The Post Office
The Post Office
Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian writer of all forms of literature (as well as a painter and composer), predominantly wrote in Bengali, though several of his poems and plays have been translated into English. Originally written in Bengali in 1912, Dak Ghar was translated into English as The Post Office and performed in 1913 by the Abbey Theatre Company in Dublin, Ireland, and London, England. The play was then published in English in 1914. To this day, The Post Office is the most renowned and beloved of Tagore's dramatic works, and it is still regularly produced in the United States and abroad. The play is about a small boy who is chronically ill. On account of his sickness, the boy is confined to his bed, and he sits by his window, watching life go by without him. Only by dying is the boy finally set free. In this manner, the play is primarily a metaphor for spiritual freedom, for death as a beginning rather than an ending. The play also presents a social commentary on class structure through the servants who surround the boy during his illness. Having remained in print for almost one hundred years, The Post Office is available in a 1998 paperback edition of Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology.
Rabindranath Tagore was born on May 7, 1861, in Calcutta, India, which was then under British rule. His mother was named Sarada Devi, and his
father, Debendranath Tagore, was a scholar, religious reformer, philosopher, and writer. Tagore began writing at an early age, publishing poetry in various magazines and journals by the age of thirteen. By the age of sixteen he had already gained recognition for his poetry. He is the author of the first short story ever to be written in Bengali, "Bhikharini" (1877, "The Beggar Woman"). He continued to write poetry and verse plays at this time, and he also began composing Hindu devotionals. In 1879, Tagore left India to pursue his studies at the University College of London, but he did not enjoy attending school and returned home without a degree in 1880.
Tagore married Mrinalini Devi Raichaudhuri on December 9, 1883. The couple had three daughters, Madhurilata (nicknamed Bela), Renuka, and Mira; and two sons, Rathindranath and Samindranath. Two of the children did not live until adulthood; his wife died around 1902. While his family was still young, Tagore began managing some of the family estates, traveling to villages that are now part of Bangladesh. His experiences and travels over this period are reflected in Sonar Tari (1894), his first significant collection of poems (the collection was translated into English and published as The Golden Boat in 1932). The short stories he wrote at this time also portrayed village life. This period, running from the 1880s to 1910, was the most prolific of Tagore's life. He wrote not only poems and short stories but also novels, plays, and children's books. Over this time, his style evolved from romanticism to realism, and he experimented with different literary forms never before attempted in Bengali literature, assuring his place as a prominent Bengali writer.
By 1911, only a small portion of Tagore's prolific output had been translated into English. Planning his own trip to England, but being too ill to travel, Tagore instead worked on translating his Bengali works into English. He particularly worked on translating the prose poems from his 1910 collection Gitanjali. By early 1912, Tagore was well enough to travel to England with his completed translations. There, his work was championed by famed poets W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound, and Yeats wrote the introduction to the 1912 English-language edition of Gitanjali. During the early twentieth century, the Nobel Prize was awarded for a single work of literature, and in 1913, Tagore received the prize for Gitanjali. He was the first Asian Nobel laureate.
Leaving England in late 1912 for a lecture tour in America, Tagore returned to London in April of 1913. There, he saw the Abbey Theatre Company's performance of The Post Office. Originally written in Bengali in 1912 as Dak Ghar, the play was translated and performed in English shortly thereafter. It was then published in English in 1914. By this time, given his receipt of the Nobel Prize and his prominent literary advocates in England and America, Tagore became an internationally renowned literary figure, traveling the world and giving lectures. In 1915, Tagore was knighted by the British government.
Aside from his writing, Tagore had progressive views on education, politics, and religion; he founded an ashram (a spiritual community) and associated school in 1901. In 1919, he resigned his knighthood as an act of political protest, following the Amritsar massacre, in which British troops fired on Indian protestors, killing 400 people. In 1921, he co-founded the Institute for Rural Reconstruction (later renamed Shrineketan). The school largely promoted philosophies that diverged from those of political leader Mahatma Gandhi, as Tagore did not always agree with Gandhi's ideals. During the 1930s, Tagore began protesting Hindu caste structure. Notably, his work as a composer is still very much a part of Indian culture; he is the author of the national anthem of India and of the national anthem of Bangladesh. His paintings, which Tagore began to work on in his later years, were exhibited throughout Europe.
Tagore's popularity abroad began to wane later in his career, especially after he renounced his knighthood and publicly criticized Britain's colonialist culture and constant warfare. Indeed, by 1920, when Tagore again traveled to England and America, he was not warmly received. Notably, his cool reception was based on political and not artistic values. For this reason, his work in English translation is still read and studied in the twenty-first century. Regardless, Tagore never again achieved the international success that he had accomplished with Gitanjali. His work, however, was still gaining recognition outside of Europe, and Tagore spent much of the 1920s traveling to such countries as China and Peru. By the late 1930s, World War II put an end to his travels, as did his advancing age. Tagore died at the age of eighty on August 7, 1941, in Calcutta. His remains were cremated.
The Post Office, a three-act play, begins with Madhav Dutta speaking with the Doctor about a young boy with a fever. The Doctor says the boy cannot go outside or he will get worse. The Doctor quotes scripture and proverbs that support his recommended treatment. After he leaves, Thakurda, a wanderer with whom Madhav is acquainted, comes in. Madhav tells Thakurda that his wife has wanted to adopt a son and now they have finally done so. The boy is an orphan who is distantly related to them, something of a nephew on his wife's side of the family. Madhav confides to Thakurda that he did not want to adopt a son lest the boy foolishly spend all the money Madhav has worked so hard to earn all of his life. Now, however, he loves the boy so much that he does not care. Madhav also makes Thakurda promise not to allow the boy to play outside, and not to excite him too much. Thakurda agrees and promises to come back and only play quietly with the boy indoors.
After Thakurda leaves, the sick boy, who is named Amal, speaks with his uncle and adopted father Madhav. Amal questions the Doctor's orders, but Madhav says that the Doctor knows best because he is well-read and is an educated man. Amal concedes that he has not read anything and therefore must not know anything. Madhav then tells Amal that he can sit and read his whole life and become a pundit (a learned man who shapes public opinion because of his expertise). Amal scoffs at the suggestion because he does not want to sit still, as he is being forced to do now. Instead, he wants to travel the world and see all there is to see. Madhav laughs at this, tells Amal he has to go to work, and makes the boy promise not to go outside while he is gone.
Amal sits at the window when the Curdseller passes by, singing out his wares. Amal beckons to him, but then says he has no money. Amal does not want to buy dai (curds); he wants to hear about the Curdseller's village and to be taught the song that the man uses to sell his curds. He wants to learn how to sell curds when he grows up, walking around and singing. The Curdseller tells the boy that he should become a pundit instead. Amal says "I will never become a pundit." Amal talks about how he feels exhilarated when he hears the Curdseller's song. The Curdseller is touched and gives Amal some dai. He then continues on his way and Amal sings the merchant's song after he leaves.
The Watchman passes by and Amal calls him over. The Watchman tells Amal that the boy should not yell to him; he should be scared of him because he can arrest the boy and take him away. Rather than being scared by this, the thought excites Amal. The boy asks the Watchman about his gong, which is used to announce the time. From this conversation, the Watchman makes a pun about mortality, though Amal does not appear to understand it. If he does understand the joke, then his answer indicates that he wants to die in order to be "free." Amal asks the Watchman about the building across the street, which the Watchman says is the new post office. The boy is entranced by the idea of becoming a mail carrier for the Raja (the local monarch, or ruler), traveling the world and delivering messages. The Watchman sees the Headman (the local boss) coming their way and he leaves before getting into trouble for stopping to chat. He promises to return the next day.
As the Headman approaches, Amal talks to himself, imagining what it would be like to receive letters from the Raja. Amal cannot read, so he hopes his "Auntie" will read the letters to him. Better yet, he'll save them and read them once he's older and has learned to read himself. Amal then calls out to the Headman. The boy asks the Headman to tell the mail carriers his name and address in case the Raja sends him a letter. The Headman, who is not very nice, teases Amal about being the Raja's friend. He says to himself that Madhav and his family have gone too far, pretending to be acquainted with royalty just because Madhav has been successful in business. He wants to be sure that they get their "comeuppance" for such audacity. The Headman promises, insincerely, to speak with the Raja and have his letter delivered to Amal. In reality, he plans to speak to the Raja about Madhav's pretensions.
After the Headman goes, a girl walks by and Amal calls her over. She says her name is Shudha. She is on her way to pick flowers for her father, who sells the garlands she makes from them. Amal wishes he could go with her and says he would pick the best and hardest to reach flowers for her. Shudha says she would love to sit all day like Amal, but she must go before all the best flowers have been picked. Amal makes Shudha promise to return, and he asks her to bring him a flower, promising to pay her once he is grown up and has money of his own. Shudha agrees, swearing not to forget, and saying, "You will be remembered."
