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Slaves of Happiness Island

A poignant, unflinching look by Molly Crabapple at the exploitation of migrant labourers in Abu Dhabi, and their efforts at resistance.

It’s absolutely heartbreaking. What kind of world do we live in where people are literally dying of heart attacks and starvation so that others can have luxurious museums to swan around in and football stadiums to watch men kick around a ball in?

What kind of world is it where even if a man knows the fate and conditions that await him, he still signs up for this treatment because its more viable than staying in his home country? 

Where billionaires and millionaires spend money like water when it comes to luxury goods, homes, and cars, but withhold a worker’s meager $200 salary for months?

The stories in this article will leave you physically sick, but you must read it anyway.

The Story Wire

Ram and I have been working on a personal project idea for the last few months, and we’re finally ready to share it with the world! 

We are so proud and excited to present The Story Wire - a project that connects people through the power of sharing true personal stories with one another. 

The idea was inspired by The Moth and The Story Collider, both of which are truly amazing and inspiring podcasts. Some of the stories on these shows have left us in tears, and others have had us giggling out loud when we think of them. 

The idea of having something like this in Singapore came to us in late December - shortly after the riots in Little India. We were really disturbed by the fresh wave of racism, xenophobia and vitriol that swept across the internet right after the event.

Unfortunately, this disturbing discourse isn’t confined just to the Little India incident. We see it in microaggressions endured by people everyday, because of their race, gender, nationality or class. It does nobody any good, and we wanted to do something to fight this trend.

The Story Wire stems from the simple idea that the more time we spend listening to one another, and sharing our stories honestly and vulnerably, the less there is for ignorance and hate. We plan to execute this idea in three main ways - live events, a podcast, and stories on our blog. 

We’re aiming to hold our first event in May this year, and we really need your help to get the event on the road!

  1. Tell your story! The theme of our first event is ‘Terrified’. You can interpret this any way you want; if you have a story that fits the theme, let us know, and we would be honoured to have you share it. 

  2. Help others tell their story! If you are experienced in storytelling or public speaking, we need your help to make stories that are already good, great. We need people who can work with our storytellers and help them structure and rehearse their stories for a live audience. 

  3. Hook us up with a venue! We’re looking for an intimate, cosy place that can accommodate about 30-50 people. Ideally, light snacks & drinks would be allowed in the venue. If you know of a place or have one to let us use, please let us know!

  4. Help us make The Story Wire better! This project is brand new territory for both Ram and me. If you have suggestions on how to improve or grow the project, we’re all ears! Email us (thestorywire //at// gmail //dot// com), tweet at us or poke us on Facebook! You can also use the nifty contact form on the website. :D

  5. Sign up for our newsletter! We plan to send out regular updates on upcoming events and stories, and also share stories from elsewhere that inspire us. Stay updated with the latest on The Story Wire by signing up at

Thanks for taking the time to read this far! Here’s to you, and The Story Wire.

(PS: Ram’s post about the project is here

Adventures in home gardening

Meet Lord Basildon, the newest member of our family. I bought him on impulse at the supermarket when he was just a tiny little thing. I put him in a bigger pot upon bringing him home, and it’s been so much fun taking care of him, and watching him grow in the past month! I’ve been trying to give him extra nutrition by giving him water infused with discarded vegetable peels and scraps. 

In a ‘Never Let Me Go’-esque turn of events, we harvested Lord Basildon’s leaves for the first time this week. It was when I was ripping off the leaves that it occurred to me that mayyyybe anthropomorphising Lord Basildon and thinking of him as a family member wasn’t the greatest idea. I felt so bad, I gave him extra veggie-infused water after harvesting him! :(

Nevertheless, the resulting pesto sauce was absolutely delicious! 

This has been my first experience with taking care of my own plants, and growing edible plants. It’s so empowering to know that there are things you are cultivating that you can eat, and that you have control over things like use of fertilisers. I can’t wait to grow more food plants in our balcony - Will Lord Basildon’s new friend be Lady Lemon, Milly the Chilli, or Vera (single name, because she’s so cool)? I’ll decide once I run out of idiotic name ideas! 

