29 October, 2020

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Pursuit Of Revenge Is Not Path To Justice

By Mahesan Niranjan

Prof Mahesan Niranjan

In our favourite bar yesterday (21 July 2013) afternoon, I was having a beer with my usual drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow, Sivapuranam Thevaram. “That was a horrific photograph, no?” he started the conversation. He didn’t have to be more specific. I knew instantly that he was talking about the photograph taken thirty years ago at the Borella bus station, supposedly by Atta / Raavaya employee Chandraguptha Amarasinghe. The photograph was of a naked Tamil boy surrounded by dancing thugs who, in all probability, went on to murder and burn the boy. In which order, we have no way of knowing.

That “Black July,” has a certain effect worth mentioning here. Have you heard the story of two Englishmen shipwrecked on an uninhabited island? They never spoke to each other because they had not been properly introduced. Such an issue does not arise for Tamils of a particular age range. They start talking about which camp they spent that week in, and of their journey by ship to Kankesanthuray. So, you can appreciate why Chandraguptha’s photograph got us into spontaneous conversation.

Thevaram relates to the plight of the young man with strong emotion. “It could have been me, you know – or my brother,” he says. “I was a kilometre away from that unfortunate young chap and it was the presence of mind I had to jump off a second floor balcony that saved me. My brother came even closer escaping because he spoke fluent Sinhala,” he recalls. “Our two guardian angels were doing overtime, while that of the young boy in Chandraguptha’s photograph had gone for an early evening in.”

Black July 83 - A Tamil boy stripped naked and later beaten to death by Sinhala youth in Boralla bustation | Photo - Chandraguptha Amarasingha

This easy topic of conversation centred round the year 1983 is etched deep in the minds of some people. It is now hard-wired in their hippocampi.

“But, just because something is in memory, does not mean you can always retrieve it without impedance,” Thevaram claimed. “See, it is a bit like the light coming from stars. It is light that left the star several million years ago you are now looking at. It must have gone through transformations – reflections, refractions and phase shifts before reaching us, no? Similarly, neural signals that come from that permanent dent I have in deeper brain, when I pull them up to the working brain, travel through other stuff also stored there.”

“Oh, cut the rubbish and get to the point,” I said, not at all in tune with some weak analogy he was trying to build.

“See, what happened post-1983 is important. We got ourselves into a cycle of mutual destruction over these 30 years, didn’t we? One side said the only way to save the Tamil people from 1983-like pogroms, was to accelerate the process of separation, and to achieve it by force – a perfectly justified line of thinking, some would say. Equally, the other side thought that the all-important goal of maintaining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country — so men of importance may sleep stretched full length — was to put down the rebellion at any cost – that, too, is an argument with merit, some would say.” Following that comment the two of us went through the well-rehearsed exchange of chicken and egg scenarios.

We went on a killing spree: Anantharajan, Amirthalingam, Yogeswaran #1, Yogeswaran #2, and so on… so that no Tamil may suffer another episode of that Black July. All in the pursuit of justice, some say. We went on a killing spree: Pararajasingham, Ponnambalam, Raviraj, and so on… so that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country may be maintained. All in the pursuit of justice, some say.

We carried out indiscriminate bombings, didn’t we, of the Maligawa, of the airport, the Dehiwala train and so on… so that no Tamil may suffer another episode of that Black July. All in the pursuit of justice, some say. We carried out indiscriminate bombings, didn’t we, of the Navaly church and of every square kilo meter of the landmass between Kilinochchi and the Eastern sea and so on… so that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country may be maintained. All in the pursuit of justice, some say.

We massacred people – innocent men, women and children at Anuradhapura, Aranthalawa, Keppitigollawa, the Kathankudi mosque and so on… so that no Tamil may suffer another episode of that Black July. All in the pursuit of justice, some say. We carried out massacres of innocent men, women and children on the Nawanthurai boat, the five boys in Trinco, the dozen aid workers and so on… so that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country may be maintained. All in the pursuit of justice, some say.

We threw thousands of Muslims out of their homes in Jaffna, so that no Tamil may suffer another episode of that Black July. In the pursuit of justice, some say, and you might believe they have a point. We threw hundreds of people out of their homes in Valikamam and we dumped people from Keppapilavu in the middle of a jungle, so that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country may be maintained. All in the pursuit of justice, some say, and you might believe they have a point.

And all along, we ignored as minor detail that the social class from which the fighters were drawn was rather different from the one from which the decision makers came from.

And when people tell us about justice, according to Thevaram, we should challenge them. “Push their arguments a little and see what sort of grounding those arguments have. And by doing that so many times,” he emphasized, “I have discovered a universal formula.”