Next, a group of Village Boys wanders by. Amal asks where they are going and what they are going to play. The boys invite him to come along, but Amal tells them he is not allowed outside because he is ill. Instead, he says he will give the boys all of his toys as long as they promise to come and play outside of his window every morning. He also asks them to send one of the mail carriers to see him. The boys agree and continue on their way. Although it is early in the day, Amal already feels tired, and the effects of his fever begin to show.
Madhav says that Amal looks weak from spending all day by the window befriending most of the townspeople. Madhav says that the Doctor will no longer allow Amal to sit by the window. Amal protests because the Fakir (a mystical holy man) is coming to see him. As it turns out, the Fakir is really Thakurda in costume. Madhav lets the man in and Thakurda sits on Amal's bed. Thakurda tells the boy stories of the fantastical Parrot Island. He promises to take Amal there when he is well.
Amal asks Madhav about the Curdseller, who has stopped by and left some dai for him. Madhav says the man's niece is getting married so he will be too busy to stop by for a while. Amal replies that the Curdseller promised him that he could marry his niece. Thakurda jokes that the man probably has many nieces. Exasperated with their nonsense, Madhav leaves the room. Amal then asks Thakurda if the Raja has sent him a letter yet, and Thakurda says he heard that it has been sent. They talk about meeting with the Raja and of the art of begging. Amal declares that he will beg the Raja to be made into a mail carrier. Thakurda then asks Amal why it makes him so unhappy to stay at home. Amal replies that the thought of waiting for the Raja's letter makes it more bearable.
Madhav comes back into the room and worries that they will get into trouble because the Headman has written to the Raja. Madhav states that, according to the Headman, Amal is "saying that the Raja has established his post office only to correspond with you." Amal is worried by this, but Thakurda says the Raja cannot possibly be mad with a little boy. Amal starts to feel faint; his eyesight is beginning to fail him and it is hard for him to see. As the three sit there, the Doctor comes in to check on Amal, who says, "All my pain seems to be going away." The Doctor says that this is not a good sign. He thinks the boy has gotten too much air and sun through the window, and that he's had too many visitors.
Amal appears to fall asleep, and Madhav asks the Doctor, "This child who is not my own but whom I have loved as my own, will he be taken from me?" Before the Doctor is able to answer, he sees the Headman coming and hurries to leave before the Headman sees him. The Doctor promises to send some medicine. When the Headman enters, he calls for Amal, but Thakurda tells the man to be quiet because the child is sleeping. Amal then appears to awake and says that he was not actually asleep, that he could hear everything going on around him, and he could even hear his dead parents speaking to him.
The Headman accuses Madhav and his family of being pretentious. He ridicules them and hands Amal a blank page, saying that it is a letter from the Raja. Amal says he doesn't see any writing, but he thinks that this is because his eyes are failing him. Thakurda pretends to read the fake letter, telling Amal that it says the Raja will come to see him, along with the Royal Physician. Amal replies that he can already hear the Raja's Herald announcing the Raja's arrival. The Headman laughs, believing Amal to be delirious.
Soon, however, someone is banging on the door, and the Raja's Herald enters, announcing that the Raja will be arriving at midnight. In the meantime, he has sent his Physician ahead of him. The Physician enters and says that the room must be opened up, that the boy needs fresh air. Amal tells the Physician that he feels fine. "My illness is gone, my pain is gone. Now everything is open—I can see all the stars, shining on the far side of darkness."
Madhav whispers to Amal that when the Raja comes, he should be sure to ask him for something for the family, indicating that he would like money or favors from the Raja. Amal says that he will ask to be made a mail carrier. Madhav groans. The Herald tells the family to prepare a meal for the Raja when he arrives, but then the Physician says there is "no need," and he tells everyone to be "calm." He says that Amal's "sleep is coming. I will sit beside his pillow as he drifts off. Blow out the lamp; let the starlight come in; his sleep has arrived." Oblivious, Madhav asks Thakurda why he is "so hushed, with your palms pressed together like a statue?" Madhav says, "I feel a kind of dread…. Why has the room been darkened? What use is starlight?" Thakurda responds, "Be quiet, unbeliever! Do not speak."
Shudha arrives and asks for Amal, but the Physician says "he has fallen asleep," though he really means that Amal is dead. Shudha puts the flowers she brought for Amal into his hand. She asks the Physician to whisper something in his ear; she says to the Physician, "Tell him, ‘Shudha has not forgotten you.’"
Amal is the protagonist of the The Post Office. A young village orphan adopted by his distant aunt and uncle, Amal is new to town and is excited by all that it has to offer. He is innocent and naive and has a rich imagination. His chief desire is to see the world, which makes being confined to the house even more painful for him. Since Amal is sweet-natured, he does not complain. Instead, he makes the best of his situation by befriending several of the townspeople who pass by his window. Amal is also somewhat prophetic, or at the very least accurate, in his imaginings. For instance, when Amal asks the Curdseller about his village, the boy imagines what it must be like and the Curdseller admits that his vision of the village is exact. He even goes so far as to ask the boy whether he has been there before. Amal also accurately predicts where the Village Boys are going and what they are going to do.
Amal is well-liked by all who meet him. Madhav, a miserly and greedy man who does not want to adopt a child who will spend his money, loves Amal despite his baser inclinations. Thakurda cares for him so much that he dresses in costume and pretends to be a Fakir. All of the townspeople Amal befriends are touched by him. The Curdseller is touched by the boy's interest in his work. Shudha laughs at his stories and brings him flowers. The Watchman, who at first threatens the boy, grows to like him and promises to return the following day with the town gossip. Even the Headman, who relentlessly makes fun of Amal, says that Amal "has a good heart." It is for all of these reasons that Amal's passing is so poignant. His death is not mourned; it is not even referred to in exact terms. Through his death, Amal is finally set free from his confinement. Even as he succumbs, Amal is able to see and hear everything.
Auntie is the unnamed wife of Madhav Dutta and is also Amal's adoptive mother. She is mentioned just a few times in the play, and only by Madhav and Amal. All that is known of her is that she wanted to adopt a son and that she likes to read. She does not actually appear or speak. It is odd that the adoptive mother of a boy who is clearly dying has no interaction with her son in the days leading up to his death.
The Curdseller is one of the townspeople who befriends Amal. He tells Amal of his village and teaches the boy how to sing the song he uses to sell his dai. He also gives Amal free dai on more than one occasion. He tells the boy that his questions and excitement "have shown me the joy in selling dai."
The Doctor cares for Amal by ordering his confinement and quoting scripture. Although it is clear to modern readers that the Doctor is ignorant, the characters treat the Doctor as wise and learned, following his every order. The Doctor's nonsense is most evident when he makes the claim that "the greater the suffering, the happier the outcome." The Doctor, like many of the other townspeople, is afraid of the Headman. His fear is greater than his desire to care for his patient, and he leaves Madhav's house as soon as he sees the Headman approaching. He does not finish his examination and promises to send medicine instead. Furthermore, the Doctor does not take any responsibility for Amal's health. When it is clear the boy's illness is getting worse, the Doctor says that his orders have not been followed, though, in fact, they have been.
Madhav Dutta is Amal's adoptive father and also Amal's foil. Where Amal is a dreamer, Madhav is the opposite, a businessman. Although Madhav did not want to adopt a child for fear that he would spend all of his hard-earned money, he has done so for the sake of his wife. Madhav has grown to love Amal so much that he no longer cares if the boy spends his money. He says, "Before, I was addicted to making money…. But now my reward is the knowledge that whatever I earn will be his." At the same time, Madhav is a practical businessman. He often leaves Amal alone in order to go to work, despite the fact the boy is sick and bored by his enforced confinement. Madhav's practicality is shown in several ways; he wants Amal to become a pundit and laughs at the boy's ambitions to become a traveler. He sees the tall hills that Amal wants to climb as "forbidding," and he feels they appear that way because they are not meant to be traversed. Amal, however, sees them as "the earth … raising up her hands … and calling us." Madhav wants Amal to ask the Raja for something when he arrives. While Madhav indicates that he wants money or favors from the Raja, Amal is oblivious to this, and the boy only wants to ask the Raja to make him a mail carrier.
Madhav takes everything at face value. He fears for Amal's life and asks for reassurances from the Doctor. Yet, he does not really see or acknowledge the fact that Amal is declining before his very eyes. Even as Amal dies, Madhav refuses to accept the truth of what is happening. Instead, he asks Thakurda why he is "so hushed."
