When Diwali cards helped Nelson Mandela in jail

A copy of the complete works of Shakespeare has become the centre of attraction of a major exhibition in London.

London: A copy of the complete works of Shakespeare -- with Diwali cards displaying Hindu gods pasted on the two covers -- has become the centre of attraction of a major exhibition here for its historic and inspiring link with Nelson Mandela`s time in jail.

One of the prized items of the exhibition titled `Shakespeare: Staging the World` at the British Museum, the copy is called the `Robben Island Bible` because of the solace and inspiration it provided to prisoners during the apartheid era in South Africa.

The book, which was secretly read and passed by prisoners, including Mandela, is being displayed for the first time in Britain at the exhibition that opened today and runs until November 25.

It has been staged in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

To prevent the book from being taken away by guards, prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam pasted the covers with Diwali cards with images of Hindu gods, and whenever he was asked by guards about the book, he would say that it was his `Bible`.

Venkatrathnam, who was a prisoner with Mandela from 1972 to 1978, passed it around and asked all leading prisoners, including Mandela, to sign their favourite sections.

On the margin next to Mandela`s favourite quotation is his signature dated December 16, 1977.

Reflecting his indomitable courage during the long years of incarceration, the quote Mandela marked out was from Caesar`s speech to his wife, Calpurnia, in Act 2, Scene 2, of Julius Caesar, just before he sets off to face death in the senate.

Calpurnia pleads with Caesar not to go. He responds: "Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come."

Venkatrathnam, who has refused to sell the book, agreed to loan it to the British Museum for the exhibition.

Present in London for the exhibition, he said the book helped him and fellow prisoners remain sane during the long years on Robben Island.

Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island.

Exhibition curator Dora Thornton said: "It (the Robben Island Bible) is an object that says so much about what Shakespeare still means. It is wonderful to have it in the show."

The exhibition, which features over 190 objects, provides a unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city, seen through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare`s plays, the museum said.

"London as it was around 400 years ago is brought to life through contemporary performance and amazing objects drawn from the Museum`s collection and across Europe. Maps, prints, drawings and paintings, arms and armour, coins, medals and other intriguing objects are all examined through the lens of Shakespeare`s plays," the museum added.


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