Betrayal plays out in a variety of ways in Tagore's stories. In "Punishment" betrayal is clearly central to the story, as a man falsely blaming his wife for a murder to protect his brother leads to his fiercely independent wife choosing to be hanged over living and having to stay with him. But it also plays out in more subtle ways too. In "Kabuliwallah," the titular character goes to prison and is betrayed by the passage of time when he learns that the little girls he loved so much have now grown into women he doesn't know. In "The Living and the Dead," a woman who dies is betrayed by death itself, as she wakes up alive a few hours later yet walks the earth as a ghost. Betrayal, in turn, becomes a moralistic plot device as well as an ironic twist under Tagore's pen.
The lion's share of stories in this collection were written during the 1890s, a period when India was beginning to modernize under the colonial rule of the British. Tagore loves to explore tensions in modernization, pitting newfangled bureaucrats from Calcutta against more traditional Bengalis living farther out in the country. Expectations about education as well as vast disparities in wealth and access to resources become central in stories like "The Postmaster" and "The Hungry Stones." Tagore seems less interested in deciding if modernization is good or bad than he is in exploring the strange ways it takes hold in India.
India is historically a hierarchal society, built on a caste system which organizes society based on individuals status in the wheel of reincarnation. While Tagore rarely names the specific castes of his characters outright, he is very interested in the ways that these class differences affect the relative humanity afforded to various characters. In "The Postmaster," for example, members of the upper class are depicted as opportunists who relish the opportunity to drain a person in need's savings, while the lowest class can't even get their loved ones properly buried. Class is central to "Profit and Loss" as well, when a father who tries to marry her daughter into a family of a higher class ends up plunging his own family into poverty and shame.
Closely related to the theme of class is the theme of money, something that Tagore clearly finds absurd. He sees it as the tool by which the higher classes exert their influences, and as a resource which makes lives of those lacking it miserable. But Tagore often makes the deft move of showing the value of his characters outside of their monetary wealth. The daughter in "Profit and Loss," for example, refuses to let her father pay off her dowry debt, lest this move equate her with a simple sum of money. Likewise, the orphaned girl who the Postmaster develops a bond with in "The Postmaster" refuses the money he offers while abandoning her, clearly showing that heartbreak can't be fixed with some lump of cash, no matter how much it may help her. And of course, the big twist in "Thoughtlessness" comes when the Doctor realizes that money is at the root of all his error.
Tagore's most fun stories tend to be those engaging the supernatural, investigating the mysterious exchanges between the worlds of the living and the dead. "The Hungry Stones" is a mystical tale where the protagonist descends into a dream world where he visits the royal court of a Shah who ruled two-and-a-half decades ago, and "The Living and the Dead" tells the story of a woman trapped between living and dying. In both of these, Tagore uses the supernatural to explore the biases and the desires of the living, testing the limits of human rationality by confronting his characters with the unexplainable. "Wishes Granted" concerns a fictional goddess who grants a father and son their wishes of switching places.
The Writer's Life
In both "The Postmaster" and "Taraprasanna's Fame" we get less-than-flattering portrayals of writers. Tagore seems to take some joy in making his writers pathetic, be they morally bankrupt like the Postmaster or socially incompetent like Taraprasanna. It's very likely that the privileged and lauded Tagore wanted to show the public that a writer was not a figure to idolize, but just a person who may have even more flaws than the average Joe.
The roles of husband and wife, as well as brides and grooms, figure prominently in Tagore's stories. Often what he's interested in is those relations between married people or to-be-married people that fall outside of India's domestic norms. This comes up in Chandara's betrayal by her husband in "Punishment," the ghost's tendency to murder husband figures in "Skeleton," or Dakshayani's total loss of will to live upon baring her husband a fifth daughter in "Taraprasanna's Fame." As Tagore was one of the preeminent writers of Indian's modernization period, he was an interrogator for the society's norms and traditions, with domestic roles chief among them.
Rabindranath Tagore: Short Stories Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Rabindranath Tagore: Short Stories is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.