“What is it? What is it?” I asked in excitement.

“It is a spelling issue, you see. I ask them to spell the word `justice’, and you know how they spell it?” “How,” I ask.

“`aar’, `eee’, `vee’, `eee’ `en’, `gee’, ‘eee’.”

“Very poor spelling indeed,” I am sure you will agree. We can blame it on 1956 and all that.

Let’s fast forward to the endgame that was reached in May 2009. An asymmetric end, some continue to complain, but being the grown-up man he is Thevaram wants to move on. Shortly after that end game, he had made a promise – a promise to his old man Sivapuranam, that he will come back often to Sri Lanka, to engage and to contribute in small ways.

Now we all know how easy it is to make promises, and not keep them. A bit like New Year resolutions, we could say. Take me, for example. I promise to become a vegetarian, to cut down on beer, to go regularly to the gym etc., on the first day of every year. Ten promises I make to myself, but never really keep them. Nowadays I only make nine promises. The tenth one is reserved. It is to review the previous nine on 15th January.

But in the case of this Thevaram – Sivapuranam Pact, the promise cannot be broken. It is a contract between two parties with only one signature on the document, one in which trust dominates over legality. For when the contract was signed, old man Sivapuranam was already dead and was about to be cremated at the Kanatte cemetery, just about 50 metres from where Chandraguptha’s photograph was taken. But unlike what happened to the boy, we know with certainty that Thevaram’s lucky old man was dead well before the pyre was lit.

And so it was that Thevaram arrived at the HillTop University in the latter part of 2009, ready to engage. He met with a class of bright young graduates and spoke to them about many things. Advanced topics in molecular biology and why a person with mathematical skills would want to study that fascinating subject, tricks in Artificial Intelligence and its use in mining large and complex datasets and so on.

But something classic Sri Lankan (Michael Meyler, take notes) also happened in his meetings with the young people. When a man over 50 meets young people about half his age, he starts telling stories from the past. So did Thevaram, telling them stories about the electronic professor whom nobody understood, the professors in mechanics, soils and structures who were exceptionally talented in their subjects, the professor who studied the stability of power systems and did part-time politics from the extreme left end, the thermodynamics professor who cultivated a sense of social awareness among students with witty remarks, and the professor who got sacked for flying a black flag when President Pinochchio (yes, you got it, the guy whose nose became long because he told lies) visited the Hill Country. Thevaram also told them about the consistency of the toilets that didn’t flush across the decades, and about recognizing the curtain hanging in the computer room being precisely the same as it was all those years ago.

A clever young lady in the class, whom I shall call Udarata Menike to hide her identity, decided to put a stop to these boring stories. “When did you graduate from here, Sir?” she asked politely.

“1982,” Thevaram replied, “Yeah, it was just a year before I left the country in 1983.”

Note he could easily have put a full stop after the “1982” to answer her question. Instead he chooses to calibrate, putting events in context by mentioning that 1982 was 1983 minus one. Oh Christ!

Young Udarata Menike offered him the badly needed perfect full stop, which subsequently was to become a driving philosophy of my friend’s political thinking on Sri Lankan affairs. Her comment helped him re-gain something stolen from him thirty years ago this week.

“Ah, Sir, I wasn’t even born then, no.”

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Latest comments

  • 0
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    Better still,”fastforward” to 1951 – when successive massacres of tamils commenced,purely because they were tamils.

    All have been documented by the North East Secretariat On Human Rights.
    Seatch the web and you will find it.

    1983 came much later.

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      ” 1951 – successive massacres of tamils commenced,purely because they were tamils”.
      Quite a strong statement. What would you suspect as the reason for such brutal animosity towards Tamils?

      By the way, when I searched the web for NESOHR this is what I got:
      “Due to the one sided reporting of alleged government atrocities only, the credibility of NESOHR in human rights circles was quite low and it was not perceived as trustworthy or reliable organisation”

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    Bloody brilliant! This guy gets better all the time…and is a master of black humor too.

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      Lets hope he drinks more beer! It seems to have a positive effect. Also make me think, how many of our best minds have abandoned SL due to the conflict. What a human resource loss.

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    Superb piece of writing!

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    30 years is a long time. Most of the actors are no more. Memories distant and fading; despite time, some memories more poignant, than others, one particular memory I have is waiting at KKS for my friend to embark from a cargo ship and the endless stream of people walking listlessly towards an uncertain future.

    There is a vast chasm among those who experienced 83 and those who didn’t. We, who experienced the pogrom, want to draw our young into a memory that has neither granularity nor texture. How do you make them understand the pain and the humiliation? There is nothing to show and therein lies the conundrum; what is it that we commemorate?

