Friday, February 28, 2014

The Postmaster -- story from The Ruined Nest

by Rabindranath Tagore

(translated and edited by MA Quayum, Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Human Sciences Division, International Islamic University Malaysia, from the collection The Ruined Nest and other stories recently published by Silverfish Books, which is now available in all major bookshops in the country.)

Soon after his appointment, the postmaster was sent for duty to the village of Ulapur. It was an ordinary village. There was an Indigo factory nearby and, using his influence, its English proprietor had managed to get a post office established in the village.
Being from the city of Kolkata, our postmaster found himself like a fish out of water in his new rustic surrounding. His office was in a dingy cabin house, adjacent to a slimy pond filled with water-hyacinth and surrounded by bushy trees on all four sides. The employees of the factory had little upbringing or free time to associate with this gentleman. 

The urban-bred young man was also lacking in social skills. Whenever he went to a new place, he looked either confused or arrogant, and could barely interact with the villagers. On the other hand, he didn’t have much work at office, either. Occasionally he wrote poetry expressing a romantic sentiment of happiness at the sight of floating clouds and fluttering shrubs, but God knew that if some genie from the Arabian tales came and transformed the bushes into paved roads overnight and built high rises that kept the clouds out of sight, then this emotionally flagging sensitive person’s life would be revived again.

The postmaster worked on a meagre salary, so he had to cook his own meals. He was assisted in his housework by a destitute orphan girl, in return for a little food. The girl’s name was Ratan. The prospects of her getting married soon looked faint.

In the evening, curls of smoke from fumigation spiralled from the cowsheds, crickets chirped merrily in the thickets, tipsy bauls in distant villages started playing on tom-toms and cymbals and singing at a high pitch. Sitting on the porch in the dark, the poet’s lonely heart would agitate slightly at the sight of the trembling boughs. At that hour, standing in one corner of the house, the postmaster would light a dim lamp and call out, “Ratan.” She would be sitting on the doorstep and waiting for that call, but she never came into the house immediately. Instead, she would reply, “Sir, do you need any help?”

“What are you doing?” the postmaster would ask.

“I am lighting the fireplace. I have work in the kitchen,” Ratan would reply.

“Your kitchen work can wait. Can you first get me the tobacco pipe?”

Soon Ratan would step into the house with cheeks inflated, blowing persistently into a lighted tobacco bowl. Taking it from her hand, the postmaster would ask her abruptly, “Ratan, do you still remember your mother?” That was a long story, some of which she could recall and some of which she couldn’t; but her father loved her more than her mother did and she still remembered her father faintly. After a long day, her father would return in the evening, and scattered images of some of those evenings were somehow still firmly fixed in her mind. In the midst of their idle talk, Ratan would gradually settle down on the clay floor of the house, next to the postmaster’s feet. She remembered that she had a little brother, and long ago, the two of them had played together, fishing in a nearby pond using broken twigs of trees as fishing rods. More than any of the serious incidents, this particular memory cropped up in her mind often. Sometimes they would continue to chat late into the night and the postmaster would feel too lazy to cook by then, so the two of them would finish their dinner with the stale curry from the morning and a few baked breads that Ratan prepared by making a quick fire.

On some evenings, sitting in his office chair at one corner of the cabin house, the postmaster would recall memories of his own family – his mother, little brother and elder sister. Those fond memories filled his lonely heart, away from home, with pain. The agonising thoughts, which he could never share with the employees of the indigo factory, recurred in his mind and he narrated them freely to this little illiterate girl without ever considering it inappropriate. Eventually, it so happened that during their conversations, the girl started calling his family members in his own fashion, addressing them as “ma” (mother), “didi” (elder sister), “dada” (elder brother), as if she had known them forever. In her little heart, the girl even pictured the imaginary faces of these people.

