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Module 1: El Postmaster

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Twentieth Century Fiction
Prof. Avishek Parui
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Madras

Lecture - 03
The Postmaster - Part 3


So, hi and welcome to this last lecture on this text by Rabindranath Tagore called the
Postmaster which we are covering for the purpose of our course Twentieth-Century Fiction. So, today will be the last lecture for this particular text, but of course, we can all come back to it later and discuss it further more generally or even more specifically if you have any further clarifications to make. So, we stopped, at the last class we stopped at the point where the protagonist the postmaster is about to leave Ratan who is this little girl who worked for him and with whom they you know he developed an empathetic relationship.
The entire story is essentially about the creation of empathy. So, we have two very different individuals, one urban you know young man presumably from Calcutta, presumably from an urban background, he finds himself you know empathetic or establishing an economy of empathy with the little girl from a very rural setting in Bengal, Ulapur, the name of the place name of the village where he is situated as postmaster. And we have seen how the colonial backdrop is very important the indigo factory the post office, these are all colonial sites spaces of colonial machinery with which the entire administrative operation was established.
So, against its backdrop, against its very colonial architecture we have the story of two human beings you know establishing an empathetic relationship with each other, but we see how of course, the last section we saw we stopped at the point where the postmaster is about to leave this village, where he finds himself so that is a very important feature in this particular story how two human beings who are very different from each other they establish this empathetic relationship. And a postmaster over here at this point he is on a verge of leaving this village because you know he fell ill as we saw and he found himself unable to cope with this entire setting this entire situation, and further and then we have this entire you know the difference in communication the moment he tells Ratan that he is about to leave the village for cure and not coming back.
She goes back to being just a servant, she goes back to seeing just being just a errand girl for the postmaster and in fact the entire communication changes, the order of communication changes, vocabulary changes, the rhetoric changes and that change in linguistic register is important to notice for us because that I mean language essentially is a reflection of the mind and how the mind thinks, how the thought processes operate in the mind, it is reflected in language it is reflected rhetorically in the linguistic register.
But over here we find that Ratan is going back to being a servant, has gone back to being the errand girl for the postmaster. Now, so at this point, we get to know that you know postmaster tries to redeem the entire situation and tells Ratan and this should be on the screen. The master said you need not be anxious about me going away Ratan, I shall tell my successor to look after you. These words were kindly meant, no doubt; but inscrutable are the ways of a woman’s heart. So, again we have this entire idea of a man’s heart and woman’s heart slightly binaristic in quality.
But then if you look through that and look beyond that binary what has essentially been told over here is you know the postmaster in a very you know gentlemanly way, is trying to redeem the situation is trying to tell Ratan that you need not to be so worried whoever is going to come in whoever is about to come in for my position later, I will tell the person to be kind to you, but I will tell the person to take care of you, to look after you essentially to hire you.
So, Ratan had borne many a scolding from the master without complaint, but these kind words she could not bear. She burst out weeping, and said, No, no, you need not tell anybody anything at all about me; I do not want to stay on here. So, you know we see over here that Ratan had ceased to be in her mind, she had ceased to be the servant for the postmaster, and she has ceased to be and she had become in a way family for the postmaster.
So, we saw we have seen before how the when the postmaster was ill, you know she had become the mother figure of the postmaster nurturing him back to health, healing him back to health. So, she has become much more than just a servant girl over here. And now she does not want to go back to being a servant once that now she is got this existential experience of being something else. So, I do not want to stay on here. So, she wants to go away from this place for good from the postmaster, she does not want to continue as a servant girl in this situation anymore.
The postmaster was dumbfounded. So, we have a complete break in communication over here, so which is very ironical because we have seen how the postmaster have been teaching Ratan letters of the Bengali alphabet, you know the script and she had made great progress, but now she is saying certain things which the postmaster does not understand. So, she had obviously mastered she is emotionally more rich over here she is emotionally more complex over here. And the postmaster is unable to gauge the complexity of the situation, the complexity of the communication so to say. So, he was dumbfounded. He had never seen Ratan like this before.
The new incumbent duly arrived, and the postmaster, having given over charge, prepared to depart. So, a new person is about to join in a step in for the postmaster incumbent, he arrives, the new government officer, the new postmaster essentially, and then the postmaster, our postmaster of the story gives him the charge, tells him the duties, explains the situation to him, and he is preparing to leave.
