Kabuliwallah: The fruit-seller from Kabul.
My five years’ old daughter Mini cannot live without chattering. I really believe that in all her life she has not wasted a minute in silence. Her mother is often vexed at this, and would stop her prattle, but I would not. To see Mini quiet is unnatural, and I cannot bear it long. And so my own talk with her is always lively.
One morning, for instance, when I was in the midst of the seventeenth chapter of my new novel, my little Mini stole into the room, and putting her hand into mine, said: “Father! Ramdayal the door-keeper calls a crow a krow! He doesn’t know anything, does he?”
Before I could explain to her the differences of language in this world, she was embarked on the full tide of another subject. “What do you think, Father? Bhola says there is an elephant in the clouds, blowing water out of his trunk, and that is why it rains!”
And then, darting off anew, while I sat still making ready some reply to this last saying, “Father! what relation is Mother to you?”
“My dear little sister in the law!” I murmured involuntarily to myself, but with a grave face contrived to answer: “Go and play with Bhola, Mini! I am busy!”
The window of my room overlooks the road. The child had seated herself at my feet near my table, and was playing softly, drumming on her knees. I was hard at work on my seventeenth chapter, where Protrap Singh, the hero, had just caught Kanchanlata, the heroine, in his arms, and was about to escape with her by the third story window of the castle, when all of a sudden Mini left her play, and ran to the window, crying, “A Kabuliwallah! a Kabuliwallah!” Sure enough in the street below was a Kabuliwallah, passing slowly along. He wore the loose soiled clothing of his people, with a tall turban; there was a bag on his back, and he carried boxes of grapes in his hand.
I cannot tell what were my daughter’s feelings at the sight of this man, but she began to call him loudly. “Ah!” I thought, “he will come in, and my seventeenth chapter will never be finished!” At which exact moment the Kabuliwallah turned, and looked up at the child. When she saw this, overcome by terror, she fled to her mother’s protection, and disappeared. She had a blind belief that inside the bag, which the big man carried, there were perhaps two or three other children like herself. The pedlar meanwhile entered my doorway, and greeted me with a smiling face.
So precarious was the position of my hero and my heroine, that my first impulse was to stop and buy something, since the man had been called. I made some small purchases, and a conversation began about Abdurrahman, the Russians, she English, and the Frontier Policy.
As he was about to leave, he asked: “And where is the little girl, sir?”
And I, thinking that Mini must get rid of her false fear, had her brought out.
She stood by my chair, and looked at the Kabuliwallah and his bag. He offered her nuts and raisins, but she would not be tempted, and only clung the closer to me, with all her doubts increased.
This was their first meeting.
One morning, however, not many days later, as I was leaving the house, I was startled to find Mini, seated on a bench near the door, laughing and talking, with the great Kabuliwallah at her feet. In all her life, it appeared; my small daughter had never found so patient a listener, save her father. And already the corner of her little sari was stuffed with almonds and raisins, the gift of her visitor, “Why did you give her those?” I said, and taking out an eight-anna bit, I handed it to him. The man accepted the money without demur, and slipped it into his pocket.
Alas, on my return an hour later, I found the unfortunate coin had made twice its own worth of trouble! For the Kabuliwallah had given it to Mini, and her mother catching sight of the bright round object, had pounced on the child with: “Where did you get that eight-anna bit? “
“The Kabuliwallah gave it me,” said Mini cheerfully.
“The Kabuliwallah gave it you!” cried her mother much shocked. “Oh, Mini! how could you take it from him?”
I, entering at the moment, saved her from impending disaster, and proceeded to make my own inquiries.
It was not the first or second time, I found, that the two had met. The Kabuliwallah had overcome the child’s first terror by a judicious bribery of nuts and almonds, and the two were now great friends.
They had many quaint jokes, which afforded them much amusement. Seated in front of him, looking down on his gigantic frame in all her tiny dignity, Mini would ripple her face with laughter, and begin: “O Kabuliwallah, Kabuliwallah, what have you got in your bag?”
And he would reply, in the nasal accents of the mountaineer: “An elephant!” Not much cause for merriment, perhaps; but how they both enjoyed the witticism! And for me, this child’s talk with a grown-up man had always in it something strangely fascinating.
Then the Kabuliwallah, not to be behindhand, would take his turn: “Well, little one, and when are you going to the father-in-law’s house?”
Now most small Bengali maidens have heard long ago about the father-in-law’s house; but we, being a little new-fangled, had kept these things from our child, and Mini at this question must have been a trifle bewildered. But she would not show it, and with ready tact replied: “Are you going there?”
