Kadambini is a widow with no child who has an incredibly close relationship with her brother-in-law’s son. A deep affection develops between them, as strong as the bond between a mother and son. But one night, Kadambini suddenly dies. The family calls for four Brahmins, who take her to a temple, where her body will await ritual cremation. But that very night, while her watchmen are out smoking and looking for firewood, her body stirs. Kadambini awakens from death and walks out.
Having come back to life, Kadambini finds herself in a strange in-between. She wants to return home, but tells herself that she is not alive, and knows she would not be welcome to return. She realizes that even though the living fear the dead, the dead fear the living as well.
In her wanderings, she is found by a man who believes she comes from a good family and wants to help her get home. While Kadambini doesn’t think she can return home, she asks the man to take her to the house of her childhood friend, Yogmaya. The man complies, and when Kadambini arrives, Yogmaya is overjoyed. Kadambini offers to work as a servant in her house, but Yogmaya refuses, and invites her to stay.
But that time Kadambini stays in Yogmaya’s house is strange. Increasingly, the house is visited by ghosts. Kadambini herself feels like she is dead, and can not enjoy living in her friend's house. After a period of time, Yogmaya gets fed up with Kadambini’s presence, and demands to know why her husband has not questioned Kadambini living in their house. So the husband embarks on a journey to Kadambini’s family house to find out why she isn’t living there.
What he finds out is that Kadambini in fact died. Yogamaya doesn’t believe it, but late at night while the two are quarreling about the matter, Kadambini comes to confirm that she did indeed die. They kick her out of the house and Kadambini returns home. Her brother-in-law’s son is glad to see her, and she finally feels alive again. But everyone else is petrified of her presence, begging her to leave the boy alone. Kadambini tries to convince them that she is alive, but they refuse to believe it. Finally, she throws herself into a well in the courtyard and dies there. It is only by dying that she was able to prove that she was alive.
"The Living and the Dead" combines two of Tagore’s common short story forms: the supernatural tale and the ironic parable. Here, Tagore plays with the idea of being stuck between life and death—also explored by way of the man in the loincloth in "Thoughtlessness" as well as Chandara in "Punishment"—this time using the trope to explore the state of ghostliness. We see Kadambini wandering aimlessly and deeply concerned about how she will be received by the people who were close to her prior to death. Indeed, even though they see someone who looks like a living woman, they refuse to take her as such, and are deathly afraid of her.
The irony is that indeed she is alive, if ever so improbably. That narrator tells us that this happens from time to time, but the characters in the story aren’t so enlightened. Even though, for example, Yogmaya accepts her old friend as perfectly alive for the majority of their time together, she can no longer see Kadambini as anything but a ghost when she learns of her previous death. Tagore’s depiction of understanding here is a strange, wry, and ultimately understated claim that preconceptions can work rather unintuitively, to render the people we see right in front of us into the type of people they are not.
The idea of changing the way one sees someone else is explored in "Kabuliwallah" as well, when the narrator talks about no longer seeing the Kabuliwallah as a would-be murderer, but as a father like himself. In both that story and this one, the capacity to see people for what they really are is in question. And in this odd parable, Kadambini ultimately has to change herself to fit the idea people have of her: she must throw herself into a well and finally achieve that death, in order to be recognized as having been alive.