Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Film by Satyajit Ray, story by Rabindranath Tagore

For his first job, the postmaster came to the village of Ulapur. It was a very humble village. There was an indigo-factory nearby, and the British manager had with much effort established a new post office.

There is no difficulty in translating Tagore’s short stories. His style is very plain, the voice a traditional story-teller’s voice. His stories read as if they should be read aloud. I don’t know Bengali, but I imagine a more literal translation would read like this:

For his first job, postmaster came to village of Ulapur. It was very humble village. There was indigo-factory nearby, and British manager had with much effort established new post office.

Everything the reader or listener needs to know, conveyed in very few words, fewer in Bengali than in English. Three short sentences, four clauses, four or five qualifying words or phrases.

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.

More words now and, with them, a point of view. The first sentence tells us plainly what the problem is, the second lets us see it through the eyes of the Calcutta boy. The words in the second sentence are loaded. Qualifying words and phrases describe things, not just as they are, but how they look and feel to the young postmaster.

In five short sentences, Tagore encourages us to guess what might be going to happen. A story about a fish out of water can end well or badly. Things don’t look good, but you never know.

The Postmaster, an early black-and-white film by Satyajit Ray, was based on Tagore’s story. Tagore’s opening sentences are translated into a sequence of simple images filmed with a static camera: a post office sign hanging over a door, the interior of a mud hut, lush foliage, puddles of water on a path. A genial old man welcomes a pale, nervous young man, warning him with a laugh to take his quinine pills regularly.

The postmaster’s salary was meagre. He had to cook for himself, and an orphaned village-girl did housework for him in return for a little food. Her name was Ratan, and she was about twelve or thirteen. It seemed unlikely that she would get married.

The genial old man in the film, the post-1947 counterpart perhaps of the British manager, introduces Ratan to him as his servant, then leaves. The new postmaster, looking very nervous and unhappy, is too preoccupied to pay her much attention until, sitting on the verandah, he looks up and sees a half-naked man squatting on the ground in front of him, staring at him with wild eyes and making animal-like noises. He shrinks away from him, terrified. He is rescued by Ratan, who tells him that the man is mad but harmless and orders him to go away, which he does.

The madman has no counterpart in the story, unless he is the physical embodiment of ‘jungle all around’. His sudden appearance, startling the audience as much as the postmaster, gives too the ‘point of view’ which Tagore aims at in his description. His appearance in the film marks the beginning of the relationship between the postmaster and his servant, which is what the story is all about.

Tagore describes how that relationship develops through conversations in the evening when ‘he would go inside, light a dim lamp in a corner of the room and call for Ratan’. He asks her what she remembers about her parents and she recounts some early memories. He tells her about his own family.

He told this illiterate young girl things which were often in his mind but which he would never have dreamt of divulging to to the indigo employees – and it seemed quite natural to do so.

In the film, the relationship develops in the same way, though the conversations we hear are not taken directly from the story. The postmaster asks pointedly whether her mother ever washes her clothes, she replies that her mother is dead. He looks chastened. Cut to a shot of Ratan washing her clothes in the morning. He asks her whether she can read and write, she says no. She asks him about a family photograph he has hung on the wall, he points out his mother and sister. She asks whether his sister can read and write, he laughs and says she can, adding that she sings beautifully too. Ratan says, ‘I can sing’. He lies down and closes his eyes, she sings to him. He compliments her, she asks him to teach her to read and write. He laughs, but gives her money to buy a slate. She learns quickly, he compliments her.

The postmaster had hardly any work: truly the only things to look at were the smooth, shiny, rain-washed leaves quivering, the layers of sun-whitened, broken-up clouds left over from the rain. He watched and felt how it would be to have a close companion here, a human object for the heart’s most intimate affections.

He catches malaria, she nurses him and when he is well again he writes to his employer requesting a transfer. When he tells her that he will be leaving, ‘Ratan did not question him further’.

For several minutes, neither of them spoke. The lamp flickered weakly; through a hole in the crumbling thatched roof, rain-water steadily dripped onto an earthenware dish. Ratan then went slowly out to the kitchen to make some chapati. She made them with none of her usual energy. She kept stopping, turning things over in her mind. 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.

This exchange is missing from the film. All we see is the postmaster happy again and Ratan hiding herself away and crying. Tagore has him giving her some money before he leaves.

But Ratan sank to the ground and clung to his feet, saying, ‘I beg you, Dadababu, I beg you – don’t give me any money.’ Then she fled, running.

Ray saves this idea for his ending, but gives it, as we shall see, a different slant.

The story ends with two paragraphs, each reflecting on the story from the point of view of one of the characters. First the postmaster.

When he was on the boat and it had set sail, when the swollen flood-waters of the river started to heave like the Earth’s brimming tears, 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.

Then the girl.

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.

We have already seen in the film the image of a simple young village-girl’s grief-stricken face, but that is not the last time we see her. Instead, we see the man and the girl walking towards each other, she returning from the well, he leaving the village to go home. He stops when he sees her coming towards him, takes a rupee from his pocket and holds it out. She walks straight past, not even looking at him. After she has gone out of sight, he hears her speaking to her new master in a way that suggests she has already forgotten him. It is his grief-stricken face that we see then, not hers. If at that moment we feel something like the swollen flood-waters of the river starting to heave in our own breasts, it is because film, being itself an inarticulate medium, is better able to convey the great inarticulate sorrow of which Tagore speaks than words, by definition, can ever do.

Tagore’s short (very short) story is among his best. To say that the film is even better would be to make an invidious comparison. Both are perfect examples of the work of two Bengali artists who are not as well known now as they once were and should still be.

postmaster 02

Chandana Bannerjee as Ratan in ‘The Postmaster’

Coming soon
Proust, Einstein and the modern European novel
17 August 2016

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This entry was posted on August 3, 2016 by in film, Literature and tagged , , , , .
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