Amongst men of the Kabuliwallah’s class, however, it is well known that the words father-in-law’s house have a double meaning. It is a euphemism for jail, the place where we are well cared for, at no expense to ourselves. In this sense would the sturdy pedlar take my daughter’s question. “Ah,” he would say, shaking his fist at an invisible policeman, “I will thrash my father-in-law!” Hearing this, and picturing the poor discomfited relative, Mini would go off into peals of laughter, in which her formidable friend would join.
These were autumn mornings, the very time of year when kings of old went forth to conquest; and I, never stirring from my little corner in Calcutta, would let my mind wander over the whole world. At the very name of another country, my heart would go out to it, and at the sight of a foreigner in the streets, I would fall to weaving a network of dreams, –the mountains, the glens, and the forests of his distant home, with his cottage in its setting, and the free and independent life of far-away wilds. Perhaps the scenes of travel conjure themselves up before me, and pass and repass in my imagination all the more vividly, because I lead such a vegetable existence, that a call to travel would fall upon me like a thunderbolt. In the presence of this Kabuliwallah, I was immediately transported to the foot of arid mountain peaks, with narrow little defiles twisting in and out amongst their towering heights. I could see the string of camels bearing the merchandise, and the company of turbaned merchants, carrying some of their queer old firearms, and some of their spears, journeying downward towards the plains. I could see–but at some such point Mini’s mother would intervene, imploring me to “beware of that man.”
Mini’s mother is unfortunately a very timid lady. Whenever she hears a noise in the street, or sees people coming towards the house, she always jumps to the conclusion that they are either thieves, or drunkards, or snakes, or tigers, or malaria or cockroaches, or caterpillars, or an English sailor. Even after all these years of experience, she is not able to overcome her terror. So she was full of doubts about the Kabuliwallah, and used to beg me to keep a watchful eye on him.
I tried to laugh her fear gently away, but then she would turn round on me seriously, and ask me solemn questions.
Were children never kidnapped?
Was it, then, not true that there was slavery in Kabul?
Was it so very absurd that this big man should be able to carry off a tiny child?
I urged that, though not impossible, it was highly improbable. But this was not enough, and her dread persisted. As it was indefinite, however, it did not seem right to forbid the man the house, and the intimacy went on unchecked.
Once a year in the middle of January Rahmun, the Kabuliwallah, was in the habit of returning to his country, and as the time approached he would be very busy, going from house to house collecting his debts. This year, however, he could always find time to come and see Mini. It would have seemed to an outsider that there was some conspiracy between the two, for when he could not come in the morning, he would appear in the evening.
Even to me it was a little startling now and then, in the corner of a dark room, suddenly to surprise this tall, loose-garmented, much bebagged man; but when Mini would run in smiling, with her, “O! Kabuliwallah! Kabuliwallah!” and the two friends, so far apart in age, would subside into their old laughter and their old jokes, I felt reassured.
One morning, a few days before he had made up his mind to go, I was correcting my proof sheets in my study. It was chilly weather. Through the window the rays of the sun touched my feet, and the slight warmth was very welcome. It was almost eight o’clock, and the early pedestrians were returning home, with their heads covered. All at once, I heard an uproar in the street, and, looking out, saw Rahmun being led away bound between two policemen, and behind them a crowd of curious boys. There were blood-stains on the clothes of the Kabuliwallah, and one of the policemen carried a knife. Hurrying out, I stopped them, and inquired what it all meant. Partly from one, partly from another, I gathered that a certain neighbour had owed the pedlar something for a Rampuri shawl, but had falsely denied having bought it, and that in the course of the quarrel, Rahmun had struck him. Now in the heat of his excitement, the prisoner began calling his enemy all sorts of names, when suddenly in a verandah of my house appeared my little Mini, with her usual exclamation: “O Kabuliwallah! Kabuliwallah!” Rahmun’s face lighted up as he turned to her. He had no bag under his arm today, so she could not discuss the elephant with him. She at once therefore proceeded to the next question: “Are you going to the father-in-law’s house?” Rahmun laughed and said: “Just where I am going, little one!” Then seeing that the reply did not amuse the child, he held up his fettered hands. ” Ali,” he said, ” I would have thrashed that old father-in-law, but my hands are bound!”
On a charge of murderous assault, Rahmun was sentenced to some years’ imprisonment.
Time passed away, and he was not remembered. The accustomed work in the accustomed place was ours, and the thought of the once-free mountaineer spending his years in prison seldom or never occurred to us. Even my light-hearted Mini, I am ashamed to say, forgot her old friend. New companions filled her life. As she grew older, she spent more of her time with girls. So much time indeed did she spend with them that she came no more, as she used to do, to her father’s room. I was scarcely on speaking terms with her.
