Former political prisoner to celebrate 'Bible by Shakespeare' on Robben Island

2016-04-20 12:08
Surinarayan Kala Venkatrathnam (Amanda Khoza, News24)

Surinarayan Kala Venkatrathnam (Amanda Khoza, News24)

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Durban – The anniversary of William Shakespeare's death at the weekend carried with it a particular resonance for KwaZulu-Natal ex-political prisoner, Surinarayan Kala Venkatrathnam, 83, who said a copy of the playwright's works helped him through the dark days on Robben Island.

As part of a year-long commemoration by leading international cultural, creative and educational organisations to mark the 400 years since Shakespeare's death in 1616, Venkatrathnam will return to Cape Town with the book almost 39 years later.

He was born in Seaview, Durban and along with his 12 siblings, grew up in a three-bedroom house. His parents, Appana and Butchiah, later adopted another two children, but made sure they never went to bed on empty stomachs.

Selling fruit

All the children in the family were sent to Stella Hill to get an education.

At the age of 12, Venkatrathnam started Grade 1 at the school, and while he might have seemed old, he was the youngest in his class.

In 1957 he registered at the Natal University, now the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

“I did not know anything about careers but I liked the word sociology, so I decided to take a course majoring in sociology and English,” he said.

Because classes were from 16:00 until 20:00 Venkatrathnam joined his parents selling fruit in white suburbs until it was time for class.

He graduated three years later and got a job at ML Sultan Technikon, now Durban University of Technology, where he taught English and mercantile law.

“This is where I became very politically active... because I could not understand why we were segregated. I remember going home and telling my father that I saw a black person.”


Surinarayan Kala Venkatrathnam (Supplied to News24)

Robben Island

Venkatrathnam was banned and placed under house arrest in 1963, after forming the Durban Students Union.

“I was also arrested in 1972 under the Terrorism Act. They accused me of sending people to get military training overseas. Along with 13 others, we went on trial in Pietermaritzburg and we were later taken to Robben Island. I was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years for terrorism."

Venkatrathnam said "terrorists" were not allowed to have reading material and were not permitted to go to the prison’s library.

“Eventually when we were allowed, I asked my late wife, Theresa, if she could bring me the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I thought that was a big enough book to keep me company.”

He said in the prison there were many men from the Transkei who could not read, write, or speak English. One of the prisoners, JB Vusani, a qualified lawyer, used to read to them.

“For some reason the prison warders confiscated all the reading material in the prison and we were only allowed to have a Bible. Everything was locked in the storeroom.”


(Supplied to News24)

Bible by Shakespeare

One Sunday morning a prison warder, the only one who spoke English,told Venkatrathnam, “church is here”.

Venkatrathnam was confused and asked the warder what he meant, to be told that reverends from the Anglican Church were visiting.

He told the warder his Bible was locked in the storeroom. “He took me to the storeroom and I took the book out and said this is my Bible by Shakespeare and he allowed me to take it.”

Afraid of being caught with the book, Venkatrathnam covered it. “I took my Diwali greetings cards that my family had sent me and I stuck the cards on the front, back and the spine of the book and when warders asked me what it was I told them that it was my Bible.”

Venkatrathnam said Afrikaner men were afraid of two things, the Bible and lawyers, so warders never probed him further on the book.

He said his Shakespeare "Bible" kept him going during the tough times on the island.

Right to study

In 1972, Venkatrathnam won an urgent Supreme Court application seeking the right to study in prison. He was represented by former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. She won the case.

Afterwards, Venkatrathnam and five of the 13 prisoners he arrived with, were moved to single cells where political prisoners like former president Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, and Ahmed Kathrada were housed.

“I knew that I would be released in April 1977 and I asked all the comrades to select lines, pages or passages in the Complete Works of William Shakespeare and autograph it. I sent the book around the single cells and that is how it got all the famous guys in it.”


The passage marked by Nelson Mandela (Supplied to News24) 

Venkatrathnam said he did not think much of it until he was invited to visit Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon, with the autographed book.

“And ever since then demand by countries like Britain, India and all over the world has never stopped. They all want to exhibit this book to the public.”

He said celebrating Shakespeare this year was particularly important.

Venkatrathnam is expected to speak during the celebrations. There will be performances, including the recitation of some of the freedom fighters’ chosen passages, as well as scenes from The Robben Island Bible, a play by Matthew Hahn, which was inspired by the book.


(Supplied by News24)

Read more on:    durban  |  cape town  |  good news

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