The Headman is the town bully, akin to the modern version of a mob boss. Most of the townspeople are afraid of him. Both the Watchman and the Doctor head in the opposite direction as soon as they see him coming. Even Madhav begs the Headman to be kind to them. The Watchman says that the Headman's "entire job seems to be trouble-making, for everyone." This assessment proves true when the Headman takes it upon himself to report Amal's perceived insolence to the Raja. However, the Headman's plan backfires, and instead of being upset, the Raja decides to visit the boy and to send the Royal Physician to care for him. The only people who are not afraid of the Headman are Thakurda and the Royal Physician; in the last act, both indicate that the Headman should leave the house. Thakurda also defies the Headman by pretending to read the fake letter he has brought to Amal.
The Raja, like Amal's Auntie, does not appear or speak during the play; however, references to him drive much of the plot. Amal wants to work as a mail carrier for the Raja, and he also hopes to receive a letter from him someday. His hopes cause the Headman to complain to the Raja, but this only results in the monarch's plans to visit Amal. Though Amal dies and the story ends before the Raja appears, his emissaries stand beside Amal's deathbed.
The Raja's Herald enters to announce the Raja's impending visit, as well as the Royal Physician's presence.
The Royal Physician is likely more talented than the town Doctor, and he immediately contradicts the Doctor's orders, demanding that the room be opened up to allow the fresh air in. He also talks to Amal about meeting the Raja. The Physician wants the Headman to leave before the Raja arrives, but he relents when the innocent boy says that the Headman is his friend. The Physician knows that Amal is dying, and he is kind to the boy, telling everyone to be "calm." He says that Amal's "sleep is coming. I will sit beside his pillow as he drifts off. Blow out the lamp; let the starlight come in." The Physician is also kind to Shudha; he tells her that Amal "has fallen asleep," and he agrees to whisper into Amal's ear at her request.
Shudha is one of the townspeople whom Amal befriends. She picks flowers and makes them into garlands that her father then sells. Although Shudha would like to stay and talk to Amal, she must go to do her work. She likes Amal and the two children tease each other and flirt with one another. She promises to return and to bring Amal flowers even though he cannot pay her for them. Although Shudha arrives after Amal has died, she still wants to give him the flowers as she has promised. She also wants the doctor to whisper into Amal's ear that "Shudha has not forgotten you."
Thakurda is a wanderer who is acquainted with Madhav. At Madhav's request he promises not to excite Amal or allow him to play outside. For this reason, he dresses as a Fakir and tells the boy stories of his mystical travels while Amal lies in bed. Although he seems somewhat silly, Thakurda has more sense than Madhav. Unlike Madhav, he knows that the Raja cannot be mad at a small child's imaginings, and he knows that Amal is dying. For this reason, he sits "hushed," his "palms pressed together" as he holds a vigil for the boy. Finally, Thakurda grows impatient with Madhav's obliviousness to the situation, snapping, "Be quiet, unbeliever! Do not speak."
The Village Boys are a group of children who pass by Amal's window. The boys invite him to join them and, when he says that he cannot, they encourage him to disobey. Despite this, the boys are wary when Amal offers them his toys. They want to know if he will regret giving them away, if they can really keep the toys, and that no one will punish Amal for giving them away. When Amal dispels their doubts, they agree to come and play with the toys outside of Amal's window each morning.
The Watchman is one of the passersby whom Amal speaks with. Although the Watchman tries to frighten Amal by threatening to arrest him, Amal thinks that this would be a great adventure. The boy asks the Watchman about his gong, which is used to announce the time. From this conversation, the Watchman makes a pun about mortality, though Amal does not appear to understand it. If Amal does understand the joke, then his answer indicates that he wants to die in order to be "free." The Watchman responds by observing that he "shouldn't say such things." The Watchman also tells Amal about the post office nearby, and this sets the plot in motion.
Death as Release
The main theme of The Post Office is that of death as a release, both physical and spiritual, even though the word death (and all of its variants) never appears in the play. However, death is constantly referenced. Madhav, particularly, talks around the subject. In the opening act, the Doctor tells Madhav that if the boy "is fated for long life, then he shall have it." When the Doctor begins to speak about the alternative, Madhav cuts him off. Even when Amal is clearly dying before everyone's eyes, the word is not uttered. Madhav refuses to understand what is happening. The Royal Physician says the boy is going to sleep. Thakurda sits in reverent silence and demands the same of Madhav. No one cries or mourns. The playwright seems to be asking: what is there to mourn if suffering has ended and freedom has been granted?
Perhaps death is never directly mentioned to underscore the theme. Death is conventionally viewed as an end to life, rather than a beginning in some unknown realm. Therefore, relying upon the term would undermine the play's message of death as freedom. For this reason, the word sleep becomes more appropriate, and it is indeed used throughout as a euphemism for death. To sleep is to be in a state that is not living but is certainly not death. It opens up the possibility for dreams or an alternative state of being.
Besides the wordplay that underscores this theme, there are several concrete instances in the play that address death as a form of freedom. First and foremost, when the Watchman and Amal obliquely discuss mortality, the Watchman describes time as going "onwards," and though no one no knows where it is going, everyone "will go there one day." The Watchman also says that perhaps one day "the doctor will hold your hand and take you there." When Amal says that the doctor doesn't let him go anywhere, the Watchman replies that he is referring to a "greater doctor," one "who can set you free." In other instances, as Amal is dying, he says that he feels better, that he feels no pain. At the very least, then, death can be seen as freedom from the body and its constraints. Some of Amal's final words also indicate that death is a beginning and not an ending; he says, "Now everything is open—I can see all the stars, shining on the far side of darkness."
The secondary theme in The Post Office is that of class structure. Madhav is a member of a tenuous middle class. He has done well for himself in business, but he is not rich enough to live a life of leisure. He has enough to provide for an adopted son and for his medical care, albeit not the best care available. This is shown by the Doctor's treatments, which are derived from religious proverbs. Madhav is afraid of the Headman's power to make the Raja displeased with him and his family. He wants to ingratiate himself with the Headman; he is polite to him and asks for his mercy. Yet, when it is clear that the Raja is not displeased, Madhav wishes to take full advantage of the monarch's visit, asking Amal to beg the Raja for a gift.
Other class structures are explored via Amal's interactions with the passersby. The Curdseller, the Watchman, and Shudha are all in the midst of taking care of their daily business, and they view Amal's enforced leisure as a privilege and not a punishment. Because Amal is privileged to become a learned man, both Madhav and the Curdseller encourage him to do so. Yet, Amal sees this fate as a form of imprisonment. Thus, in an interesting inversion of class power, Amal sees freedom in the daily tasks of people passing outside his window where the townspeople only see themselves as attending to their daily drudgery.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Imagine that Amal lives long enough to speak with the Raja. What would their conversation be like? Try to mimic the style of the play and write a brief dialogue depicting Amal and the Raja when they first meet.
- Study Indian society in 1913 and the early twenty-first century. Conduct a class presentation comparing and contrasting the two eras, and be sure to use visual aids.
- Critics have cited The Post Office as being representative of Tagore's overarching themes and subject matter. Read several of Tagore's other plays and poetry. In an essay, discuss the respective themes and subject matter of each work, and provide an analysis of whether or not you agree that The Post Office is representative of Tagore's other works.
- In two separate instances during the play, Amal references the tale of the "seven champak-flower brothers." Using the Internet and your local library, research everything you can about the tale and share your findings in a class presentation. Does the tale relate to the play in any way? Discuss why or why not.
The figure of the Headman also illustrates class structure. He is a town bully with connections to the Raja, and almost everyone—from the Watchman to the Doctor—is afraid of him. The Headman wields his power like a bully, and those who are beneath him in social status must suffer this. Yet, those who are above him in status remain unaffected, and thus the Royal Physician is free to insult him by asking him to leave Madhav's house. Thakurda, who, as a wanderer, exists outside of social rules, is also unafraid of the Headman.
Foreshadowing, or indicating that an event is about to take place, is used throughout the play, especially in reference to Amal's impending death. As the play opens, Madhav voices his fears that Amal will not survive. When Amal interacts with the townspeople, several notice that he does not look well. Shudha says that "to look at you reminds me of the fading morning star." One particularly striking instance of foreshadowing occurs when Amal declares, "I will never become a pundit." Indeed, he will never become anything. In yet another instance, Amal unwittingly foreshadows his death by poignantly asking Shudha, "You won't forget me?" Though Amal is ostensibly asking Shudha to visit him again, on a deeper level, he is asking for her to memorialize him, which, at the play's end, she does. Amal's exchange with the Watchman about time and death and being "free" are all meant to foreshadow his coming death. In a more straightforward form of foreshadowing, as the play progresses, both the Doctor and Madhav comment that Amal's illness appears to be worsening.
In literary terms, an allusion is an indirect reference to something outside the work in hand, adding a layer of meaning and complexity. Often, allusions refer to other literary works, works of art, or historical events. They imbue the fictional work in which they appear with a more concrete sense of reality, and they enhance the work's theme or tone by association. Allusions can be overt, simply mentioning a work or event, or they can be subtle, mentioning a character in the work or hinting at an obscure fact related to the item being alluded to. Allusions often require that the reader is already knowledgeable with the works or events that are referred to in order for them to be effective.
