Rabindranath Tagore, poet of ‘The Wicked Postman,’ was the first non-European, and first Asian honored with a Nobel prize in literature. Although he wrote in many genres, he won the prize mainly for his poetry although it is important to know that many of his poems were written as songs.
‘The Wicked Postman‘ is a Bhakti poem in a way. Bhakti is a tradition of sacred Hindu poetry expressing love for the god as an epithet in a very sensual, palpable way. This poem is also a moving portrait of a family. Finally, the poem depicts a coming-of-age moment, even a kunstlerpoem where the boy becomes a writer, an epistolary writer, existential, who writes to fill the void.
‘The Wicked Postman‘ is told from the point of view of a child. The main bhakti element is the character of the mother waiting in a window in the rain for the father’s letter that does not come. The son, who is the narrator, blames the postman for not delivering his father’s letters. But in his heart, the son knows that the postman is not to blame. The son then offers to write his mother letters himself.
Why do you sit there on the floor so quiet and silent,
tell me, mother dear?
The rain is coming in through the open window,
making you all wet, and you don’t mind it.
Do you hear the gong striking four?
It is time for my brother to come home from school.
What has happened to you that you look so strange?
Haven’t you got a letter from father today?
The opening section of ‘The Wicked Postman‘ begins with four questions. Only lines 3-4 and line 6 are expository and they are mere qualifiers to the questions dealing with weather and time. A child addresses his mother. In the first question, the mother is quiet and in the follow-up sentence, she does not mind. In the next question, the time of the poem is set in the afternoon and the following sentence brings a brother home from school.
The mention of the school marks a shift to an institution that is cultural as opposed to the first lines which are suffused with the natural world of the rain even invading the home. In the last question, another cultural institution is alluded to, the mail, and this concerns the absence of the male, the father. The mother now looks strange, no longer not minding. The sensual concreteness of the first half of this section (window, floor, rain, gong – frame, feel, smell, sound) has run into an emptiness.
There is a tradition of Bhakti poems in India where a woman waits in the doorway in the rain for her god, her lover. “If you shut the door to all errors, truth will be shut out,” wrote Tagore.
Kabir wrote, “Open the window to the west, and be lost in the sky of love.” The west is the setting sun, the time of our poem; it can also be, as we will see, the Western world.
I saw the dark clouds burst, dark Lord, Saw the clouds and tumbling down In black and yellow streams they thicken, Rain and rain two hours long. See— eyes see only rain and water, watering the thirsty earth green. Me— love’s in a distant land and wet, I stubbornly stand at the door, For Hari is indelibly green, Mira’s Lord, And he has invited a standing, stubborn love.
The dark lord in this bhakti poem is Krishna, the seducer of the Gopi girls.
Waiting is also a common theme in Tagore’s masterpiece Gitanjali: “The servant or the bride awaiting the master’s home-coming in the empty house are images of the heart turning to God.”
17. I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands.
47. The night is nearly spent waiting for him in vain.
52. Lord of my heart, no more shall there be for me waiting and weeping in corners.
66. There was none in the world who ever saw her face to face, and she remained in her
I saw the postman bringing letters in his bag
for almost everybody in the town.
Only father’s letters he keeps to read himself.
I am sure the postman is a wicked man.
But don’t be unhappy about that, mother dear.
Tomorrow is market day in the next village.
You ask your maid to buy some pens and papers.
I myself will write all father’s letters;
you will not find a single mistake.
I shall write from A right up to K.
Tagore was fond of the theme of the postman’s relationship with children. He wrote a story called “The Postmaster” about a postman more indifferent than wicked who kept an orphan girl named Ratan as a servant, then when his request for a transfer is denied, quits his post, and leaves the poor girl heartbroken. In Tagore’s play “The Post Office” an orphan Amal is dying and imagines he lives in the post office and is waiting for the King’s letter to come and make him a postman so he can go out, but the King’s letter comes, and it is death. In the play, as in our poem, the postman never appears.
It is unlikely that the postman brings letters for almost everybody in the town. Many will not have learned to read or have ever left the town to know anyone to write to. But children are prone to exaggeration. The next two lines are very important. The boy narrator imagines that the postman keeps his father’s letters. Then, instantly, he states that the postman is wicked, The parallelism of these two lines and the rapidity with which the speaker leaps to the idea of a “wicked man” makes it plausible that the wicked man is associated with the father.
Now the child tries to take on the role of the adult, the parent, telling his mother not to be unhappy, giving orders for the maid for supplies, and forming the project to write his father’s letter himself, another substitution. And while he boasts that he will make no mistake, his inadequacies for the task are pointed out by the truncated nature of his alphabet. His ending on K is no doubt significant. Krishna as a baby stole the butter and later teased the Gopi girls. Then again K could be for Kolcata, the capital as spelled in Hindi/Bengali.
But, mother, why do you smile?
You don’t believe that I can write as nicely as father does!
But I shall rule my paper carefully,
and write all the letters beautifully big.
When I finish my writing do you think I shall be so foolish
as father and drop it into the horrid postman’s bag?
I shall bring it to you myself without waiting, and letter by letter
help you to read my writing.
I know the postman does not like
to give you the really nice letters.
Now the mother has gone from silent not caring at the beginning of ‘The Wicked Postman‘ to a middle where something is the matter, then unhappiness, and now she is smiling. She is not mocking her son’s inadequacy but is truly pleased with her son “nicely as father.” The son is not foolish. He is ruled and measured letter by letter. Here Tagore has brought the father and the postman together in the same line at last “as father … the horrid postman’s”. The poem concludes “I know the postman does not like” and the literal reading of “the postman” is as the subject of the verb, but the poetic meaning of “the postman” is as the object of not being liked.
Tagore is ambivalent about the mail. On the one hand, he celebrated its potential to connect people and communities, but he also saw it as an instrument of colonization and of self-colonization. The oedipal situation for the son here is, as it usually is, not sexual, but existential. The child seeks to become its own father to be sui generis its own origin and cause and, thus, to defeat death. But this is quite a bit too much to put on our little lad who is just trying to soothe his mother while protecting himself from his resentment of his father’s absence by projecting his hostility onto the obliging postman.
Structure and Form
Tagore wrote ‘The Wicked Postman‘ in free verse because it is very conversational with the child addressing his mother and asking lots of questions. The poem is not one of Tagore’s more lyrical or sonorous poems. After the initial imagery, the poem is quite situational. The only symbolism resides in the figure of the postman. Nonetheless, the poem is strong in characterization. As we watch the mother’s emotions change, we develop a feeling for her. As we watch the boy struggle with the family situation, we also develop a feeling for him.
The absent father and the brother on his way home from school are not painted in any detail. The poem describes a dyad, almost a dialogue although the mother remains “quiet and silent” from the beginning. In this way, it resembles a letter where only one side “speaks”. The form of the poem is not, however, epistolary.
Tagore won the Nobel prize in 1913, the first non-European to win the award.
“I read Rabindranath every day, to read one line of his is to forget all the troubles of the world.”
While Tagore did write often in English, he also wrote pedagogical books mainly in Bengali.
Yes, Tagore wrote eight novels: Chaturanga, Chokher Bali, Char Odhay, Home in the World,
Bora, Relationships, Noukadubi, and Last Poem.
Yes, and at first, he accepted, but he later revoked his knighthood in protest over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919.