Just before starting he called Ratan and said here is something for you, I hope it will keep you for some little time; it is just something of a parting gift. He brought out from his pocket the whole of his month’s salary, retaining only a trifle for his travelling expenses. So, this is something that he wants to give generously. So, he wants to give his entire salary to Ratan, just keeping a little bit for himself a little trifle for his travelling expenses, rest of the money he wants to give to Ratan. So, his entire salary which is presumably a substantial amount of money especially from Ratan’s perspective is being given to Ratan by the postmaster as some kind of a parting gift. But also we are told over here we would get to know over here that the postmaster is trying to do this to make himself feel better about the whole situation.
And Ratan of course, presumably understandably refused to take the gift, refused to accept the gift as well. Then Ratan fell at his feet and cried, oh, Dada, I pray you do not give me, anything do not in any way trouble about me and then she ran away out of sight. So, she refused to take the gift. And this refusal to accept the gift is very important over here, because she wants to retain the empathetic bond, the existential emotional bond that she establishes with the postmaster, she does not want to go back to being the servant girl.
I mean she does the duties of a servant girl before the postmaster leaves but in her mind she has already left the place, in her mind she is you know ceased to be part of the place anymore. And by refusing to accept the gift from the postmaster, she refused to be the servant, she refused to be you know to accept the fact that he was a master and she was a servant over here. And she retains the privilege of the emotional relationship, the privilege of the companionship that they had that they had established over this period of time.
So, this refusal is very symbolic refusal on her part. The refusal is a rejection to be treated as a as a servant over here, and as retention to a certain extent of the empathetic relationship that she had with the postmaster ok, so that that is an important symbolic gesture on Ratan’s part, the refusal was important over here. So, it is a retention as an act of rejection of the servant master relationship, and the retention of the brother-sister relationship which is essentially priceless which cannot be quantified by any amount of money ok.
The postmaster heaved a sigh, took up his carpet, bag put his umbrella over his shoulder, and accompanied by a man carrying his many-coloured tin trunk, he slowly made for the boat. So, this is rural Bengal and this is colonial Bengal, so only way of communication to and from Calcutta were in boats right. So, it is a very common iconic image of people from villages coming to Calcutta in boats. So, obviously, there were no roadways, no bridges at that time the way we know it today.
So, boats were the only means of travel upon the time. So, this very symbolic image of the postmaster walking with his umbrella and man carrying his tin trunk ahead of him, and the two of them making the way to the boat which are taken back to Calcutta this very iconic precolonial image un-colonial image of rural Bengal you know so to say.
When he got in and the boat was under way, and the rain-swollen river, like a stream of tears welling up from the earth, swirled and sobbed at her at her bows, that he felt a pain at heart; the grief-stricken face of village girls seemed to represent for him the great unspoken pervading grief of Mother Earth herself. So, we see over here very interesting a reflection in nature of what is happening to human mind. So, the human mind, the human emotions over here are reflected by the landscape around, so the river looks rainswollen, and of course, the entre rain-swollen thing becomes metaphor for a teary river like streams of tears flowing from the welling up from the Mother Earth.
So, we can see the river is humanized over here, the earth is humanized over here, and the rains of the river rain swollen river is humanized to an extent that it looks like the very teary eyes of Mother Earth, so it is feminized and humanized to a great extent. So, a swirling and sobbing at her bows, then he felt a pain at heart. So, you know this entire projection of human emotions at play over here. So, the grief-stricken face of the village girl, so she he keeps remembering the grief in Ratan’s face in you know that kind of you know it is almost like a mourning image. She is mourning the departure of someone beloved, it is almost like a death of a certain relationship death of a some human relationship. So, in that sense of the death of a certain human emotion to that extent and that seems to represent for him, the great unspoken pervading grief of Mother Earth herself.
So, the unspoken grief, so the entire unuttered grief, so and that is also a very important thing the fact that Ratan does not spell out why she is so sad, but as everything is communicated so perfectly and that not spelling out yet communicating becomes very important mechanism over here. It is almost some existential mechanism which the postmasters is you know absorbing at the moment. So, Ratan never spelt out why she is so unhappy why she is so sad at the postmaster’s departure.
But we all know having read the story that they had established a very empathetic relationship a companionship so to say and she had refused to go back to being the servant for the postmaster. She had done all the chores for the postmaster on the last day, she had filled the bucket with water, she had cleaned the house she had done all the chores of a servant, but at that moment of time she refused to be the servant I mean she had retained to a great extent the privilege of being the companion and like I said a little while before her refusal to accept the money as a parting gift from the postmaster as a refusal a rejection of the master-servant relationship and the retention of the privileged companionship that she had established with the postmaster.
