There are few in the league of Anton Chekov, Leo Tolstoy, Flannery’O Connor, O’Henry, or Rabindranath Tagore who can tell extraordinary stories about ordinary people, in limited words that short stories permit. Often deemed as a difficult literary medium, and packed with heightened emotional intensity, short stories are also the most entertaining kind of literature.
In India, the landscape of short stories has been shaped by literary giants like Premchand, R.K Narayan, and Mulk Raj Anand. However, another lesser-known, yet equally talented short story writer, and a famous Gujarati literary figure — Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi, who is known by his penname Dhumaketu — has also made a significant contribution to the styles and techniques of modern Indian short stories in the 1900s.
A recently published collection of Dhumketu’s short stories, titled Ratno Dholi, translated in English by Jenny Bhatt, gives the readers a glimpse into Dhumketu’s richly woven tales and depicts how Dhumketu contributed to the modern form of Gujarati Short Stories.
At the beginning of the book, Bhatt introduces readers to Dhumketu and calls him ‘a pioneer of Gujarati short story’ who has written more than 500 short tales, collected in twenty-four volumes. Apart from that, the author has also penned twenty-nine historical novels, seven social novels, numerous plays, travelogues, essays, literary criticism, and memoirs. Dhumketu also translated writers and poets like Kahlil Gibran, Rabindranath Tagore, and others.
However, his most well-known and frequently anthologized work of all time is a short story named, ‘The Post Office’. An early version of the story was published in 1923 and the story has since then appealed to a wide readership in terms of age, geography, and culture because of its simplicity and pathos.
The Post Office is the story of a lonely old man who waits for years for his daughter’s letter. Bhatt writes, “Through this one circumstance drawn on an intimate canvas, Dhumketu gives us the universal: a father’s longing for a lost daughter’s love and the world’s indifference to, even derision of, such a deeply personal need."
The short story begins with the old man waiting at the post office, early in the morning, as the staff of the office sort out the mails. Dhumketu writes,
“The hazy dawn sky was glittering with the previous night’s stars – big and small – like happy memories shimmering in a person’s life. Wrapping his old, tattered shirt tighter around his body to protect against the blasting wind, an old man was making his way through the centre of the city. At this time, the unrestrained, rhythmic sounds of mills grinding, along with the delicate voices of women, could be heard from many homes.
The odd dog’s bark, some early riser’s footsteps heard from a distance, or some prematurely awakened bird’s tone – except for these, the city was entirely silent. People were snoring in sweet slumber and the night was more dense thanks to the cold of winter. Bearing the pleasing temperament of a man who can kill without uttering a word, the cold was spreading its tentacles all over, like a deadly weapon. Shivering and tottering quietly, the old man exited the city’s gates to reach a straight path and, slowly-slowly, continued walking with the support of his old stick.
On one side of the street was a row of trees, while the city gardens stood on the other. Here, it was more chilly and the night was more velvety. The wind pierced right through and the fine brilliance of the morning star, Venus, fell on earth like an icy flake of falling snow.
At the very end, near the edge of the gardens, there was a beautiful building. And lamplight was spilling from its closed windows and door. As a devout person experiences a reverential joy on catching a glimpse of the destination of his pilgrimage, so did this old man feel happy upon spotting the wooden arch of the building. The arch had the words ‘Post Office’ painted on an ancient signboard.
The old man sat outside, on the verandah. There was no discernible sound from inside but he could hear some indistinct whispering as if some people were busy at work. ‘Police superintendent!’ A voice called from inside. The old man startled, but sat back down quietly again. Faith and affection were, in such cold weather, giving him warmth.
The noises inside began to rise in intensity. The clerk was reading out the English names on letters and tossing them towards the postman. Commissioner, superintendent, diwan saheb, librarian – calling out such names one after the other in a practised manner, the clerk was flinging the letters rapidly.
During that time, a playful voice called from inside: ‘Old coachman Ali!’ The old man sat up where he was, looked up at the sky fervently, moved forward, and placed a hand on the door.
‘Who is it?’
‘You said old Coachman Ali’s letter, right? I’m here!’
In response, there was merciless laughter. ‘Saheb! This is a crazy old man. Does a futile round of the post office to collect his letter every day.’ As the clerk said this to the postmaster, the old man sat back in his place. Over the past five years, he’d developed a habit of sitting in that spot.
Dhumketu writes that despite the derision, the old man continues to nurture hope in his heart that his daughter would write to him someday. He writes:
“…His only daughter, Mariam, got married and left for her in-laws’ home. Her husband worked in the army, so she went to Punjab with him. From that Mariam – for whom he had been holding on to life – there had been no news for the past five years. Now Ali had learnt what affection and separation meant."
The author beautifully portrays Ali’s loneliness and his longing to hear his daughter’s whereabouts. In the short story, he writes,
“…One day, Ali sat under a palash tree and cried his heart out. From that time on, he would awake at 4 a.m. every morning to arrive at the post office. There was never a letter for him but, with fervent devotion and hope-filled cheer that his daughter’s letter would arrive one day, he always showed up before anyone else and sat waiting outside the post office. The post office – perhaps the most uninteresting building in the world – became his holy land and place of pilgrimage. He always sat in the same spot, in the same corner. Upon seeing him, everyone would laugh. The postmen would make jokes and sometimes, in jest, call out his name even though there was no letter, making him come running to the door of the post office in vain. As if possessing an endless faith and resolve, he came every day and returned empty-handed."
Dhumketu ends this touching story on a heartbreaking note but not all the short stories in the book, Ratno Dholi, are sad ones.
The excerpts from the short story, The Post Office (taken from the book Ratno Dholi) have been published with permission from HarperCollins.