Years had passed away. It was once more autumn and we had made arrangements for our Mini’s marriage. It was to take place during the Puja Holidays. With Durga returning to Kailas, the light of our home also was to depart to her husband’s house, and leave her father’s in the shadow.
The morning was bright. After the rains, there was a sense of ablution in the air, and the sun-rays looked like pure gold. So bright were they that they gave a beautiful radiance even to the sordid brick walls of our Calcutta lanes. Since early dawn to-day the wedding-pipes had been sounding, and at each beat my own heart throbbed. The wail of the tune, Bhairavi, seemed to intensify my pain at the approaching separation. My Mini was to be married to-night.
>From early morning noise and bustle had pervaded the house. In the courtyard the canopy had to be slung on its bamboo poles; the chandeliers with their tinkling sound must be hung in each room and verandah. There was no end of hurry and excitement. I was sitting in my study, looking through the accounts, when some one entered, saluting respectfully, and stood before me. It was Rahmun the Kabuliwallah. At first I did not recognise him. He had no bag, nor the long hair, nor the same vigour that he used to have. But he smiled, and I knew him again.
“When did you come, Rahmun?” I asked him.
“Last evening,” he said, “I was released from jail.”
The words struck harsh upon my ears. I had never before talked with one who had wounded his fellow, and my heart shrank within itself, when I realised this, for I felt that the day would have been better-omened had he not turned up.
“There are ceremonies going on,” I said, “and I am busy. Could you perhaps come another day?”
At once he turned to go; but as he reached the door he hesitated, and said: “May I not see the little one, sir, for a moment?” It was his belief that Mini was still the same. He had pictured her running to him as she used, calling “O Kabuliwallah! Kabuliwallah!” He had imagined too that they would laugh and talk together, just as of old. In fact, in memory of former days he had brought, carefully wrapped up in paper, a few almonds and raisins and grapes, obtained somehow from a countryman, for his own little fund was dispersed.
I said again: “There is a ceremony in the house, and you will not be able to see any one to-day.”
The man’s face fell. He looked wistfully at me for a moment, said “Good morning,” and went out. I felt a little sorry, and would have called him back, but I found he was returning of his own accord. He came close up to me holding out his offerings and said: “I brought these few things, sir, for the little one. Will you give them to her?”
I took them and was going to pay him, but he caught my hand and said: “You are very kind, sir! Keep me in your recollection. Do not offer me money!–You have a little girl, I too have one like her in my own home. I think of her, and bring fruits to your child, not to make a profit for myself.”
Saying this, he put his hand inside his big loose robe, and brought out a small and dirty piece of paper. With great care he unfolded this, and smoothed it out with both hands on my table. It bore the impression of a little band. Not a photograph. Not a drawing. The impression of an ink-smeared hand laid flat on the paper. This touch of his own little daughter had been always on his heart, as he had come year after year to Calcutta, to sell his wares in the streets.
Tears came to my eyes. I forgot that he was a poor Kabuli fruit-seller, while I was–but no, what was I more than he? He also was a father. That impression of the hand of his little Parbati in her distant mountain home reminded me of my own little Mini.
I sent for Mini immediately from the inner apartment. Many difficulties were raised, but I would not listen. Clad in the red silk of her wedding-day, with the sandal paste on her forehead, and adorned as a young bride, Mini came, and stood bashfully before me.
The Kabuliwallah looked a little staggered at the apparition. He could not revive their old friendship. At last he smiled and said: “Little one, are you going to your father-in-law’s house?”
But Mini now understood the meaning of the word “father-in-law,” and she could not reply to him as of old. She flushed up at the question, and stood before him with her bride-like face turned down.
I remembered the day when the Kabuliwallah and my Mini had first met, and I felt sad. When she had gone, Rahmun heaved a deep sigh, and sat down on the floor. The idea had suddenly come to him that his daughter too must have grown in this long time, and that he would have to make friends with her anew. Assuredly he would not find her, as he used to know her. And besides, what might not have happened to her in these eight years?
The marriage-pipes sounded, and the mild autumn sun streamed round us. But Rahmun sat in the little Calcutta lane, and saw before him the barren mountains of Afghanistan.
I took out a bank-note, and gave it to him, saying: “Go back to your own daughter, Rahmun, in your own country, and may the happiness of your meeting bring good fortune to my child!”
Having made this present, I had to curtail some of the festivities. I could not have the electric lights I had intended, nor the military band, and the ladies of the house were despondent at it. But to me the wedding feast was all the brighter for the thought that in a distant land a long-lost father met again with his only child.
