Author’s Note: 4 photos, 4 vignettes! I’ve typed the scenes out just the way they entered my head when these images first came alive, each with their own stories.
The title draws inspiration from Prof Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of the third space — disjunctive, hybrid, in-between spaces beyond borders that make ambivalent structures we take as fixed or homogenizing. Happy reading!
First came the white tents.
People stared at it as they passed – evening joggers, drivers from the safety of their vehicles, families out for fresh air.
Kids tugged at their parents, asking what they were. Not the pasar malam, the parents said. Not void deck weddings. Not funerals. But close. Incubators of death.
Yellow metal barricades fenced the perimeters. Unused turquoise-colored portable toilets stood at the side. When the wind came, the white flaps billowed, their insides still empty. Behind the sentry-like rows of tents was an utterly different skyline – a sleek patina of glass and metal, the silhouette of skyscrapers thrusting their fingers into the blue sky. They stared down at the eerie circus waiting for its opening.
She glanced at the tents on her commute to and from the office. Even as the city ground to a halt, her work in the essential services had not stopped. But she had no complaints. The city was kind.
From the moment when she had first heard about an infectious disease from her parents in Sichuan – 3 deaths, Hubei, seafood wet market – to watching the contagion swallow entire cities amidst chunjie, she had felt the choking sense of fear and the baptismal touch of luck. Lucky that she was out. Free from a land with so much pain and suffering. Lucky that she had left ten years ago without looking back and built a new life. Lucky that her family, especially her two-year-old, was safe in a city that was clean, efficient, and treated its citizens well. Lucky even now, with hundreds of cases a day, that her citizen husband flying back from the UK could be quarantined for free at the Shangri-La on the beachfront.
But these white tents.
From afar, she had watched the virus tear a hole through fabrics she once thought were impenetrable. She watched it happen like an ant would watch a crumbling sandcastle, perched on a nearby rock. Slowly the castle had begun to collapse, an invisible tide encroaching it from within. She watched as the rest of the world drew moats, fortified their borders, and quarantined its particles. No one thought the tide would hit them. They called it names, traced its causes to reasons of ethnicity, and hid behind porous walls.
But the ant had originated from the sandcastle. Although she was now no longer a member of the castle, she could not erase her origins. She had shared the secret shame that her people were bearing as the rest of the world blamed them for the tide. She had felt the flare of indignity and anger at the racism, the hypocrisy, the myopia.
Now, she stared at the white tents that were to house this city’s other. White tents that were to hide its ugly truth. An ugly truth that breathed in the city’s cultivated oblivion and the complicity of its citizens. An ugly truth, which now exposed in daylight, was to be sanitized and belatedly cloaked in folds of purity.
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible, she thought. But the white tents paraded and displayed their bargain in the open. This was Omelas, but she didn’t know how to walk away.
First comes the aperitif.
The man stares out of the window at the roiling blue and absent-mindedly says thank you as a glass of ruby red Campari is silently placed before him by a brown hand.
“What day is it?” his wife asks across the table, fanning herself.
“Seventy-nine,” he grunts. “We haven’t felt land for weeks.”
“But we’re finally docking today, aren’t we? I’m running out of deodorant,” she says, “and the electric toothbrush charger isn’t working. It has been a nightmare.”
It has been. He agrees. From flushing the toilet to the rocketing wi-fi bill as they scour the internet for news of the pandemic, the past few weeks have been the ultimate test of their thirty-six-year marriage. When the cruise had left Genoa, the world was peaceful. There was some unknown pneumonia in a Chinese city he had never heard of. At Cape Verde, all was good. At Brazil, it was business as usual. By the time they reached Chile, cruise ships were in the news. A large outbreak had happened on a cruise that docked in Japan. After they left Pitcairn and started drifting, he realized that their “cruise of a lifetime” was hitting bumps.
He speaks between bites of the seafood cocktail, “Damn this Chinese virus. Good thing we’ve banned them from coming in. Now if only our government will get rid of all the Muslims and Syrians. Expel them all.”
His wife stops picking at the octopus carpaccio and leans forward to whisper, “I hear it’s because the Chinese eat bats.”
As he is finishing his poached pear and his wife her baked Alaska, the intercom crackles. The captain’s announcement is not well-received at their table.
