By returning to the city of Calcutta at the end of the story, the postmaster rejects rural life and affirms the superiority of urbanity. His dissatisfaction with his surroundings and the people with whom he interacts demonstrates an implicit, irreconcilable division between city and country, or urban and remote village life. Written at a time when India, under Britain’s colonial command, was moving tentatively toward modernization, “The Postmaster” seems to function as an appeal for social change. Tagore frames rural life as hopeless, degenerate, and isolated, and strongly implies that lower-class Indians like Ratan have been left to their own devices by upper-class, educated elites like the postmaster, who cannot bear to stay and work in country settings. Ultimately, Tagore seems to be suggesting that the gulf between urban and rural places deeply fragments Indian life, hindering attempts at unity and reconciliation for Indian people.
From the beginning of the story, the postmaster acts dismissively toward Ulapur’s people, who are not “suitable company for an educated man” like himself. His “Calcutta background” makes him “a bad mixer,” uncomfortable around the indigo factory workers whom he encounters in Ulapur, since he cannot relate to their humble, rural backgrounds. Though the postmaster himself must experience a more humble life in Ulapur, where he earns a “meager” salary and has to cook for himself (suggesting that he may have had servants in Calcutta), he nonetheless continues to feel distanced from the factory workers. Even Ratan, with whom he shares stories of his family life—stories he “would never have dreamt of divulging to the indigo employees”—is defined by her illiteracy and pitiable status to the postmaster. To him, she is an “illiterate young girl,” utterly “destitute,” and though she is as miserable and isolated in Ulapur as her “master,” he regards her with condescension. Even before they become acquainted, he believes that her prospects of getting married look “faint,” given her status as an orphan.
Thus, the postmaster views the inhabitants of rural Ulapur as inherently inadequate, and he continues to juxtapose his surroundings with those of urban Calcutta. The postmaster dreams of seeing the “leafy trees” in Ulapur razed and replaced with modern trappings, “tall buildings” and “roads,” and he is reluctant to give up his Calcutta habits—such as bathing with “water brought in a bucket”—despite being embedded in an entirely different world. In Ulapur, he works in a hut in a jungle, as opposed to in a “tall building,” and though his work in the post office should help to connect Ulapur to the outside world, he has “very little work to do,” suggesting that as a small, country village, Ulapur is isolated and backwards, almost completely cut off from other, more modern parts of India.
Initially, it seems as if Ratan and the postmaster’s intimate, developing relationship might help to bridge the gap between their rural and urban worlds. By learning about her family background and her life in Ulapur, the postmaster might be able to look beyond their differences and discover their fundamental similarities. Yet by cruelly rejecting Ratan at the end of the story—laughing at the “impossible” idea that they might marry or live together after he leaves Ulapur—the postmaster demonstrates the extent to which the distinction between the urban and rural is fixed. Even though the postmaster’s application for a job transfer is rejected, meaning that he is without a job once he leaves Ulapur, his desperation to return to Calcutta (and urban, upper-class life) overpowers both his pragmatism and his generosity. He thinks briefly of returning to Ratan as he boards a boat to leave Ulapur, but ultimately regards their separation as one of the “many separations” one experiences in life—ignoring the notion that they might have been able to discover friendship and unity in Ulapur, despite its status as a rural, remote village. Ratan, who longed for connection with the postmaster, is left desolate and inconsolable; her life in Ulapur continues to be characterized by suffering, while the postmaster seeks relief from his suffering in Calcutta. Thus, Tagore creates a fractured image of India by suggesting that to upper-class, educated elites like the postmaster, urbanity is preferable to rural life, and that the divisions between these two disparate worlds cannot be overcome or reconciled.
Urban and Rural Life ThemeTracker
Urban and Rural Life 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.
Sometimes he tried to write poems. The bliss of spending one’s life watching the leaves trembling in the trees or the clouds in the sky—that was what the poems expressed. God knew, however, that if a genie out of an Arab tale had come and cut down all the leafy trees overnight, made a road, and blocked out the sky with rows of tall buildings, this half-dead, well-bred young man would have come alive again.