The Wicked Postman
Why do you sit there on the floor so quiet and silent, tell me, mother dear?
The rain is coming in through the open window, making you all wet, and you don’t mind it.
Do you hear the gong striking four? It is time for my brother to come home from school.
What has happened to you that you look so strange?
Haven’t you got a letter from father to-day?
I saw the postman bringing letters in his bag for almost everybody in the town.
Only, father’s letters he keeps to read himself. I am sure the postman is a wicked man.
But don’t be unhappy about that, mother dear.
To-morrow is market day in the next village. You ask your maid to buy some pens and papers.
I myself will write all father’s letters; you will not find a single mistake.
I shall write from A right up to K.
But, mother, why do you smile?
You don’t believe that I can write as nicely as father does!
But I shall rule my paper carefully, and write all the letters beautifully big.
When I finish my writing, do you think I shall be so foolish as father and drop it into the horrid postman’s bag?
I shall bring it to you myself without waiting, and letter by letter help you to read my writing.
I know the postman does not like to give you the really nice letters.
The postmaster first took up his duties in the village of Ulapur. Though the village was a small one, there was an indigo factory near by, and the proprietor, an Englishman, had managed to get a post office established.
Our postmaster belonged to Calcutta. He felt like a fish out of water in this remote village. His office and living-room were in a dark thatched shed, not far from a green, slimy pond, surrounded on all sides by a dense growth.
The men employed in the indigo factory had no leisure; moreover, they were hardly desirable companions for decent folk. Nor is a Calcutta boy an adept in the art of associating with others. Among strangers he appears either proud or ill at ease. At any rate, the postmaster had but little company; nor had he much to do.
At times he tried his hand at writing a verse or two. That the movement of the leaves and the clouds of the sky were enough to fill life with joy such were the sentiments to which he sought to give expression. But God knows that the poor fellow would have felt it as the gift of a new life, if some genie of the Arabian Nights had in one night swept away the trees, leaves and all, and replaced them with a macadamised road, hiding the clouds from view with rows of tall houses.
The postmaster’s salary was small. He had to cook his own meals, which he used to share with Ratan, an orphan girl of the village, who did odd jobs for him.
When in the evening the smoke began to curl up from the village cowsheds, and the crickets chirped in every bush; when the mendicants of the Baul sect sang their shrill songs in their daily meeting-place, when any poet, who had attempted to watch the movement of the leaves in the dense bamboo thickets, would have felt a ghostly shiver run down his back, the postmaster would light his little lamp, and call out “Ratan.”
Ratan would sit outside waiting for this call, and, instead of coming in at once, would reply, “Did you call me, sir?”
“What are you doing?” the postmaster would ask.
“I must be going to light the kitchen fire,” would be the answer.
And the postmaster would say: “Oh, let the kitchen fire be for awhile; light me my pipe first.”
At last Ratan would enter, with puffed-out cheeks, vigorously blowing into a flame a live coal to light the tobacco. This would give the postmaster an opportunity of conversing. “Well, Ratan,” perhaps he would begin, “do you remember anything of your mother?” That was a fertile subject. Ratan partly remembered, and partly didn’t. Her father had been fonder of her than her mother; him she recollected more vividly. He used to come home in the evening after his work, and one or two evenings stood out more clearly than others, like pictures in her memory. Ratan would sit on the floor near the postmaster’s feet, as memories crowded in upon her. She called to mind a little brother that she had and how on some bygone cloudy day she had played at fishing with him on the edge of the pond, with a twig for a make-believe fishing-rod. Such little incidents would drive out greater events from her mind. Thus, as they talked, it would often get very late, and the postmaster would feel too lazy to do any cooking at all. Ratan would then hastily light the fire, and toast some unleavened bread, which, with the cold remnants of the morning meal, was enough for their supper.
On some evenings, seated at his desk in the corner of the big empty shed, the postmaster too would call up memories of his own home, of his mother and his sister, of those for whom in his exile his heart was sad, memories which were always haunting him, but which he could not talk about with the men of the factory, though he found himself naturally recalling them aloud in the presence of the simple little girl. And so it came about that the girl would allude to his people as mother, brother, and sister, as if she had known them all her life. In fact, she had a complete picture of each one of them painted in her little heart.
One noon, during a break in the rains, there was a cool soft breeze blowing; the smell of the damp grass and leaves in the hot sun felt like the warm breathing of the tired earth on one’s body. A persistent bird went on all the afternoon repeating the burden of its one complaint in Nature’s audience chamber.
