By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Missing Mail’ is a story from Malgudi Days, the short-story collection by the Indian writer R. K. Narayan (1906-2001). ‘The Missing Mail’ is about a postman who is friendly with a particular family on his postal round. The story follows the attempts of the man of the family to get his daughter married.
As Jhumpa Lahiri points out in her informative introduction to the Penguin edition of Malgudi Days, ‘Malgudi’ is Narayan’s coinage, an imaginary town thought to be located somewhere in southern India, near the city of Chennai (formerly Madras), where Narayan was born, although there are also echoes of Mysore, the town where he lived for much of his adult life.
‘The Missing Mail’: plot summary
Thanappa is a postman in Malgudi. He is friendly with many of the people he interacts with on his postal round, and in particular, he gets to know Ramanujam and his family, who live on Vinayak Mudali Street. He has known Ramanujam’s daughter, Kamakshi, since she was born.
When Ramanujam begins trying to find a suitable husband for Kamakshi to marry, Thanappa takes an interest in the mail that the family receive as plans for the match, and then the plans for the subsequent wedding, take shape.
However, when Ramanujam’s uncle falls ill, Thanappa withholds the mail delivering the bad news until after his daughter’s wedding has taken place. When Ramanujam is handed the telegram informing him that his uncle has passed away, he is angry with Thanappa, who freely confesses that he kept the news from him because he didn’t want it to cast a shadow over the wedding.
Ramanujam is unhappy with Thanappa, who tells him that he can report him to the post office and he will be sacked from his job. However, Ramanujam tells him that he will not report him, but he is still unhappy about Thanappa keeping back ‘the missing mail’ until some time after his uncle had died.
‘The Missing Mail’: analysis
‘The Missing Mail’ is one of the most humane stories in the Malgudi Days collection. It is clear that Thanappa, who has grown to like the family which features in the story and wants everything to work out well for them, is acting out of kindness when he withholds the sad news from Ramanujam.
However, in doing so he is obviously failing in his duties as a postman, who is supposed to deliver mail to the recipients as soon as it is available. In deliberately holding back the fateful telegram so that the family wedding can take place, he proves himself to be a bad postman but a kind human being who acts out of sympathy rather than malice.
Here it is worth remembering the detail that Narayan tells us, that if the marriage does not take place on 20 May, it probably never will – or at least not for another three years, since the bridegroom is due to go away for training after that date. Thanappa realises that if the bad news of the uncle’s death were to postpone the wedding, it may well be called off for good, and the family in the story have been deeply worried about failing to find a suitable husband for Kamakshi.
How should we judge the behaviour of Thanappa in ‘The Missing Mail’? The third-person narrator delivers the narrative in a rather matter-of-fact style, with little focalisation from Thanappa himself. So we are not made to feel sympathetic towards him, nor are we encouraged to criticise him. Instead, Narayan seems keen to let us come to our own conclusions.
If we decide that, in holding back the ‘missing mail’, Thanappa was acting in a dishonest way – essentially abusing his power to deliver or not deliver certain news to the intended recipients – then any such judgment of his (dis)honesty as a character must also take into account the fact that, in other respects, he does behave honestly.
He tells Ramanujam that he deliberately kept the bad news from him until after the wedding. He could have been dishonest and claimed that the telegram had got lost in the mail and had only just turned up at the sorting office.
But he doesn’t do this. Instead, he comes clean. And he seems to expect the angry response that his confession elicits from Ramanujam, since he calls it a ‘confession’ and bows his head and mumbles: the act of a contrite person. Whether he regrets doing what he did is another matter. Does he consider doing what he thought was the right thing for the family more important than keeping his job?
Perhaps. Above all, and in the last analysis, the portrait that Narayan provides of this local postman is of a man whose humanity and sympathy for the people he knows from his postal round are more important to him, even, than his job.