When I read Tagore’s Daakghar (The Post Office) for the first time in my childhood years, the short play appeared to me not more than a tragic narrative of a young, ailing boy on the verge of an untimely death. Years later, when I take up the play again, the world has already experienced a dramatic shift in the manner in which we exist, in which we make meaning of life.

The pulsating desire that Amol feels throughout the play to leave the constricted scope of the household and experience the larger world actively through his senses is something that most of us share by now. I realised that Daakghar made more sense than ever, now that I have understood the concept of home quarantine not only theoretically, but as the unnerving ground reality.

The early European translators of the play have noted that the play, devoid of songs, allusions to indigenous myths or complex allegories referring to contemporary social disposition of India, carries a natural simplicity that appeals to an international audience. In 1942, Janusz Korczak, the Polish doctor, author and director living in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw, staged an adaptation of Daakghar with Jewish children packed into gas chambers one month before their execution.

Sometime in late 20th century, a group of disabled children of a Swiss school performed the play with some of them in wheelchairs. In 1993, Jill Parvin in Great Britain staged Daakghar again in the form of “a play within a play”; she visualised Janusz Korczak dreaming of an encounter with Tagore, who presented him with a copy of the play and asked him to stage it with the orphans in his care.

These productions were evidently meant to inspire the suffering – the disabled, the orphan or the Jewish victim of the Holocaust – to find solace in Amol’s defiant vigour for life despite the restrictions, and in his acceptance of his mortality. In light of the contemporary global crisis which has its root in the Covid-19 pandemic, and in the time of the ongoing, seemingly endless home quarantine, the international appeal as well as relevance of Tagore’s play resurfaces.

Productivity versus knowledge-building

In brief, Daakghar depicts the last few days of Amol, an orphan adopted by his paternal aunt and her husband. The frail, young boy is not allowed to go out, as the “bad” breeze of high autumn might worsen his condition. He, therefore, sits by the window all day and speaks to anyone who passes by. In contrast to Amol who has no worry of the world, who has never learnt how to read and write and who, despite being an orphan, does not have to fend for himself, the people of the outer world he speaks to has daily work to tend to.

The young boy remains outside the normative notion of productivity; however, he builds a knowledge system of his own through dialogue with people from various walks of life – a dairy man, a royal guard, a flower girl, a blind beggar, an eccentric fakir, a haughty village head, a physician and so on. He conceptualises his own becoming in the forms of the people he comes across; he wishes to be a postman or a dairy man or even the assistant of a disabled beggar as soon as he is healthier.

Amol does not wish to be a scholar, alienated in the limitations of a contemplative life – he would rather participate in an active life through tactile experience of the natural world. In the universe of Daakghar, he is the only one who is incapacitated and is quarantined due to his disease. We, on the other hand, are mostly on the same boat on a global scale, driven into necessary self-confinement.

Although we do, once in a while, hear the voices of vendors, hawkers, or salespeople as they make way through our neighbourhood areas in the hope of selling whatever little essentials people are willing to buy, we do not wistfully desire to exchange places with them. We understand that, during a pandemic, being at home without having to run around every day looking for means of sustenance is a privilege.

Quarantined in the relatively safe space of the contemplative life while engaging in the leisurely activities of cooking, dancing, singing, painting, reading, and writing without being compelled to participate in the active life, as death and disease rage outside, is a privilege that the working class lacks.

Care and compassion

Despite not being a quintessential contagion fable, Daakghar, on an affective plane, does impart a few lessons to us regarding the ways in which we can build a bridge between the home and the world in times of the pandemic. Perhaps, it also suggests an alternative to the rhetoric of “lockdown productivity” that is being circulated widely today.

It propels one to reconsider whether or not care, empathy, organic communication, and spiritual intimacy should be registered with more urgency than forced productivity that finds manifestation in online classes, collaborative digital projects, social media challenges and so on – activities that exclude a large number of people who do not fall within the arena of casual privilege we take for granted.

There is a larger allegory in Amol’s dialogues with the people passing by his window: although he does nothing but sit there gazing as far as his vision takes him, he learns to empathise and to acknowledge the daily toil of the common people and the labourers who work tirelessly to make things easier for others – the guard who watches over everyone, the dairy man who produces essential provision, the postman who brings letters, the physician who nurtures, and the little flower girl who has no choice but to work in order to help her mother run the household.

Amol, despite his illness, is not exposed to a precarious childhood that Sudha, the flower girl or the group of carefree boys may or may not fall prey to. Yet, from his comfortable, stable position at the window of the middle-class foster home where he experiences an abundance of affection, care and attention, he gives away to the group of boys his precious possessions (fancy toys that they have never even seen before). He promises the blind, lame beggar his assistance once his health recovers and wishes to accompany the dairy man to his village to learn about the lives of the villagers.

This is an alternative rhetoric of productivity, involving the idea of emotional labour, which emerges out of the text. It offers a new approach that one may adhere to in times of a total breakdown of community life, beginning with a re-evaluation of the normative and decidedly outdated mode of living.

Perhaps one way to rise above the crippling anxiety induced by such unpredictable, unforgiving times is not to subsume oneself in the ardent productivity that the capitalist structure compels us into believing, and engaging in care and introspection instead. The rhetoric of “lockdown productivity” would be more likely to bear meaning if it is practised not as self-anaesthetising activities in order to avert one’s eyes from the enormous devastation, but as a means of articulating our vulnerability or of prioritising care.

In the face of the Covid-19 crisis that pits us against one another and forces us to alienate ourselves from the community, this may have been the most befitting time to engage in the proverbial act of “loving thy neighbour as thyself”.

Death and mortality

Interdependence and reciprocal sharing, be it material possessions or physical intimacy, are two essential pillars that hold the human community together; how do we fathom consequences at a time when sharing physical proximity puts us into rather vulnerable positions? How do we classify “more vulnerable groups” and “less vulnerable groups”, and ultimately bridge the gap between the two so as not to destabilise the equilibrium of social life?

It is perhaps necessary now, more than ever before, to rise above neoliberal assumptions and forge valuable dialogues with those residing on the periphery, so as to include them in the escape strategy we are constantly devising. The crisis management system proves to be nothing but insufficient if it fails to incorporate a revised set of rules focussing on empathy and ministration to understand the systematic struggle of the “more vulnerable groups”, to offer them visibility, and to mourn for the loss of their lives instead of reducing them to nameless, faceless indispensable bodies sacrificed as collateral damage of the necessary lockdown.

The central parable of Daakghar harps on the inclusive nature of death; it is another reason that, going back to the play during the pandemic, when we are constantly driven to think about how death, disease and loss proffer clarity. Amol awaits the letter that he hopes will arrive at the post office visible from his window. He is let known by the royal guard that such a letter (emblematic of death’s herald) is sent to everyone, even to children:

Amol: At the King’s Post Office, is it the King who issues letters for all?

Guard: Why, indeed! You will certainly receive one someday.

Amol: A letter will be issued in my name too? But I am only a child!

Guard: The King writes nice little letters to young boys like yourself!

The resounding philosophy of the play emphasises this irreversible truth of organic life – mortality. In the wake of mass death induced by the pandemic, Daakghar places us in front of momentous questions: how do we acknowledge and accept mortality? How do we grieve for our own and for others whom we may not know personally at a time when bodies are piling up across the world? How do we articulate loss of a life cut short too soon? And ultimately, how do we transcend the anxiety of mortality?

Sushrita Acharjee is currently an M Phil research scholar at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. Her research interests lie in Children’s Literature, Gender Studies, Romanticism and Indian Literatures in English and Popular Cultures.