There are three straightforward allusions in The Post Office. The first is to Ayurveda, an ancient Hindu medicinal practice that the doctor quotes as his source for his treatments in the beginning of the play. The second allusion is to the Ramayana, which Amal says his Auntie is always reading. The Ramayana is an ancient Hindu epic that is believed to have been written by Valmiki. It is comparable culturally to Homer's epic The Odyssey. The third is to the "seven champak-flower brothers," a fairy tale that is mentioned twice in the play. Furthermore, there is also a secondary allusion to the champak-flower brothers; Amal asks Shudha to "be Parul," one of the characters in the tale.
Colonial India and the Movement for Independence
Though the The Post Office does not directly address colonial India, it was written while India was under British rule, and its form is very much influenced by this fact. Tagore was educated in England and was the first Bengali author to write in Western forms such as the short story. This sort of cross-cultural interaction is why Indian literature is inextricably linked to its colonial context.
Initially a collection of warring nation-states, India was not unified until it was under British rule, which began in the mid-1700s. The country was first governed by the British East India Company. By the mid-1800s, after being subjugated racially and economically for an entire century, Indian citizens began movements toward independence. The Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 was the first such significant demonstration. Though the rebellion was not successful, some improvements were made, including the passage of the Government of India Act of 1858, which transferred power of rule from the British East India Company to the British Crown. Indians were also given minor governmental control on a local level.
Great Britain planted cotton in India to the point where land for cultivating rice was usurped and India's food stores were endangered. Indians were also employed as cheap labor. Thus, in 1885 the Indian National Congress was formed to communicate Indian interests to Britain and to promote India's independence. During World War I, Britain increased its control of India via the Defense of India Act in 1915. Indian citizens hoped that by participating in the war, they would gain increased governmental control. This did not turn out to be the case, and the British secured even greater powers through the Rowlatt Acts in 1919. Protests led to the Amritsar massacre, in which British troops fired on Indian protestors, killing four hundred people. Tagore resigned his knighthood as an act of political protest following this event.
The national outrage following the massacre further fueled India's drive for independence. The country was predominantly led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru (who fought not only for India's independence but for India as a Hindu nation). A smaller faction of Muslim Indians was led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and they ultimately wished to create a separate Muslim nation. The British government succeeded in delaying the move for independence by playing the two factions off of one another. Yet, under the increased costs of governing the region, the British Parliament drafted a new Indian constitution in 1935 that granted the colony greater political freedom.
While the Muslim faction supported Britain during World War II, the larger Hindu faction did not. This led the Hindu faction to demand their independence in 1942, and Britain responded by disbanding the Indian National Congress and imprisoning Gandhi and Nehru. India was on the cusp of widespread rioting, and Gandhi was released in 1944 as a means to stave off such an event. Political unrest continued until 1945, when the ruling British party was replaced by the Labour party, which was more amenable to India's demands. The party announced its intentions to grant India's independence, and on August 15, 1947, this became a reality. The country was divided into India and Pakistan, the latter conceived as a Muslim nation.
The Hindu Religion
Hinduism is integral to India's national identity, socially and culturally. Tagore was a Hindu and Hindu teachings heavily influenced his work, especially The Post Office. Indeed, one of the core tenets of the Hindu religion is reincarnation, the idea that one's soul lives in many physical bodies during its journey. This tenet coincides with Tagore's exploration of death in the play. The caste system (which posits that enlightened souls are born into higher castes while unenlightened souls are born in lower castes) is a rigid class system that is also a part of Hindu teachings. Tagore opposed this belief system, and this can be seen in the class structures that are explored in the play.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1913: In India, mortality rates from disease are extremely high, and Amal very well could have succumbed to a number of infectious diseases common in India, including typhoid fever, dengue fever, or malaria.
Today: In India, the average life span is sixty-nine years, and while the aforementioned diseases are still present, they are no longer as deadly. For instance, a vaccine for malaria has been developed.
- 1913: India has been under British rule since the mid-1700s, but growing dissatisfaction fuels the movement for independence.
Today: Having gained independence in 1947, India is now a federal republic.
- 1913: Medical practice in India largely follows Ayurvedic principles. The philosophy is several thousand years old.
Today: Ayurvedic medicine is still utilized in India, though this is often in tandem with modern or Western medicinal practices. However, roughly two-thirds of people living in rural India still rely on Ayurveda as their primary mode of treatment.
The third largest religion in the world, Hinduism has no clear founder or easily defined practice. Instead, it is an amalgamation of spiritual beliefs formed from 4,000 to 2,000 bce. Hinduism is predominantly henotheistic, which
means that it worships a single god who is also manifested in the form of several smaller deities. The main god, Brahma, is the creator of the universe. He is constantly creating, and one great aspect of his personality is Vishnu (or Krishna), who protects these creations. His other aspect is Shiva, a destructive being with sexual undertones. Dharma, which is the balance of all things, is maintained by the tenuous balance between the three deities, particularly by Vishnu. There are an infinite number of interpretations of these fundamentals.
Other fundamental beliefs include Karma, which influences reincarnation. All of the good or bad that a person does in one life is reflected by their status in the next life. There are also two Hindu factions: the pravritti, who embrace the world, and the nivritti, who renounce it. The former's religious goals are Dharma, virtue or righteousness; artha, material wealth; and kama, pleasure. The latter's goals are moksa, freedom from samsara (continued reincarnation), which can only be achieved by reaching enlightenment.
In the Western world, The Post Office is Tagore's most successful play and his second most successful work overall (after Gitanjali). Written in 1912 and first performed in 1913, the play was an immediate success; it was translated into English, performed internationally, and published in English, all within a few years of its original release in Bengali. In an introduction to the play in Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology, Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson write that W. B. Yeats called the The Post Office a "masterpiece," and that Mahatma Gandhi wrote that he was "enraptured" by a 1917 performance of the play. Dutta and Robinson also note that "Tagore's insight into death is perhaps at its deepest" in the The Post Office. The play is generally considered a shining example of Tagore's work, and Dutta and Robinson state in their general introduction to Rabindranath Tagore that the play is the first selection in their collection because it "seems to distil the thoughts and feelings that mattered most of all to its author into a vessel of timeless and universal appeal."
Sitansu Sekhar Chakravarti, writing in Hindu Sprituality: Postclassical and Modern, sees the play as a religious and spiritual allegory. Through this lens, he finds that the play demonstrates that "however much social customs … try to segregate us from our real nature, the attempts are doomed to failure." S. K. Desai, writing in Perspectives on Indian Drama in English, wishes to avoid allegorical interpretations in his essay. Instead, Desai observes that "structurally, The Post Office is amazingly simple." Nirmal Mukerji, also writing in Perspectives on Indian Drama in English, finds that "with The Post Office Tagore reaches the peak of dramatic excellence. It is rightly considered by nearly all of Tagore's critics to be his best."
Tieger is a freelance writer and editor. In this essay, she explores the symbolism in The Post Office.
Although The Post Office is a simple play, it is deceptively so. The play is roughly twenty-five pages long, consists of three brief acts (each containing only one scene), and tells the straightforward story of a boy who is sick and then dies. Beneath this framework lies a carefully wrought meditation on death. The play's simplicity, in some ways, stems from its vagueness. Amal's exact age and illness remain a mystery, as do his aunt's name, his uncle's profession, the town in which he lives, the village from whence he came, the illness that killed his parents, and the time period in which the play takes place. This deliberate lack of detail gives the play a universal feeling and appeal, but it also heightens its symbolic import. The play's diction, or language, is also exceedingly simple. For instance, in a play about death, the word death (and all of its variants) never once appears. This conspicuous absence only underscore's the play's theme. Furthermore, the simple storyline heightens the symbolic effect; it lacks suspense or an intricate plot, it lacks significant historical or political context, and it presents static characters who do not experience any discernible emotional or spiritual growth. Indeed, the characters do not contain much depth beyond their allegorical purpose. What, then, can be gleaned from the play besides symbolism?
The first interaction weighted with symbol occurs when Madhav and Amal discuss the nearby mountains. Amal tells Madhav that he "would so love to cross over them." The term "cross over" is often used to describe death and/or the ensuing passage of the soul to a different realm. Madhav, however, finds the mountains "forbidding." Here, Amal's spiritual nature is contrasted with Madhav's practical, and decidedly unspiritual, point of view. From a slightly different angle one could interpret this exchange in the following manner: On a subconscious level, Amal, on the cusp of death, is being called to the great beyond. Madhav, on the other hand, is healthy, and he is being instinctually warned away.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Gitanjali (1910) was translated into English in 1912 and earned Tagore the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. The book is a collection of prose poems and it is one of Tagore's most definitive works.