And speaking of awesome living things in and around our balcony, say hello to Fifi and Racket, the two utterly delightful parrots that perch on the rooftops opposite our balcony on most mornings: 

They are adorable! One of them is obsessed with burrowing in the little gap between the roof and the wooden ledge, probably for worms or other insects. But when they’re not foraging, they do all sorts of cute things like snuggling together and hopping around on the beams. There’s a third parrot, who we’ve named Cosmo, who makes an occasional appearance too. 

If you’re wondering if I have spent way too much time imagining soap opera-style scenarios in my head wherein there is a sordid love triangle between Fifi, Racket and Cosmo, and narrated (out loud) entire lovers’ quarrels and make-up conversations while watching them frolic on the roof, then well, no I have absolutely not done any such thing. 

Clarity on climate change

There’s a New York Times article - ‘Going Green but Getting Nowhere' by Gernot Wagner - that has been the Kryptonite to my determination to do sustainability work for many years now. It minces no words in stating that “sadly, individual action does not work. It distracts us from the need for collective action, and it doesn’t add up to enough. Self-interest, not self-sacrifice, is what induces noticeable change. Only the right economic policies will enable us as individuals to be guided by self-interest and still do the right thing for the planet”.

Even though intuitively, I still believe that every action, attempt at knowledge building and effort to reduce consumption is a step in the right direction, this article gets me down every time I think about it - partly because economics remains a discipline that I find difficult to wrap my head around, and partly because the path from being just one person who cares about the environment to influencing global economic policy (which, you’ll recall, is the only thing that matters, according to Gernot Wagner) seems long and unlikely.

I came across this article by RSA’s Jonathan Rowson in The Guardian recently, that helped matters a fair bit. It pins the emphasis squarely back on behavioural change, and provides a useful framework for thinking about climate change.

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adho mukha svanasana tadasana

I helped take photos at an Iyengar Yoga workshop my mom conducted this morning. It felt good to pick up a camera after very, very long, and also be reunited with my (dad’s) beloved 50mm f/1.2 lens. It’s an ancient lens, and only allows manual focusing - combined with my dad’s fancy full-frame camera which I borrowed today, taking decent photos with it was quite tricky. But after so much fiddling and adjustment, each nice photo taken with this lens feels like a hard-earned reward.

Post-processing this batch of photographs was also fun - I experimented with 'Yesterday', a new Photoshop action I found on DeviantArt. I was very enamoured with it at first, but the treatment is a bit too strong on some shots. The search for a editing process I can adopt as a ‘signature look’ for all my photos continues. If you have any recommendations for your favourite post-processing actions, please share! 

You can find out more about my mom’s Yoga classes here

Back to school

One of the things I’ve been super excited about since 2014 began was the commencement of a course I signed up for on Coursera, entitled ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’. I’ve just finished watching Week 1’s lectures and doing the quizzes, and am generally quite impressed with it. 

I was initially really uncomfortable with the emphasis on overpopulation as the main factor of concern with regard to long-term sustainability as opposed to the unjust and unequal distribution of resources. I was relieved that by the end of the first lecture, there was a lot more discussion about inequality, and that inclusiveness seemed to be a central concern for sustainable development. I’m cautiously optimistic about the rest of the course, and excited to see how it goes.

I also really like how the coursebook is available in EPub, Mobi and PDF formats. It’s such a small thing, but such a nice, thoughtful detail. 

This one sentence from the first lecture sums up a lot of my motivation to stay in the field I’m in, and work harder at being a more effective environmentalist: "We study sustainability because we know we can do better".  

We can, and I can.

Glamour couple

Three of the many, many phrases I never thought would feature in our married life: 

"If I was Narendra Modi, I’d totally use you to get votes!" 
- (Ram, during a discussion on Narendra Modi’s secrecy about his marital status.) 

"All right, nobody pees or poops for a few hours!" 
- (Me, after having spent an hour scrubbing the bathroom spotless) 

"What?! Why won’t you dig my nose for me? I would dig your nose for you!" 
- (Ram, and don’t ask.)

It’s been three (or two, depending on which wedding you’re counting from) months since we’ve been married, and I still can’t stop marvelling at how easy and hilarious and amazingly wonderful it is to be married to this man. ♥!

That a female character is allowed to get away with behaviour that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous) may seem - if you’re MRA* minded, anyway – an unfair imbalance in her favour. But really these scenes reveals the underlying deficit of respect the character starts with, which she’s then required to overcome by whatever desperate, over-the-top, cartoonish means to hand.

