‘The Postmaster’ by Rabindranath Tagore, translated from Bengali by Utsa Bose

As an emigrant and an immigrant (not necessarily in that order), I find that stories about people leaving a place tend to do odd things to me. This one also makes me feel closer to my father’s culture, though we’re not Bengali. The plot is simple: a self-obsessed postmaster decides to teach his young servant how to read. But he soon loses interest, both in the servant and the village he’s been posted to. Partly, the story asks us to question our motivations for what we like to imagine are acts of disinterested kindness. It might also be read as a subtle critique of a colonialism that professed magnanimity while committing violence, or of the echoing voluntourism that continues to this day in India and many other countries. But the exquisitely sad ending of ‘The Postmaster’ takes the story beyond such concerns and into something more fundamental. You might compare it to Joycean epiphany (and incidentally, it came a couple of decades before Dubliners was published), but whereas I feel Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ focuses more on Gabriel Conroy as an individual and an ego, Tagore’s story is more general, a portrait of the nexus between two people, or all people.

First published in 1891. Collected in Stories From Tagore, Macmillan, 1918, and available to read online at Asymptote. You can also hear it read on the BBC iPlayer here

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