In Conversation with Jai Chakrabarti
“A Play for the End of the World,” the Jewish Book Festival’s first One Book, One Community read, received the National Jewish Book Award last year for best debut novel. Set in two different eras, it takes the true-life performance of Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office by children in a Warsaw Ghetto orphanage and reimagines two of the survivors, now scraping by in 1970s New York, as they accept an invitation by a politically active Indian professor to help poor villagers in West Bengal restage the play for a government protest.
Jai Chakrabarti, who was born in Kolkata, India, discussed his inspiration for the novel, his writing process and how he researched the historical details of seemingly disparate struggles. This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
How old were you when your family came to the US?
I first came to the US when I was nine. We would go back to India every summer, where I would be enrolled in Indian schools three months a year. So I had a bilingual education, which helped me be connected to Indian culture and to have an American life as well.
What inspired you to write about a Warsaw Ghetto survivor?
I’d been living in Jerusalem with my wife Elana, and our last day in the city we visited Yad Vashem. Elana’s the granddaughter of survivors who were liberated from Auschwitz. There was an exhibit about art in the ghettoes, where I learned about this Bengali play “The Post Office” that was staged in Warsaw by a Polish Jewish doctor, Janusz Korczak. I was absolutely transfixed because I remembered the play from my childhood, and in fact had a small part in it when I was a child and it was performed in our Indian school.
Years later I started my MFA program at Brooklyn College and got to study with Robert Shapiro, who is an expert on the Warsaw Ghetto. The Warsaw Ghetto is exceptionally well chronicled thanks in part to Emanuel Ringelblum’s work. The Ringelblum Archive is incredibly extensive, it catalogues the everyday as well as artistic things that were produced at that time. In my novel, there’s an invocation written by a Warsaw poet—that is part of the archive that I was able to see when I went to Warsaw and met with Korczak scholars. I also visited the original orphanage and was able to get some idea of what the place might have been like.
How much of the orphanage scenes were you able to recreate?
The most details we have from that period are from Janusz Korszak’s diary, which is a tricky artifact because multiple versions exist, and they don’t always agree. He talks about the play briefly, and then we have accounts from his friends. So, I was able to put a lot together from primary and secondary sources, and then there were certain aspects within scenes I had to imagine. The detail about putting up the props for the play and having to take them down comes from one of the sources.
How did the rest of the story come about? Did you know you were going to send Jaryk and Mischa to India when you started?
That I did know. One of the questions I have as a writer is, what is my relation to this story, in what way can I with my particular experience and background give voice to this narrative? I am not from Poland, but I have for much of my life straddled Indian and Jewish culture. I kept thinking, what if this play were to be performed again?
The book took ten years and went through quite a lot of revision. One of the biggest challenges was that Jaryk’s backstory is so consuming. [The Holocaust] is such an important part of human history that a lot of the gravity of the novel was going to that. I needed to find ways for the characters to live their lives in the present moment, outside the pull and gravity of their pasts.
How did you pick 1972 for the novel’s present?
My grandparents on my mother’s side were refugees who crossed over the border from Bangladesh to India. My parents went to college at the time of the Naxalite uprising in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so it was an important part of our family history growing up. From the perspective of Jaryk, I was interested in writing not about child Jaryk but someone who is grown up, with the inheritance of that time, and is trying to make a new life. That puts us in that time period as well, so both of those things lined up.
You have Jaryk and Mischa working down at the Fulton Fish Market?
The Fulton Fish Market is such a cool artifact of New York history. I moved to New York in 2001, and by that time it really was something in the history books, but I was always fascinated with this more mercantile side of New York and how it used to be home to very different industries than it is today.
The other main character is Lucy, Jaryk’s lover, who escaped small-town North Carolina to try for a career as a pianist in New York City. What was important about that and why did you put their story at the center of this novel?
Love is one of the foundational elements by which characters change and evolve from a well-set pattern. There are really three love stories in the book—the one between Jaryk and Lucy; another is Janusz Korczak’s and Mme. Stefa’s love for the orphanage children, which informs Jaryk’s sense of duty in the moment for the villagers and his reasons for staying; and then there’s the brotherly love between Jaryk and Mischa.
I lived in North Carolina for high school and college, and initially we were the only Indian family in our town. I was aware that Lucy wouldn’t have much access to Holocaust education growing up when and where she does and not being Jewish. She encounters Jaryk’s history for the first time without much context, so there are moments readers know more than she does. We might have empathy for her but at the same time, we might also wonder when she’ll learn about Jaryk’s fractured past.
You explore different facets and implications of poverty throughout the novel, perhaps most directly in India. Do you see cultural differences in the way people born in India and those in the West respond to it?
Writing about poverty in India is a tricky subject because there’s a colonial history here that Indian writers are dealing with. I think books like “City of Joy” are preying upon and amplifying certain stereotypes—a film like “Slumdog Millionaire” amplifies a lot of the stereotypes by which India is perceived in the West. A novel like “White Tiger” does the opposite; it very much deals with poverty but then creates a lot more nuance when thinking about the ways people end up in poverty. I just want to be careful when writing about that.
When Mischa and then Jaryk come to India, the local government is threatening the village over this play, and the little boy Neel’s mother greets Jaryk with a rifle in her hand. What were you drawing on?
I was certainly thinking about the rise of authoritarian governments and the state of surveillance and hypersensitivity as I was writing this book. During the Naxalite uprising in the late 1960s and 1970s you see it and you see more of it when Indira Gandhi comes into power. The Naxalite movement started with an armed uprising in a village in Bengal, villagers with not rifles but other kinds of weapons. [The government land grab they were protesting] has played itself out several notable times in recent Indian history and is still a very relevant struggle.
One of the influences for this book was Safdar Hashmi. He was a playwright and performance activist putting on plays in the street in the 1970s and ’80s. For example, he put on a play for 200,000 union workers to protest working conditions. Hashmi was eventually murdered by thugs traced back to the government while performing a play. That’s not so different from the conditions in which Professor Bose is operating in the novel.
Hashmi was asked, “Do you think art can change the world?” He was really committed to direct action but said he didn’t think it could have direct change. What it could do was change people’s vocabulary, introduce new ideas, challenge at the edges.
Why do you think The Post Office has had such a following outside India, and what makes it so protest-worthy?
That play has been performed at some interesting moments in history, which I talk about in the author’s note. What’s particularly compelling about it is that it’s a play about children. In moments of political division, moments of strife, plays or art about children have the ability to cut through and bring communities together. I think that’s one of the big reasons why Janusz Korczak picked it. But it’s also a play about imagination. This is a play about a kid who’s stuck in his home, and the great resource he has is the ability to use his mind and cultivate his imagination. For people who are locked up, ghettoized, in times of war, this is the resource that we come to. It’s the one thing that cannot be taken away.
What has the reception been like since the book came out?
My favorite part about this book coming into the world is that I’ve gotten to meet people who have some connection to this history. For example, someone shared a Yiddish songbook that has a Tagore song translated into Yiddish, and it was a popular songbook in Warsaw in the 1930s. Another woman’s mother watched Janusz Korczak and the children walk to the so-called embarkation point [for the trains to Auschwitz]. Those moments of connection with people who have shared histories—those have been deeply meaningful.
Jai Chakrabarti will be presenting “A Play for the End of the World” on Sunday, December 4 at Temple Sinai of Glendale as part of the Jewish Book Festival. For more information and to register, visit the Jewish Book Festival web site at www.jewishsgpv.org/jewish-book-festival or contact the Jewish Federation office at 626-445-0810.
Deborah Noble is a member of the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Book Festival committee and a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.