William Shakespeare is not everyone’s cup of tea and for many pupils, his works are only read in order to pass their English exams. But for political prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam it provided a measure of solace and carried him through his cruel and miserable years as a political prisoner on Robben Island.
Venkatrathnam, who belonged to the Unity Movement during apartheid, was arrested and charged under the then Terrorism Act for his rebellion against the oppressive system.
He first spent time at Leeuwkop Prison in Joburg before being moved to Robben Island. More than anything it was the tedium and lack of intellectual stimulation that got to him.
“All we did was break stones… big stones to small stones and at the end of the day the water would wash it away. It was senseless.”
Then Venkatrathnam asked the warders for access to books and was told that he could purchase just one.
“My problem was what to buy to last me a long time.”
It also had to be the kind of book which could be read “over and over” again, he said. He chose The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
As an English major at university he had enjoyed Shakespeare and had even written a paper on Shakespeare’s fools, who Venkatrathnam said were actually the philosophers in his writings.
With the decision made, his wife Theresa, now forced to be a single mom of three children in Durban, managed to scrape together the money and buy the book and send it to the island.
But as conditions in the prison worsened his book was taken away. Then one Sunday, when services were held at the prison as usual, Robertson, known as the most racist warder on the island, told Sonny to get his Bible. Sonny replied that he had left it in the storeroom. He was allowed inside the storeroom and grabbed his book from the shelf, telling the warder: “See the bible by William Shakespeare.” His audacious plan had worked, but now he had to devise a means of keeping the book in his possession.
“I felt guilty that I lied,” he said.
According to Venkatrathnam, by calling it his Bible the warders would not touch it.
“The one thing the Afrikaner is scared of is God and a lawyer,” he said with a chuckle.
And so the Robben Island “Bible” was born.
His fellow inmates then came up with a plan to protect his “bible”.
His family, who were Hindu, had sent him Deepavali greeting cards and Venkatrathnam and his inmates covered the “Bible” with the Deepavali cards, depicting Hindu gods, and plastic to disguise it. The book was read by many of the inmates and when he was due to be released Venkatrathnam sent it to his comrades and friends in prison and asked then to sign the passages which they found most meaningful or enjoyed the most.
Nelson Mandela, Mac Maharaj, Raymond Mhlaba, Billy Nair, Govan Mbeki, Mobbs Gqirana, JB Vusani, Frank Anthony and Andrew Masondo are among those who signed the book. There are 32 signatures in total. Venkatrathnam said it was priceless.
At least three offers have been made to buy it from him, and even though no fixed amount has been put on the table it is believed that the book with its history and sought-after signatures could net a princely sum.
It would be money which could help ease his life after suffering financial ruin many times as a result of apartheid.
Theresa had to keep the family together, just managing to scrape by by working for lawyer Navi Pillay, who is now the UN high commissioner for human rights. However, Venkatrathnam just shakes his head at the thought of selling something so valuable. And Theresa added: “That book is not leaving this house.”
Venkatrathnam’s story and the book have taken them to many places. Even to Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare, where Venkatrathnam sat in the Bard’s “hard chair” and read from his “Bible” and shared his story following an invitation from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. British actor/playwright Matthew Hahn has also written and performed a play on the book.
Recently the British Museum asked him if it could borrow the book from July 19 to November 25, 2012. It is doing a Shakespeare exhibition as part of its contribution to the London Cultural Olympiad of 2012.
Venkatrathnam said: “Somehow Shakespeare always seemed to have something to say to us… He’s a universal philosopher; there’s a message for anyone and anybody.”