Rabindranath Tagore: Short Stories

Rabindranath Tagore: Short Stories Summary

Rabindranath Tagore's writing was innovative in Bengali literature at the time for its focus on daily life, as opposed to the more traditional concerns of Indian literatures, which tended to be constrained to epic and religious tales. His short stories often depicted exceptional circumstances and critical moments in the lives of everyday Bengali people, be they rich or poor, men or women, and even living or dead. Throughout his short stories, Tagore engages themes of domestic roles, the supernatural, and class. Sometimes these stories have conclusive endings with clear morals, and sometimes they're wry or mysterious parables that don't seem to end or have any direct message.

"Punishment" is the story of a man, Chidam, who accuses his wife, Chandara, of a murder that his brother committed. While Chidam claims that he has a way to clear Chandara's name, Chandara is so repulsed by her husband's actions that she chooses to take the responsibility for the murder, believing that the death penalty will be preferable to continuing to live with a man who betrayed her.

In "Kabuliwallah," a traveling confections salesman develops a close friendship with a precocious young girl until he is sent to jail for stabbing a man who owed him money. When the Kabuliwallah gets out of jail a number of years later, he wants to see the girl, but shows up at her house on her wedding day. Her father attempts to turn the Kabuliwallah away, but the Kabuliwallah shows the father a sheet of paper marked with his own daughter's handprint in ash, and the father is touched. He lets the Kabuliwallah see the girl, but the strange interaction reminds the Kabuliwallah that he's been away from his own daughter for so long that he's missed her growing up and will have to become reacquainted with her.

"The Postmaster" tells the story of a functionary of the British government from Calcutta who is sent to the countryside to set up a post office. There, he develops a close relationship with an orphan girl who he begins to teach how to read. But after falling ill, he quits his job to return to Calcutta. The orphan girl asks to be taken with him, but he callously refuses. She is heartbroken and holds out a vague hope that he'll return for her, but the postmaster effectively shrugs her off.

In one of Tagore's more explicitly supernatural stories, "The Hungry Stones," a man tells a story of being sent to Hyderabad as a tax collector, but spending most of his nights in a haunted palace where he is sent back in time 250 years every night in his dreams, taking part in a decadent and lustful royal court. The haunted palace tries to consume his soul, but the story ends before we can learn how he escaped that fate.

"Thoughtlessness" depicts a doctor who takes advantage of a friend's misfortune to enrich himself and gain a lofty bridal dowry for his daughter. When his daughter falls ill right before her wedding, the doctor begs forgiveness for his sins from his friend who he exploited, but the friend is confounded. The doctor's daughter quickly dies, and the doctor starts treating young women free of charge. The story ends when the doctor reprimands a corrupt police inspector who is a friend of his for refusing to help an impoverished man cremate his daughter, yet the doctor is ultimately held in the wrong, and has to leave the village.

Similarly, "Profit and Loss" tells the story of a bridal dowry gone awry. A man wants to marry his daughter into a family in a higher social class, but she marries before he can raise all of the money for the exorbitant dowry. She is treated terribly in her new family home, and the father lives his life in shame, constantly trying to scrounge together money to pay off his debt. He plunges his family into poverty to get the money, but his daughter is embarrassed that he thinks he can buy her dignity back. She falls suddenly ill and dies, and her mother-in-law quickly arranges a new marriage for her widower son with an even higher dowry price.

"The Living and the Dead" shows the strange period of a woman's life after she briefly dies. When she wakes up from death, she knows she can not return home, so she goes to a childhood friend's house, where she stays until they learn that she has previously died. When she returns home, her family is convinced that she is a ghost and begs her to leave. The only way she can convince them that she wasn't dead is to throw herself into a well, killing herself for good.

"Wishes Granted" tells the story of a father and a son who wish that they could swap places. It's a comical supernatural tale where the each of them learn that life isn't as good in each other's roles as they thought it would be, and they successfully beg to be transformed back to their original ages.

In "Taraprasanna's Fame," yet another father must raise a bridal dowry. To do this, he goes to Calcutta to publish a book that his wife tells him is brilliant, but that she doesn't understand. It's lauded by critics as a brilliant and impossible-to-understand book, but for all the praise in the press, the book barely sells any copies. The man returns home when he finds out his wife is pregnant with her fifth daughter, and she dies during childbirth, but not before naming the new daughter after the book.

"Skeleton" is a mysterious supernatural tale that also has an intentionally unsatisfying ending, where a ghost comes to tell a boy about falling deeply in love with, and being scorned by, a doctor. She poisons the doctor and poisons herself, only to return as a ghost and find her skeleton hanging in the boy's house for the purpose of teaching him and his brothers anatomy.