‘The Letter’ has been translated from the original by well-known Gujarati short story writer Dhumketu whose real name was Gowrishankar Govardhanram. This story is a cyclic tale of the pain of separation suffered by all parents or fathers for their children. Coachman Ali goes through this anxiety when his only child Miriam leaves him to settle down with a soldier. Only then does he realize the possible pain the harmless denizens of the wild went through when they were also separated from their children after Ali hunted them down. This cycle continues with the plain-looking Postmaster, who then worries for his daughter’s life, who ails in another town. The short story is one of Dhumketu’s best and most popular literary works, often appearing in many anthologies. It is a tale of the plight of the elderly, the power of hope based on faith, the bureaucracy of India in the 1920’s and the healing effect of remorse. ‘The Letter’ was published in 1923 and is also titled ‘The Post Office’ or ‘Miriam’s Letter’ in other anthologies or literature textbooks.
Coachman Ali was an ardent shikari or hunter. He was merciless in his hunts and would not consider leaving a hunt empty-handed. It is even believed that Coachman Ali was obsessed and possessed by the urge to hunt at any cost. In the bargain, he neglected his only daughter Miriam who ultimately married a soldier and started living in the regiment of Punjab in India in the 1920’s. She, in her turn, stopped all contact with her father for years. It was only then that Coachman Ali realized the pain that this separation entailed upon his being and continued for five years to pilgrimage to the post office in the hope of one day receiving a letter from Miriam. He is ridiculed every time he goes there by the post office’s heartless clerks, postmen, and peons, but Coachman Ali continues with complete hope based on immense faith to make his daily pilgrimages to the post office at 4:00 am sharp every morning. One day he takes ill, and on his last day, he makes the final pilgrimage to the post office. He is frail, ill, and in a terrible state. He is ridiculed by the Postmaster in charge for asking for the name of Miriam to be registered. He coaxes a peon there finally to promise him that if Miriam’s letter ever arrived at the post office, then the peon was to deliver it to Ali’s grave, for that day was told to be his last on this earth. The Postmaster who ridiculed him thinks nothing of the affair until the day his own daughter was ill and convalescing in another town away from him. As the anxious Postmaster waited for her letter, a surprise awaited him. After around five years and three months, Miriam’s letter arrived at last in Coachman Ali’s name. The Postmaster that night, as he waits for Ali to come to take the long-awaited letter, hallucinates and sees a vision of Coachman Ali in divine splendor. The peon later confirms, however, that Ali is dead, and so finally, they both, the Postmaster and the peon, deliver the letter of Miriam to her father’s grave. With renewed respect and love for Coachman Ali, the Postmaster then continues to wait for his daughter’s news.
Dhumketu’s short story ‘The Letter’ focuses, like most of his literature, centrally on human emotions and is narrated dramatically. The following are the main highlights and themes of this very popular short story:
Cyclical Chain of Separation
From the animals killed by Coachman Ali to Ali himself and then the remorseful Postmaster, these parents undergo the pain of being torn apart or separated from their children because of unfortunate circumstances. However, where Ali was concerned, it was probably his neglect of Miriam that caused her to be so distant from her father. Dhumketu brings out the theme of love and how the world’s many relationships are based on this great emotion. However, one only realizes the true value of this emotion when separation takes place. Coachman Ali only realizes the value of his daughter’s presence in her absence. Love is a cycle that has to be felt by every human being, old or young, as seen in ‘The Letter’.
When Ali was a shikari, he was a man of the world, and his focus in life was materialism. When separated from his daughter, he feels remorse and then turns to a strange form of religious fervor. In this state, his holy place is the post office, his devotion is not to God but to his daughter, and his daily early morning pilgrimages are made to where he thinks a message from his daughter resides. This gives him comfort and hope and makes his otherwise lonely life worthwhile. Imbued in him is blind faith, which leads to infinite hope. His patience in waiting for Miriam’s letter and how he cheerfully bore the taunts of the working-class individuals in the post office highlights this. The hallucination of the Postmaster at the end of the story also has a divine aspect to it. The brightness of Ali’s face and eyes shows that Ali was grateful to the Postmaster for remembering him at last and that he was willing to remind the peon to keep his promise to the old Coachman. Empathy was at last felt by the Postmaster for Coachman Ali. The tears in hallucination or vision of Coachman Ali signified this empathy more than gratefulness for the letter having arrived at last.
The Heartlessness of the post office staff
The post office staff behave apathetically towards Coachman Ali until the end. They could not sympathize with his plight because the letters and postcards they dealt with daily were to them mere pieces of paper. They did not think those letters were the wishes and aspirations of many human beings yearning for news of their loved ones, both close and estranged. The Postmaster is the worst in dealing out this apathetic behavior towards Ali because it is he who goes on to highlight the various forms of lunacy suffered by people he knew. He, however, at that point indirectly indicates that love itself is a type of lunacy that is something poetic in nature. It is also gladly borne by the victim of this unique malady. Only after the hallucination, the Postmaster realizes that the letters he dealt with daily were the warm hearts of human beings full of love for their dear ones. The greater part of this story describes the cruel and merciless way in which the office staff behaves with the poor but gives a lot of prominence to the rich. This was typical of the bureaucratic system of the pre-Independence period in India. The deft handling of the letters by the clerk, the same routine over five years, and the many office gossiping sessions are the many elements used by Dhumketu to indicate the hypocrisy of this system, who put empathy and humanity last on the list in their dealings. This is ironic because the post office should be adept in dealing with human relations and feelings since they are dealing with human communications.
Respect for the Elderly
Whether be it the office staff at the post office, the Postmaster, or even Coachman Ali’s daughter all show negligence in dealing with the elderly, which is quite evident in the emotional narrative. The taunts of the office staff and the cruel way they mock poor naive Coachman Ali when he believes their false tales of his daughter’s letter having come is painful to read and emotionally potent. This is the exact effect Dhumketu wishes to have on his readers to bring out the value of respect for one’s elders. The author is also dramatic in retelling how the hallucination is double-backed, indicating the burden of separation that old Ali bore was, at last, being ‘lightened’ by empathy. Pain is to be borne by all throughout life, but to find a friend to comfort one in this blissful sorrow makes the burden worthwhile. The lunacy of those in love is like the moth singed by the candle lamp; what does the insect gain by this burning only it can tell! At the beginning of the short story, the author mentions that happy memories usually light up a life nearing its close. However, in this story, it is proved that there are many elderly who, till their dying day, are filled with longings and unfulfilled dreams that they take along with them to their grave.
It is quite evident that the ‘vision’ of Ali is not a divine vision but a hallucination of the Postmaster caused by his anxiety and remorse. This is clear from the fact that the being did not take the letter with him to his grave nor transported it elsewhere, which we usually see in supernatural literature written during this period in Indian literary history.
In the end, the Postmaster, after having delivered his letter, sits and waits for his own letter. The cycle of sorrowful separation continues for those who have loved and who still love. It continues as long as the world goes on.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story titled ‘The Letter’ by well-respected Gujarati novelist and short story writer Dhumketu. I hope to read and analyze more of Dhumketu’s short stories and novels soon. If you are interested in some award-winning Indian social issue fiction, then you can check out my novels, Nirmala: The Mud Blossom or Amina: The Silent One. If you are interested in reading more about my bookish life, you can check out my memoir, Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. I hope to read and review more Indian short stories in the coming days.
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©2023 Fiza Pathan