“We will be refueling and resupplying in Fremantle – not disembarking,” said the captain in his heavy Italian accent. “This is a technical stop and unfortunately, no one will be allowed off the ship. Rest assured, all passengers and crew on board are well and we will continue along our scheduled itinerary.”
His wife’s face clouds over. Like all husbands, he knows what happens when his wife’s estrogen levels fall. But surprisingly, the storm passes over. Maybe it’s the red wine. She gets up from her seat and beckons. “At least let’s get some fresh air on the top deck,” she says, her hand lightly touching the camera hanging around her neck. “And look at land.”
They lumber to the lobby and head to the top deck with its full view of the dock. The blue sky is dotted with patchy, sheet-like wisps of clouds, looking like his weathered jeans. The next thing he notices are the police cars. Police? Why are the police here? There are uniformed officials patrolling the gangway. They are too far to see clearly but he spots bulks in their arms, the size of toothpicks from a distance, like guns.
A sudden burst of noise bubbles up, staccato-like shouts puncturing the hum of the ship’s engine and the sound of the waves. He pulls at his wife’s sleeves.
“Hey, honey, watch this,” he says.
A small crowd has gathered at the dockside, holding huge signs. Many are old people. They are Australians, in sunglasses, standing resolutely under the sun. He squints.
GET OUT OF OUR COUNTRY.
He takes a step back as though he has been stung. The heat and the smell of sea salt tinged with sewerage nauseates. A coldness courses through his veins and yet, he feels that his skin is burning. Burnt raw. Or is it cracking? He doesn’t know. All he can think of in this moment is how they could say this to people like him. How dare they?
Beside him, his wife is still fanning herself in the shade and asking, “What are they saying? Can you read the tiny letters?”
He opens his mouth but no words come out.
First comes the self.
He walks down the same carpeted corridors, the chandelier hot and heavy over his head like a sentence about to be dropped.
The air is cold and dry but he knows he is sweating. The back of his shirt tingles. So does his throat. Is it an irritation? It builds up through his throat and propels outwards into a cough. Hurriedly, he pulls down his mask and pops a Ricola into his mouth. Did his lip touch his glove? He sucks on its sweetness like a drowning man clamoring for oxygen. Imprinting its shape against the roof of his mouth, he feels coolness lace his tongue. Ah, better.
When will they give him another mask?
He knocks on the door, E101. He should just leave the meal outside. Would they complain? Yes, they would. “The passenger is king.” It’s drummed into him. They always have questions. They pummel him with frightened eyes and demanding tones and then try to conceal it with a thank-you. Thank you for risking your life to serve mine.
The door opens. It’s a white woman, the wrinkles on her face like lines drawn with a black marker under the garish light. He looks at her ruddy cheeks, her lashes thin and transparent under the light, and her Santa Clara University t-shirt. An American most probably.
“How are you doing, ma’am. Thank you for your patience.” He hands her the appetizer.
“It’s later than yesterday,” she says, “but thank you. Can we get more bottled water?”
“I don’t have any with me now. That okay? My colleague is coming later with the main course, drinks, and utensils.”
“We’ve been asking and asking—”
He wants to tell her that she can boil her own water the way he does, huddled in a windowless cabin shared with another person six decks below. Mess hall buffet laid out in the open, shared toilets, plates that are reused. She can bless the gods that she has fresh air and TV and three meals a day prepared, delivered, and cleaned by people like him, Indians, Indonesians, Filipinos, and—
The woman coughs. A wheeze. She turns her body inward.
He watches it unfold in slow motion. Each cough hits a nail into his frame. He digs his toes, holds his breath, and musters his body. He manages not to physically recoil.
“Excuse me,” rasps the woman, who closes the door.
He nods and half bows. People on this ship are going to die. One by one. He sees their faces briefly as doors open and close in a clockwork sequence. At least one of them will not be here tomorrow. Maybe more. On and on he goes. The corridor covers the length of the ship. The doors stretch out ominously before him like cards. Seventy-two more. He grabs the handle of the trolley and pushes. His palms are clammy in the gloves but he will not take them off. Maybe it’ll be me.
When it is all over he heads back down to the bottom of the ship. Down and down and down he goes. Past the empty lobbies and the chandeliers that hurt his eyes, past the occasional glimpse of the ocean, past the grand suites, suites, mini-suites, doubles, deluxe, interiors, past the hallways with exposed piping, and into the belly of the beast.