The postmaster had nothing to do. The shimmer of the freshly washed leaves, and the banked-up remnants of the retreating rain-clouds were sights to see; and the postmaster was watching them and thinking to himself: “Oh, if only some kindred soul were near just one loving human being whom I could hold near my heart!” This was exactly, he went on to think, what that bird was trying to say, and it was the same feeling which the murmuring leaves were striving to express. But no one knows, or would believe, that such an idea might also take possession of an ill-paid village postmaster in the deep, silent mid-day interval of his work.
The postmaster sighed, and called out “Ratan.” Ratan was then sprawling beneath the guava-tree, busily engaged in eating unripe guavas. At the voice of her master, she ran up breathlessly, saying: “Were you calling me, Dada?” “I was thinking,” said the postmaster, “of teaching you to read.” And then for the rest of the afternoon he taught her the alphabet.
Thus, in a very short time, Ratan had got as far as the double consonants.
It seemed as though the showers of the season would never end. Canals, ditches, and hollows were all overflowing with water. Day and night the patter of rain was heard, and the croaking of frogs. The village roads became impassable, and marketing had to be done in punts.
One heavily clouded morning, the postmaster’s little pupil had been long waiting outside the door for her call, but, not hearing it as usual, she took up her dog-eared book, and slowly entered the room. She found her master stretched out on his bed, and, thinking that he was resting, she was about to retire on tip-toe, when she suddenly heard her name “Ratan!” She turned at once and asked: “Were you sleeping, Dada?” The postmaster in a plaintive voice said: “I am not well. Feel my head; is it very hot?”
In the loneliness of his exile, and in the gloom of the rains, his ailing body needed a little tender nursing. He longed to remember the touch on the forehead of soft hands with tinkling bracelets, to imagine the presence of loving womanhood, the nearness of mother and sister. And the exile was not disappointed. Ratan ceased to be a little girl. She at once stepped into the post of mother, called in the village doctor, gave the patient his pills at the proper intervals, sat up all night by his pillow, cooked his gruel for him, and every now and then asked: “Are you feeling a little better, Dada?”
It was some time before the postmaster, with weakened body, was able to leave his sick-bed. “No more of this,” said he with decision. “I must get a transfer.” He at once wrote off to Calcutta an application for a transfer, on the ground of the unhealthiness of the place.
Relieved from her duties as nurse, Ratan again took up her old place outside the door. But she no longer heard the same old call. She would sometimes peep inside furtively to find the postmaster sitting on his chair, or stretched on his bed, and staring absent-mindedly into the air. While Ratan was awaiting her call, the postmaster was awaiting a reply to his application. The girl read her old lessons over and over again, her great fear was lest, when the call came, she might be found wanting in the double consonants. At last, after a week, the call did come one evening. With an overflowing heart Ratan rushed into the room with her “Were you calling me, Dada?”
The postmaster said: “I am going away to-morrow, Ratan.”
“Where are you going, Dada?”
“I am going home.”
“When will you come back?”
“I am not coming back.”
Ratan asked no other question. The postmaster, of his own accord, went on to tell her that his application for a transfer had been rejected, so he had resigned his post and was going home.
For a long time neither of them spoke another word. The lamp went on dimly burning, and from a leak in one corner of the thatch water dripped steadily into an earthen vessel on the floor beneath it.
After a while Ratan rose, and went off to the kitchen to prepare the meal; but she was not so quick about it as on other days. Many new things to think of had entered her little brain. When the postmaster had finished his supper, the girl suddenly asked him: “Dada, will you take me to your home?”
The postmaster laughed. “What an idea!” said he; but he did not think it necessary to explain to the girl wherein lay the absurdity.
That whole night, in her waking and in her dreams, the postmaster’s laughing reply haunted her “What an idea!”
On getting up in the morning, the postmaster found his bath ready. He had stuck to his Calcutta habit of bathing in water drawn and kept in pitchers, instead of taking a plunge in the river as was the custom of the village. For some reason or other, the girl could not ask him about the time of his departure, so she had fetched the water from the river long before sunrise, that it should be ready as early as he might want it. After the bath came a call for Ratan. She entered noiselessly, and looked silently into her master’s face for orders. The master said: “You need not be anxious about my going away, Ratan; I shall tell my successor to look after you.” These words were kindly meant, no doubt: but inscrutable are the ways of a woman’s heart!
Ratan had borne many a scolding from her master without complaint, but these kind words she could not bear. She burst out weeping, and said: “No, no, you need not tell anybody anything at all about me; I don’t want to stay on here.”
The postmaster was dumbfounded. He had never seen Ratan like this before.