    There are those us who want our children to remember with us, the agony and trauma and there are those of us who would like to move on. The latter option is cowardice. The lack of atonement and closure bothers me. Conversations among young men and women on Facebook for example don’t center around 83. Their parents perhaps had the same difficulty articulating the fault lines, and considered moving on, premised on the notion that nothing could be gained.

    Had those parents chosen the more egalitarian viewpoint of ensuring that future generations knew how and why we chose self-destruction, we may not have a repeat of 83, a frighteningly familiar pattern of events that are unfolding today. By demurring are we not beginning to let our children feed on the very mistrust and envy that led to the pogrom?

    Three decades without remorse will bring nothing but more misery to the peoples of this country. We will remain as one country but a divided nation; one triumphant another desolate and humiliated. Conversations among those who think of themselves as victors will not include the futility of war. Tales of the heroics of those who fought the war would be repeated, with the enemy made to look more ruthless and more ferocious. Those who relate and those who listen will not have the magnanimity to concede that the war on their fellow citizens was an unnecessary war. Conversations among those who were vanquished cannot be any different. There will be stories of how the combatants fought bravely against a ruthless enemy.

    Pirapakaran was born as a result of 1956. He was fed stories of atrocities committed by the Sinhalese. Young people will be fed stories about the war and the heroes who fought on both sides. Young men and women will dream of retribution and revenge. The seed for a future conflict is already planted; is there conjecture about the outcome 30 years from now?

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      A very thoughtful and insightful analysis by MY Foote.
      One can only hope that his pessimism is not warranted and that we really can move on.However,as one studies the moves of the government and the writings of the intelligientsia and the fanatical and scurrilous journalists in the media one cannot help sharing M<Y Foote's forebodings.The urge to dominate and destroy the minorities seems very deep-seated among some of the more powerful segments of the majority.

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        Cincinattus,

        You should also regularly read Tamilnet and other Tamil media who act as the conscience of Tamils. You will note how ‘justice’ is spelt by them (aar, eee, vee, eee, en, gee, eee….)

        Two hands are required to clap.

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    A light touch with a profound message.I hope it penetrates the thick hides of the various fanaticas.
    A worthy successor to the political satirist of old who called himself Deadalus!

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      You must be one of the few who remember ‘Daedulus’. If may take the liberty, on behalf of my late father, Mervyn, I thank you. As some readers may remember, ‘Daedulus’ was later ‘The Outsider’ (‘Off my Beat’) and finally , Kautilya. Readers of his ‘Lanka Guardian’ would remember your contributions in its pages.

      When I read the diatribes against 13A, I recall one of his lines from a Kautilya column, in which a Sinhala opponent of provincial devolution who belongs to the ‘Gonthadiya School of Strategic Studies’ concludes that “we mustn’t give the Tamils too much, because the Tamils ARE too much!”

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    These young marauders must still be around albeit much older. It would be an interesting detective work to see if they could be tracked down and made to account for what happened here.

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    Excellent piece. I am a Sinhalese pushing 50 and living in Pamankade at the time. We were one of two Sinhalese families living on our lane and the rest of our lane were Tamil families. We couldn’t stop the destruction of some of those homes of our friends but we resisted it to the bitter end. That end, was a strengthening of the bond between the families down our lane that we carry to this day.

    Over the next 26 years, what neither the Sinhalese people or the Tamil people had was the desire to resist the politics of racial segregation and the manipulations that of the leaders who whipped many of a different social class into a frenzy and sent them to their deaths. If we had had the courage to do so, our country would have been like our lane. Stronger in our bonds because of the fact that there was such an aggressive and brutal attempt to tear us apart.

    Let us who live now and were also unfortunately alive during those times and witnessed the relatively happily killed or the definitely happily dead attempt to fade the memory of both the apparatus inside and the curtain that was drawn down on our particularly macabre lab of destruction.

    Let those who arose after the fact be allowed to live innocent of it.

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    Niranjan,

    One can argue that what is often called justice is just revenge by society that is based on an orderly process of prosecution, defense and punishment. Democratic societies cannot just let murderers on the loose, with the argument that punishing the murderer won’t bring back the victims to life. They make every effort to put the murderers behind bars for life, albeit with due process. In the absence of any such processes–or where there is it is well-known that such a judicial process will be a sham, as often happens in Sri Lanka, victims will often take the law into their own hands.

    So the ‘justice, not revenge’ arguments are utterly simplistic in the absence of any push by a majority of civilized society to follow due process to punish the offenders, or war criminals.