It was the rainy season and a warm gentle wind was blowing softly on a sunny afternoon. An odour emitted from the sun-drenched vegetation, as if the respiration of a flagging earth was blowing directly onto the body, and an alien obstinate bird sang all through the afternoon, complaining repeatedly to the world. The postmaster was relatively free that day. The rain-washed, shiny, rustling leaves of trees and, in the white light of a partly sunny day, the piled up clouds gathering in layers in the sky after the rain was really a sight to see. The postmaster observed that sight attentively and wondered what if he had someone he loved close by then, someone whose heart was tied with his, and who was the idol of his soul. It occurred to him that the plaintive monotone of the bird and the surging noise of the foliage in an afternoon landscape, void of human presence, were also perhaps telling a similar story. No one knew it, or even suspected that the heart of the postmaster of that little village, living on a meagre salary, was filled with such thoughts of anguish and yearning on silent afternoons, especially during the festive holidays.

Heaving a deep sigh, the postmaster called out, “Ratan.”

Ratan was sitting at the foot of a guava tree, her legs stretched out, eating a raw fruit. On hearing the voice of her master, she ran inside and asked breathlessly, “Dada Babu, did you call me?”

“I’ll teach you how to read bit by bit every day,” the postmaster replied. With that, he spent the whole afternoon teaching her the alphabets, and in a few days finished teaching her the compound letters.

There was no end to the monsoon rains, and soon it filled up all the rivers, canals and marshy land; day and night frogs croaked and the rain pounded. Most of the roads were inundated, and boats were used for travelling to the market.

One day, when it had been raining heavily since morning, the postmaster’s student, Ratan waited at the door for a long time for the routine call from her master. But when she heard none, she slowly went inside the house on her own, with her book and writing slate in hand. She saw the postmaster lying on his bed, and, thinking that he was resting, was about to step out again quietly when she suddenly heard the call, “Ratan.”

She stepped back quickly and asked, “Dada Babu, were you sleeping?”

The postmaster replied in a weak voice, “I am not feeling well. Could you check with your palm the temperature on my forehead?”

Being sick on a rainy day, in a lonely place away from home, one would long the comfort of affectionate care. One would imagine the soft touch of a woman’s hand, wearing bangles, on the burning forehead. Afflicted by ill-health in this secluded life, one would yearn for a mother or sister by the bedside in the form of a loving woman, and the yearning of this lonesome individual didn’t go in vain. The young Ratan was no longer a little girl. Instantly she assumed the role of the mother – called the physician, gave him medicine at appropriate times, waited by his bedside the whole night, prepared his diet on her own accord, and asked him over and over again, “Are you feeling a little better, Dada Babu?”

After many days, frail in body, the postmaster stepped out of the sick-bed and decided enough was enough. He must get a transfer from the place. Referring to the unhealthy environment of the village, he hastily wrote a petition to the authorities in Kolkata, requesting for a transfer.

Relieved of her nursing duties, Ratan returned to her old seat at the threshold of the house. Sometimes she pried inside and saw the postmaster lying on the bed or sitting on a bench, absentmindedly. While Ratan sat there, awaiting a call from him, the postmaster eagerly awaited a reply to his transfer request. Hunkered down at her seat outside the house, the girl went over her old lessons countless times lest all the compound letters got mixed up in the event she was called up unexpectedly and asked to recite them by rote. Finally, the call came one evening after about a week, and, stepping into the house with an effusive heart, Ratan asked, “Dada Babu, did you call me?”

“Ratan, I am leaving tomorrow,” answered the postmaster.

“Where to, Dada Babu?” Ratan asked.

“I am going home.”

“When will you be back?”


Ratan didn’t ask any more questions. The postmaster explained to her voluntarily that he had applied for a transfer and his request had been granted; therefore, he was now taking discharge of his current posting and going home. When the postmaster finished, both of them went into a prolonged silence. The lamp was burning dimly at one corner of the house, and rainwater was dripping onto an earthen lid, seeping through the rundown roof of the house.

After a while, Ratan got up slowly and went to make some bread. It was not done as spiritedly as in the past, because she looked preoccupied. On completion of his evening meal, Ratan asked the postmaster, “Dada Babu, will you take me with you?”

“How could I do that?” said the postmaster with a laugh. He never bothered to explain to the girl why it was not possible.

Throughout the night, in her dream and wakefulness, the girl heard the cackling laugh of the postmaster and his curt reply, “How could I do that?”