The new incumbent duly arrived, and the postmaster, having given over charge, prepared to depart. Just before starting he called Ratan and said: “Here is something for you; I hope it will keep you for some little time.” He brought out from his pocket the whole of his month’s salary, retaining only a trifle for his travelling expenses. Then Ratan fell at his feet and cried: “Oh, Dada, I pray you, don’t give me anything, don’t in any way trouble about me,” and then she ran away out of sight.
The postmaster heaved a sigh, took up his carpet bag, put his umbrella over his shoulder, and, accompanied by a man carrying his many-coloured tin trunk, he slowly made for the boat.
When he got in and the boat was under way, and the rain-swollen river, like a stream of tears welling up from the earth, swirled and sobbed at her bows, then he felt a pain at heart; the grief-stricken face of a village girl seemed to represent for him the great unspoken pervading grief of Mother Earth herself. At one time he had an impulse to go back, and bring away along with him that lonesome waif, forsaken of the world. But the wind had just filled the sails, the boat had got well into the middle of the turbulent current, and already the village was left behind, and its outlying burning-ground came in sight.
So the traveller, borne on the breast of the swift-flowing river, consoled himself with philosophical reflections on the numberless meetings and partings going on in the world on death, the great parting, from which none returns.
But Ratan had no philosophy. She was wandering about the post office in a flood of tears. It may be that she had still a lurking hope in some corner of her heart that her Dada would return, and that is why she could not tear herself away. Alas for our foolish human nature! Its fond mistakes are persistent. The dictates of reason take a long time to assert their own sway. The surest proofs meanwhile are disbelieved. False hope is clung to with all one’s might and main, till a day comes when it has sucked the heart dry and it forcibly breaks through its bonds and departs. After that comes the misery of awakening, and then once again the longing to get back into the maze of the same mistakes.
What are we to make of these powerful and evocative stories by Tagore, which at first appear to be about heartbreak and separation? ‘Kabuliwallah’ and ‘The Postmaster’ appear to be about innocent and affection-suffused relationships between very young girls and adult men.
In ‘Kabuliwallah’ the young daughter of the narrator’s household overcomes her initial fear of a street-vendor who comes to the door selling dried fruits and nuts. In the vendor’s mind, the little girl is a stand-in for the little daughter in far away Kabul from whom he is separated, and the surrogacy on which the relationship is based remains in fixed-focus over time. To the Kabuliwallah, a little girl is always a five-year-old, who enjoys sweets, and shares with him an equally avid taste for cheerful and humorous banter. But the passage of times does not permit a little five year-old to remain a prattling youngster for very long, and childhood tends to blossom disconcertingly into girlhood, at which point even upper-class Bengalis ‘give’ their little daughters in marriage.
The Kabuliwallah is whisked away to jail on a scandalously insubstantial pretext, and remains there for eight years, during which time has been made to stand still. When he is released, it is the eve of the narrator’s twelve or thirteen-year-old daughter’s marriage, and she is only a day away from entering her ‘father-in-law’s house’, though in her case the sentence would be likely to last a lot longer than just eight years.
Tagore himself, in his early twenties, married a nine-year-old, as did his brother Jyotirindranath. Jyotirindranath’s wife Kadambari may have been involved in a love-affair with Tagore himself. Kadambari did not have any children, and Tagore publicly discussed the Hindu custom which permitted a childless woman consort with her brother-in -law in an effort to get pregnant. We shall never know the details about this liaison, or if it was chaste or carnal, because on April 19th 1884, Kadambari, then aged 25, committed suicide by ingesting opium. The matter was soon hushed up, the documents about the cause of death being obtained by means of bribery and forthwith destroyed, and all Kadambari’s letters, including her suicide note along with it. As an Indian woman of 150 years ago who also had no children, Kadambari might have disappeared into historical oblivion, except for the fact that Tagore had dedicated six of his works – four before her death , and two after – to her. One of them ‘Charulatha’ (meaning ‘shadowy vine) was transparently autobiographical, and was made into a film by the renowned Bengali film-maker Satyajit Ray. Charulatha too had a handsome literary brother-in-law, albeit lacking in Tagore’s greasy ringlets, and she too commits suicide. The timing of Kadambari’s suicide, which followed shortly after Tagore’s marriage to the little Bhavatarini, the daughter of one of his father’s tenants (the Tagores lost no time in changing her too-transcendant name to the more mundane ‘Mrinalini’), could also be construed as contributing to her fatal decision. It is also possible that during the extended absences of her husband, Kadambari might have become pregnant by Tagore, and this above all may have provided a compelling motive for her decision. The fact that an impenetrable shroud of secrecy was determinedly drawn over the matter is supported by the fact that there was a ledger entry in the family accounts which recorded the sum of 52 Rupees being paid for “expenses towards suppressing the news of death to the press.”
