Searching for a place to belong amidst the pandemic.
Over the last two years, the pandemic has brought out some of our greatest vulnerabilities, not only on a national levels, but even within ourselves as individuals, as we are forced into questioning our identity and our lived spaces. All of that comes to light for one expat, in Sharul Channa’s new play Unmasked.
Written and directed by Sharul, Unmasked follows Nakul Chandrakant Dalvi, an Indian expat who has not visited his hometown for the last two years since the beginning of the pandemic. Unable to feel fully at home in Singapore, he wonders – is he Singaporean enough, or even Indian enough to belong to either country anymore?
The performance begins as Nakul (Amit Arun Joshi) arrives onstage in a mask, flanked by dancers Veena Bangera and Priyashree Deorukhkar. As the play suggests, he does indeed unmask himself, but seems apologetic about it, as he begins to share about his life since coming here India years ago. There are clear frustrations as he explains how he is fully vaccinated (with Pfizer!), yet still feels trapped; speaks English with a corporate accent yet feels he is not being ‘truthful’ to himself and those around him, and wants to speak in a more ‘Indian’ accent instead, even checking in with us to see if he could still be understood when speaking Singlish or ‘Hinglish’ (Hindu-English). As multicultural as Singapore posits itself to be, there are times when society seems to restrict us from just being true to ourselves for fear of leaving the wrong impression.
Beyond speech, Nakul explains the painful process of applying for permanent residence, with the number of PRs approved each year dropping from 88,000 to just 30,000 a year. He has a strong case on why he should be approved: now proudly ‘localised’, he seems to embody a hybrid identity, with a house at Tanjong Rhu and a house in Pune. Both are them are home to him, and as he recalls his residence in India, we hear the familiar sounds of the kook birds and the horns of the busses, so happy he occupies both worlds he even tells it to a random taxi driver.
Pride turns to sorrow as he realises that it’s the second year in a row he has not returned home for Deepavali. His description of home is vivid – he recalls the sudden chill in the air due to the cooling weather, misses his family deeply when now, all he can do is have a Zoom call when he can, a poor substitute for real life conversation. Our heart breaks as he tells us how ‘home’ is in transition, and we realise how often we forget that many expatriates are just here to work, alone while their families live thousands of miles away. We feel grateful that our own family is here in Singapore, but a pang of sadness for him, with how 3-4 visits a year used to be the norm, and now, nothing.
For an expat, culture shock is also a big issue to grapple with, especially with issues of living expenses. He recalls how he used to convert prices from Singapore dollars to rupees, shocked at the price difference. Even the idea of heading down to the market was once new to him; where back home vegetable sellers would go door to door, he realises that there is no such thing in Singapore, save for ice cream sellers, the last peddlers of this nation. As humans do, we adapt, and get used to the change, and it’s not long before he gets used to it all, marvelling at how quiet the trains are in comparison to India, and how dustbins are plenty, compared to how dustbins would be made out of ‘nothing’ back home, appreciative of how clean and efficient everything is here.
Singapore then, is easier to live in, especially when you have a place of familiarity which is also a safe space of solace. For Nakul, that place is the Krishna temple at Waterloo Street, a sense of familiarity, with the sweets and snacks he grew up with readily available. A similar feeling is evoked from East Coast Park, with his two co-performers laying out items close to his heart, with the snacks, photographs and clothing showing the tiny facets of his life making up his unique identity, such as his love for Bollywood music, and how he has become fond of going to Mustafa centre to get the latest hits, and grooves along to the music as he plays.
And of course, food too serves as a source of comfort, in particular his love for chicken rice and bak kut teh, marvelling at how neat and well-presented the former is. The latter happens to be a guilty pleasure, as he can never tell his family back home about it, due to the unsavoury associations associated with pork. But each time he heads home, he’s sure to bring back Milo, kaya, and kueh lapis from Bengawan Solo for them. All in all, home can be found almost anywhere, so long as he finds something to relate to or gain comfort from, regardless of where you physically are.
Just like before, his reverie is cut short when he recalls when the Delta variant struck, and the racism, xenophobia and prejudice are out in full force, leading Nakul to finally feel marginalised in Singapore, and how difficult it can be to live as a minority here. As the two dancers perform, bringing out the intensity of his fears and doubts, Nakul asks what it truly means to be patriotic or even meritocratic, when despite all his success, he is still treated like this in times of crisis. He even questions what it means to have some kind of national pride, when most Singaporeans go away during the National Day weekend.
Through this pandemic, the best and worst of every person has come to light, the uncertainties surrounding his family in India, and how vulnerable we all realise we are. He recounts how devastated he was when he learns of a childhood confidant dying, and how much worse it was that he couldn’t be there to perform the last rites, virtually present but feeling so far away, and completely emotionally wrecked by how distant he felt from everyone he loved back home. Amit performs this scene especially well, his devastation clear on his face, and the desperation in his voice.
With his life at a standstill now, the future is left uncertain and bleak. All he wants is to head home, pick up the pieces, and find comfort in laying his head on his mother’s lap. Is it too much to ask? Nothing will ever be the same again, yet, he persists in hoping that one day, he will be reunited with his loved ones.
Unmasked then, is a story of hope Nakul hopes to share with as many people as possible, and perhaps one day, truly call Singapore his home. And his promise to us? That he will be a good, law-abiding Singaporean, as he ends by picking up his mask and wearing it once more. Regardless of where we are, who we are, or where we come from, if it’s one thing the pandemic has made clear, it’s that we could all do with showing more empathy and humanity in our interactions, as we learn to find comfort and joy in the little things to remind us of a safe home.
Unmasked played from 20th to 24th October 2021 at the Drama Centre Black Box.