In the morning the postmaster saw his bathing water in the pail like every day, a habit of bathing with river water carried home in a bucket, which he had formed in Kolkata. For some reason the girl had never asked him about his time of departure, but in case he needed the water in the morning she went to the river late at night to fill the bucket. Concluding his bath, the postmaster called out for Ratan, and stepping into the house quietly, Ratan looked up at her master’s face in silence for his command. The master said, “Ratan, I’ll tell the person who comes to replace me to look after you the way I did. You don’t have to worry that I am leaving.” There was no doubt that those words came from a loving and kind heart, but who could fathom a woman’s mind! Ratan had quietly swallowed many reproaches from her master in the past, but she couldn’t accept those mild words. Howling out, she said, “No, no, there is no need for you to say anything. I don’t want to be here.”

The postmaster was struck dumb by her response because he had never seen Ratan behave that way.

The new postmaster arrived. Handing over duties to him, the outgoing postmaster prepared to leave. At the time of his departure he called Ratan and said, “Ratan, I have never been able to give you anything, but today I am leaving behind a little money which will support you for a few days.”

Saving some passage money for himself, he took out all the money he had saved from his salary from his pocket. Ratan fell at his feet and started pleading, “Dada Babu, I beg you, there is no need to give me anything; no one has to worry about me, please.” She then rushed out of the house.

The postmaster sighed, and, with his carpetbag in hand, an umbrella on his shoulder, his blue and white trunk lifted to his porter’s head, began walking towards the boat calmly.

When he got into the boat and it started moving out of the landing area, the rain-inundated river appeared to surge like the earth’s eyes suffused with tears, and he began to feel an anguish in his heart – the melancholic face of an ordinary village girl seemed to tell the story of an inexplicable tribulation of the entire world. A passionate thought crossed his mind, “Let me go back and bring that forlorn girl with me.” But the sail had set; the monsoon currents in the river were flowing rapidly. Crossing the village, they were already in sight of the cremating grounds, and an idea dawned in the mind of the listless traveller drifting on the stream – separation and death are a recurrent fact of life. What is the point of going back? Aren’t we all solitary on this earth?

But no such idea arose in Ratan’s mind. She simply continued wandering around the posthouse with tears in her eyes. Perhaps she had a faint hope that Dada Babu might come back – she couldn’t leave the place, and break that magic bond. Ah, frail human heart! Its illusions are endless; sense comes to the human mind at a sluggish pace; it clings onto false hopes defying even the strongest of evidence, until one day the hopes flee, sucking the last drop of blood from the heart. Only then the sense returns, briefly, before the heart becomes restless again to enter into a new delusion.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Desperate Measures

by Maheswary Ponnusamy

(The author taught English in government schools in Malaysia for almost 30 years before taking early retirement. She has published fiction for children for the Malaysian market, and now resides in the Philippines.)

‘Apa tunggu lagi, nanti karat!’  This was exactly what that old decaying non-performing Cikgu Hashim said to me over lunch break at the school’s canteen. Newly joined members of the profession may not have understood. Mr Lim seemed amused. Miss Lau looked aghast. Cikgu Hashim’s comment could well be applied to her. She was like me, in her thirties and unmarried.

Later in the wash-room, Miss Lau probed. ‘You think he was talking about menopause? Could be. By now his wife would be dry. He speaks from experience.’ Then both of us giggled, our faces flushed and the midday heat caused beads of sweat on our foreheads. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow. I've got a class with Form Five Alamanda.’ I hurried to the class while Miss Lau sauntered to the teachers’ room.

The comment bothered me. I was the head of the English department. I have a Master degree in applied linguistics. I helped the school to manage a department of twelve English teachers. I am the chief invigilator during the SPM examination every year. And yet to some, respect seems to stem only if one possesses a ‘Mrs’ degree.

Tea time at home was always something to look forward to. Today, Mother had prepared chapattis with spicy mashed potatoes. She noticed my lacklustre appreciation for her efforts as I sipped the hot milk tea thoughtfully. ‘Was there a lot of HOD work at school?’ she inquired. I just nodded. Mother knew that it was the HOD jobs that took up most of my free time. I too have realized lately that being the head of the English department kept me at school till late evenings. Saturdays were set aside for meeting up with other heads of department. Sundays were solely for attending to mother’s needs, such as driving her to the market. ‘By the way, I met that lady again at the temple this morning,’ Mother interrupted my thoughts. She told me once more about the temple in Kapar where a priest performed miracles. It seemed he was able to break obstacles that prevented marriages. ‘Shall we go to this temple tomorrow?’

