A symbolic return to Robben Island


Good’s persistent victory over evil is, for Sonny Venkathrathnam, once a political prisoner on Robben Island, the central message in the works of William Shakespeare.

“I think what Shakespeare did was expose the good and evil in human behaviour. Throughout his plays evil does not triumph. This is what people should take away from Shakespeare’s writings,” says Mr Venkathrathnam during his return trip to the island on Saturday April 23, the day of Shakespeare’s death 400 years ago.

The event was part of “Shakespeare 400”, 2016’s year-long commemoration by cultural, creative and educational organisations internationally to mark the 400 year anniversary of his death.

As to Mr Venkathrathnam’s connection to the Bard of Avon, the story goes as follows: While imprisoned on the island in the 1970s, he had in his possession a book containing the complete works of Shakespeare.

It was, however, confiscated by prison guards and then later returned to Sonny when he persuaded them it was the Bible, written by William Shakespeare. Once back in his possession, the then prisoner covered it with Hindu pictures to disguise it.

Recalling how he managed to regain possession of his beloved book, Mr Venkathrathnam says: “One day, the warden informed me that the church had arrived on the island. So I said to the warden that I needed to fetch my ‘Bible’ from the storeroom. He didn’t question me and retrieved the book for me.

“However, I needed to find a way to conceal the book in my cell, so I covered the book in images of Hindu deities, which I cut out from Diwali greeting cards my family had sent me. I referred to it as my Bible, by William Shakespeare.”

Now commonly referred to as “Shakespeare’s Bible”, the book was used by Mr Venkathrathnam’s fellow political prisoners, who studied it and used it as a discussion point and platform to debate issues such as loyalty, betrayal and assassination.

Mr Venkathrathnam also had his fellow prisoners – 32 in total, including Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Kader Hassim, Saths Cooper, Billy Nair and Mac Maharaj – sign their name next to their favourite Shakespearean passage in the book.

Unable to choose a favourite passage from these collected works, Mr Venkathrathnam says: “I have signed the first page of the book and that’s because several of the passages resonate with me and it would be difficult to choose any one passage.”

Mr Venkathrathnam says his return to the island was “highly emotional” and while many people are now interested in his book, his emotional attachment to it prohibits any separation from it.

“The book remains at home with me,” he smiles. “Its future hasn’t been decided as my family wish for it to remain a family heirloom.”

As to what lesson he hopes the book’s existence will impart onto others, Mr Venkathrathnam smiles and says, simply: “Read more Shakespeare.”