The Ship Breakers

Anna O’Brien

USA

The Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh devours her children. I’ve worked in the delta’s sludge for five years, and already she has consumed the big toe on my left foot, and wounds like red open mouths fester along my right arm. For my cousin Amir, I fear the bay is eating his mind.

Massive oil tankers and cargo ships from around the globe are left to die along an eight-mile inlet north of Chittagong. Amir and myself, among hundreds of other young men, are the ship breakers. We drain and dismantle these steel behemoths, dragging 10,000-pound metal cables through the black mud at low tide, exploring abandoned cabins and engine rooms, scavenging portholes, generators, and copper wire from within, and blasting away at the steel walls with blow torches. Our efforts make the mammoths manageable, but only just. It is not without cost.

The ships are gorgeous terrors; decrepit leviathans secured in the thick dark delta muck, they wait to be slowly butchered. Their hulls are exposed: dingy reds or blues once brilliant are now dented and scarred, telling tales thousands of miles long and fathoms deep. Still, they are the most colourful objects around, grimy prisms in our mud jungle bloated with smoke and haze.

When salvaged pieces of hull break loose and fall into the shallow water, the ground shakes and a boom thunders through the palms. This happens at least once daily. I’m told those in nearby villages use the booms as a unit of measure: the monsoon was as loud as… I am as angry as… the elephant was a… These sounds connect us to distant homes through metaphors not unkind, but still menacing. The booms are like cobras: dangerous and unseen until it is too late.

At night the breakers customarily retreat to primitive camps along the beach, far enough inland to where the black mud has dried into petrified dunes. Fires are stoked. Palm wood does not burn well so we gather pipe gaskets and other naval refuse to burn. The smoke is dense and the aerosolised chemicals burn our eyes and noses but we welcome the warmth that is generated on cold nights. I wrap a dingy holed scarf around my thin neck, pulling it tighter each night as the thin woven fabric gives way. We live on black tea, rice, greasy, charred fish, and stories.

On Amir’s first night, I keep a close watch. He eats little, and instead his wide brown eyes take in the scene: men crouch around the fire, wrapped in dirty scarves, holding smouldering cigarettes between black nails. Some stare back at Amir with yellow, bloodshot eyes, unblinking. My own cigarette has long been finished and instead I fiddle with my knife, chipping away at a cuticle, at hand if Amir needs me.

He’s not right. Amir. I’ve known that for all of his 12 years, and I am only five older. Visitors say the heavy metals bleeding from the ships leach into the wells and affect the children of local villages. That may explain his failures at tying knots and cooking but it does not justify the boy’s obsession with the ships. Since he was little — he’s still little — he’s looked to the bay and formed ships with his rice at mealtime, only to crush them between his fingers. Tonight, at the fire, after taking his fill of those around him, his gaze settles on the steel empires barely seen over the dunes, illuminated partially by a hazy, pale moon. He sits that way for the rest of the night.

***

I learned to slice apart ship hulls with a torch when I was 15, taught by a boy not much older. Don’t look at the light, he told me. He was missing two fingers on his right hand. Then he instructed: find a spotter to hold your cord and your belt if you’re high up. Weeks later, I saw my tutor on the side of the Glory B, the spark of his acetylene torch starlight against her rusted hull. He had no spotter, the long heavy cord of the torch dangling over the edge. I lost track of him after that.

We are an illiterate crowd, produced by close, cramped villages wrapped in palms and fluent only in hunger. The names of the ships are passed down from crew to supervisor to us. Or we make them up ourselves, their original titles on the bows, once so lovingly christened are now nothing but patterns to our eyes. There is the Queen Jewel along the southern most part of the bay, a hulking skeleton that has languished in the mud for years, leaking her vital fluids into the shallow water, making our skin burn and smell perpetually of diesel fuel. There is also the Banana Babe, a long narrow ship along the north side. A recent victim, her yellow paint is relatively vibrant though chipped. The younger boys favour this one, as her insides have yet to be mangled, and exploring her storage rooms is not yet as dangerous as it will be in the months to come.

My first breaker was the Queen Jewel, five years ago. They say you never forget the first ship you break and indeed I remember well the thick rust along her desk rails, her jagged hull that left me with so many scars. They also say you never forget the first ship that breaks you. I have yet to have this memory.

