Untouchable: The Proletariat Cycle of Dependency

“The outcastes were not allowed to mount the platform surrounding the well, because if they were ever to draw water from it, the Hindus of the three upper castes would consider the water polluted. Nor were they allowed access to the near- by brook as their use of it would contaminate the stream. They had no well of their own because it cost at least a thousand rupees to dig a well in such a hilly town as Bulashah. Perforce they had to collect at the foot of the caste Hindus’ well and depend on the bounty of some of their superiors to pour water into their pitchers” (Anand, 20).

Anand , Mulk Raj. Untouchable . London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 1940.

This passage symbolizes the cycle vulnerability and dependency enforced on the proletariat. The only way poor people can get water is with the help and permission of higher caste members. They can’t get it for themselves because they are “dirty”, and they can’t make their own well as they have no money. They live and die by those who have money, and the only way they can ever have anything, even that which they need to survive, is by the “generosity” of those who have already depraved them of everything. It’s a cycle that reinforces the idea that they are weak and need the rich to survive, and it allows for the rich to comfortable keep their power and money without fear of retaliation.

Untouchable – The Proletariat

“Why aren’t the latrines clean, you rogue of a Bakha! There is not one fit to go near! I have walked all around! Do you know you are responsible for my piles? I caught the contagion sitting on one of those unclean latrines!” Untouchable, Anand (14).

The proletariat of Hindu society are those that belong to the lowest castes. The caste system is a more formalized version of what informal class systems are in the rest of the world, like the proletariat and bourgeouis. In the caste system, there is an element of cleanliness that marks your position in society. Those of the higher caste, like Havildar Charat Singh, are “clean” and therefore exempt from the dirty jobs that the lower caste performs. Meanwhile Bakha, belonging to the lower caste, is seen as dirty and unclean, therefore being relegated to jobs like cleaning latrines.

Some notes on Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore wrote primarily in Bengali. He became very well-known internationally thanks to his collection of translations of some of his own poems into English, Gitanjali (1912; available on HathiTrust). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. The two stories we are focusing on were originally written in Bengali. Tagore did not translate them himself, but their English translations date from the period we are studying; Tagore’s fiction thus became part of English-language fiction in the early twentieth century. I have given you the translations from two volumes of short stories put out by the important London publishing house Macmillan, Hungry Stones and Other Stories (1916) and Mashi and Other Stories (1918). If you would like a sample of Tagore’s own style in English fiction, read his own translation of his short story “The Victory,” in Hungry Stones.

Here is a little bit of context on the two stories. Think about why it is that there are so many more terms to annotate in “The Hungry Stones.”

The Postmaster

Published in Bengali in 1891. First published in English in a version by Devendranath Mitter in the Calcutta magazine The Modern Review (January 1910); scan available on HathiTrust. The translator of the version in Mashi is, I believe, unknown.

cicalas (160)
cicadas.
faquirs of the Baul sect (160)
“Fakir” is a a more common spelling for this term for a religious mendicant, typically used for Sufi Muslims. The Bāuls (“the mad ones”) are a group of wandering religious singers from Bengal. Tagore was very influenced by their songs, which, like other popular religious traditions in North India, combine Muslim and Hindu elements—and more.
the alphabet (163)
That is, the Bengali alphabet. The “double consonants” (164) are the conjunct consonants. In Bengali, as in other Indic scripts, there are special ways of writing two consonants together without a vowel; this is the trickiest part of the alphabet to learn.
showers of the season (163)
Śrābaṇ, the second month of the monsoon season (mid-July to mid-August).

The Hungry Stones

Published in Bengali in 1895. It first appeared in the Calcutta Modern Review in February 1910, in a translation by Panna Lal Basu; a scan is available on HathiTrust. This same translation, apparently slightly edited, is the one we have in Hungry Stones. The wonderful contemporary English-language writer Amitav Ghosh has translated this story as “Hungry Stone” in The Essential Tagore, ed. Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011).