- The second revised edition of Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide (2000), by David Frawley, provides a good starting place for students interested in learning more about Ayurveda.
- While The Post Office is a literary meditation on death, On Death and Dying (1969), by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, is a ground-breaking psychological study of how people perceive and cope with death.
- Although Indian Fairy Tales (2007), by Joseph Jacobs, does not contain the tale of the champak-flower bothers, it still provides insight into the fairy tales of the region, and of the type of stories that were likely to have shaped Amal's character.
The second exchange, which is of a very similar nature, takes place between Amal and the Watchman when the two obliquely discuss mortality. The boy asks the Watchman about his gong, which is used to announce the time. From this conversation, the Watchman makes a pun about mortality, though Amal does not appear to understand the joke. If he does, then his answer clearly indicates that he wants to die in order to be "free." Indeed, the Watchman describes time as going "onwards," and though no one no knows where it is going, everyone "will go there one day." He also says that perhaps one day "the doctor will hold your hand and take you there." When Amal replies that the doctor doesn't let him go anywhere, the Watchman says that he is referring to a "greater doctor," one "who can set you free." Here, Amal responds with enthusiasm, "When will this Great Doctor come for me? I'm so tired of staying here." The Watchman responds by observing that the boy "shouldn't say such things." In this manner, the Watchman takes on Madhav's role of being fearful of death and the afterlife, or at least filled with trepidation at the thought of it. Amal, however, continues to demonstrate his desire for the great beyond. Given this, the boy's constant yearning to be outside, to travel and to see and do everything can be viewed as his soul's yearning for the afterlife.
Another interesting aspect of this interpretation is mentioned by Nirmal Mukerji in Perspectives on Indian Drama in English. He states that the Raja "obviously symbolizes death," and adds that the "moment of death for the child is the moment of his union with the King." Indeed, when he dies, Amal believes he has received the letter he has been waiting for and he knows the Raja's approach is imminent. Mukerji also equates the Raja with God, therefore linking death and God. Thus, according to Mukerji, The Post Office "is about the yearning of the soul for the oversoul or the king symbolizing God. Death brings the fulfillment of such a yearning." Following this line of reasoning, Mukerji observes that "death is visualized as the liberator which frees man from all earthly pain." Certainly, this statement aligns itself with most assessments of the play's meaning.
Returning again to the notion of the Raja as the symbolic representation of death, what other textual elements support or enhance this? If the Raja is death, then Amal's desire to be made into a mail carrier may be equated with a desire to be reincarnated. If the Raja is God, then perhaps Amal quite literally wishes to become one of his messengers. Indeed, Amal consistently uses the term messenger when referring to the Raja's mailmen. These closely related interpretations are further reinforced by Amal's conversation with the Village Boys. Amal asks the boys if they know any of the Raja's mail carriers, and when the boys reply that they do, Amal asks, "Who are they? What are their names?" The Village Boys answer, "One's called Badal, another's called Sharat, and there are others." Literally translated, badal is a Bengali word meaning "rain," "cloud," or "thunder." Sharat, or more commonly sarat, is the Bengali word for "autumn." Certainly, if the messengers are meant to represent seasons or natural phenomena, then this reinforces the interpretation positing that the Raja is God.
The exchange between Amal and the Village Boys—and its resulting revelation—has been commented upon by S. K. Desai in Perspectives on Indian Drama in English. Though Desai dismisses predominantly symbolic interpretations of The Post Office (such as the one offered by this essay), he nevertheless concedes that the symbolism found in the messengers' names is too explicit to ignore. Acknowledging that "the King might be God," Desai states that "nature, with her seasons, like Badal and Sarat, might be the agents through whom God sends his messages." Desai even goes so far as to posit that if the Raja can be God, then "the post office might be the whole universe." Though this latter statement is something of a stretch, it could explain the Headman's anger at Amal's perceived arrogance. If Amal really does think that the post office exists only so he can receive letters from it, then he thinks that the universe exists only so that he can receive messages from it. To the Headman, this is the ultimate effrontery; it places Amal, rather than the Headman, at the center of the universe!
Regardless of whether or not the post office can be seen as the universe, it is fair to view the Raja as death or God, and it is more than fair to view death in the play as being synonymous with freedom. This latter interpretation is reinforced at the end of The Post Office when Madhav says to Thakurda, "Why so hushed, with your palms pressed together like a statue? I feel a kind of dread. These do not seem like good omens." Yet, they are exactly that, which is why Thakurda responds vehemently, "Be quiet, unbeliever! Do not speak." Even Tagore acknowledged that the play was meant to communicate that death frees the soul. Mukerji quotes a letter from Tagore in which the author comments that death in the material world, in the "world of hoarded wealth and certified creeds," is that which "brings him [Amal] awakening in the world of spiritual freedom."
Source: Leah Tieger, Critical Essay on The Post Office, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following essay, Dayal explores Tagore's philosophical, political, and ethical vision, emphasizing the case his works made for India, his antinationalism notwithstanding.
If this is an era of globalization, it is also an age in which resistance to the culturally and economically disadvantageous aspects of a unipolar, Western-oriented globalization seems increasingly urgent. From an Asianist perspective, it is not histrionic or frivolous to ask the question: what is, or will be, left of Asia if globalization processes complete their homogenizing drive and in that limited sense arrive at the "end of history"? Further, the acceleration of globalization lends urgency to contemporary projects of interrogating or resisting Eurocentric constructions of Asia, particularly the works of Asians themselves who have conceptualized Asia in other ways. Looking backward, it is instructive to revisit the example of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) as an early, if problematic, example of resistance to the presumed fait accompli of globalization: for Tagore proposed a different route to social justice and democratic processes to those on offer within presumptively modular forms of Western modernity.
India's first Nobel Laureate in Literature (1913), Tagore was political enough to envision an alternative modernity for India, yet his vision has been marginalized—partly because of its constitutive fragility as the embodiment of a utopic literary sensibility and partly because of the anemic (especially when compared to the muscular nationalism then ascendant) and seemingly sentimental discourse of love in which it was couched. His vision and discourse were premised on a variety of exceptionalism proceeding from the idea that modernity is not everywhere homogeneous or symmetrical, but takes its form from the specific cultural or civilizational matrix in which it is engendered: there is a plurality of ways to imagine humanity's progress into the future. In Tagore's mind, an ethicopolitical principle that might be counterposed to the megalomania at the core of the Western drive for progress was love, precisely because love implied an other-directed principle for thought and action in the world. He proposed a universal humanism in a future in which "those who are gifted with the moral power of love and vision of spiritual unity … and the sympathetic insight to place themselves in the position of others, will be the fittest to take their permanent place in the age … lying before us, and those who are constantly developing their instinct of fight and intolerance of aliens will be eliminated."
The contemporary geopolitical situation makes Tagore's vision rather more attractive, and prescient: today's ethnonationalisms in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Chechnya, Darfur, India, and Iraq are, if anything, more dangerous than those to which the poet was responding. Tagore believed that India could occupy a nodal point between the West and the East in a diachronic trajectory, as well as on a synchronic scale. It could inhabit a spatiotemporal mediating node of cultural development—or, at least, that was India's destiny.
Exploring this vision, this essay highlights three crucial aspects of Tagore's philosophical, political, and ethical project. The first is his antinationalism: Tagore believed in a proper and judicious cultural pride as an alternative to chauvinistic nationalism. The second is his program of repositioning India and Asia in a global frame, to promote the idea of India having a special, mediating mission—and the related idea of pan-Asian solidarity. Tagore proposed that India could be a spiritually potent fulcrum, mediating between Western Enlightenment models of modernity and Eastern ideas of what it meant to be enlightened, and in so doing develop a modern identity into the future, relativizing modernity itself in the Indian context. The third is Tagore's desire to refashion an erotic economy of love, conceptualized not only as a culturally specific idiom but also as a universal humanist allegory of community. This erotic economy was not limited to the register of emotion but open to the ambiguities of gender—and the gendered categories of home and world, private and public. These are, of course, interconnected themes: critiquing nationalism, repositioning India, and reaffirming love as ethical allegory together constitute a program of universal humanism. It is precisely their imbrication that I develop by demonstrating how these interpenetrating elements emerge as the skein or text-ile of Tagore's major work of fiction in translation: as a vision of an alternative Asian modernity.