Amir’s first ship is the Glory B, the ship I blame for the disappearance of my younger tutor. Amir falls urgently in love with the boat. He has wanted to be a breaker his entire young life; the stories of hidden treasures found in abandoned bunks mix with the enthusiastic yells of young men diving for fun off the decks at dusk have riddled Amir’s mind and, I suppose, make him forget he’s lost two cousins and an uncle to these ships. There is also something strange about the boy, beyond pinpointing. His exhausted brown eyes look through you as you demonstrate how to use the torch or how to gauge the weak spot at the joint of a sheet of metal. He slips amputated dials and broken gauges into his pocket for intimate inspection near the fire at night, tracing the glass faces with thin, dirty fingers. The other boys snicker when he shows them his treasures.

Only I am left to wonder: when has he last eaten? Is he bathing? My aunt — his mother — is raising newborn twins and by necessity has pushed Amir into adulthood even though he is only 12. I know this process and empathise. My younger brothers, the causes of my own casting out, are now dead.

The law states you must be at least 14 to be a breaker. Every boy who wanders into the shipyard knows that and claims likewise. The smaller the boy, the easier the fit into tight places, wedged between tonnes of metal, oblivious to danger. Supervisors look out of the window at waving palms as the boys shove closer to sign the required paperwork, leaving smudges where their fingers touch crisp documents, their eyes not reading, their minds full of expectations of employment, of adventure, of escape from the monotonous jungle hills of their home.

***

This evening, just before an orange sun drops below the horizon draping the lax palms in gold, I catch Amir staring into a tepid tide pool, smiling. He watches the oil slick on the surface swirl and change as he sticks a finger in it. Looking up when he sees me, he gives a grin and sticks the oily finger in his mouth.

“I was brave today,” he says.

I nod. I heard he leapt into a hidden, dark pool somewhere in the depths of the Glory B to retrieve a dropped torch.

“You could have gotten hurt,” I say. “That was foolish, don’t do it again.”

Amir continues to smile and his long gaze returns to the oil slick.

“Do you hear me?” I grab his shoulder. A distant boom shakes the air as somewhere down the bay, a chunk of ship falls into the water.

“This is my favourite time of day,” Amir replies. The palms of his hands have blisters.

I release his bony shoulder and try to follow his gaze through my own squinted, tired eyes. He’s been here only a few months now and I worry he’s developing a reputation. Boys with reputations don’t last long; blend in and the bay can’t single you out and you survive. To be listed with outsiders and become part of the local lore is to lose yourself to it. Over the smoky red fires at night, young men talk about the opium addict who once pulled a metal cable 10 metres by himself, a feat usually accomplished by eight men. He then collapsed in the mud and died laughing. Then there was the man who survived three gas pocket explosions only to lose both eyes in a knife fight. Then there was my tutor, the boy gifted with the torch, burning beautiful mandalas onto ugly chunks of rusted hull as he dangled from handrails five storeys above, sparks raining down as he worked.

There is no hyperbole to these stories. Things here are larger than life, more dangerous. It’s accepted.

My cousin looks at nothing. He continues to smile. I consider the tepid water we drink and stand barefoot in all day. Occasionally, inspectors visit our shipyard, checking off boxes, peering into offices, admiring the ships from afar. They don’t venture into the mud.

***

This morning, we have news. A new boat is coming. At first there is mild panic with supervisors asking: where will it go? How will it fit? They don’t want to lose it to another shipyard. Every ship is a pay check. Eventually someone decides it can stay farther out in the water. The breakers will just have to walk farther to get to it.

The naturally curious around us try to glimpse the flags on its bow, guessing where it originated. No one knows its name and already suggestions are hurled out before we even lay hands on the ship. Dhaka Devil receives protest, as does the Bengal Beauty. Someone notes a few black vertical lines painted on the orange hull. We christen this thing we have yet touched The Tiger.

We slowly split into our respective groups for the day’s work and I grab my torch. Before I wade into the shallow water, I turn to check on Amir. I am concerned about the burns on his hands as I’m not sure he knows to keep them wrapped.

I find the boy standing amid a group of older breakers. Amir’s brown eyes are saucers and he leaps in the air with a whoop. As The Tiger crawls forward toward its final resting place in our bay, its diesel stench filling our lungs, creating waves of murky water that slap our shins, Amir clasps his maimed hands to his chest. He is smitten.

 

Anna O’Brien is a Guest Writer for Panorama.