Great read on typecasting female characters as “strong” in media: I hate Strong Female Characters

* Men’s Rights Activists. Had to Google that.

007 - Day 1
36 years ago today, my parents got married. 5 years ago today, I spent the day in a dreamy haze, wondering if the boy I had kissed the night before was real. 1 year ago today, I woke up in Bangkok, very hungover, but newly engaged to him. Last night, we stood on the beach, married, watching with friends as ships set off red flares.
I’m so grateful for the love, friendship and memories that 2013 gave me. 2014 will be full of new, scary and exciting experiences. I’m not fully ready to face 2014 yet, but here we go!

007 - Day 1

36 years ago today, my parents got married. 5 years ago today, I spent the day in a dreamy haze, wondering if the boy I had kissed the night before was real. 1 year ago today, I woke up in Bangkok, very hungover, but newly engaged to him. Last night, we stood on the beach, married, watching with friends as ships set off red flares.

I’m so grateful for the love, friendship and memories that 2013 gave me. 2014 will be full of new, scary and exciting experiences. I’m not fully ready to face 2014 yet, but here we go!

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' by Katherine Boo

Every trip back to Bombay inevitably begins with a drive past the slums near the airport. Usually, images of the shacks by the roadside fade into a blur at the corner of my eye, and are forgotten by the time the car turns onto the highway. Katherine Boo’s ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in Mumbai Slum’ goes deeper into the lives of the people who live in one of the slums near the airport, Annawadi. 

The book follows the lives of Abdul, a teenage garbage collector who works tirelessly to support his family of 11, their one-legged and hot-tempered neighbour Fatima, Asha, unscrupulous and ambitious, her soft-hearted college-going daughter Manju, and many other Annawadi residents whose previously-unseen and unheard lives suddenly reveal an extraordinary amount of suffering, fortitude, injustice and hope in the pages of this book.

The setting of Annawadi itself - nestled amongst the bustling international airport, and luxury hotels such as The Leela, InterContinental and Grand Hyatt - sets the tone for the intense sense of irony and inequality that pervade the book. Boo conveys this irony beautifully through her writing, which is unflinchingly honest and matter-of-fact. The terror and grief experienced by the people at various points in the book are physically palpable, and the deadpan, unapologetic accounts of the corruption that pervades Mumbai’s justice system, hospitals, orphanages and schools left me shaking in helpless rage. 

The stories in ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ are a vivid, rich, and deeply humanising reflection of the impact that global social, economic and political processes have on the world’s poorest. A lot of the stories are incredibly tragic, but Boo does not obscure the resourcefulness and spunk of the young garbage pickers in the pursuit of a specific narrative, nor does she infuse any sense of judgement into her account of the actions of the characters. The result is a book that reads like a novel in terms of how engaging it is, but with the disturbing, ever-present thought that the characters are real people, who really went through the things described in the book, and more likely than not, remain in similar circumstances today.

I found it particularly interesting that the the abject poverty in Annawadi was mitigated primarily by the livelihood of collecting discarded trash from the airport and hotels, stark symbols of conspicuous over-consumption and inequality. Even though the book left me feeling frustrated and impotent about being unable to change the circumstances of the characters I’d come to be so emotionally invested in, it’s definitely a source of renewed inspiration to understand the macro-level processes that shape society better, and work to change those. 

Before reading the book, I was skeptical about whether Boo would be able to do justice to the stories of the people living in Annawadi, without resorting to the usual tropes that most non-Indians writing about India do. With the exception of a few mildly irksome passages, though, her portrayal of the lives of the residents of Annawadi is incredibly intimate, thorough, endearing and sympathetic. The fact that she spent three and a half years living in Annawadi, and spent hours going through official documents to support her stories shines through in her writing, which is filled with little details and observations that could have easily remained invisible to a casual observer, but enrich the narrative thousandfold. A great example of this is the title itself, which is derived from hoardings opposite the slums that advertise tiles that will keep your home ‘Beautiful Forever’.

I picked up this book on a cousin’s recommendation, and I’m so glad I did. I myself cannot recommend this book enough. The snippet below sums up everything I love about Boo’s writing style, and her fantastic account of life in Annawadi:

It was a fine time to be a Mumbai garbage trader, not that that was the term passersby used for Abdul. Some called him garbage, and left it at that.