Mother walked to the temple near our home in Subang Jaya every morning. I suspected a big part of her quiet monologue with God was to request for help in finding a suitable groom for me. Lately, mother had been bothered by remarks from relatives who had begun to inquire about my single status. She had even begun to avoid a few social functions just to keep away from ‘concerned’ relatives who had already got their daughters of ‘marriageable’ age married.

I agreed this time without creating the usual fuss. I had never been to Kapar and the drive would take my mind from the nasty ‘karat’ comment by my colleague. I wondered who was ‘rusty’. Lately, Cikgu Hashim has become really ‘karat’. Several teachers saw him nodding to sleep during the last weekly meeting. That was Monday, the beginning of the week, and I wondered how he had kept himself awake till today. On the other hand, I have always kept myself updated with the latest theories on second language teaching and learning.

Anyway, it was a Saturday free of meetings, and Mother and I could do with some outing after going to the market.

‘Do you know the way to this temple?’ I asked. ‘The lady at the temple told us to drive to Kapar town and ask for Periasamy kovil, which she said any adult will be able to give directions to. By the way, he is only free after 6pm. We are also required to bring a live chicken, a bottle of wine, some turmeric powder, jasmine flowers, three types of fruit and cigars.’ I was tempted to tell Mother that these purchases seemed like preparations for a sumptuous dinner rather than tools for removing the obstacles that blocked my prospects for a speedy marriage. 

We drove to Kapar town with our purchases around four in the evening. Mother made sure that the feet of the chicken were properly secured and the other offerings properly packed in a box.

It was not difficult to find the temple. Everyone in Kapar town seemed to know where the temple was. Some even inquired if we had bought the right offerings.  After driving through a dusty side road we came to a rubber plantation. There were some wooden houses just before the temple. The entrance to the wooden temple that had a zinc roof was guarded by the fearsome goddess Kali. When we reached the inner sanctum we were greeted by a young man who introduced himself as the assistant to the chief priest. The chief priest apparently was busy with a devotee in one of the consultation rooms. It became apparent that this assistant priest was to attend to my problem.

Mother explained in detail that several match-made marriage ‘proposals’ for me had not worked out. It was I who had turned down some good marriage proposals. The assistant priest gave me a questioning look. After mother’s narration, we were asked to step out of the temple. The assistant priest told me and Mother to sit on a mat. Mother inquired if the purchases should be brought out for the obstacle removing ritual. The reply was only one word: later.

After murmuring a few prayers, the young priest sat beside me. He closed his eyes and chanted very loud prayers and shouted the word ‘waa’ several times. It sounded like a command to come at once in Tamil. Finally he opened his eyes, and they looked rather red and tired after his strained squinting and shouting. He had even begun to froth at his mouth. To our surprise, he reached for a short hand-held hoe and dug up a pot. It looked old and muddy. He opened it and presented from it a piece of red coloured cloth. He instructed us to examine it. While we had no idea what it was, he told us that the cloth had been stolen from our clothes line from our backyard and used by our enemies to cast a spell on me. Now that it had been retrieved, I should be married off in no time.

Mother and I burst out laughing, much to the dismay of the young priest. I explained to him that we lived on the fifteenth floor in a condominium and that our clothes are sent to the laundry. Mother supported me by saying that the red colour was simply awful and that we would never have owned such a piece of cloth. The desperate young man found it hard to find a rebuttal. Mother and I got up to walk to our car. The young man insisted on his fee. Mother gave him the bottle of wine and the cigars. It was thoughtful of her as he was much in need of smoke and drink to cope with our reaction.    
The chicken was set free after we had driven far away from the temple. The fruit and flowers, we took home for us. I was amused, but at the same time acknowledged that I had allowed myself to get into such a desperate situation. Perhaps, it is time to go on more social dates, instead of burying myself in books on language theories.