The story opens with a narrator telling us that he had to leave his homestead, and that he will tell us the story indirectly. We learn that this narrator is a doctor who had a cozy relationship with his town’s police inspector, and that the two would benefit financially from one another’s work. The Inspector wants the widower Doctor to marry his spinster sister, but the Inspector doesn’t want to burden his beloved only daughter Shashi with a stepmother.
The Doctor knows that he has the opportunity to marry Sashi into a prominent family if he can accumulate enough money for a dowry, and this becomes his foremost priority. One day, his friend Harinath comes asking for help after a terrible tragedy. Harinath’s wife has suddenly died, and enemies of his have told the authorities that she had died from an abortion.
The police want to inspect the body, and Harinath wants the Doctor to help stave this investigation off. But instead, the Doctor refuses to help and sees the opportunity to enrich himself in the midst of his friend’s terrible tragedy. Harinath falls into poverty paying for the investigation so his wife can earn a proper burial.
The Doctor arranges for Sashi’s wedding now that he has a sufficient dowry, but Sashi falls ill with a bad case of cholera on the night before her wedding. While Sashi is sick, the Doctor is struck with grief for exploiting his friend, and he goes to Harinath begging for forgiveness, claiming that his daughter is dying because of his sin. Harinath doesn’t understand and is quite embarrassed. Sashi dies the next day.
The Doctor begins treating young girls for free to atone for his sins. He misses his daughter terribly and hears her voice whenever a needy person is sick. One day, a man from another village appears at the police station in a boat asking for help cremating his wife. The Inspector ignores his pleas since the man is too poor to pay and the Doctor is initially too busy to help.
But after the man has sat outside in the rain all day wearing nothing but a loincloth, the Doctor storms into the Inspector's office and throws his day’s wages on the Inspector’s desk. He chastises them for only caring about money, and says that they must help the man cremate his daughter. For this embarrassing spectacle, the Doctor must apologize to his friend the Inspector, but nonetheless, he has to leave his homestead.
“Thoughtlessness” falls into the category of morality tale, although, as usual with Rabindranath Tagore's stories, here the moral is a bit obtuse. The story hinges on the irony that while the Doctor enriches himself at the expense of his friend suffering a tragedy, the Doctor loses all that was truly valuable to him when reaping the reward of that transgression. While the moral of the story is clear—that enriching oneself while another man suffers is a dangerous proposition—the social dynamic it plays out against is fairly complicated.
At the end of the story, the Doctor lashes out at the Inspector for his profiteering ways, but ultimately the Doctor is the one who must apologize and move away from his homestead. Here, the real irony of the story unfolds, as the people that profit from others’ suffering get to live their lives uninterrupted while the abject and exploited are made to suffer for the rest of their days. Tagore tips us off early on that this is the real message of the story with the oblivious Harinath, who is glad that the Doctor made him a beggar since it meant that Harinath’s wife could be properly buried.
What Tagore is writing a morality tale about is not really matter of good or bad, but about the morals of society itself. He’s using this heartbreaking story to skewer a system whereby people in power can profit from suffering with impunity, while the destitute are left unaccounted for. That man in the boat wearing only a loincloth sits outside of the police station in the rain all day, ignored because he doesn’t have money. There’s a happy enough ending for that man, as we know his daughter will get properly cremated, but we know that there are many more men like him, sitting alone in the rain, impoverished and living without dignity.