A Play for the End of the World: A Novel

  • Review
By – October 4, 2021

A Play for the End of the World begins with an impos­si­ble ques­tion, “‘How do you help a child in this world? How do you teach him about what’s to come? The after­life?’” Pan Dok­tor, head of an orphan­age in the War­saw Ghet­to, asks this ques­tion as he intro­duces the play that attempts to answer it by invok­ing the pow­er of imag­i­na­tion. The chil­dren of the orphan­age per­form it four days before depor­ta­tions begin. Only two sur­vive, Jaryk and Misha.

The boys find each oth­er after the war and devel­op a life-long friend­ship that takes them to New York and even­tu­al­ly, sep­a­rate­ly, to India, where many years lat­er the same play, The Post Office, will be per­formed in a vil­lage whose inhab­i­tants are being threat­ened. Misha is drawn to the vil­lage by the play. Jaryk fol­lows when he learns of Misha’s death, but stays to fin­ish the work his friend began. The play, which in World War II Poland is used to instill endurance, if not exact­ly hope, in the chil­dren who don’t yet know their fate, takes on polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance in Gopalpur, India, when a pro­fes­sor uses it to bring the town inter­na­tion­al atten­tion and there­fore, he hopes, salvation.

While the nov­el is a work of fic­tion, the exis­tence of the play is real, as is the orphan­age and the man who want­ed to teach the chil­dren about what was to come. The Post Office was indeed per­formed at the orphan­age lead by Janusz Kor­czak (born Hen­ryk Gold­szmit), and it is adapt­ed from Dak Ghar, a Ben­gali play by Rabindranath Tagore, who was award­ed the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture because of his pro­found­ly sen­si­tive, fresh and beau­ti­ful verse.”

Through Jaryk, Misha, and those who shape their lives, author Jai Chakrabar­ti takes the read­er across con­ti­nents, life stages, and sociopo­lit­i­cal upheavals. But he does so by enter­ing the minds of his char­ac­ters so ful­ly and yet so gen­tly that we feel their desires and con­flicts as eas­i­ly as the tastes and scents that sur­round them. Chakrabarti’s prose, like Tagore’s verse, is pro­found­ly sen­si­tive, fresh, and beau­ti­ful as he nav­i­gates the large themes that run through the book: the fragili­ty of mem­o­ry, as well as its pow­er, the haunt­ing way in which a split sec­ond deci­sion can change the course of a life, and the pow­er of art to change lives.

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