Monday, 10 November 2008

The Bible according to William Shakespeare…..

10 / 11 / 8

Today was a good day.
Today we finally met Sonny Venkatrathnam & his infamous ‘bible.’
It was a good day.

We arrived at his home around 11am and was greeting at the gate by Sonny. Another gentle man. Kind and quiet, but determined. His was the easiest of the interviews as it was relaxed and he made us feel so much at home (plus, by this time, we are getting better at the process & the camera and audio equipment….).
We were soon joined by his wife, Theresa. She & I had been emailing back and forth over the last couple of years. It was good to finally meet the both of them.
The conversation flowed from the process that the ‘bible’ took throughout the single cells to why he was imprisoned to what he & the others had to endure at the hands of sadistic warders.

We also were able to speak with Theresa about her trials & ordeals whilst Sonny was away for 8 years (he was sent to Robben Island for collecting money for the Unity Movement because the National Party & Special Police thought he was a terrorist). Living in the Transskie, it was no easy task to get to Cape Town for the 30 minute meetings once every two months. She too was harassed by the Special Police when Sonny was imprisoned and was herself threatened with imprisonment.

She is the second wife with whom we have spoken to about their time under apartheid. It is my hope that they too get the recognition that they deserve as they are just as steely & determined as their husbands.

And then the moment came…. ‘Would you like to see it?’
Playing it cool, I said ‘yes’ but didn’t want that to interrupt our interview. So Theresa went into their home & returned with it, neatly packed away in a box to protect it. He thumbed through it and continued to talk about his time on Robben Island.
The ‘bible’ got its name and extraneous decorations of Hindu gods due to the fact that the warders had an unhealthy fear of religion & would allow holy books and would not question having one in the cell. Decorated as such, Sonny was never far away from the Works.

David & I finally got around to cracking it open ourselves and comparing what we thought the chosen quotes were with the actual book. More or less, we were pretty close (it really depended on how precisely or imprecisely the comrades marked the passages). But there were a few surprises – a couple of names that we had never heard of as they were not on our list. That was a surprise…… now we will have to see if we can get in touch with them.

It was just so enjoyable to have a relaxing day at their very comfortable home. We had snacks & lunch with them, but we were always focused on the interview. Sonny & Theresa were excellent hosts and wonderful story tellers. But with stories as compelling as theirs and the others in their situation, it would be near impossible not to be enthralled.
We were there for almost 6 hours, but the day flew by. I have no idea how much we have ‘on the record’ or ‘off.’
He spoke about his favourite Shakespearian play (Coriolanus) and his favourite Shakespeare characters (Lear’s fool). He talked about the South Africa of the past & present and the difficulties with both. He spoke about how Shakespeare can be related to both. And he spoke about his grandchildren.

Today really put the pieces of the puzzle together. We finally saw the book, double checked the chosen quotes that we had & the actual ones in it and was able to see the chosen quotes of the men with whom we had already interviewed. I can’t wait to show them the photos ‘proving’ that they had indeed signed the ‘bible.’

It has been a long journey from a couple of pints with Mark & his offhand remark about ‘this Complete Works that was smuggled into Robben Island’ to holding it in my hands 6 years later, but it has been well worth it.

Now the hard part begins, turning this compelling story into a piece of wonderful theatre……