    The LTTE’s leadership can be said to have got the punishment it deserved; but there are other criminals still holding power. What is the game plan to bring justice to them? Failure to ensure such an outcome will inevitably lead to the victims again taking the law into their own hands. Simplistic calls for reconciliation and ‘justice, not revenge,’ intended to tell people that they should work with the criminals and let them off the hook, do not impress me.

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      This is another shallow casual analysis of ethnic and religious animosities caused by Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism of the ruling elites in Sri Lanka since independence.

      No wonder, when you keep sipping beer, you will get some intoxicated ideas about a far away poor people you left behind.

      Justice must be done to the victimized people and communities. Do you know that the minorities are living in mortal fear right now, while you are drinking beer? Get serious man.

      For 65 years Tamils have suffered immensely under every regime since independence. 1983 is only a dot, not the beginning in their sad history since 1948.

      You cannot just wipe out the collective memory and live happily ever after, if one lives in a country where there is no rule of law. Judges are telling BBS and Muslims to settle criminal offences out of court! Police look away at crime scenes or even aid the culprits. Armed forces are grabbing peoples’ lands with impunity.

      What was going on in Sri Lanka was not revenge and counter-revenge as you suggest: It IS continuing institutionalized injustice against Tamils: US State Department has been documenting this institutionalized discrimination for several decades. Tamils tried to extricate themselves from the Sinhala yoke, but failed because of the connivance of the world powers.

      I am a retired professor of engineering from a world renowned university, and I analyse matters starting with proper premises in a rigorous, logical manner under controlled conditions to reach valid conclusions to be empirically confirmed. Shallow thinking and analysis will yield garbage. There are of course those with vested interests, who don’t bother with injustices, act as cheer leaders for such articles.

      To get the big picture, my wish is that an International Criminal Tribunal be established to find the wrong doings of all parties in Sri Lanka, punish the guilty (not revenge, justice), and the UN determine the destiny of Sri Lanka so that the abuses of the past 65 years (or more) will not be repeated by the future rulers. There are some out there, who will say it’s not realistic and so forth, but it is a must for a peaceful and just Sri Lanka. Please read the articles of Francis A. Boyle, who is an authority in these matters. You will be enlightened.

      Mahinda, Gotha, Basil, Sarath Fonseka, and others implicated in war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide must receive justice.

      Ignorance is not bliss, contrary to what conventional wisdom implies: Those who don’t remember history are condemned to repeat it.

      • 0
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        I think you meant to reply to the author–Niranjan, not me.

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          Yes

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        Thiru,

        It is good that you are retired so the next batches of students will be spared from a hateful fool whose wires have got crossed due to decay.

        Let’s also add to the list of criminals that you omitted…..the 11,000 combatants SL forces captured at the end of the war, the diaspora leaders who funded all those massacres and bombings mentioned (and not mentioned by Niranjan), this include the leaders of GTF, TGTE etc who acted as advisors of LTTE and at one time kept the money robbed by LTTE from state banks in their churches, Adele Balasingham who garlanded cynaide vials to young girls to destroy others, TNA leaders who provided political cover to the killings & destruction. To me all of these are criminals who aided and abetted terrorism.

        I am a victim of their actions. I saw the carnage inflicted in the so called sinhala border villages, I saw bombs exploding in Colombo & I have lost my loved ones to those massacres.

        So far I have not received justice because the West is providing safe heaven to those who masterminded destruction in my motherland. Should I educate my kids who were borne post 2000 so that some day they may ensure justice (i.e. revenge) is done?

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        If you received your Engineering degree from Sri Lanka you should be thankful to this country for the free education you benefited from. You say “minorities are living in mortal fear right now”, is that the reason 50% of the Tamil population live outside the north and among the Sinhalese? What do you think happened to “the mortal fear” of rich Tamil businessmen and professionals that live in and around Colombo?
        You should not mix up the last 30 years of Tamil militancy with the current BBS, anti Muslim and other corrupt activities. Majority of the Sinhalese do recent such and if the current leadership is unresponsive they will be dealt with at the next elections.
        Looking back at the events of the past 30 years I am supportive of the presence of armed forces and their taking over suitable land as long as the people are duly compensated. People of the south have made similar sacrifices with their land for development and the security of the country. Why should the people of north be exempted?
        You say “Tamils tried to extricate themselves from the Sinhala yoke …” why? Do you think every minority of every country should extricate from the majority by means of terrorism and violence as the LTTE did? Consider the Blacks in the US. Did separate schools, separate public facilities, no voting rights, harsh punishments etc. lead them to suicide murder and terrorism? Look now, they are almost equally treated as the majority. Raising arms against a legitimate government you will have consequences. You need to realize innocent civilians are often the casualties of such short sighted actions.

