For his first job, the Postmaster is assigned to work in the village of Ulapur, a quiet backwater with an indigo factory. He feels sorely out of place in the village, feeling both too sophisticated as a Calcutta man amongst uneducated villagers, and needlessly arrogant to the very people who he might turn to, hoping for friendship.
For lack of anything better to do, the Postmaster takes to writing poetry about his scenic surroundings, pontificating on rain-soaked leaves and the like as a way to express his deepest sorrows. Since he doesn’t make much money, the Postmaster cooks for himself and enlists a young orphan girl named Ratan to help him with housework in exchange for some food.
One night while Ratan is preparing his hookah, the Postmaster asks her to describe her family. This begins a relationship where the two share intimate details about their families, with the Postmaster divulging how much he misses his mother and sister back in Calcutta. The rapport develops to such an extent that Ratan starts to consider the Postmaster’s family her own.
One day while watching a bird in a tree, the Postmaster is taken by a desperate need for female companionship, for someone who he could share this sighting of a bird with. He calls Ratan into his office and informs her that he’s going to teach her how to read. These lessons continue until the Postmaster falls ill and he grows unable and unwilling to continue. Ratan, regardless, practices what he has taught her. Fed up with the village and his illness, the Postmaster applies for a transfer and is denied.
Nonetheless, he quits the job to return home, and tells Ratan as much. Ratan begs him to take her with him, but he smugly tells her that’s impossible. He promises her that the next Postmaster will take care of her, but that does nothing to comfort her. Upon leaving, he tries to give Ratan money, but she refuses.
As the Postmaster is leaving, he is struck by a feeling that he should go back and take Ratan, but concludes that life is full of separations and endings, so what’s the point? Ratan doesn’t have the same view though, and holds out, in anguish, for the possibility that the Postmaster will return to take her to Calcutta.
“The Postmaster” is one of Tagore’s bleaker stories, spun around two immensely lonely characters whose only chance to end their loneliness is squandered. While as readers we may yearn for the happy ending where the Postmaster returns to the village to whisk Ratan away, Tagore instead uses these characters to lay out a parable about interpersonal relationships in developing modernity under British imperial rule of India.
Key here is the fact that the Postmaster is sent to the village of Ulapur as a colonial agent of the British, so that this little industry town can have a functioning post office. The Postmaster is, in turn, an agent of the British economic and colonial projects in India. Naturally they would select an educated man, but the price of the Postmaster putting that education to good use is finding working conditions that alienate him. Such alienation was a common condition of people involved with industry in the late 1800s (the time this story was written), and was a trope explored by writers ranging from Charles Dickens to Karl Marx.
At the end of the story, we get a contrast between the educated Postmaster’s “philosophy” and Ratan’s uneducated naivete. These are cast as equal burdens, with the Postmaster’s flippant decision to leave Ratan behind because life is full of separations and deaths portrayed as comparably tragic to Ratan’s delusional hope that Ratan might one day return to the village for her. It’s a mysterious little parable that doesn’t have a clear moral, but rather offers a meditation on a fundamental human tragedy that undergirds both loneliness and desire.