And now we see over here the postmaster is projecting his thought processes onto the nature around him, the natural landscape around him. And it seems to him it appears to him that you know the Mother Earth is sobbing and the entire the face of Ratan becomes a metonymic reflection, partly reflection of the entire Mother Earth a nature you know not being able to communicate its grief, by the same time the human nature relationship becomes very entangled relationship over here. And it is also very symbolic, because he is going back to Calcutta which is essentially a symbolically metropolitan place, so away from nature.
So this departure from nature, geographically as well as existentially is beautifully depicted over here. So, he is going away from nature he is going away from Ratan. So Ratan becomes in a way the image of Mother Earth in rural Bengal ok. So, that the interruption of that bond is interesting over here is it generates the existential suffering in the postmaster’s heart, the fact that he is going back to Calcutta which is a city, it is presumably less natural presumably less organic less spontaneous and less you know emotional than a rural setting that he is departing from.
So, Ratan becomes over here you know he she becomes a personification of rural Bengal. So, the entire story can be read as allegory now of the young man from the city coming to stay in rural Bengal and establishing a companionship with rural Bengal and then decided to depart after certain point because of ill health. And the sorrow in Ratan’s heart the sorrow in Ratan’s face is reflected and projected and by different natural signifiers such as rain, the river, and the trees everything around the postmaster now seems to communicate to him what Ratan did not communicate clearly.
Well, it can been communicated to him through symbolic gestures through natural landscapes which becomes an overload of cognitive communication right. So, we are moving away from a like order of verbal communication to a more cognitive communication, where we have natural landscapes coming up together to communicate a sorrow of rural Bengal at a departure of the urban son so to say. So, you know this allegory becomes quite established at this point in the story ok.

So, at one time, he had an impulse to go back and bring away along with him that lonesome waif, forsaken of the world. So, at some point actually thought maybe I should go back and take her back with me, bring her back with me which is something she suggested at some point, she has suggested why do not you take me with you, and then I can stay with you in Calcutta, I can be one of your family person. So, we have seen we had seen how at some point before in a story that she had began to imagine herself as someone inserted in the family structure in a kin structure of the postmaster.
And because she is consumed all the stories she is consume of the narratives in the postmaster about his family, about his mother, about his sister, and now she has began she had begun to believe herself to be one of them, and to an certain extent. So, and now the postmaster is thinking reflecting in his mind deliberating whether or not he should go back and bring back the lonesome waif, the orphan girl so to say and rescue her essentially by taking her with him to Calcutta.
But the wind had just filled the sails, the boat had got well into the middle of the turbulent current, and already the village was left behind, and its outlying burningground came in sight. So, again natural signifiers become very symbolically present over here. The wind had pushed the sails, it was already underway, and the boat had caught well in the middle of the turbulent currents. So, it is become turbulent because it is monsoon, is raining and a village was left behind, and its outlying burning-ground came in sight. So, that was a very symbolic space the burning-ground the cremation ground you know place where the funeral pyres are set, so that is where the dead bodies had brought in. So, you know the postmaster can just see that and that is essentially at the fringes of the village.
So, every village had a fringe space where the you know dead bodies the people who died will be brought in for you know the funeral pyre, and that that becomes like a crematory, not a crematory, but you know a funeral space for the for the for the village folk and postmaster can now see that just that and that becomes the very fringe space for the village and he can just see that he is moving away from the village.
So, he does not see the nurturing village anymore, he sees a dead village and that becomes a dead space in that sense. And the deadness of the space that space where the in the burning-ground with funeral pyres are set up, so that becomes image of deadness in this particular point in the story, deadness of human relationship, the postmaster’s move away from something which is now essentially dead he cannot recover it, he cannot resurrect it anymore ok.
And again so we see how Tagore is such a master in terms of his use of natural signifiers, natural spaces or spatial signifiers in order to communicate in more human emotions and communicate the human states of mind. So the departure from the nurturing village and the side of the dead village becomes quite symbolically present spectacularly present at this point in the story ok. So, the burning-ground becomes a very symbolic space at this point.

So, the traveller, borne on the breast of the swift-flowing river, consoled himself with philosophical reflections on the numberless meetings and partings going on in a world – on death, the great parting, from which none returns. So, again look at the way in which the human mind is informed by the natural space or natural landscape.
