Fic­tion

A Play for the End of the World: A Novel

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.

Discussion Questions

Jai Chakrabarti’s A Play for the End of the World is beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, patient­ly told, and pow­er­ful­ly ren­dered. This ele­gant, grace­ful work of fic­tion also offers a pro­found­ly mov­ing vision of both the pos­si­bil­i­ty of sol­i­dar­i­ty between peo­ples who have suf­fered unthink­able oppres­sion and cat­a­stro­phe, and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of art to offer a can­dle of solace and even mean­ing in the face of dis­as­ter. At the heart of Chakrabarti’s nov­el is a riv­et­ing sliv­er of his­to­ry: In the dark­est days of the War­saw Ghet­to, Dr. Janusz Kor­czak direct­ed mem­bers of his orphan­age in a stag­ing of Ben­gali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s play, Dak Ghar, (trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish as Post Office,”) soon before he and all of the mem­bers of the orphan­age were deport­ed to Tre­blin­ka and mur­dered. Three decades lat­er, A Play for the End of the World uses the pre­rog­a­tive of fic­tion to imag­ine the sto­ry of two young dis­ci­ples of Kor­czak, Jaryk and Misha, who man­aged to escape depor­ta­tion and cre­ate a life for them­selves in New York, and who have been invit­ed to a rur­al Indi­an vil­lage to help stage Tagore’s play once again, this time as an act of sol­i­dar­i­ty and resis­tance with the vil­lagers fac­ing mass expul­sion and bru­tal vio­lence at the hands of the Indi­an gov­ern­ment in the ear­ly 1970s. The ques­tions at the heart of this book are both urgent and time­less: Can com­mu­nal suf­fer­ing pro­vide a basis for cross-com­mu­nal sol­i­dar­i­ty? What can we draw from art in the face of bru­tal, hor­rif­ic oppres­sion? What does it mean to be a per­son in this world, to love, to remem­ber, to try to act on behalf of both jus­tice and decency?