‘The Postmaster’ by Rabindranath Tagore: Short Story Analysis
‘The Postmaster’ is a story of rural Bengal penned by the Nobel prize-winning writer, Rabindranath Tagore. It is a sentimental piece about the love a young pre-teen girl had for a young postmaster who had come to work in the village of Ulapur. Rabindranath Tagore was a freedom fighter and is most remembered for his book of poetry, Gitanjali. Most of Tagore’s short stories are based in Bengal, highlighting Bengali people’s lives during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. ‘The Postmaster’ is one such story. The relationship between Ratan and the postmaster is left to conjecture. Whether it was romantic love or a platonic one like the love a sister has for a brother is left to our imagination. However, Ratan certainly loved the postmaster, and she could not fathom why he left her and did not take her along with him to Calcutta.
‘The Postmaster’, like most Tagore pieces, is more descriptive than action-oriented. It is more about the creation of the atmosphere than a succession of plot twists and turns. The stagnant pools of water mentioned in the short story represent the postmaster’s stagnant life in the village of Ulapur. The passage of different seasons represents the postmaster’s mood change towards his surroundings, life in Calcutta as a city boy, and his relationship with Ratan. During spring and summer, he is nostalgic but content. Tagore speaks of the postmaster’s need for a companion, a kindred soul who would reciprocate his feelings. Since he can’t find one in the indigo factory workers or anywhere else where he works, he decides to spend time teaching Ratan. During the winter, he spends the late hours of the night conversing with Ratan about her family and past. He does so while smoking his hookah, which is lit by Ratan. Ratan’s lighting of the postmaster’s hookah can be considered the lighting of the senses and the emotions rather than a sensual act in itself. Ratan is innocent, receptive, and naïve. She quickly falls in love with the postmaster without realizing that he is giving her the attention because he has no one better to speak with.
In the early monsoon, Ratan is found eating unripe guavas under a guava tree. It is a symbol of her unripe womanhood, her pre-teen body, and her heart. Later during the monsoon season, she would dedicate herself to nursing the ill postmaster like an adult mother or sister. Ratan’s postmaster used to teach her how to read and write the Bengali alphabet and consonants. She finds the chapter on double consonants very difficult to understand, representing the ‘double standards’ of people from the city, whose hearts and emotions are veiled and undecipherable. Without a kindred companion by his side, the postmaster takes recourse to teach Ratan school work and writing poetry. It was the norm of the early twentieth century Bengali youngster to read and write poetry to understand himself and the world around him. However, the postmaster is a nature poet; in other words, a Romantic-era poet. In the village of Ulapur, he prefers to be inspired by the swampy forest land in which he resides, and loves to write poems about it, especially on the breeze and the shimmering leaves. Tagore mentions that the postmaster’s love for nature is insincere, and he would have preferred to be living in the city with its towering buildings and roads.
The postmaster takes advantage of Ratan’s love and company. He cannot converse with the indigo factory’s workers because he is shy and ill at ease with them. It is evident to the reader that he is a person who can’t mingle with people of his age and those who are not as educated as him. He is not proud but could be described as a stuck up. He is a man in the wrong place doing something for the money and not because he genuinely liked living in Ulapur. He was there only because the government had posted or transferred him as part of his job as a postmaster. He feels like a fish out of water in Ulapur and misses his family. He continually speaks to Ratan about his family in Calcutta, indirectly giving Ratan a lot of high hopes that one day she too would be part of his family. Before the postmaster falls ill, Ratan believes and imagines herself to be a part of the postmaster’s family.
During the height of the monsoon season, the postmaster is bedridden due to disease, probably typhoid or another monsoon related disease. He is reminiscent of his family the most during this time. He misses them. However, Ratan tends to him like the matron in his life. Her tender touch upon his forehead comforts the postman but not to such an extent that he proposes to make Ratan a part of his family. Once he recovers from his illness, he is fed up with his stagnant and uneventful life in the village of Ulapur. He asks for a transfer, but his transfer is rejected. He then decides to resign from his postmaster’s job and go home to his family in Calcutta. He does all this without informing Ratan. He does not find her interesting anymore. He has used her to entertain himself and now does not want to dwell upon the responsibility he has towards her and their growing awkward relationship. One day he casually informs her that he is leaving for Calcutta never to return. Ratan is heartbroken and helpless. She is bold for a young woman as she straight away asks the postmaster whether he would take her along with him to Calcutta. His rejection of the whole idea and his mocking tone haunts her as she spends the last day with him.
The postmaster has not fully understood himself or Ratan at all. Here we see Tagore painting a tragedy in simple prose. Ratan loses the companionship of the postmaster and the notion that she was part of his family. She emerges from the ivory tower of hope which she was living in and is inconsolable. The postmaster has feelings towards Ratan; however, he only realizes these feelings when he is already on the ship and sailing towards Calcutta. He laments and wonders whether he should have taken the girl with him, but then challenges the idea with his pragmatism. The early twentieth-century Bengal was still very orthodox. Even if he did bring the girl to Calcutta, how would he explain their relationship to his mother, brother, sister, and the urban world of Calcutta? He uses philosophical thoughts about the many separations in life that one had to go through in place of conscience.
On the other hand, Ratan, according to Tagore, is raw, hurting, and lovesick. She has no such consolation and is wounded by the postmaster’s behavior towards her love, affection, and real feelings. Towards the end, she is like a raving mad little teenager, haunting the post office with the delusion that the postmaster would come back one day. But this is unlikely. The postmaster most probably had already forgotten Ratan once he consoled himself with his philosophical thoughts.
In this short story ‘The Postmaster’, we see the difference between a city man’s affections and a young girl from the village. Ratan is transparent, authentic, and trusting. The Postmaster, on the other hand, is representative of most city people: calculative, manipulative, insincere, and unemotional towards the things he finds of no consequence, like the affection of an illiterate rural girl, Ratan. Tagore ends the story with an empty feeling in Ratan’s and the reader’s heart. Ratan is delusional. She entertains the false hope that the postmaster would come back and take her away with him. We sympathize with her because she has truly been devoted to the postmaster in every respect. She did not deserve to be left behind in Ulapur. It was indeed very unfeeling on the postmaster’s part to not decipher Ratan’s true feelings for him. He pours salt on her wounds by offering her money and speaking about her to his replacement. Notice that in the last part of the story, when the postmaster declares to Ratan that he was going away never to return, the imagery of a hole in the ceiling on the thatched hut dripping rainwater into an earthen pot. It is representative of the desolation that was to come to Ratan. There is mention of a dimly burning lamp symbolic of the dimming of the relationship between Ratan and the postmaster. It could also represent the last fragment of hope on Ratan’s part where she thinks if the postmaster were returning to Calcutta, he would take her with him. To him, she was just a child from a poor background, not to be taken seriously. But she took him seriously and became ruined because of her love.
I love Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories; they truly speak to one’s soul with their lyrical quality. I read this short story for the first time in the year 2002 while in school. ‘The Postmaster’ by Rabindranath Tagore is a familiar short story in our literature textbooks. I have always wanted to analyze this story, and I am happy I got the opportunity to do so today. I have the entire collection of Rabindranath Tagore’s fiction and non-fiction in my possession, which I hope to review and analyze soon. Buddhadeva Bose, a Bengali writer, is considered the true heir to Rabindranath Tagore’s writing style. I have reviewed Buddhadeva Bose’s short story ‘A Life’ and his novel When the Time is Right. He writes very much like Tagore, and you can check those reviews for reference.
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