Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Postmaster” explores the fraught relationship between a postmaster stationed in the fictional Bengal village of Ulapur, and a servant girl, Ratan, who assists him with household work. Ratan is an orphan and of a lower class than the postmaster, who—though not wealthy—holds significant power over Ratan and benefits from liberty she lacks. The postmaster could provide Ratan with the education and financial support she needs to flee her lower-class life, but he deliberately does not. By having the postmaster leave Ratan at the story’s conclusion, Tagore affirms what has been implicit from the beginning: in colonial India, educated men have freedom and mobility, while poor, uneducated women do not. Both gender and class oppress Ratan, dooming her to continued poverty and marginalization.
The impassable divide between the postmaster and Ratan is immediately apparent in the story. Though not technically the postmaster’s servant, Ratan is expected to work for him, completing menial tasks (lighting his fire and his pipe, cooking, cleaning) while receiving no compensation apart from a portion of the meals she cooks. As a lower-class woman, Ratan is subservient, expected to provide domestic labor even for men she is not married or related to: the postmaster becomes Ratan’s “master.” The postmaster regards Ratan as a “simple little girl,” suggesting that although the two share meals and discuss memories of their families together, they are intrinsically separated by both gender and class. One of the postmaster’s first thoughts after meeting Ratan is that she likely will not ever marry. This underscores the precariousness of her situation: as a poor orphan, she has no one to care for her now, and if she can’t find a husband, she will have no one to care for her in the future. The possibility of a lower-class woman finding opportunities on her own is inconceivable in this world—which, again, highlights the vast difference in their statuses and suggests that the postmaster is Ratan’s potential savior.
Indeed, however menial the work, it momentarily appears as if Ratan’s proximity to the postmaster will provide her with opportunities to better her life. Ratan becomes not only a servant, but also plays the role of wife and mother to the postmaster, who falls ill and craves “the presence of loving womanhood” and “tender nursing” in his sickness. Ratan “steps into the post of mother” as she nurses the postmaster back to health. Her own education is postponed, and she is obliged to provide for the postmaster, who has become her lifeline to the possibility of life beyond Bengal. Without the postmaster, Ratan has neither companionship, nor a steady source of meals, nor a teacher who might help her to improve her own dire situation and find employment outside of the domestic sphere. She begins to feel affection for her master, even thinking of his family as her own—reflecting her clear desire to assimilate herself into his world.
Ultimately, however, Ratan’s emotional and physical labor for the postmaster is futile, since according to the class and gender rules that society dictates (which the postmaster chooses to follow), he cannot marry her or continue to provide education and support for her. The postmaster does attempt to reward Ratan for her work by teaching her to read, but even this can be read as an expression of his own loneliness rather than an altruistic act. In Bengal, he has “nothing to do,” and in the “deep, silent mid-day interval of his work,” he longs for human connection, which he finds by teaching Ratan the alphabet. This is a project that helps the postmaster to feel as if he is making a difference in a young girl’s life, but it does not require him to commit himself to her in any meaningful way.
This lack of commitment is clearest when the postmaster responds to Ratan’s proposal that he take her to his home—and, by implication, become her husband—with laughing ridicule (“What an idea!”), suggesting that their class statuses are too distinct to be reconciled in marriage. The postmaster’s declaration that he is going away destroys Ratan, who regards his rejection not only as an act of supreme cruelty, but also as a resounding reminder that she cannot leave the confines of her village. “I don’t want to stay on here,” Ratan says to the postmaster, weeping: though the postmaster easily and freely decides to leave the town where he has been stationed, departing by boat, Ratan cannot leave the village without him, since she is constrained by her limited education and financial means. Additionally, codes of honor prohibit her from taking the postmaster’s gift of money (“the whole of his month’s salary”). As a lower-class woman, Ratan must present herself as humble, grateful, and inferior—a posture that entails refusing gifts. Thus, she is forced to sacrifice a financial opportunity that may have helped her to leave her village and build a better life. This subtly reinforces how societal norms maintain class hierarchy. Further, Tagore notes that “Ratan had no philosophy.” That is, she has no body of knowledge on which to draw to ease her suffering, while the postmaster, owing to his education in urban, upper-class Calcutta, has philosophy and spirituality to “console himself with” as he leaves Ulapur on “the swollen flood-waters” of the river. By the story’s end, Ratan is left illiterate, filled with grief, and utterly disenfranchised, sustained only by the “false hope” that the postmaster might return and bear her away from her oppressive rural life.
Though “The Postmaster” initially seems to be a simple, parable-like story imbued with lyricism and reflection on the natural world, the crux of the narrative lies in the irresoluble differences between its main characters. Because of their gender and class statuses, Ratan and the postmaster are destined for entirely different lives. Ratan is subservient to patriarchy and ultimately marginalized, deprived of education and financial support, while the postmaster’s educated background and financial means allow him to move freely out of Bengal and seek a better life in Calcutta. Tagore suggests that, though educated men and lower-class women may find common ground—as Ratan and the postmaster do when they share memories and stories about their families—they do not have the same opportunities in life.
Gender, Class, and Inequality ThemeTracker
Gender, Class, and Inequality Quotes in The Postmaster
The postmaster was a Calcutta boy—he was a fish out of water in a village like this. His office was in a dark thatched hut; there was a pond next to it, scummed over with weeds, and jungle all around. The indigo agents and employees had hardly any spare time, and were not suitable company for an educated man. Or rather, his Calcutta background made him a bad mixer—in an unfamiliar place he was either arrogant or ill-at-ease. So there was not much contact between him and the residents in the area.
The postmaster would say abruptly, “So, Ratan, do you remember your mother?” She had lots to tell him: some things she remembered, others she did not. Her father loved her more than her mother did—she remembered him a little. He used to come home in the evening after working hard all day, and one or two evenings were clearly etched in her memory. As she talked, Ratan edged nearer to the postmaster, and would end up sitting on the ground at his feet.
He felt in need of comfort, ill and miserable as he was, in this isolated place, the rain pouring down. He remembered the touch on his forehead of soft hands, conch-shell bangles. He wished his mother or sister were sitting here next to him, soothing his illness and loneliness with feminine tenderness. And his longings did not stay unfulfilled. The young girl Ratan was a young girl no longer. From that moment on she took on the role of a mother.
When the postmaster had had his meal, she suddenly asked, “Dadababu, will you take me home with you?” “How could I do that!” said the postmaster, laughing. He saw no need to explain to the girl why the idea was impossible. All night long, whether dreaming or awake, Ratan felt the postmaster’s laugh ringing in her ears. “How could I do that!”
The postmaster felt a huge anguish: the image of a simple young village-girl’s grief-stricken face seemed to speak a great inarticulate universal sorrow. He felt a sharp desire to go back: should he not fetch that orphaned girl, whom the world had abandoned? ... Detached by the current of the river, he reflected that in life there are many separations, many deaths. What point was there in going back? Who belonged to whom in this world?”
But Ratan had no such philosophy to console her. All she could do was wander near the post office, weeping copiously. Maybe a faint hope lingered in her mind that Dadababu might return; and this was enough to tie her to the spot, prevent her from going far. O poor, unthinking human heart! Error will not go away, logic and reason are slow to penetrate.