September 2021

A Play for the End of the World

Review by
Jai Chakrabarti’s debut novel is breathtakingly poignant, with a payoff that’s more than worth the trip if you have the heart to withstand it.
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In Jai Chakrabarti’s debut novel, A Play for the End of the World, a play by Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore is a magical and malleable symbol, used to help children accept a dark reality and as a tool for resistance.

When Holocaust survivor Jaryk Smith was a child living in a orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland, The Post Office represented the possibility of hope. In the children’s production of the play, Jaryk played Amal, a little boy with an incurable disease who’s confined indoors but makes the most of what he’s got: a window. Amal makes friends at a distance and gleans vicarious joy from watching others play.

Through the play, Jaryk and his fellow orphans experienced a kind of liberation by imagination. But while the other children’s relief was temporary, Jaryk had the life-altering fortune and burden of becoming the orphanage’s lone survivor. Unlike his fellow orphans, unlike almost everyone else he had known in his short life, Jaryk got a chance at a long life. 

A Play for the End of the World primarily focuses on what happens next, how new life takes root after extreme ruin. Chakrabarti frames recovery and renewal as a long and winding road, requiring more than a little grace and serendipity. For a long time, connections are difficult for Jaryk, relationships almost impossible. He experiences the world as though he’s wrapped in thick, protective insulation. He has big feelings but they’re subdued or self-censored. 

Then in 1972, Jaryk’s oldest friend, Misha, a man 10 years his senior who lived and worked at the orphanage when Jaryk was a child, dies unexpectedly while traveling alone in India for a production of The Post Office. Jaryk is tasked with taking Misha’s place as director, and the play provides him with another shot at redemption. “I finally have a chance to do something good,” he tells his weary girlfriend, Lucy Gardner. 

Whereas “in Warsaw, The Post Office helped to prepare the children for death,” this production has a radically different agenda. In Gopalpur in West Bengal, where the people are poor and the territory disputed, the production’s organizer, professor Rudra Bose, sees the famous play as a political tool: “It’s all about a new life. About resistance!” But while political unrest is the novel’s frequent backdrop, its most recurring theme is stubborn resilience: living fully in the face of sorrow, loving after immeasurable loss.

Chakrabarti’s novel is realistic and tentative and breathtakingly poignant, with a payoff that’s more than worth the trip if you have the heart to withstand it.

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