Puja trip (3)
pūjā is a general term for Hindu worship. The two men are probably taking a holiday trip during Durga Puja, an important festival in Bengal.
up-country Mahomedan (3)
That is, a Muslim from North India. “Mahomedan” was a common term for Muslims in English but is now obsolete.
“There happen more things…” (3)
I award you 25 English major points if you recognize this as a riff on a line from Hamlet.
Vedas (4)
Ancient sacred texts of India, first composed in Sanskrit in the 2nd millennium BCE, and part of Hindu scripture. They are always recited in Sanskrit (a classical language), so the man’s knowledge of the Vedas shows his erudition. The same goes for his knowledge of Persian, which is not spoken natively in North India but was a language of high culture from the time of the Mughal emperors (16th to 18th centuries) onwards.
theosophist (4)
Theosophy was an occult movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, founded in New York in 1875 but subsequently headquartered in Bombay, influenced by various religious traditions and mystical philosophies—hence the narrator’s kinsman’s belief in “occult power” from an “astral body.”
my post at Junagarh…Nizam of Hyderabad (5)
Junagarh or Junagadh was a princely state in Gujarat (in the west of India). Though India was under British rule, parts of India were governed by proxy rather than directly. The man has worked for two such rulers. The hereditary ruler of the state of Hyderabad (south-central India) was called the Nizam.
Susta (5)
or Shusta, a river. The translator has cut a pretentious aside in which the man gives the Sanskrit etymology of the river name (cf. the Ghosh version).
Mahmud Shah II (5)
I am unsure how to gloss this. Does it refer to the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah (r. 1719–1748)? A Persian Shah? It also seems possible to me that this is deliberately unreal.
ghazal (5)
an intricate poetic form, important in the Persian and Urdu traditions.
ghi (9)
now usually spelled ghee: clarified butter.
sola hat like the sahebs (9–10)
that is, the sola topee, the signature hat of the British (the sahebs) in India.
attar (10)
rose essence.
guitar (11)
the translator’s rendition of sitār, an instrument now better-known beyond the subcontinent.
nahabat (11)
a type of instrumental band. Other translations render this passage differently. Somewhere far off, music is starting.
bulbuls (11)
the bulbul is a songbird and, like the nightingale, a poetic trope.
Rs. (11)
rupees, the currency.
Avalli hills (12)
the Aravalli mountain range, which runs from Delhi to Gujarat.
narghileh (16)
a hookah. All the details here evoke the Mughal court or indeed the Baghdad of the Arabian Nights.
Badshah (19)
the Mughal emperor.
Abyssinian (20)
that is, Ethiopian; but perhaps the same as the earlier “negro eunuch.”
chamar (20)
the footnote only helps if you know the Anglo-Indian word “chowrie” or chowry, the yak-tail fly whisk and yet another sign of royalty.
chaprasi (20)
an office messenger.
Nizamat (21)
that is, all that pertains to the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was a byword for wealth.

“The Postmaster”

“So the traveller, borne on the breast of the swift-flowing river, consoled himself with philosophical reflections on the numberless meetings and partings going on in the world – on death, the great parting, from which none returns.

But Ratan had no philosophy.”

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Postmaster. Macmillan, 1918, page 169

Both, Ratan and the postmaster, have different perspectives on their separation. While the learned postmaster justifies his leaving Ratan through a tragic philosophy on life, one where death and parting are inevitabilities of life experienced by all, the uneducated Ratan continues to believe in the possibility, no matter how small, that the postmaster might return some day. At the end of the day, no matter how profound or simple each character’s self-consolations might be, they both desperately try to move on with their lonely lives, giving up the strong connection that they had felt in each other’s company.

commonplace the postmaster

When the postmaster had finished his supper, the girl
suddenly asked him : ‘ Dada, will you take me to
your home ?’ The postmaster laughed.  ‘What an idea !’
said he ; but he did not think it necessary to
explain to the girl wherein lay the absurdity.
That whole night, in her waking and in her
dreams, the postmaster’s laughing reply haunted
her * What an idea !

Postmaster

The surest proofs meanwhile are disbelieved. One clings desperately to some vain hope, till a day comes when it has sucked the heart dry and then it breaks through its bonds and departs. After that comes the misery of awakening, and then once again the longing to get back into the maze of the same mistakes.

I chose this passage because of its reflection on the situation between Ratan and the Postmaster (Dada). Throughout their interactions, it is clear that Ratan holds the position of a servant, maid, or assistant. However, the Postmaster’s treatment was misinterpreted over time; this created the paradigm in which “the surest proofs meanwhile are disbelieved”.  The following lines of this passage go on to literally define the resolution of their relationship which I found very powerful. There is much more to say about this passage and its message.

“The Postmaster” Commonplacing Journal

“And the exile was not disappointed. Ratan ceased to be a little girl. She at once stepped into the post of mother, called in the village doctor, gave the patient his pills at the proper intervals, sat up all night by his pillow, cooked his gruel for him, and every now and then asked : ‘ Are you feeling a little better, Dada?’ ” (164-165).

This passage, as well as the narrator discussing Ratan’s “little heart” (162) and calling her the postmaster’s “little pupil”, show that the narrator is fond of Ratan and wholly admires her. She is a delightful companion to the postmaster, a fast learner who is hungry for knowledge, and, perhaps most importantly, she is there for Ratan in his times of need and seems to have a motherly intuition. There is also a naive pathos that seems to follow her around, highlighted by Ratan calling the postmaster “Dada”.