The first component of Tagore's project—his trenchant critique of nationalism—was consistently evident in his writings and talks presented not only in India, but also in Japan circa 1916 and China circa 1924. In Japan, for instance, Tagore's antinationalism contrasted with the fairly extreme nationalism of Japanese social thinker Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901), who moved toward "a more nationalistic and chauvinistic attitude between about 1875 and 1895" and even toward an advocacy of violent resistance against Western imperialism where necessary. Tagore's cautions against nationalism in Japan would have been understood by the Japanese against the exemplum of their influential compatriot. The famous Tagore-Yone Noguchi correspondence of 1938, in which the correspondents exchanged strong opinions on Noguchi's defense of Japanese intervention in China, captures the tetchiness of Japanese responses to Tagore's critique of Japanese militaristic nationalism. Tagore repudiated Noguchi's doctrine of "Asia for Asia"; he felt that as "an instrument of political blackmail, [it] has all the virtues of the lesser Europe which I repudiate and nothing of the larger humanity that makes us one across the barriers of political labels and divisions." In response to Noguchi's pleas to soften his criticism, Tagore wrote back, "I suffer intensely not only because the reports of Chinese suffering batter against my heart, but because I can no longer point out with pride the example of a great Japan."
Tagore unleashed an equally blistering critique of a presumptively normative or modular Western nationalism. He re-presented "the nation" of Western invention as a tyrannical creature: "This abstract being, the Nation, is ruling India," he wrote, "[an] octopus of abstractions … fixing its innumerable suckers even into the far-away future." In opposition to the presumption of the Western nation as the originary sign of "the modern," Tagore asserted the need for "discriminations between Westernization and modernization" and counterposed to Western modernity his "pioneering affirmation of non-Western modernities." While Tagore, writing today, would have been vulnerable to the charge of underestimating the postcolony's "national longing for form," his attempt to reorient discourses of modernity in the East anticipates contemporary (and especially postcolonial) critique in instructive ways.
The second salient element of Tagore's project was his attempt to reposition Asia and India vis-à-vis both West and East. Tagore proposed that India could legitimately and usefully offer itself as a cultural mediator between the (Asian) pre- or non-modern forms of society and (Western or Enlightenment) modernity: this would not be an entirely new dispensation but a retrieval and renewal of what remained of a long cultural pattern in Asia. It is in this utopian, reformist spirit, I suggest, that Tagore wished to transvalue what was "left of Asia" and particularly—or synecdochically—India as occupying a pivotal geopolitical and cultural position between the West and the East.
Tagore argued that India's experience of colonial domination was a clear instance of the need for rethinking the meaning of the contact between the West and the East—a contact emblematic of globality. After all, India had been trying for "about fifty centuries at least" to "live peacefully and think deeply, the India of no nations, whose one ambition has been to know this world as of soul"; it was this country into which the "Nation of the West burst in … driving its tentacles of machinery deep down into the soil." Tagore was an idealist, but he favored neither "the colourless vagueness of cosmopolitanism," nor "the fierce self-idolatry of nation-worship." He endorsed the Indian approach of "social regulation of differences, on the one hand, and the spiritual recognition of unity on the other."
While Tagore himself might be accused of chauvinism for thinking that India could provide an answer to the travails of encroaching modernity, he was not alone. Intellectuals and others in China and Japan were equally proud of their respective countries and about Asia as a counterweight to the West, especially the former colonial powers in the region. In this connection, one of the significant parallels is that between Tagore and Kazuo Okakura, one of Japan's most important nationalist intellectuals. They were about the same age and knew each other well, Okakura having spent a year (1901) in India in the Tagore family's house in Calcutta. As Christopher Bentley has noted, both thinkers founded experimental schools that tried to instill national traditions while cautiously discussing Western ideas. Like Tagore, the Japanese thinker "insisted on the original ‘ideals’ of Asian culture in order to counter the widespread view … that the Japanese were a nation of copyists, clever imitators who mimicked the material surface of things." They shared the notion, expressed in Okakura's 1903 Ideals of the East, that "Asia is one" (the opening line of Okakura's book). Okakura also concluded his exposition with this pan-Asianist line of argument—arguing that Asia was the counterpoint to the increasing fragmentation and alienation that he saw as characteristic of European civilization of the time.
At this point we might pause to reconsider Tagore's apparently contradictory argument in support of pan-Asian solidarity: For is regionalism not cut from the same cloth as nationalism? Is it not an equally divisive category? And what about the contradiction implied by Tagore's apparently exceptionalist argument that India had a special mission in a geopolitical and moral sense? Could he be an antinationalist and universal humanist, while simultaneously promoting regionalism and India's exceptional destiny?
Tagore was neither parochial nor doctrinaire in his reformist idealism. If his pan-Asianism was a strategic counter to narrow nationalism, it was also paradoxically closer to cosmopolitanism, as when he wrote to the Reverend C. F. Andrews, the clergyman-activist who was a mutual friend of Gandhi and Tagore, that "whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin." He reaffirmed that Japan also had "the mission of the East to fulfill. She must infuse the sap of a fuller humanity into the heart of modern civilization." Similarly, providence had conferred upon India a particular mission to present a counternarrative to the noisily promulgated myth of the West's "civilizing mission." Was it not "providential," he remarked, "that the West has come to India"? But this also conferred a burden of responsibility: "And yet someone must show the East to the West, and convince the West that the East has her contribution to make to the history of civilization." Since Asia was a diverse region, there were as many different visions of pan-Asianism as there were proponents of it—the Bushido or militaristic form in Japan, for instance, was distinct from the religiously inflected Hindu variety. In any event, pan-Asian unity did not mean that India might not claim a special role in world historical terms. For, as Tagore put it, "what India has been, the whole world is now." Tagore frequently turns to this theme in Nationalism.
This exemplary mission was not to be collapsed into the exoticizing clicheés and Western fantasies imposed on "the Orient," in which "the East" becomes a mystical Shangri-La or the nonmaterialistic (and immaterial) other, reassuring and consolidating the Western self. Tagore would clearly have resisted this sort of sentimentalized Orientalism, even as he suggested that India could be a model for the world's cultures in an increasingly globalized future: "The whole world," he said, "is becoming one country through scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when you also must find a basis of unity which is not political. If India can offer to the world her solution, it will be a contribution to humanity."
The third salient feature of Tagore's project was his reaffirmation of love as an ethicopolitical category. This represented a commitment to a universal humanism that remains worthy of our attention despite the problems associated with the familiar opposition between universalism/cosmopolitanism and particularism/localism. Avoiding this dilemma altogether, Tagore reconceptualized love most powerfully in his fiction as an allegory: for if love was at the heart of the strongest and most intimate personal bonds, it had an analogous role to play in forming the ties that hold the whole of humanity together against such divisive forces as greed, selfishness, war, and nationalism. In short, love had an ethicopolitical role in the public sphere—just as it did in the private. This allegory projected a deconstruction of divisions between private and public, home and world, even West and East. The recuperation of the discourse of love carried the potential for a culturally specific role for India and simultaneously for a deconstructed-and-reconstructed Asia in a global cultural economy, beyond being merely the West's civilizational other.
Modalities of Love
Tagore's discursive recuperation of love had two modalities: the affective and the ethicopolitical. In affective terms, Tagore understood love to refer to the spontaneous feelings that bind or draw people together in an authentic human bond, higher than any other afforded in human society, and beyond the reach of ideological interpellation. The solution India was seeking, he wrote, "depends not merely upon tactfulness but upon sympathy and true realization of the unity of man." The category of sympathy (etymologically, "suffering with") figured prominently in the moral-lexical universe with which Tagore would have been familiar, and was expressed as shahanubhuti or sahridayata—a culturally specific version of universalized sympathy. The latter principle (sahridayata) required one to approach all fundamental matters from a perspective of sympathy rather than on the basis of a materialist calculus—and was subscribed to by the late-nineteenth-century Hindu social reformers Rammohun Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar. Their shared theory of sentiments, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued, was different from, but supplementary to, the version of sympathy developed by Adam Smith or David Hume. It was also different from "the view of Romanticism in late-eighteenth-century Europe" that "‘love at first sight’ is typical of true love." This other notion of sympathy was an alternative that Schlegel, Novalis, and other German Romantics, for example, had actively sought from India.
Tagore's recuperation of the discourse of love also invites comparisons with the moral-philosophical tradition in Western philosophy that emphasizes love as a sine qua non in the pursuit of social or political truth. There is a contemporary relevance in Tagore's problematizations of nationalism and repositioning of Asia on the basis of a worldview in which sympathy was a core value, rather than profit or power. Without assimilating his rejection of nationalism to a postmodernist antinationalism avant la lettre, one could posit that his reemphasis on love is a resonant counternarrative against the contemporary crisis of Indian ethnonationalism. Giorgio Agamben reminds us that Pascal, Augustine, and even Heidegger insisted that we enter into truth only through charity, which is false if not done out of selfless love. Since society is a complex relationship among people, it is the quality of the relationship that should be a primary focus. Love should neither be dismissed as a romantic fancy nor subsumed under legal, political, or governmental considerations. As Agamben notes, furthermore, Heidegger argued that love (or its opposite, hatred) cannot be categorized as mere affect (Affekte). For Heidegger, passions (Leidenschaften) such as love and hatred are not transient or spontaneous: unlike the affects, they are "always already present and traverse our Being from the beginning."