No one wants to play with life, he thinks. Back in his cabin, he scrubs his hands in hot water until they hurt. The flesh of his palm is pink. Life on the sea sounded romantic, like a movie. “I get to travel the world,” he tells friends back home. “And I wait tables at a fancy restaurant with ocean views.” It’s like a dream, he used to say. True, the hours are tough (and tougher now) and he has to be away from home nine months at a time.
But this – on a ship with three thousand people, where the virus stalks and floats unseen like a ghost, where they are exiled from land tantalizingly close, where he has to work to protect and serve the rich people when death looms – is a nightmare. A prison. Why is he sacrificing his life when no one is protecting him?
He has to protect himself.
All of a sudden, he knows what he must do. He rehearses it in his head, holds his phone up, and begins speaking. A video message. He starts over again. After nine tries, he gets a smooth take.
He introduces himself and his job. On the screen is a man who is asking for protection. It’s him but unfamiliar. He has never spoken up like this before but this is for his life. He stumbles over his words:
“We need help. We need extra manpower from the Japanese authority or from different authorities who can come and help us. The virus somewhere in the ship but the crew must continue working and cannot leave. Yes, we are ready to work all the time but only when the environment we are working in is safe. Right now, we don’t feel safe. Every day, the number has been increasing and we are scared for our lives. On the first day of the quarantine, there were ten infected patients, but now it has reached up to 218. Very soon we will all be infected.”
He swallows and presses on, “I’m not sure if I carry the virus. None of the crew has been checked. We don’t know why the passengers are being quarantined but not the crew. They have been quarantined since day one. We, crew members, have been working and serving. Even now, there are about 1,000 of us who are still working and not isolated.”
He stares right into the camera. Inside his head, he is praying. This part is the most important – the lifeboat: “My family and friends back home are praying day and night that we can come home safe. Please somehow save us as soon as possible, before it’s too late. I want to tell the government of India, Modi-ji, please bring us back home safely.”
Will he lose his job? He is, after all, breaking protocol. Cautiously, he ends the video with a hedge: “I do love my job and my company, I don’t have any complaints, I just want to feel safe.” I just want to feel safe.
What’s the point of following the protocol when he doesn’t know if he will live? When the tides of history hit, no one can remain dry. He can only pray that he stays above water. When the virus has engulfed cities, he is but a speck that wants refuge. He is six thousand kilometers away from home, with people from fifty other countries, but reality tells him that they are not all equal. They are upstairs, he is down, down at the bottom.
He will not accept it.
His fingers dance across the screen, like punching the buttons for SOS. The video is posted. He exhales.
First came the rumors after Chinese New Year.
Just a bad flu season. Somewhere in China. Nobody thought much about it but he noticed the Chinese workers murmuring amongst themselves.
One of them was Lu, his body golden and glistening in the humid heat. The air warmed whenever he came close. Lu, whose name required the pout of lips to push out the tender syllable. Lu, who had once crossed over to the other side to offer him a swab of medicinal oil – a cool stroke on his rough skin – when he bruised his leg slipping in the shower. Friendships were tentative magnets, impossible from a distance – each country, each language, each color in its own orbit – but he leaned into Lu, feeling the shifts in air pressure, the pull of a foreign body, and the willing surrender of his own as it went limp.
They didn’t communicate through broken English, hand signs, or pictures. Their language was one of objects and touch. A can of Coca-Cola, flavored lips under the rain tree in the dark. A squirt of toothpaste, a quick flirtation of hands. A clothes hanger, a fumble of fabric behind damp towels. Two minutes and forty-three seconds left on the phone card, fourteen hours and thirteen minutes apart. They lived in different rooms, worked on separate sites, each with their own people. But their dizzying dance imprinted the city to his soul. The city was his canvas, witness, host. Where he had once been marked by his dark skin, dictated as foreigner, laborer, migrant worker, work permit holder, he was now touched, desired, recognized. To the city’s occupants, his body was predictable in its life story, expendable in its replaceability, nondescript in its multitude – everywhere, cleaning, building, eating, living, but anonymous. But because of Lu he was no longer one of many. He was the only. The city’s grammar had changed from transaction to the syntax of desire.
