The postmaster, a young man from Calcutta, earns his first job working at a post office in the small rural village of Ulapur. Near the post office is an indigo factory, owned by a British manager who helped to establish the new post office. The postmaster feels out of place in Ulapur, and he works in a hut next to a pond that is covered in weeds and surrounded by jungle. He is more educated than the indigo factory workers, who are the only other men he can socialize with, but they are too busy to spend much time with him, and because of his upbringing, he is arrogant and uncomfortable around them.
The postmaster is not used to rural life in Ulapur, which sharply contrasts his upbringing in urban Calcutta. Not only is he confronted with people of an entirely different class status—uneducated low-level workers—but he must work in a rustic weed-covered hut. From the outset, the postmaster’s class status and urban background complicate his settlement in Ulapur, immediately suggesting a deep division between urban and rural life, as well as between lower and upper-class individuals.
The postmaster has little work to do in Ulapur, and he sometimes spends his free time writing poems, which express the joy to be found in observing nature. However, he is “half-dead” in Ulapur, despite its natural beauty, and he believes he could “come alive” again if a genie out of an Arab legend would cut down all of the trees in Ulapur, construct a street, and erect tall buildings.
Although Ulapur’s natural landscape is exquisite, primed for description in poetry, the postmaster still longs for modernized urban life. Even though the postmaster finds the natural world in rural Bengal beautiful, he cannot help but prefer urban surroundings—the setting most familiar to him.
Because his salary is low, the postmaster has to cook his own meals, though he hires an orphaned village girl, Ratan, to do housework for him, compensating her with a share of his food. In the postmaster’s view, Ratan is not likely to get married. At night, when intoxicated singers from a nearby village gather to sing, disrupting the evening silence, the postmaster goes inside his hut, lights a lamp, and calls for Ratan. Ratan calls back, “What is it, Dadababu, what do you want?”
Ratan is of a lower-class status than the postmaster, and as a woman who is unlikely to be married, she is limited to performing menial labor for the men who employ her. According to the rules society dictates along the lines of class and gender, Ratan can only receive opportunities in life from wealthier men, though these are severely restricted and she is not compensated fairly for her labor.
Ratan insists that she must light the kitchen fire, but the postmaster tells her to get his hookah ready. He then asks if she remembers her mother. Ratan remembers some things about her childhood, but other things she doesn’t. She remembers that her father loved her more than her mother, and that her father worked all day long. As Ratan tells the postmaster about her childhood, she approaches him, and ends up sitting on the ground by his feet. She also recalls her younger brother, and how the two of them would pretend to catch fish with sticks from trees: this is a memory she can recall in more detail than other memories.
Ratan and the postmaster begin to develop a relationship, suggesting that they might be able to overcome their distinct class statuses and find unity through sharing their experiences. Ratan begins to feel comfortable enough with the postmaster to physically approach him—while previously she would stand at a distance from him or linger outside of his hut—and to share childhood memories with the postmaster, despite her subservience to him.
These conversations about Ratan’s family go on late into the night, and eventually the postmaster and Ratan are too tired to prepare elaborate meals. They have leftovers and chapati for supper instead.
The postmaster actively engages with Ratan’s stories, and the two begin to forget the practical reason that brought them together—making meals—in favor of a developing relationship. That they prepare meals together hints at a sense of egalitarianism between them.
Sometimes, the postmaster tells Ratan about his own family: his younger brother, mother, and older sister. He misses them greatly, and he tells Ratan stories about them that he feels he could not tell the indigo factory employees. Ratan begins to refer to the postmaster’s family as if they were her own family, creating vivid images of them in her head.
The postmaster seems to be overcoming some of his initial aversion to the lower-class people in Ulapur by opening up to Ratan. He still considers her differently from the indigo factory employees, whom he seems to regard as less emotionally aware—perhaps because they are men. Though Ratan and the postmaster’s relationship is not explicitly romantic, he seems to be drawn to her as he would to a potential romantic partner. Ratan begins to think of his family as her own, suggesting that she wants to become part of the postmaster’s world. The postmaster allows himself to become emotionally intimate with her, with the implication that the two might overcome the vast difference in their class positions.
One afternoon during monsoon season, when the breeze is warm, the sun is shining on the wet grass and leaves, and bird sounds are audible, the postmaster sits outside and watches the leaves and the clouds left over from rain. He longs for a romantic companion, and he begins to think that the sound of the birds and the rustling leaves are echoing his longing. Not many people would believe that a postmaster on a small salary could have such intense feelings on an ordinary, lazy afternoon.
Though the postmaster seemed to be developing a close relationship with Ratan, it is clear that he does not think of her as a romantic companion, since he still longs for someone—likely of his own class status—to share his life with. Moreover, the postmaster’s melancholic reflections demonstrate that though he prefers urbanity to nature, the natural world is capable of influencing his mood and prompting intense emotions.
The postmaster calls out for Ratan, who is eating unripe guavas under a guava tree. She gets up immediately, and the postmaster tells her that he is going to teach her to read. He starts with vowels and moves on quickly to consonants and conjuncts.
Despite the postmaster’s desire for a different companion, he returns to Ratan and decides to educate her, drawing her further into his world.
During the month of Sraban, the rain is endless, creating overflow in ditches and channels in the village. It becomes impossible to travel around Ulapur on foot instead of boat. Ratan waits for the postmaster by his door, but when he does not call for her, she enters his room with her books. The postmaster is lying on his bed, and she starts to leave, but he calls her back.