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    I love your writing ., in 83 I was in peradeniya efac but shame on me I never saw but only heard about what took place. I know any of my friends took in my tamil friends and looked after them . dont forget 83 statred due 13 of my owned gunned down in cold blood . I lost many of my own friends during the 30 years that followed . capt Nilantha yapa ,capt Aladeniya the list goes on . but both of us , by us I mean sinhalese and tamils lost so much for 13 and 300 .. soooo much more, may be we have to rebuild that trust little by little . it wont come back cus india tells us to or the EU does not give a few tarriffs. it will take time but it will come .. forgive us for not believing that an army or sigh a police is not the best idea now. let it take time for we all know we have all lost so much more for so much less.

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      Abhaya,

      July 83 involved about 3000 deaths of innocent Tamils. That you, like most Southern racists, still minimize it to 300, tells everything we need to know.

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        Agnos,

        We can continue to count if you want to take that path, I will count mine and you can count yours.

        Suggest you re-read Niranjan’s article.

        You could also call me a Southern racist (like many CT commentators do). But at least I have worked as a volunteer from July’83 to August’84 providing relief to July’83 victims. I have spent so many sleepless nights working and organising care to those innocent people. My only gain is the inner satisfaction of helping fellow human beings in their need.

        What have you done? Other than may be funding Arul motars…..

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      “. don’t forget 83 started due 13 of my owned gunned down in cold blood”.

      This was not a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka in 1983 as many make it out to be: It was the most vicious up to that time.

      I have seen as a child the aftermath of 1958 anti-Tamil riots when hundreds of Tamils were killed, property destroyed, looted, and thousands suffered immensely in Independent Ceylon all because they asked for reasonable rights from the Sinhala majority government.

      In 1977, I was lucky not being killed or hurt in Anurathapura, because I felt lazy to travel by train from Jaffna to Colombo on that fateful night train. Few days after, I saw the devastation to Tamil property on my road trip to Colombo. In 1977 too many Tamils suffered death, property loss and sexual abuse.

      Armed struggle by the Tamils started in response to Sinhala pogroms and other injustices let loose on them from time to time, not vise versa.

      Recently the Minister of Justice said that rule of law has failed, and he doesn’t find it unethical to stick to his position. People elect MPs and they become turncoats.

      Sri Lanka needs a complete overhaul to clean up the cumulative misrule created by the majoritarian rulers since independence. It’s a cancer which keeps spreading to the whole body.

      Those who clamour for peace and reconciliation bypassing justice, are doing a grave disservice to humanity in Sri Lanka, like what the international community did during the final stages of the genocidal war in 2009. Next time it might be the Muslims. With the actors still the same, history will repeat itself without learning the truth about the past even if it’s done painfully.

      International action is urgently needed as I don’t see any genuine majority leader capable of leading a united Sri Lanka today.

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    Dear Thiru,
    If you stare long enough at the picture of the boy in the Borella picture, you might even see the TELO boys who suffered the same fate at Thirunelveli junction in 1986. Those kids also begged for their lives, and Kittu ordered them killed and burnt (“in which order we will never know” as Mahesan writes). That way, just a couple of years after 1983, Tamils lost any moral high ground, and then were taken at gunpoint to Mullivaikkal. All major international players were supportive of GOSL in putting down the Tigers, whatever the civilian cost was to be. So they are unlikely to come to grant your wish of an international investigation.

    It is disappointing that with your admirable track record of being an engineering professor, boasting about analytic and logical skills in problem solving, the best you can come up with is a “wish”. How about designing a practical road map to what you see as a solution to the plight of Tamils?

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    Endless postmortems,when will we have the burial! it is already rotting and stinking.

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    Dear Mahesan,

    Reading the account of your conversation with this fellow is the most hilarious account I have ever read. First of all I think when you met this Tamil guy you were already highly intoxicated and going through a state of Hallucination.
    The name Sivapuranam Thevaram is a figment of your imagination and it should read Manikkavasagar Thirunavvukkarasar. But these are two separate individuals.
    I think the lady Udarata Menike you claimed joined in the conversation must have been Pati Avvaiyar ( it is a pity she didn’t sing ‘Gnanapalathai pilinthu’) and the bit about boring must have been a mutual feeling.

    But if the conversation actually took place you are lucky to be alive as if it was overheard by Gothas coolies you wouldn’t be alive today to tell the tale.
    I think you must be a Professor of Fantasies. Dream on buddy

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