On the lorry to work one morning, his body still sore from the worship of hands, an argument erupted. Forty heads bobbed and thudded against each other.
“One of us is dead,” someone asserted above the din, “my friend said so. In the other big dorm. They don’t want to tell us that it’s coming to get us.”
Another man hushed him.
“It’s a disease! Like TB and dengue, but it spreads even when you just touch.”
“That’s a lie,” yelled a man from the back of the lorry.
Someone behind him moaned and started intoning a prayer.
He felt a hole opening up inside him, edges jagged with sharp, frigid fear and covered with hot, sticky shame. Did Lu know? Would things change? What should he do?
When they returned that evening, the entrance to their dorm had a standing screen. Someone told them it was for scanning temperatures though no supervisor monitored it. It simply stood there like something that ought to make them feel safe. Other things were also added: yellow tape on the ground, volunteers coming to distribute soaps and little bottles like glue which they explain killed germs and needed no washing, posters on the walls telling them to wash their hands often, and masks (which he began wearing on the spot but was stopped by a frantic volunteer).
One volunteer, a young woman wearing thick-rimmed glasses, spent five minutes trying to explain to a group of them something called standing far away. There was a virus, she told them, that either spread in the air through droplets or landed on things they touched. So they must keep a distance. She demonstrated with another volunteer. He remembered her instructions, two meters apart (“A space of three men between one another!”). He laughed. He couldn’t even fit a finger between his body and Lu’s, sometimes.
Afterwards, he headed to the mass kitchen for dinner. Where was Lu? In the day, they worked at different sites. Everywhere he looked, there were people. How could they possibly stay two meters apart? He ended up cooking shoulder to shoulder with his friend. Upstairs, in his room shared with eleven other people, he couldn’t even get to his bunk bed without squeezing sideways. He went downstairs to Lu’s floor. The Chinese workers stared at him. He asked if they knew where Lu was.
The faces stared back at him in a mixture of curiosity and incomprehension. Again and again, he repeated Lu’s name, his tongue savoring the contours of the syllable. And then, one person, who he often saw with Lu, waved him away. “Go,” said the man in sharp bursts of English. “Lu, no, sick.”
He slept outside that night in the basketball court, staring at the rain tree which had once gently mantled their secret. He didn’t even have Lu’s number. Where was he? When would they see each other again? Then, as the night turned colder, he suddenly realized what it meant. Lu was taken away. If Lu had turned sick, and their eyes, noses, lips had touched even just yesterday, then he too was probably carrying the disease. In the middle of the night, he felt Lu’s tongue on the tip of his lashes but when he opened his eyes he realized it was drizzling.
He considered telling the dorm operator; yet, he displayed no signs of any sickness. A week passed. Lu never came back.
Then, the nightmare descended.
One, 29, 67, 298, 654, 931. The numbers in their dorm climbed with no end in sight. Every day he watched from the balcony as people were taken out. Ambulances came one after another without intervals. No one was allowed to go out of their rooms except to use the toilet. Gone was his nightly brush with death. Where once inside a shower stall, behind the stump of a tree, and between bed sheets hanging dry on a balcony lay the whole world, now there were only claustrophobia and confinement. When his roommate was taken away on the eve of Ramadan, he felt the desolation of a catastrophe of his own making. He began praying to Allah five times a day, a ritual he had abandoned since first setting his eyes on Lu three months ago – body arching to catch a packet of instant noodles, the tendons on his arms rising and falling like the bob of his Adam’s apple. Forgive my sins, Allah. If I am to be blamed, let me suffer too.
His roommate sent him photos from his isolation facility. There was no trash, grime, insects, and hanging laundry in sight. Everything was white. The bedsheets and pillows were white. The toilet sparkled. No wrappers, dead insects, or plastic bags stuck in the shower drain. No leaves, mud, or blood by the sink. And so much space, all to himself. Just one bed within four walls. It looked like Jannah.
He felt a frisson of jealousy that mystified even himself. Intimacy like theirs survived in the wilderness, in bushes, grime, the buzz of flies, the sweat trickling down under the flickering fluorescent light, down a dark road that led nowhere.
He tried to drive away the images. The tenuous thread of faith lingered. Without the glaze of love, the myth was broken. The city was kind. He was alive. He could be grateful. It did not have to be a lie. As long as he didn’t open his eyes.