“The Postmaster” is set in the “humble village” of Ulapur, Bengal, during the nineteenth century and the rule of the British Raj. The British owner of an indigo dye factory in Ulapur has convinced the imperial government to open a post office in the village, and a man from Calcutta is contracted to become the postmaster. He moves to Ulapur and works in a hut that serves as a rudimentary post office, but he finds that he is unable to fit in with the other men in the town, who are less educated than him and have little time to socialize because of their work at the factory. The postmaster, though, has not much work to complete, and he spends his time attempting to write poems about his natural surroundings.
Despite his small salary, the postmaster asks an orphaned village girl named Ratan to complete housework for him, for which she receives some of his food. Ratan is twelve or thirteen, impoverished, and unlikely to get married, likely because she lacks a dowry. Nonetheless, the postmaster’s loneliness leads him to strike up a conversation with Ratan, even though her class status is distinct from his. The two recount stories from their childhood, and they become close, talking late into the night. Ratan begins to think of the postmaster’s family as her own, but the postmaster continues to long for a “close companion” to abet his loneliness—seeing Ratan as a mere stand-in for the romantic partner he desires.
The postmaster decides to teach Ratan to read, and she learns quickly from him, eager to become literate. However, the continual presence of heavy rainwaters in Ulapur causes the postmaster to become ill, and though Ratan nurses him back to health, “soothing his illness and loneliness with feminine tenderness,” he decides that he has to leave his post in the village. After he is denied a transfer to another village, he quits his job altogether. The postmaster explains to Ratan that he is departing Ulapur, devastating her.
Desperate, Ratan asks the postmaster to take her home with him, and the postmaster replies with disbelief: “How could I do that!” The postmaster assures Ratan that his replacement will look after her as he has, but Ratan finds no comfort in his words, declaring that she doesn’t want to stay in Ulapur without him. The postmaster then tries to give Ratan a sum of money—his left-over salary—but she refuses the payment, fleeing.
The postmaster travels by boat to Calcutta and recalls Ratan’s “grief-stricken face,” which speaks a “great inarticulate universal sorrow.” He realizes that he cannot go back to her, and he ponders the “many separations” and “many deaths” that pervade life. Ratan, left behind in Ulapur, nurses a “faint hope” that the postmaster might return, but Tagore’s narrator reflects that humans “cling with both arms to false hope,” even in the most dire of situations—suggesting that Ratan’s “hope” is utterly futile and ultimately cannot sustain her in the face of tragedy and loss.