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Postmaster. Macmillan, 1918, page 164-165.

Commonplace-Book Entry: “The Postmaster” by Sir Rabindranath Tagore, How Close the Narrator Relates to Ratan

“The master said: ‘You need not be anxious about my going away, Ratan; I shall tell my successor to look after you.’ These words were kindly meant, no doubt: but inscrutable are the ways of a woman’s heart! Ratan had borne many a scolding from her master without complaint, but these kind words she could not bear.”

Tagore, Rabindranath. “The Postmaster.” Mashi and Other Stories, Macmillan and Co. Limited, 1918, page 167.

I think that this quote shows how the narrator relates to Ratan, since it seems to both relate to her distantly and closely in these sentences. The narrator expresses Ratan’s feelings to the audience first in a way that is distant from her and tells these emotions in a more general way, as the narrator speaks of women’s hearts instead of just Ratan’s heart. Especially  using the word “woman” makes this feel as if the narrator is not just referring to Ratan, and this also makes the narration feel even more distant from her, as she is being buried beneath the generalization of all women in the world, since Ratan is usually referred to as “girl” throughout this story as opposed to “woman”. However, the narrator then relates more closely to Ratan’s individual feelings, referring to her personal experience with the postmaster and how she had taken his words in the past in comparison to how the change in his words when telling her that she should not worry since he will tell his successor to look after Ratan after he leaves, makes her feel in this moment. Therefore, I think that the narrator’s relation to Ratan does not get too close to her personal thoughts and feelings, since sometimes the narrator decides to make judgments on Ratan’s emotions based on what the narrator knows or thinks they know of other people generally, and brings about these judgments first to the audience’s mind before even beginning to focus on Ratan as an individual. 

“The Postmaster” by Sir Rabindranath Tagore Commonplace-Book Entry: A Narrator Who Knows and Sympathizes with Ratan

“After a while Ratan rose, and went off to the kitchen to prepare the meal; but she was not so quick about it as on other days. Many new things to think of had entered her little brain. When the postmaster had finished his supper, the girl suddenly asked him: ‘Dada, will you take me to your home ?’

The postmaster laughed. ‘What an idea !’ said he; but he did not think it necessary to explain to the girl wherein lay the absurdity.

That whole night, in her waking and in her dreams, the postmaster’s laughing reply haunted her ‘What an idea !’”

Tagore, Sir Rabindranath. “The Postmaster.” Mashi and other stories, Macmillan and Co., 1918, page 166-167

This passage shows that the narrator knows about all of Rattan’s actions throughout the story, as well as her inner thoughts that she has, since it describes what she does both around the postmaster and by herself, as well as when there are a lot of thoughts swarming her mind and what she even dreams about, so this suggests that the narrator of “The Postmaster” is not the postmaster or any other character in the book that may be observing Ratan’s actions, but a third person narrator that is not part of the story and whom has access to the actions and consciousness of both of the main characters of this story, which are Ratan and the postmaster. The only person in the story that could have access to all of Ratan’s actions and thoughts would be Ratan herself, but the narrator does not use the word “I” when talking about Ratan nor use her language throughout the whole story, and since Ratan would not be able to know all of the postmaster’s actions and thoughts as well, which is also shown in this passage when the narrator says that the postmaster did not feel the need to explain how odd Ratan’s request to him was. It is also implied that the narrator may be older than Ratan and/or has sympathy for what she goes through, since it refers to her and her brain as “little,” which could mean that the narrator views Ratan as a young girl who is not done growing yet, but also sees her as a nice girl since referring to her as “little” multiple times could show that the narrator cares about Ratan in some way, or that the narrator thinks that the amount of thoughts going on in Ratan’s head might be too much for her to handle and would easily overwhelm her.

“The Postmaster” Commonplacing

“It may be that she had still a lurking hope in some corner of her heart that her Dada would return, and that is why she could not tear herself away. Alas for the foolish human heart” (Tagore 169)!

At the very last line, the narrator makes the exclamation “Alas for the foolish human heart!” without using quotation marks. Even if it is not a direct quote, the words seem to be coming from Ratan herself. Therefore, the narrator switches from a third person narration to showing a glimpse of Ratan’s first person account, without explicitly saying so, showing free indirect discourse.

Tagore, Sir Rabindranath. “Tagore, Postmaster and The Hungry Stones (Required).” MacMillan and Co,. Limited, 1918.

