One of the silver linings of the pandemic for me has been the opportunity to get to know writer Amy Gottlieb better. I met Amy several years ago when I fell in love with her novel, The Beautiful Possible, about Jewish refugees, Rabindranath Tagore, Indian spirituality, fraught love affairs, and much more. During our monthly zooms, Amy urged me to read Jai Chakrabarti’s A Play for the End of the World, which has resonances with her novel.
I was gaga over Jai’s book. Written in lyrical prose, A Play for the End of the World is a love story that knits together a Warsaw Ghetto survivor with a play by Rabindranath Tagore. Chakrabarti’s debut novel explores Nazi horrors; the deracination experienced by refugees; and oppressive, deadly politics in India; all set against a tender and improbable love affair.
Anchoring the story is Tagore’s play, The Post Office, put on by children in the Warsaw Ghetto under the care of a humanitarian hero, Janusz Korczak. Korczak was a Jewish Polish physician and educator who declined to save himself and went to his death with the children in his care. Known as Pan Doktor, this extraordinary man has also been portrayed in a beautiful novel by Jim Shepard, The Book of Aron.
A poet as well as a novelist, Jai Chakrabarti has given great thought to the issues threading through his book. I had the good fortune to catch up with him on email.
Martha Anne Toll: Can you tell us about how you came to the idea for A Play for the End of the World?
Jai Chakrabarti: Twelve years ago, I was living with my wife Elana in Jerusalem, and we visited Yad Vashem, where I first encountered the story of Janusz Korczak, a prominent educator, author, and head of an orphanage in Warsaw. Korczak had chosen to stage a play by Rabindranath Tagore in 1942, weeks before he and his children would be sent to the death camp of Treblinka. I remembered this play from my childhood—The Post Office—having performed it in an Indian school, and I wanted to understand why art would be invoked in this darkest of times and what this play meant to children in an orphanage in Warsaw. That began my long period of research into the lives of Janusz Korczak and Rabindranath Tagore.
MAT: Your book’s dedication, “To anyone who’s crossed a border in search of a home,” has great meaning and resonance. Would you talk about how it connects to your life and the times we live in?
JC: When I wrote that line, I thought how after Partition my mother’s family had fled what is now Bangladesh and crossed over into Bengal. I thought about Zosha, my wife’s grandmother, who survived Auschwitz, was moved to a displaced persons camp, then spent a year in Israel, and finally ended up in Los Angeles, where she made a beautiful life. I thought about Afghans, Syrians, and so many others running to this country from another. The poet Li-Young Lee wrote “Of all the things we’re dying from tonight / being alive is the strangest / surviving our histories is the saddest.” I thought about that survival of history, of what’s left in our bones when we cross borders with our stories, some of which we don’t / can’t tell anyone.
MAT: Is English a second language for you?
JC: My native language is Bengali. Right after my son was born, I had a hard time writing fiction. Instead, in that zombie-like state of early parenthood, I worked on translating Bengali poems. Some of Tagore’s, but mostly more contemporary poets. That translation experience rooted me back to the music of language, and once I was able to sleep through the night, I could also hear sentences of prose again, piling up, wanting to be written.
MAT: How did you conduct the research for this novel? Did any of it involve travel?
JC: I studied Holocaust Literature in a graduate seminar at Brooklyn College. Afterwards, I traveled to Poland, met with Janusz Korczak scholars, and visited Korczak’s orphanage on Krochmalna Street. During this time, I read every book and article I could find about Janusz Korczak and the Warsaw Ghetto, which was well chronicled thanks to the work of Emanuel Ringelblum.
Key parts of this novel are set in India during the time of the Naxalite Revolution, so I immersed myself in that history as well, and I traveled to the villages where my novel would have taken place.
Finally, sections of this novel are set in the New York City of the 1970s. Initially, I didn’t spend much time researching this era of New York, which I soon learned was a mistake. It was great fun to go through the archives to dig up facts about my beloved city.
For me, setting is deeply important—I want to know how people talk, the rhythm of their sentences, and I want to experience the particulars that makes that city, that street block, that village square its own breathing thing.
All this fact-gathering can overwhelm the narrative, so I tried to keep in mind Penelope Lively’s views on research for historical fiction, where she described research as 7/8 of the iceberg without which the story would capsize. The key is to make the iceberg invisible—to expose only 1/8 to the reader.
MAT: I love that advice! How did you arrive at the structure for your book?
