortable discussing them with the innocent young girl. Eventually Ratan begins speaking of the members of the postmaster’s family as if they are members of her own and as if she has long known them. In her heart, she can vividly imagine how each of them looks.
One noon, when the rains have stopped, the wind blows gently and the smell of the lush vegetation beneath the blazing sun feels like the earth breathing on one’s skin. A bird, dedicated to singing the same song over and over, unburdens itself to Nature. The postmaster, however, is idle. He looks at the vegetation and at the increasingly distant rain-clouds and wishes that there were someone—anyone—nearby with whom he had something in common, someone with whom he could share a mutual love. This same thought, he imagines, is precisely what the bird is trying to utter. It is also what the surrounding leaves are attempting to say. Yet no one realizes, or would find it credible, that a thought of this kind might overcome a poorly-paid postmaster during a noontime break from his duties.
The postmaster summons Ratan, who has been lying beneath a guava-tree, determinedly eating immature guavas. Ratan quickly responds to the summons, asking the postmaster, whom she now calls “Dada,” if he has been calling for her. He replies by saying that he has been considering the possibility of teaching her how to read. For the rest of the workday he tells her about the alphabet. Quickly, Ratan begins to learn about double consonants.
Rains fall and fall. Low-lying areas fill up with water. The rains fall for days, stimulating the frogs, flooding the roads, and making it necessary for people to use small boats to do their shopping. One dark morning, Ratan waits for the postmaster to summon her. When no summons comes, she gently enters his room, where she finds him laid out on his bed. Assuming that he is napping, she begins to leave the room but he abruptly calls to her. When she asks “Dada” if he has been sleeping, he pleadingly responds by saying that he feels sick, and he asks her to feel whether his head seems overheated.
Feeling alone in this distant place, with the rains falling from gray skies, he wishes for someone to care for him in his illness. He vividly recalls how his mother and sister would care for him when he was sick at home. Ratan now no longer seems a child. She resembles a mother. She notifies the local doctor, makes sure the postmaster takes his medications at the proper time, sits near him all night, prepares his food, and occasionally asks “Dada” if his health is improving. Eventually the postmaster is able to arise from bed. He decides that he can no longer endure rural life. He applies to be transferred, explaining that his current job is damaging his health.
No longer serving as a nurse, Ratan once more waits outside, anticipating the postmaster’s summons. Occasionally she sneaks looks inside the shed and sees him sitting, or lying down, or gazing off into the distance. Just as Ratan awaits her summons, the postmaster awaits a response to his appeal for a transfer. Ratan continually rereads the alphabet lessons she has already covered, worrying that she may not have mastered the double consonants if her “Dada” calls. Eventually, after seven days go by, he summons her. When she rushes into his room, he tells her that he is leaving the next day. She asks where he is going and he says “home.” He tells her that he will not be returning.
Ratan makes no more inquiries. The postmaster informs her that his appeal for reassignment has been turned down, so he has quit his current job and is returning to Calcutta. A lengthy silence follows in the dimly lit room. Ratan, somewhat sluggishly, prepares the evening supper. As she works, she thinks. As the postmaster finishes eating, she abruptly asks him if her “Dada” will take her with him to Calcutta. The postmaster laughs and dismisses the suggestion as if it obviously makes no sense, but he fails to tell her his reasons for thinking so. He assumes they will be clear. That entire evening, both when she is awake and when she is sleeping, Ratan thinks about the postmaster’s laugh as he answered her question.
The next day, the postmaster finds his bath prepared. He doesn’t bathe as the villagers do—in the river—but with water that Ratan brings back to the shed in containers. Because Ratan did not feel able to ask him when he would be leaving, she had brought the water well before the sun had come up. After bathing, the postmaster summons Ratan. She comes quietly and looks at him without speaking, waiting for his instructions. He tells her that she has no reason to worry about his return to Calcutta, since he will instruct the new postmaster to take care of her. He surely intends this remark to seem kind, but a woman’s heart is mysterious. Ratan had never complained when he had scolded her, but she cannot cope with his kindly statement. She suddenly begins crying and tells him that he doesn’t have to tell anyone a thing about her. She says that she no longer wants to “stay on here.” The postmaster is mystified. He has never previously witnessed Ratan in such a state.
The new postmaster eventually appears, and the old postmaster, having turned over the reins of the office, readies to leave. Immediately before going, he summons Ratan and offers her almost all of his salary for that month. He tells her that he hopes it will help her for a while. She begs her “Dada” to keep the money and not to trouble himself about her, and then she runs off. The postmaster sighs, grabs his luggage, picks up an umbrella, and walks, alongside the man bearing his tin trunk, toward the awaiting boat. As he enters the boat and his journey begins, the high river, resembling tears swelling up out of the ground, moves around the sides of the boat. The postmaster’s heart stings. The mournful expression of the rural girl seems to symbolize, to him, the vast silent mourning “of Mother Earth herself.” For a time he thinks of returning to the village and taking lonely little Ratan, isolated in the world, back with him to Calcutta. But the boat moves on, into the swirling waters of the main current, and quickly moves away from the village.
Thus the postmaster, swept along on the river, contemplates philosophically the countless “meetings and partings going on in the world.” He also contemplates death, the final parting, from which no one comes back.
But Ratan lacks any philosophy. She moves around in the post office, weeping heavily. Perhaps she still faintly hopes that her “Dada” will come back; perhaps this is the reason she cannot bring herself to leave the shed. Oh, how foolish we humans are! We make the same errors repeatedly. Rational thinking does not come quickly to people. People often doubt facts that seem certain and undeniable. We strongly hold onto our deluded desires until eventually such optimism dries out the heart, breaks free of its confines, and leaves. Afterwards comes the intense pain of waking up, and then once more comes a desire to reenter “the maze of the same mistakes.”
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