It is clear that Tagore was no stranger to the phenomenon of marital relationships – chaste or otherwise – between young girls of nine and ten and men in their twenties. His mother Sharada Devi had already given birth to 15 children by the time she was 31. She died at the age of 45 when Tagore was 14 years old. Tagore’s oldest daughter Madhurilatha was born in 1886 when Tagore was 25 years old, and his wife was 13! He himself ‘gave’ two of his daughters in marriage when they were 14 and 10 1/2 years old. Yet, in ‘The Postmaster’, which Tagore wrote when he was about 20, we are drawn into a story which requires us to believe that there exists a sexually unexploitive and pure relationship between a young man and a completely unchaperoned young girl who spend most of their days – and possibly nights – in each other’s company. The young girl, Ratan, – her name means ‘gem’- is fervently devoted to the postmaster, and assumes the role of his obedient servant. The postmaster accepts Ratan’s selfless ministrations as his unquestioned due, rather as one would accept the services of a wife, whose role indeed resembled that of an unpaid servant.
This remarkable relationship, unpolluted by either money or sex, is where my own suspension of disbelief was strained to the breaking point. Tagore’s narrative steadfastly ignores the tense ambiguity of the situation in which Ratan and the postmaster place themselves. Tagore’s description of the monsoon, which in Indian poetic convention is strongly associated with erotic love (it was the time when courtiers were released from their official duties and permitted to return home to their wives) is yet another indirect contradiction of the implication of an asexual connection. On the other hand, Satyajit Ray’s 1961 movie version of the story, even though he rather improbably chooses a six or seven-year-old girl to play the part of Ratan, brings the sexual dynamic into a shadowy visibility without either overtly or explicitly acknowledging it. It would seem that a great effort must always be made to present Ratan as being below a probable age of seduction – but as we all know, from the accounts of child sexual abuse that are now so commonly publicised, ‘probable’ could mean anything.
Such observations as these might seem heretical, sacrilegious and blasphemous to those who uncritically revere of ‘Bengal’s greatest man of letters’, but Tagore for all his brilliant accomplishments, cannot be exempted from a reasonable analysis of his work. He may have lived in a time and place and culture where women were solely the property and playthings of men; but women in cultures where it is possible to claim their own autonomy no longer can be so disgracefully presumed upon. Despite his frequent asseverations about the impropriety of child-marriage, he and all his brothers married child brides, and his daughters were child-brides as well.
It is quite clear that Tagore was able to observe and to eloquently and sympathetically express the cruelty and unfairness of the lot of Bengali women, but he was unable to sufficiently distance himself from the privilege of gender and caste and social position that was his to assert from the very beginning of his life. Of course, were he alive today, in this respect Tagore would find himself to be an unexceptional part of a seething majority. The regrettable fact is that men who come from just about any culture in the world where they believe themselves to be the possessors of god-given power over the lives of girls and women invariably use those powers to exploit abuse and trample those lives. Under these terrible, conditions, and in the climate of cultural and religious approval, young girls are still ruthlessly exploited, and summarily disposed of when they are no longer considered to have any value.
Though it reveals many aspects of a brutal reality, in ‘The Postmaster’ we find that Tagore is indulging in a fantasy – a fantasy where the highly charged subject of a young girl’s unreserved, virginal adoration of an adult man can be safely and openly contemplated, and an erotic sub-text can be privately filled in by the reader. It is a magnificent feat of brilliant magicianship, to not only draw the reader’s riveted attention to the the elephant in the room by not only never referring to it, but surrounding that elephant with china teacups. Ratan’s role of unpaid servant mimics that of a faithful, devoted and servile Indian wife. And yet it would seem that Tagore expects his readers to believe that Ratan, who is expected to fulfill the needs and demands, and the wishes, both spoken and unspoken, of her lord and master, would not be expected to fulfill the one which in his day was euphemistically referred to as a ‘wifely duty’.
Tagore accomplishes this amazing feat by means of the unbroken cordon sanitaire of male sexual probity and seeming absence of sexual feeling he draws around the postmaster, wherein not even the shadow of a thought of is permitted to intrude. The postmaster is a paragon of lonely virtue, but he is never shown to be tempted in the slightest to make even a single sexual overture to a young girl who has made herself his possession.