Tagore sought to underscore the significance of passions in all social life. His focus on love as the most complete and desirable relationship among people is an instructive complement to the usual emphases (for example on "masculine" self-assertion, Asian scientific achievement and rationality, or technological modernity) in the social and political discourse of his time and, by extension, a bracing corrective in ours.
It was not insignificant, then, that Tagore presented the erotic relationship as an allegory for the political. He was not oblivious to the fact that his take on love was an unfashionable alternative to the upsurge of nationalist feeling against the British rule in India. In invoking this allegory he was, as Sugata Bose has noted, echoing the defiant assertion against Lord Curzon made by Surendranath Banerjee, a dissident member of "the Bengali political generation of 1905 [which] strenuously sought to ‘unsettle’ the ‘settled fact’ of Curzon's partition of Bengal" through the recuperation of the discourse of the nation as a mother, the love of whom should inspire the nationalists to resist such a dismemberment as Curzon mandated. If Tagore's conceptualizations seem old-fashioned and sentimental today, it is to some degree because they do not correspond to contemporary ideas of love as belonging to a realm of life separate from the public sphere, let alone to the psychoanalytic conceptualization of it as a response to an originary and irredeemable loss. Yet his notion of love subtends a cohesive system of thought and action that might counterbalance our own relatively privatized and depoliticized conceptualization of the sentiment. This is especially important in an age when varieties of predatory transnationalism imperil state protections for disadvantaged communities and when vitiated nationalisms are in the ascendant, threatening the fabric of community in many regions of the globe. Tagore's exhortations against the "abstract force" of the nation were not expressed only on behalf of his own country, "but as it affects the future of all humanity." In brief, his idealist recuperation of love offers a rare, culturally grounded yet universalist, humanist accent in Asian discourse on the nation.
I say "recuperation" precisely because Tagore did not invent out of whole cloth the discourse of love on which he draws. His father and grandfather were members of the Brahmo Samaj, for instance, and in the tradition of this progressive Hinduism, there was already a universalist humanist strand. There was also a preexisting language of love of the motherland that Tagore found far more attractive than the strident ideological discourse of nationalism that was emerging around him. Bankimchandra's hymn to the mother, Bande Mataram, was first sung publicly by Tagore himself in 1896, so from the beginning Tagore's preferred version of patriotism was couched in the rhetoric of love, rather than the received modality of aggressive nationalist self-affirmation. In the struggle against the Bengal partition, love had been effectively mobilized as a political force. When the specter of partition loomed again as India lurched toward independence (which would be achieved in 1947 under Mountbatten, six years after Tagore's death), Tagore wanted to recuperate this preexisting discourse, exhorting the nationalists not to forget that true patriotism was also founded on love. This was perhaps the clearest example of how love could be a political principle. Yet it also had other dimensions, as I will suggest below.
Not only does Tagore's work make the case for India assuming an in-between geopolitical position within the region of the East, and between East and West, so that it could function as a source for imagining an alternative modernity—or relativizing it in the Asian context. His work is also characterized by ambivalent recodings of social and political codes, not because he was a moral relativist, but because he had a strong sense of the importance of adhering to ethical principles. Tagore delights in liminal social spaces and psychological zones, in borderline states of cultural mores where the received notions of home (internal, personal, and therefore authentic) and world (external, public, and therefore difficult to regulate) are complicated by more ambivalent ethicopolitical judgments of value. Against the passionate and often anarchic intensities of the nationalist discourse of his time, Tagore added a note of caution about the complexities and ambiguities of Right—as I show in a discussion below of one of his best-known works of fiction—because he recognized that above received moral codes reigned the imperative of universal humanism. Today, when universalisms of all kinds are often thought to be in bad odor, Tagore's work stands as a complex instance of an alternative cosmopolitanism that unabashedly promotes an ethical universal, a universal that takes love as its political principle….
Source: Samir Dayal, "Repositioning India: Tagore's Passionate Politics of Love," in Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2007, pp. 165-208.
In the following letter to scholar Gilbert Murray, Tagore discusses the numerous problems facing India and mankind in 1934, issues which informed such plays as The Post Office.
The letter published below, in abridged form, appeared in Correspondence, a journal published (in French) by the International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation. It was sent in 1934 by Rabindranath Tagore to the British classical scholar Gilbert Murray. In response to Murray's "friendly appeal" for a "closer comprehension of the problems faced by our common humanity", the great Bengali writer, who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, set out to "deal with some details of our present problems of India and put them in relation to the larger aspect of international relationship as I view it". For Tagore, then aged seventy-three, it was an opportunity to express yet again his unshakable confidence in humanity.
September 16th, 1934.
My Dear Professor Murray,
… I must confess at once that I do not see any solution of the intricate evils of disharmonious relationship between nations, nor can I point out any path which may lead us immediately to the levels of sanity. Like yourself, I find much that is deeply distressing in modern conditions, and I am in complete agreement with you again in believing that at no other period of history has mankind as a whole been more alive to the need of human co-operation, more conscious of the inevitable and inescapable moral links which hold together the fabric of human civilization. I cannot afford to lose my faith in this inner spirit of man, nor in the sureness of human progress which following the upward path of struggle and travail is constantly achieving, through cyclic darkness and doubt, its ever-widening ranges of fulfilment….
Now that mutual intercourse has become easy, and the different peoples and nations of the world have come to know one another in various relations, one might have thought that the time had arrived to merge their differences in a common unity. But the significant thing is that the more the doors are opening and the walls are breaking down outwardly, the greater is the force which the consciousness of individual distinction is gaining within….
Individuality is precious, because only through it can we realize the universal. Unfortunately there are people who take enormous pride in magnifying their speciality and proclaiming to the world that they are fixed forever on their pedestal of uniqueness. They forget that only discords are unique and therefore can claim their own separate place outside the universal world of music.
It should be the function of religion to provide us with this universal ideal of truth and maintain it in its purity. But men have often made perverse use of their religion, building with it permanent walls to ensure their own separateness. Christianity, when it minimizes its spiritual truth, which is universal, and emphasizes its dogmatic side, which is a mere accretion of time, has the same effect of creating a mental obstruction which leads to the misunderstanding of people who are outside its pale….
We have seen Europe cruelly unscrupulous in its politics and commerce, widely spreading slavery over the face of the Earth in various names and forms. And yet, in this very same Europe, protest is always alive against its own iniquities. Martyrs are never absent whose lives of sacrifice are the penance for the wrongs done by their own kindred. The individuality which is Western is not to be designated by any sect-name of a particular religion, but is distinguished by its eager attitude towards truth, in two of its aspects, scientific and humanistic. This openness of mind to truth has also its moral value and so in the West it has often been noticed that, while those who are professedly pious have sided with tyrannical power, encouraging repression of freedom, the men of intellect, the sceptics, have bravely stood for justice and the rights of man….
In India we have ourselves become material-minded. We are wanting in faith and courage. Since in our country the gods are sleeping, therefore, when the Titans come, they devour all our sacrificial offerings-there is never a hint of strife. The germs of disease are everywhere; but man can resist disease only when his vital force is active and powerful.
So, too, even when the worship of the bloodthirsty and false gods of self-seeking are rampant on all sides, man can lift up his head to the skies if his spirit is awake. Both matter and spirit are active. They alone become entirely materialistic who are only half men, who cripple the native majesty of the spirit before the blind repetition of unintelligent activities; who are niggardly in knowledge and palsied in action; who are ever insulting themselves by setting up a meaningless ritual in the place of true worship …
BEGGARS AT THE GATE
In India, what is needed more than anything else is the broad mind which, only because it is conscious of its own vigorous individuality, is not afraid of accepting truth from all sources … I have come to feel that the mind which has been matured in the atmosphere of a profound knowledge of its own country, and of the perfect thoughts that have been produced in that land, is ready to accept and assimilate the cultures that come from foreign countries. He who has no wealth of his own can only beg, and those who are compelled to follow the profession of beggary at the gate of the intellectually rich may gain occasional scraps of mental food, but they are sure to lose the strength of their intellectual character and their minds are doomed to become timid in thought and in creative endeavour.
A certain number of us do not admit that our culture has any special features of value. These good people I leave out of account. But the number of those others is not few, who while admitting this value in theory, ignore it more or less in practice. Very often, the flourishing of the banner of this culture is not for the sake of the love of truth but for that of national vaingloriousness-like brandishing a musical instrument in athletic display before one's own admiring family, instead of using it to make music …
The evolving Hindu social ideal has never been present to us as a whole, so that we have only a vague conception of what the Hindu has achieved in the past, or can attempt in the future. The partial view before us at any moment appears at the time to be the most important, so we can hardly bring ourselves to the true ideal, but tend to destroy it. And there we stand fasting and telling beads, emaciated with doing penance, shrinking into a corner away from the rest of the world.