The Postmaster: Narrators relation to Ratan: Bryant Magdaleno

“Alas, the mistaken human heart! Its delusions never end, the laws of reason enter the mind after much delay, disbelieving incontestable evidence it embraces false hop with both arms and all its might to its breast; in the end one day, severing the umbilical cord and sucking the heart empty of blood, it flees there is then a return to one’s right senses, and the mind grows restless again to embrace its next delusion.”

This text appears after Ratan told to be weeping and hoping for the postmaster to come back but as the narrator states there own opinion on the matter for they deny Ratan her thoughts and calls her foolish for it. The narrator tells a cynical truth as they put it and frame Ratan to be in delusion only willing to believe what she wants to believe. In this instance the relation of narrator to Ratan is one almost antagonist to the hope she has, the narrator denies not only Ratan the idea of a happy ending but also the audience and call them out for expecting anything but there cynical take on the matter.

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Postmaster. Macmillan, 1918, page 164.

“The Postmaster” and the narrator’s relation to Ratan

“But Ratan had no philosophy. She was wandering about the post office in a flood of tears. It may be that she had still a lurking hope in some corner of her heart that her Dada would return, and that is why she could not tear herself away.”

The narrator’s relation with Ratand and the Postmaster is shown here. While the Postmaster is utilizing philosophy to help him cope with his inevitable death, Ratan is left with no coping mechanisms. Ratan is alone like she has been most of her life as an orphan.

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Postmaster. Macmillan, 1918, page 169.

The Postmaster; the Narrator & Ratan

” ‘Well, Ratan,’ perhaps he would begin, ‘do you remember anything of your mother?’ That was a fertile subject. Ratan partly remembered, and partly didn’t … She called to mind a little brother that she had – and how on some bygone cloudy day she had played at fishing with him on the edge of the pond, with a twig for a make-believe fishing-rod. Such little incidents would drive out greater events from her mind.”

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Postmaster. Macmillan, 1918, page 161.

The Postmaster: The Narrator’s Relation to Ratan (Where Understanding and Pity Meet)

“She entered noiselessly, and looked silently into her master’s face for orders. The master said: ‘You need not be anxious about my going away, Ratan; I shall tell my successor to look after you.’ These words were kindly meant, no doubt: but inscrutable are the ways of a woman’s heart!”

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Postmaster. Macmillan, 1918, page 167.

The Postmaster; the narrator’s relation to Ratan

“When he got in and the boat was under way, and the rain-swollen river, like a stream of tears welling up from the earth, swirled and sobbed at her bows, then he felt a sort of pain at heart ; the grief-stricken face of a village girl seemed to represent for him the great unspoken pervading grief of Mother Earth herself. At one time he had an impulse to go back, and bring away along with him that lonesome waif, forsaken of the world.”

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Postmaster. Macmillan, 1918, page 168.

Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, Adapting to the Wild South

“A baby rabbit, terror ridden, squirmed through a hole in the
floor and squatted off there in the shadows against the wall,
seeming to know that nobody wanted its flesh at such a
time. And the lake got madder and madder with only its
dikes between them and him. In a little wind-lull, Tea Cake touched Janie and said, “Ah reckon you wish now you had of stayed in yo’ big house
’way from such as dis, don’t yuh?”
“Naw.”
“Naw?”
“Yeah, naw. People don’t die till dey time come nohow,
don’t keer where you at. Ah’m wid mah husband in uh
storm, dat’s all”” (Hurston 206).

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. New York: Harper Perennial, 2013.

Tea Cake believes that Janie when exposed to the fierce winds of a southern storm will wish to return to her old home. However, to his surprise, despite the ferocity of the storm Janie has adapted to and adores the wild lifestyle they live in the south and the storm does not bother her.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, “South”

“And the thing that got everybody was the way Janie caught on. She got to the place she could shoot a hawk out of a pine tree and not tear him up. Shoot his head off. She got to be a better shot than Tea Cake. They’d go out any late afternoon and come back loaded down with game. One night they got a boat and went out hunting alligators. Shining their phosphorescent eyes and shooting them in the dark. They could sell the hides and teeth in Palm Beach besides having fun together till work got pressing.” (174).

Moving south with Tea Cake represents a new chapter of Janie’s life. Not only does she feel freer and generally happier with Tea Cake, but in the Everglades, she is completely liberated from the traditional female role. Learning to shoot and hunt represents Janie breaking free from female stereotypes. Not only does she participate in typically masculine activities, but she excels at them.

Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”: Going South

“To Janie’s strange eyes, everything in the Everglades was big and new. Big Lake Okechobee, big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything.”

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. New York: Harper Perennial, 2013.

Janie is anticipates life in the Everglades. The repetition of the word “big” in the list of descriptions show for how vast and hopeful the land is. Perhaps this description foretells the massiveness of the hurricane that hits the Everglades in ch. 18.