Tagore lived before the cult of Freud and his pseudo-scientific speculations were made known outside of Germany, and certainly before they became psychological gospel, so there was no disciplinary vocabulary with with to deconstruct the postmaster’s fantasy, but to the modern reader, the assumptions we must make if we are to take the story at face value, can never be made to bear the weight of our natural incredulity.
On little Ratan’s delicate shoulders is placed the full burden of adult female responsibility to serve and care for and provide mothering and companionship to a needy and demanding adult male. She must be mother, wife, daughter and servant. In return she is taught the alphabet, which she is quick to learn, right up to the ‘double consonants’, which anyone who has tried to master them either in Devanagari or Bengali script, knows to be a not insignificant challenge. This of course touchingly attests to Ratan’s inherent intelligence – which, given the harsh and brutal circumstances of of her life, is doomed to stunting and blight.
When, after his bout of what might have been either malaria or influenza, the postmaster decides to leave his rural post in order to return to Calcutta, he tries to give Ratan his monthly salary, minus only his travel expenses, but she refuses to accept it. The postmaster’s well-meaning gesture is not a sufficient recompense for what she has given him – which is – what? – her heart? her soul? What indeed did she expect from this lumpish and chronically self-absorbed man? Did she expect to be loved and treasured and given a home? If so, her disappointment must have been bitter indeed.
Tagore’s profound – yet we feel rather too glib – ruminations on the nature of human attachments and their painful rupturings, leaves us with a deep feeling of emptiness – not for the self-centred and slightly foolish postmaster, who we feel will return to a clutch of attentive and pampering females in his Calcutta home, but for the lost and desolated little girl who has been left behind.
As for the Kabuliwallah, after he has served his eight year prison term, the former convict too, must return home. The narrator who, without interfering or interceding on his behalf calmly watched an innocent man being apprehended and hauled off to prison, now gives the old man a small sum of money. Doubtless the sum was significant, because it put a regrettable dent in the wedding festivities of his daughter, and perhaps for that reason we should see this gesture as a generous one.
As a child growing up in Ceylon, I often met my own ‘Kabuliwallah’ – who may or may not have been from Kabul, but he was definitely an Afghan. I can empathise completely with the initial fear of the little Bengali girl in Tagore’s story. The Kabuliwallah I knew was also a fruit seller. He had a spot on the pavement in downtown Kandy, close to Cargills dry goods store, and he sold apples which were individually wrapped in purple tissue-paper. He towered over the men around him, including my grandfather, and had an imposing chest-length beard which was dyed a faded streaky red. His usual dress included a big turban and baggy trousers and a heavy knee-length shirt and a woolen waistcoat, all in different shades of brown. My grandfather knew him by name (which if I ever knew it I have now forgotten) and the two of them hailed each other with a four syllable greeting in a language I did not recognise. The Afghan in Tagore’s story may have spoken Bengali, but the one I knew as a child did not appear to speak either Sinhalese, Tamil or English.
The journey from what is now Bangladesh to Afghanistan is a long one, which might in those unmechanised times have taken several months, and we do not know what the Kabuliwallah may have discovered at its end, in his own homeland – if indeed he ever got that far. Of course, we are now quite familiar with the terrible fate which overcame both Tagore’s Bengal – now Bangladesh – and Afghanistan. First came that shattering and completely avoidable tragedy, the partitioning of India and Pakistan along religious lines, followed by the struggle for independence of East-Pakistan from its more powerful overlord West-Pakistan.
The bitter and ineluctable curse of religion and all the horrors that regularly and horrifically follow in its wake, were visited in full measure on Tagore’s former homeland. When the Russians came to invade Afghanistan, they ran into stiff resistance from their future nemesis, the American-supported Mujaheddin. Some of these men then came to assume power as the brutal and sadistic Taliban.
The lot of women in both of these god-forsaken and degraded countries does not seem to have improved very much in the course of a hundred and fifty years – if not in the course of all of history. Women are still dependent on the goodwill of men – of which there is precious little in evidence – for their mere survival. In Afghanistan they are still deprived of education, given – or rather sold – in marriage to much older men, beaten, starved and impregnated. They are still imprisoned for ‘moral’ offenses, we would consider laughable and absurd, and if raped, they are compelled to marry their rapists. In many places young girls and women are executed for adultery, which usually means for merely for being the victims of male sexual violence. Indeed they cannot even claim to have been raped unless four male witnesses come forward to support their assertions, which is a completely unsatisfiable condition, as ridiculous as it is impossible. The Ratans of the world are still considered creatures of little or no worth, and if Tagore were to return today, whatever else he would find unfamiliar in our world, he would instantly recognise this fact.
Several wedding-pictures which clearly illustrate the then – and still – common practice of marrying very young girls to mature men.