So, he sees a dead space, he sees a burning space, the space where many human bodies are burnt in a funeral pyres and that triggers in him that generates in his mind a philosophical deliberation about you know departure and death being the greatest departure this world just said about how the departure the entire act of departure, the entire gesture of departure, entire activity of departure, a process of departure is magnified into a symbolic image of death. And that image of deadness the space of deadness the speciality of death becomes very important over here as it is a really intense signifier of departure, the departure, the ultimate departure, the eventual departure right.
So, the postmaster traveller and interestingly we are told he is a traveller now someone is sort of travelling all the time you know and is flowing on this river, the turbulent river, he is consoling himself now with the entire reflections of numberless meetings and partings going on. In other word, the liminality of life, liminality being the threshold condition people just come and go. So, the liminal condition is a threshold condition where between two states of mind between two states of being. So, the postmaster is deliberating over here the liminality of life of living itself, life as a liminal process of endless meetings and partings going on.
And then of course, he thinks of death the great parting, the great departure, the ultimate departure from which none returns. And also look at the way if you visualize it is quite cinematic actually if you visualize it, we have this lonely man travelling away from a village in this boat which is sails have been filled with the wind and it is travelling into or across the river and you can see this panoramic image of the of the burning space, this space where you know bodies are burnt as per Hindu rituals, the funeral cart so to say the funeral pyre space. And he is consoling himself by duelling and deliberating on the philosophical idea of life as a series of departures, and then looking at that space where the dead bodies are brought in he begins to think about the great departure the ultimate departure of death from which none returns.
But then look at the immediate contrast between the that kind of a philosophical musing and Ratan’s mind. And we are told now, but Ratan had no philosophy she was wondering about the post office in a flood of tears, it may be that she still have a lurking hope in some corner of a heart that her dada would return and that she is that is why she could not tear herself away.

Alas for our foolish human nature. So, again look at the complete contrast between the two thought processes. So, while the postmaster is consoling himself by thinking a deep lofty indulgent philosophical musings about you know departures and liminality and death. Ratan on the other hand is just crying around in a lonely post office and a forsaken post office now which is now emptied of purpose and then you know she had some hope hoping against hope as it were that her Dada her brother would return you know and you know take her away, maybe continue to walk over here and she would get to see him again and that is why she could not tear herself away.
So, she could not really go away from the place yet. So, she is still nurturing some hope in her mind that Dada would return, her brother would return, the postmaster would return, and she would establish and re-establish and revive the companionship that she had with him at some point of time.
Alas for our foolish human nature. Its fond mistakes are persistent. The dictates of reason take a long time to assert their own sway. So, you know we have again sort of binary over here between manly reason, urban reason, and rural feminine emotions. So, with the entire idea of feminine and rural sort of connected to emotional and sentiments, whereas the urban and male are connected to reason, so again we have a sort of binaristic trope over here which is slightly problematic, but that is how the story stands. So, we read it accordingly.
So, dictates of reason take a long time to assert their own sway. The surest proofs meanwhile are disbelieved. False hope is clung to with all one’s might and main, till a day comes when it has sucked the heart dry and it forcibly breaks through its bonds and departs. After that comes the misery of awakening, and then once again the longing to get back into the maze of the same mistakes.
So, we see how Ratan is described in very emotional terms in the narrator of the omniscient narrator, the third person narrator. And the story tells us that a human heart knows the reason, and Ratan obviously, is whole heart over here she is inhabiting the entire emotional landscape of the moment. And then this is a situation, this is a condition where people keep making mistakes, and false hopes, and embrace false hopes are clung on to with all one’s might and main, till a day comes when it has sucked the heart dry and forcibly breaks through its bonds and departs. So, it comes to the point where it just takes away all assistance from the heart of false hopes and then departs leaves you completely evacuated of all emotion who completely evacuated and liquidated as it were shut down emotionally existentially.
After that comes a misery of awakening, so the awakening is a rude awakening, it is a rational rude awakening. When you realize that you have been clinging on to false hopes all the time and now it is time to wake up, now it is time to embrace reality as it was, and then once again the longing to get back into the maze of the same mistakes right. So, the same mistakes of emotion, the same mistakes of you know sentiments, same sentimental mistakes, the same you know romantic mistakes, the same emotional mistakes are being made over here.
