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Postmaster

(This is a feeble translation of "Postmaster", a story by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. The objective is merely to urge readers to read the original, or better translations. The story is about a postmaster who is used to city life but has to take up duties in a remote village, far away from his loved ones. An orphan girl does the housework for him. The postmaster feels very lonely. In order to ward off his loneliness the postmaster takes to writing poetry wherein he suggests that there can be no greater joy than to live in the midst of nature. But, contrary to the sentiments expressed in his poems, the postmaster pines for the city life; he longs to be in Kolkata with its tall buildings and tarred roads. Again, in order to overcome his loneliness, the postmaster takes to teaching Ratan, the orphan girl. Perhaps, because the girl is also companionless like him that the postmaster feels a kind of affinity for her and tells her about his family members and his longing for them, something which he would have hesitated to tell others. In course of time, the girl becomes fond of the postmaster and regards him as an elder brother. Ratan herself had a brother whose memory is uppermost in her mind; perhaps that memory makes her long for a brother. The postmaster also feels an affection for her, but his heart yearns to go back to his family in Kolkata; the affection is that of a master, and not of a brother! The postmaster, unable to face the separation from his family, resigns from his job. Before going away, he offers monetary assistance to the girl. The girl is distressed that a sister's affection was sought to be weighed in terms of money. She, of course, declines to take the money, but her little heart hopes that the postmaster will take her along with him, or he would return back to the village. A truly heart-rending story! After reading the story one cannot help feeling angry at the postmaster. Why didn't he take Ratan along with him? Well, the conditions were very different when this story was written: It wasn't an open society then; girls were married off at a very young age; there were all kinds of social differences and taboos. Only a person with courage could have taken the girl along with him; the postmaster, in contrast, appears to be of timid type. Perhaps that's the reason why he laughs away the question and counters "How is that possible?" when the girl asks him whether he would take her home along with him. Wonder whether the story would have a happy ending if written in today's times)

Following his appointment, the postmaster was first assigned to take up duties in the village Ulapur. It was a small village with an indigo factory nearby. It was at the persistence of the factory's owner, an Englishman, that the post office had come to be established in the village.

Our postmaster was a Kolkata lad, and he felt like a fish out of water in this remote village. His office was situated in a dark and dismal eight-eaved structure. At some distance was a pond covered with water hyacinth and surrounded on all sides by a jungle. The workers of the factory hardly had any spare time and, besides, they were not the kind with whom a gentleman could associate.

Your Kolkata lad, especially, is not adept at socializing. He feels either self-conscious, or assumes a haughty attitude in a strange place. For this reason, he finds himself unable to mix with the locals. But when there isn't much work to do, he sometimes takes to writing poetry to give expression to his sentiments that there can be no greater joy in life than to watch the leaves quivering in the breeze or the clouds in the sky all through the day. But the Omniscient knows that if a genie out of the Arabian Nights were to appear and clear away all vegetation within a night replacing them with concrete roads and rows of tall buildings which obscure the clouds from sight, then this poor half-dead gentleman can become rejuvenated.

The postmaster earned a meager salary. He had to cook his own meals. An orphan girl from the village performed the rest of household chores, and she received food for the services. The girl's name was Ratan. She was 12 or 13 years old; the prospects for her marriage were bleak.

In the evenings when smoke curled up from the hovels; when crickets began their chirping songs in the thickets; when far away in the village groups of Bauls - the mystic minstrels - sounded their conch shells, clanged their cymbals and launched into high-pitched songs in an addicted ecstasy; and when sitting alone in the dusk the poet experienced a flutter in his heart while watching the fluttering trees; the postmaster would light a low-flame lamp in the corner of the house and call out, "Ratan". Ratan would sit by the door awaiting the call but never came up immediately. "What O' Babu, why do you call?" she would ask.

Postmaster: What are you doing?

Ratan: Have to light the stove .... in the kitchen.

Postmaster: You may light the stove later; first fetch me my pipe.

Ratan would enter presently with her cheeks puffed from the effort of blowing at the pipe to keep it burning. The postmaster would take the pipe from her and ask, "Tell me Ratan, do you remember your mother?"

That's a long story; Ratan remembered some of it, while the rest she has forgotten. Her father was fonder of her than her mother; she still had some hazy memories of her father. Her father used to return home in the evenings after a hard day's work - a few such evenings are still imprinted in Ratan's mind.

Ratan would sit on the floor at the postmaster's feet and recall those evenings. She remembered having a little brother. Many years ago, on a rainy day, the two of them had picked up a fallen twig and, pretending that it was a real fishing rod, had sat by the edge of a pond trying to catch fish. This particular incident was fresh in her mind and she related it often to the neglect of graver happenings in her life. Sometimes these conversations lasted late into the evenings and, then, the postmaster would feel too lazy to cook. At such times Ratan would hastily light the stove and bake a few unleavened bread and warm the morning's leftovers; the two were happy with this frugal meal.

Often in the evenings, the postmaster sat on a wooden office stool at the corner of the huge eight-sloped-roof structure and spoke about his own family - younger brother, mother, elder sister, about those for whom his heart ached in the solitude of his room. He could never have related these heartaches to the workers of the indigo factory, but he freely spoke about them to the unlettered and rustic girl. He did not feel restrained. In course of time, while listening to these stories, the girl began to refer to the members of the postmaster's family as Ma, Didi (elder sister) and Dada (elder brother) as a matter of right and as though she had known them all her life; she had even sketched their imaginary pictures in her little heart.

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  • Union Public Service Commission - www.upsc.gov.in
  • IIT-Kharagpur - www.iitkgp.ac.in
  • Indian Statistical Institute - www.isical.ac.in
  • Indian Institute of Technology Madras - www.iitm.ac.in
  • Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad - www.iimahd.ernet.in
  • Indian Institute of Mass Commission - www.iimc.nic.in
  • IIT Bombay - www.iitb.ac.in
  • Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad - www.ismdhanbad.ac.in
  • Birla Institute of Technology, Ranchi - www.bitmesra.ac.in
  • Central Institute of Fisheries Nautical and Engineering Training - www.cifnet.nic.in
  • Indian Institute of Information Technology, Allahabad (Deemed University) - www.iiita.ac.in
  • Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi - www.cmfri.com
  • Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai - www.tiss.edu