As a global pandemic unfolded around us, we were placed on global lockdown in the hope of containing the virus. One positive aspect of the pandemic is that it gave people time to discover new hobbies and interests. 

From becoming the next ‘Master Chef’ to making Instagram-worthy Dalgonas to developing an unhealthy obsession for TikTok, a lot of us found new interests to kill time while in isolation.

For me, it was a window to sit back and catch up on my reading. In my pursuit to appease the bibliophile within, I decided to enroll in a course on Shakespeare’s Othello because why not. 

The past two years have more or less been about rediscovering my love for Shakespearean tragedies. When I am not doing that, I find myself scouring the news. So it did not take long for me to realize the stark parallels between a play written in the 16th century and the world events of this century.

400 Years Later, Are We Doing Any Better?

“Even now, now, very now, an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise,

Awake the snorting citizens with the bell

Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.

Arise, I say!“

Othello – Act 1, scene 1 Iago

As Iago announces Othello and Desdemona’s elopement to Brabantio, he describes Othello as an “old black ram” and a “devil.” He threatens old Brabantio with the idea of having a “black grandson.”

Othello, the Moor of Venice, is an outsider by nationality and skin color but an insider by profession and position. This is where the play’s tragedy begins to unfold.

YouTube video

Shakespeare’s Othello, unfortunately, remains a little too relevant even for the modern audience. Maybe segregation is not direct anymore, but it is still there. In fact, it is subtle and nuanced, and hence, more dangerous.

The Curious Case Of Migrant Workers All Over The World

With themes of racism, class system, and greed unfortunately still being pertinent across the world, sadly, Othello feels like a timeless story. Let me explain why.

When I was 18, I moved from a small town to New Delhi to pursue higher studies and eventually, ended up staying there for work for almost eight years. According to the dictionary, the word “migrant” means a person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or better living conditions. So, according to that definition, I was a migrant.

A few years later, I got married and moved to Singapore with my husband in search of work and a better life. So, by definition, I am now an immigrant. 

Stranded Migrant Workers

However, fortunately, I do not fit the bill of today’s real immigrants who are underprivileged and at the expense of no one. I am privileged. I have a house, food on my table, sanitary living conditions, Wi-Fi and access to other supplies unlike the real immigrants or migrant workers of the 21st century who are unaccounted for and stranded. We use them to build our urban jungles and abandon them at the slightest hint of trouble. Sadly, it is true for almost all nations– the underdeveloped, developing as well as developed.

From Indian laborers who move from villages to cities in search of work to construction workers in Singapore who come from all over the region; from Africans in China and Chinese Americans in the US– the harsh realities of the lives of immigrant workers are tragic everywhere. Amidst the pandemic, while over half a million laborers in India were stranded on the streets of big cities like Mumbai and Delhi, millions of immigrants in the US were left unprotected.

Let Us Be Better

As I sit and watch world news and read these stories, I am forced to wonder if we are all any different from Iago or Brabantio. 

We put ourselves above “migrant workers” and deem them to deserve less. And, this could not be more evident than it is now in almost all parts of the world. 

In good times, we talk about how far ahead mankind has come– we discuss the scope of artificial intelligence and brag about the potential of machine learning. In bad times, we can very clearly see that we are not actually that far ahead. We may have learned to make friends with bots like Siri and Alexa but we still haven’t managed to develop basic humanity for fellow human beings.

These last two years of self-isolation and lockdown have given me a lot to think about and reflect on how I can try and be better than I was yesterday. They say that there was a world before COVID-19 and there will be another after. I hope in the post-pandemic world, we are better, more empathetic, and civil. I hope we are able to rise above race, class, and religion, and be better human beings.

This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

Surabhi, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to over 15 anthologies in English...