This is a general commentary on human nature how human nature, we are hard wired to be emotional we are hardwired to be hopeful. And this hopefulness instead of human nature this sort of human mind, and then sometimes we hope against hope, we cling on to false hopes until everything departs every little glimmer of hope departs forever. And then we get a rude awakening we wake up to reality a very rude reality and then you know all we can do is you know liquidate ourselves existentially, and then go back and perhaps look for the same mistakes over and over again.
So, in that sense, in the emotional idea of the, the emotional situation the human condition is glorified to romanticize to a certain extent over here, whereas, the reasonable human emotion you know someone who takes a reasonable decision departs from a place of ill health and goes away to urban setting that is looked down upon to a certain extent. So, we can clearly see where Tagore’s affiliations lie, where Tagore’s biases lie as a writer that he is definitely more biased, he is definitely more affiliated to the entire idea of emotional human nature sentimental human nature which is the truest way according to Tagore according to the narrator over here at least the truest way to be human being.
So, the entire story is about human condition, this entire story is about the complexity of human condition, the emotional complexity which cannot always be communicated, but it is also interesting to see how the emotional complexity colludes to a certain extent in terms of the communicative realm with natural signifiers, how nature colludes with a human heart over here and communicates what cannot be communicated verbally.
So, this site the image of the and the postmaster very panoramic cinematic image of the postmaster sailing away from the rural village away back to the Calcutta back to the metropolitan side of Calcutta. And looking at the entire departure by just you know getting a site the only visible thing about the village is the funeral site, the funeral fringe of the village, where you know dead bodies are brought in for cremation you know they are burnt over there, the holy site, but there is also a site which triggers in him which generates in him the feeling of departure and then he thinks about departures of liminality, and then the only great departure there is a death that comes to his mind and he sort of philosophizes about it as well.
And then we cut into you we take that was a long shot, and then we cut into a close up of Ratan who is still loitering around and you know hovering around, lurking around, the empty post office, hoping against hope that his Dada, her Dada, her companion will come back at some point, and they will go back to being companions again.
And the story ends with the commentary on the complexity of human emotions where you know human emotions compel you to a certain extent to hope against hope, and that hope against hope you forego reason, you forsake reason and then cling on to all kinds of false hopes, you cling on to the last remnants of false hopes until everything is liquidated and then you wake up to a very rude reality it is like a jolt essentially. And then you go back again looking for that hope go back again looking for the emotion.
So, in a way we are hardwired to be emotional like I said and that is what Tagore comments on at this point of the story.
So, the entire story in a nutshell is a very human emotional story against a very colonial backdrop. And this is one of the mastery of Tagore’s writing that the political is always there, the political setting the cultural setting, the social setting is always there, but it is never really foregrounded. What gets foregrounded as a human setting the human emotion the emotional setting as it were, but that is the main story, so that is political it is a profoundly political story.
Because if we take a look at the politics the magnificent difference between rural Bengal and urban Calcutta is just so dramatic, they are like two different species altogether. they do not understand each other after a point the postmaster does not know why Ratan is upset, the Ratan does not know why the postmaster is going. So, the entire difference in communication entire difference in states of mind is obviously reflective of the difference in cultural settings between rural Bengal and urban Bengal, the massive difference the massive departure as it were the discrepancy between the way urban Bengal operates in a way rural Bengal operates at this point in the story at this point in history.
So, it is a profoundly political story because we also see a series of very colonial signifiers the post office being the supreme example of that and also the indigo factory. And the inability of the postmaster to have any communication with indigo factory workers is interesting because that goes to show how the factory workers they alienate him they completely become machines producing how catering to the entire politics of production of colonialism, because entire indigo which is produced and manufactured from the factory presumably shipped back to England in different parts in different mercantile corners.
So, you know all that politics is always say the political machinery is very much present in the story. So, I think I mean sometimes Tagore is unfairly accused of being a nonpolitical writer, he is a profoundly political writer and his literature its full of political presence, full of political performances, but what gets foregrounded and which makes him such a great writer is that the human emotion, the human story is that what takes centre-stage. And the political backdrop is there as a backdrop like I just mentioned.
So, it is very dialogic kind of a narrators time where the political visibility is always there you know the architecture is there, the signifiers are all there, but what gets foregrounded what gets celebrated and slightly romanticized to a certain extent in his stories are the human emotions, human communications and the human lives which dramatizes in his narratives throughout his oeuvre of work.
So, that we come to conclusion of the story.