The constant monsoon rains in Ulapur depress the postmaster, who becomes physically ill as a result of the weather. Once again, the natural world exercises clear control over the postmaster’s emotions and well-being.
The postmaster says that he is ill, and Ratan feels his forehead. He needs comfort in the midst of his isolation and misery, and he recalls the gentle touch of his mother and sister’s hands during previous illnesses. Ratan plays the role of mother to the postmaster during this sickness, providing him with pills, standing vigil by his bedside, preparing him meals, and asking him constantly if he feels any better.
Finally, the postmaster feels recovered, though he is now thin and weak. He decides that he has to leave Ulapur, and he writes to the head office in Calcutta, asking for a transfer. Since the postmaster is recovered, Ratan leaves his bedroom and begins to wait for him by his door as usual, but the postmaster does not call to her. She looks into his house now and then and sees him sitting on his stool or lying on his bed, apparently preoccupied. He is waiting for a response to his letter; meanwhile, Ratan goes over her old lessons, worried that she might forget what she has learned.
Overwhelmed by the weather and by his own illness, the postmaster decides to leave Ulapur, foregoing his commitment to Ratan and the lessons he had been teaching her. It is clear that the postmaster has put his own desires and emotions before Ratan’s, and that their relationship will not continue: he can no longer bear rural Ulapur and wishes to return to Calcutta, indicating that he has not overcome his initial distaste for the village.
One day, the postmaster calls to Ratan, and she rushes eagerly into his house. The postmaster informs her that he is leaving to go home, and that he won’t be returning to Ulapur. Ratan asks no further questions, and the postmaster adds that his application for a transfer has been rejected. He is quitting his job in Ulapur and returning home for good. Neither Ratan nor the postmaster can speak. A lamp flickers, and rain water dribbles through a hole in the roof of the hut. Ratan goes out to the kitchen to prepare chapati without enthusiasm, seemingly distracted.
Ratan realizes that without the postmaster as a source of education and support, she will be alone and destitute in Ulapur. Yet she cannot express her sorrow to the postmaster, while he cannot express his own sense of guilt for leaving a poor, uneducated woman on her own; it is clear that the division between them has been reinstated.
While the postmaster eats the chapati she has prepared, Ratan asks him if he will take her home with him. The postmaster laughs and replies, “How could I do that!” He does not feel that it is necessary to explain to Ratan why such a proposal is impossible. That night, Ratan cannot forget the postmaster’s laugh, which haunts her.
The postmaster awakens at dawn the next day and sees that his bath-water (which he has brought in everyday from the river in a bucket) has been laid out already. He realizes that Ratan has carried the bath-water up from the river late the night before so that he would have it early in the morning, in case he had to leave Ulapur then. The postmaster finishes his bath and calls to Ratan, informing her that he will tell the man who replaces him as postmaster to look after her.
Ratan continues to prove helpful and obliging to the postmaster, yet her services are no longer of any value to him. He does not realize that his support has been invaluable to her, believing instead that the new postmaster will be an adequate replacement. Yet Ratan has come to rely on the postmaster, whose kindness represented access to improved opportunities in her life.
Though the postmaster’s remark is meant to be kind and generous, Ratan cannot bear it, and she regards the comment as more severe than even the scoldings she has experienced from the postmaster before. She tells the postmaster that she doesn’t want him to tell the new postmaster about her, and that she no longer wants to stay in Ulapur. The postmaster is surprised, since he has never seen Ratan in such a state before.
Ratan breaks down, unable to contain her emotions about the postmaster’s departure any longer. The postmaster cannot comprehend Ratan’s sorrow, impervious to the fact that he has retracted the lifeline he once offered her.
The postmaster prepares to leave as his replacement arrives. He calls for Ratan one last time and offers her the rest of the salary, except for a little money he needs for his journey home. Ratan falls to her knees before the postmaster and refuses his money. She then runs away.
Ratan cannot take the money the postmaster offers her, since as a lower-class woman, she must act grateful and inferior, and thus cannot accept gifts. She is also embarrassed by the postmaster’s rejection and his subsequent pity toward her. It is not money she desires but human connection and education, both of which he has denied her by leaving Ulapur.
The postmaster sighs and picks up his luggage, preparing to leave by boat. A coolie (or a native laborer) carries his tin trunk. When he is on the boat, he begins to feel miserable. He cannot forget Ratan’s grief-stricken face, and he suddenly wishes to return to her. However, the boat has departed, borne away on swollen flood-waters, and the postmaster has left Ulapur behind. He reflects on the notion that life involves many separations and many deaths, and that there would be little use in returning to Ulapur, since no one belongs to anyone in this world.
The postmaster is filled with grief upon departing Ulapur, and the floodwaters that surround him symbolize his sorrow and melancholy. Yet he realizes that he cannot return to Ratan, consoling himself with philosophy: he seems to believe that he never had an obligation to Ratan, since he reflects that no one belongs to anyone in this world. The postmaster cannot see that he has given Ratan a great gift—education and support—and that to leave is to sever the significant ties he formed with her.
Ratan cannot comfort herself with logic and philosophy in the way that the postmaster can. Instead, she lingers near the post office, weeping and nursing a faint hope that the postmaster might return there. False hope sustains humanity, even when what is hoped for is utterly unachievable. Eventually, hope will escape, but humans will fall back into its clutches, since reality is often too much to bear.
Ratan’s limited education and lack of financial means she is stuck in Ulapur, while the postmaster leaves easily and freely. Tagore’s reflections at the end of the story suggest that Ratan is a figure who represents the injustice and grief humanity frequently suffers; left behind in rural Ulapur, she is utterly marginalized.