JC: The Tagore play provided a kind of frame. I knew that I wanted to begin in India with the protagonist Jaryk being invited to perform the play, and I knew that as the book progressed, we’d discover more about Jaryk’s past. I also knew that the play would return, that its performance in India would be a momentous event. What I didn’t know is how Jaryk’s relationships would develop and how he and the other main characters in the book would be changed. Those discoveries came through the work of many revisions.
MAT: We’d love to hear more about the book’s publication process.
JC: I finished my MFA in 2013 but continued to work on drafts of the novel, including during my fellowship in 2015 with the wonderful literary magazine A Public Space, where I was an Emerging Writer’s Fellow and had the support of two generous mentors in Elizabeth Gaffney and Mary-Beth Hughes.
I was finally ready to query agents in 2017, which was when I connected with Julie Stevenson at Massie & McQuilkin Literary Agents. Julie read the book and gave me a lot of substantive feedback, which triggered another set of revisions. We were ready to submit to publishers in 2019, and I was lucky to receive a few offers, including one from my dream publisher Knopf, which is where this book ended up. Once the process started with Knopf, I did another couple of revisions with those editors and then the book was ready to go out into the world, which meant beginning to think about blurbs, marketing, covers, etc.
MAT: You have an MFA from Brooklyn College. Can you tell us about that experience and your mentors and support from that program? How did that affect the writing of this novel?
JC: I began the early drafts of this novel during my time at Brooklyn College. I’m grateful that Brooklyn College has a novel workshop with Ernesto Mestre-Reed, where you can bring in entire drafts of your novel-in-progress. My first draft was a mess, but getting to the first three hundred pages with a system of accountability was important. We were all struggling with the same kinds of issues. I’ve always valued writing in community because we’re raising each other up through feedback and encouragement.
I kept working on the novel, and it became my thesis project. I’m grateful to Joshua Henkin, my thesis advisor, for reading not one, but two whole drafts. Each time, Josh gave me several pages of clear, structural feedback. At first it was difficult to take in, but I could feel the book needed more work, so his thoughtful analysis gave me the motivation to keep revising.
MAT: Can you talk about writing poetry, and moving from poetry to novel writing?
JC: I spent most of my twenties reading and writing poetry. I was lucky to have found a community of writers in NYC who loved the deep study of poetics. But somewhere along the way the lyric verse became narrative verse, and I realized I wanted to inhabit the lives of characters and tell their stories.
The transition to novel writing from poetry came through the short story. I love the short story as a form. It allows for so much experimentation, and yet the structure of a short story can be analyzed—you can see a story’s shape, its elements, its different beats. This is possible too in a novel, though of course it is more laborious, and so the short story was where I learned about the structures of fiction.
MAT: Can you tell us about your day job?
JC: I studied computer science and philosophy in college. Writing code became a kind of meditation—something that allowed me to access a part of myself that was interested in precision and objectivity, providing a caesura from the subjectivities of art.
Also, my parents are both retired philosophy professors, and they were hoping for something more “practical” than my initial thought, which was to pursue an English degree. I’d always loved math and enjoyed the foundations of computer science, so I’ve worked in tech even as I’ve kept up my daily writing practice—most weekdays, you’ll find me writing from 5:30 am – 7:30 am with longer sessions on the weekends.
MAT: Bloom supports and features writers who published their first work when they were over 40. What has it felt like for you?
JC: I’ve been a bookworm and someone who’s loved to write since my early childhood, but with both artistic (writing poetry, for instance) and life detours (becoming a parent, having a day job), I’ve taken a circuitous path to writing and publishing this novel.
It still feels surreal to see it out in the world, to encounter it in bookstores, and to have conversations with readers. Indeed, it feels magical, and through the process I’ve also felt that my novel has shifted to become its own creature—it’s no longer something that belongs only to me; now that it’s out there it’s finding a shape of its own. I’m a part of that journey but no longer the sole cause, which has been fascinating to experience.
MAT: What advice do you have for debut novelists?
JC: My advice to myself is to try and be deeply present and to enjoy this experience as much as I can. Publishing a novel was a childhood dream for me, and I suspect this is true for many writers. So, I recommend leaning in to love the ride.
MAT: What writing/publishing projects are you working on now?
JC: I’m working on edits to a story collection entitled A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness (Knopf, 2023). I’m also working on a new novel that’s in the early stages.
Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, Three Muses, is forthcoming in 2022 from Regal House Publishing. Her book reviews, essays, and short fiction can be found at NPR Books, Washington Post, The Millions, and elsewhere.