We forget that Hindu civilization was once very much alive, crossing the seas, planting colonies, giving to and taking from all the world. It had its arts, its commerce, its vast and strenuous field of work. In its history, new ideas had their opportunity. Its women also had their learning, their bravery, their place in the civic life. In every page of the Mahabharata we shall find proofs that it was no rigid, cast-iron type of civilization. The men of those days did not, like marionettes, play the same set piece over and over again. They progressed through mistakes, made discoveries through experiment, and gained truth through striving …
Man shows his mental feebleness when he loses his faith in life because it is difficult to govern, and is only willing to take the responsibility of the dead because they are content to lie still under an elaborately decorated tombstone of his own make. We must know that life carries its own weight, while the burden of the dead is heavy to bear—an intolerable burden which has been pressing upon our country for ages.
The fact stands out clearly today that the Divinity dwelling within the heart of man cannot be kept immured any longer in the darkness of particular temples. The day of the Ratha-yatra the Car Festival, has arrived when He shall come out on the highway of the world, into the thick of the joys and sorrows, the mutual commerce, of the throng of men. Each of us must set to work to build such a car as we can, to take its place in the grand procession. The material of some may be of value, of others cheap. Some may break down on the way, others last till the end. But the day has come at last when all the cars must set out.
THE GREAT AWAKENING
Your letter has been a confirmation to me of the deep faith in the ultimate truths of humanity which we both try to serve and which sustains our being. I have tried to express how religion today as it exists in its prevalent institutionalized forms both in the West and the East has failed in its function to control and guide the forces of humanity; how the growth of nationalism and wide commerce of ideas through speeded-up communication have often augmented external differences instead of bringing humanity together. Development of organizing power, mastery over Nature's resources have subserved secret passions or the openly flaunted greed of unashamed national glorification. And yet I do not feel despondent about the future, for the great fact remains that man has never stopped in his urge for self-expression, in his brave quest for knowledge; not only so, there is today all over the world in spite of selfishness and unreason a greater awareness of truth….
In India, too, there is a great awakening everywhere, mainly under the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi's singular purity of will and conduct, which is creating a new generation of clear-minded servers of our peoples….
I feel proud that I have been born in this great Age. I know that it must take time before we can adjust our minds to a condition which is not only new, but almost exactly the opposite of the old. Let us announce to the world that the light of the morning has come, not for entrenching ourselves behind barriers, but for meeting in mutual understanding and trust on the common field of co-operation; never for nourishing a spirit of rejection, but for that glad acceptance which constantly carries in itself the giving out of the best that we have.
Yours sincerely, Rabindranath Tagore
Source: Edgardo Canton, "A Greater Awareness of Truth," in UNESCO Courier, Vol. 47, No. 1, January 1994, p. 44.
In the following essay, Ray provides a brief historical context for Tagore's career.
With a wordly wisdom unusual in a poet but characteristic of the Tagores, Rabindranath set out in a practical way to improve the lot of the poor peasants of his estates. But his own gain from this intimate contact with the fundamental aspects of life and nature, and the influence of this contact on his own life and work, are beyond measure.
Living mostly in his boat and watching life through the window, a whole new world of sights and sounds and feelings opened up before him. It was a world in which the moods of people and the moods of nature were inextricably interwoven. The people found room in a succession of great short stories, and nature, in an outpouring of exquisite songs and poems. Dominant was the mood of the rains, exultant and terrible.
Rabindranath Tagore received the Nobel Prize in 1913, and a knighthood in 1915, while war was raging in Europe. Touring the United States and Japan in 1916, the poet made eloquent appeals for peace. He felt that world peace could be achieved only through intellectual co-operation between nations. He said, "The call has come to every individual in the present age to prepare himself for the dawn of a new era, when man shall discover his soul in the spiritual unity of all human beings."
While peace had been restored in Europe, in India there was unrest. The occasion was the Rowlatt Bill, designed to suppress all political movements. It dashed India's hopes of gaining the self-government that the British rulers had kept promising through the war years.
Dominating the Indian political scene at this time was Gandhi. As a protest against the Rowlatt Bill, Gandhi launched a movement of passive resistance. But the masses misinterpreted the movement and, following a rumour of Gandhi's arrest, violence broke out in many parts of the country.
In the Punjab, martial law was declared. In charge of the troops at Amritsar was Brigadier General Dyer. On the first day of the month of Vaisakh, a crowd gathered in Jallianwallabagh, as it had done every other year. It was a peaceful crowd. But Dyer was taking no chances. Machine guns rattled.
Rabindranath wrote to the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, and the letter was published in the newspapers. Condemning the Government for the killing at Jallianwallabagh, he concluded: "And I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of my countrymen who for their so-called insignificance are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings. And these are the reasons which have painfully compelled me to ask your Excellency to relieve me of my title of knighthood."
The next ten years of Rabindranath's life were filled with ceaseless activity. The necessity to collect funds for his university took him to all parts of the world, and the West as much as the East welcomed him with open arms.
Wherever he went, he spread the message of peace and stressed the importance of intellectual co-operation between nations. He said: "We ought to know that isolation of life and culture is not a thing of which any nation can be proud. In the human world, giving is exchanging, it is not one-sided."
On 7 May 1941, Rabindranath was eighty years old. For the occasion, he had composed a message—his last message to the world—which concerned itself with the state of so-called modern civilization, a civilization that was being shaken to its very roots by barbaric wars of aggression:
"I had at one time believed that the springs of civilization could issue out of the heart of Europe. But today, when I am about to leave the world, that faith has deserted me. I look around and see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility. And yet, I shall not commit the previous sin of losing faith in man. I shall await for the day when the holocaust will end and the air will be rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East, where the sun rises. On that day will unvanquished man retrench his path of conquest, surmounting all barriers, to win back his lost human heritage."
Source: Satyajit Ray, "Potrait of a Man," in UNESCO Courier, May-June 1986, p. 63.
Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook, s.v. "India," https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/in.html (accessed July 16, 2008).
Chakravarti, Sitansu Sekhar, "The Spirituality of Rabindranath Tagore: ‘The Religion of an Artist,’" in Hindu Sprituality: Postclassical and Modern, edited by K. R. Sundararajan and Bithika Mukerji, Motilal Banarsidass, 2004, pp. 268-82.
"Colonial India, Gandhi, and Eventual Independence," in Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues, http://www.wmich.edu/dialogues/themes/indiagandhi.html (accessed July 16, 2008).
Desai, S. K., "The Post Office," in Perspectives on Indian Drama in English, edited by M. K. Naik and S. Mokashi-Punekar, Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 76-85.
Dutta, Krishna, and Andrew Robinson, Introduction to Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology, St. Martin's Press, 1997, pp. 1-16.
Dutta, Krishna, and Andrew Robinson, Introduction to The Post Office, in Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology, St. Martin's Press, 1997, pp. 21-23.
Fakrul, Alam, "Rabindranath Tagore," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 332, Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 4: Quasimodo-Yeats, Thomson Gale, 2007, pp. 436-53.
Keay, John, India: A History, Grove Press, 2001.
Mukerji, Nirmal, "The Plays of Rabindranath Tagore," in Perspectives on Indian Drama in English, edited by M. K. Naik and S. Mokashi-Punekar, Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 50-75.
Robinson, B. A., "Hinduism: A General Introduction," in Religious Tolerance.org, August 26, 2005, http://www.religioustolerance.org/hinduism2.htm (accessed July 15, 2008).
———, "Hinduism: The World's Third Largest Religion," in Religious Tolerance.org, November 11, 2005, http://www.religioustolerance.org/hinduism.htm (accessed July 15, 2008).
Tagore, Rabindranath, The Post Office, in Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology, translated by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, St. Martin's Press, 1997, pp. 24-50.
"What is Ayurvedic Medicine?," in National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, http://nccam.nih.gov/health/ayurveda (accessed July 16, 2008).
Bhaskarananda, Swami, The Essentials of Hinduism: A Comprehensive Overview of the World's Oldest Religion, 2nd ed., Viveka Press, 2002.
Hinduism is one of the most prominent religions in India, and worldwide. This thorough introduction will give students further insight into The Post Office.
Chaudhuri, Amit, ed., The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature, Vintage Books, 2004.
This collection contains Indian literature written from 1850 up to the twenty-first century. Aside from including works by Tagore, the anthology also includes selections from famed Indian writers such as Salman Rushdie and R. K. Narayan.
Luce, Edward, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, Little, Brown, 2006.
The Post Office was written less than thirty years before the end of colonial rule in India, and Tagore lived to see the beginning of the end of this era. Luce's book picks up where the British Empire left off, tracing the history of India's emerging independence up to the present day.
Menon, Ramesh, The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic, North Point Press, 2003.
This modernized version of Valmiki's Ramayana is accessible to students. The Ramayana has shaped Indian literature as much as the Bible and Homer's The Odyssey have shaped Western literature.