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.
Ada Brunstein is the Head of Reference at a university press.