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A visit to Marga



By Uditha Devapriya

“The ideological direction of the journal will be radical in that it will unremittingly question the values and systems that hinder development. It stands for an equitable and humane social order which will eradicate social and economic privilege and which will leave no room for the concentration and arbitrary exercise of power in any form.”

“About Marga”, Marga Journal, Volume I, 1971

A random jaunt in Borella took me and my research assistant to Marga Institute, in my old hometown at Kotte. Sri Lanka’s oldest development think-tank – and Sri Lanka’s oldest such institution – Marga was formed in 1971 to promote and facilitate research into the island’s socioeconomic problems. That its founding coincided with the first JVP insurrection is not fortuitous: as Gamini Samaranayake would point out, the insurrection proved for the first time that an armed group could threaten the State. Among other commentators, Gamini Keerawella, Gananath Obeyesekere, Fred Halliday, and Hector Abhayavardhana grappled with the JVP’s origins, what it was doing, and where it intended to go. It was in the midst of these often-fiery debates and discussions that Marga came to be.

Marga’s origins were linked to two distinct but interrelated developments: the expansion of the country’s welfare system and social services, and the displacement of the old colonial elite. The turning point, obviously, was 1956: a year which, as I have written before, meant many things to many people. Yet whatever the political repercussions of the nationalist-populist wave that swept across the country in its wake, the 1956 election led to a shift in the country’s economic trajectory. This shift may or may not have completely uprooted the old order: as Regi Siriwardena noted in a response to Kumari Jayawardena, 1956 “diverted the discontent of the ‘underprivileged’ into false channels, and thus helped to preserve the fundamental class structure intact.” But its consequences were profound.

The repercussions of these developments were felt more tangibly in the 1960s. During that decade, the country’s population rose by 2.6 million, more than a quarter. This exerted a significant pressure on productive capacity and social services – or to be more specific, as Gamani Corea observed, on “education, health, and other facilities in the social sphere, and above all employment opportunities.” It did not help that the university system was rapidly expanding as well: from 1950 to 1965 the student population rose from a meagre 2,000 to a massive 10,000. What these figures indicate was that more and more people were entering the education system and benefitting from social services, even as the country’s productive capacity was stagnating: it was in this period that Sri Lanka experienced a severe balance of payments crisis, compelling the IMF to form an Aid Group for the country.

                                                                                                                        LSSP stalwarts 

The country, in other words, was facing a classic developmental cul-de-sac. Its social welfare schemes were growing to unsustainable levels, but the economy was not generating the surpluses needed to maintain them. This was as true of university education as of primary and secondary education: from 1956 to 1963, the number of students enrolled in primary and secondary schools jumped from a little less than 170,000 to almost 250,000. Statistics, however, tell us only part of the story: what is more important are the social groups which benefitted from these developments. Simply put, reforms such as the Sinhala Only Act, the nationalisation of schools, and the introduction of the vernacular as a medium of instruction entrenched a Sinhala petty bourgeoisie. This petty bourgeoisie, as Gamini Keerawella has aptly observed, “educated their children in the firm expectation that it was the best possible investment.” A JVP pamphlet from 1970 underlies these expectations clearly:

“Our poor parents having a thousand and one hopes for us spent the fruits of the sweat of their labour on education instead of spending it on food or clothing or building a house. We studied hard, keeping up in the nights, till our eyes ached. We sat examinations. We passed examinations. We obtained degrees… Finally, as a punishment we were forced to loiter in the streets and face the insults and the laughter of the capitalists.”

The contradiction here was an echo or a microcosm of the contradictions buttressing the economy. It was, broadly, a problem of industrialisation, or the lack thereof. An exporter of primary commodities, Sri Lanka had waded through several booms, busts, and slumps since independence. In fact, contrary to what commentators and writers who should know better argue, the economy was stagnating even before 1948: despite a somewhat impressive array of road and rail networks, the country had been run down to the ground by a century and a half of plantation colonialism. There are several ways of diagnosing this problem, and there were fierce debates over what could resolve it: some felt that the plantation sector needed to be encouraged, in the hope it would spur growth. Yet such a prognosis – a trickle-down theory rehashed for settler states – could not resolve the dilemma of a sector which thrived on the very impoverishment of rest of the economy.

In 1957 a group of economists visited Sri Lanka. The group included Joan Robinson and John K. Galbraith. Keynesian in their outlook, they made a sweeping set of recommendations for the country. In the course of her study, the Cambridge educated Robinson made a remark about the country which economists and historians keep returning to: she bluntly observed that “you Ceylonese had eaten the fruit before you planted the tree.” Those quoting her, however, have failed to place this remark in its proper context: Robinson was writing about trade unions, and she was referring to their demand for a greater share of profits and the absence of “energetic, enterprising, and thrifty capitalists” who could be expected to share those profits. Her statement showed clearly that whatever “native capitalists” that Sri Lanka had were not capable of spurring the kind of growth which the country needed, particularly in the face of an expanding public sector and social welfare system.

The Sri Lankan Left tried to tackle this issue in its own special way. It advocated State intervention and the socialisation of the means of production. Yet the Left was undone by two fundamental contradictions. On the one hand, while it had enjoyed some support among the rural masses through the plantation community, the UNP government, facing a formidable threat to their interests, stripped this community of their citizenship, rendering them stateless overnight. On the other hand, the S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike government’s mobilisation of Sinhala nationalist forces deprived the Left of a rural progressive-populist base, and stunted whatever links it had established between the working class and the rural middle-class, or between nationalist and anti-imperialist forces. This made the Left more amenable to the idea of electoral compromise, paving the way for a rapprochement with the SLFP which would divide, weaken, and eventually cripple it.

In any case, the newly emerging rural middle classes in the 1960s spoke a different language and needed to be pandered to by a different political setup. Despite the breakup of the Communist Party into Russian and Chinese factions, there was a perception, widely shared, that neither the comprador elite nor the mainstream Left could resolve the problems of the     country. The breakup of the Communist Party and the LSSP’s decision to align with the SLFP led to a tenuous debate in the Left, a debate that was temporarily lulled by the formation of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Whatever illusions the old liberal elite and the Old Left – much of which, after all, hailed from the same Westernised and urban background – shared at this point were fundamentally at odds with the aspirations and the anxieties of the classes which these new parties sought to represent. To quote Regi Siriwardena, “the JVP and the LTTE were children of a different political culture.”

The Old Left had its own views of the JVP, which need not concern us here. Suffice it to say that while the LSSP’s main theoretician, Hector Abhayavardhana, castigated the JVP for veering to the right of right-wing governments and the left of left-wing governments, the likes of N. M. Perera and Colvin R. de Silva summoned the bogey of CIA sponsored military coups to tar the party as a right-wing conspiracy against a left-wing government. This was of course the obverse of what was happening: a left-wing government, elected on a popular mandate, had been threatened by a left-wing group. The JVP, for its part and in pursuit of electoral popularity, equated the UNP with the SLFP, drumming up support among sections of the middle-class, or rural petty bourgeoisie, who had felt let down by both parties. It was in light of these developments that the need for a development research institution, which could examine the country’s developmental dilemmas, was first articulated. Marga Institute emerged from these discussions. Given the scale and complexity of the issues it was seeking solutions for, its contribution had to be seminal, significant, substantive.

The very first issue of the Marga Journal outlined these problems and dilemmas. Edited by Godfrey Gunatilleke, the Journal was overseen by a Board of Management which included Regi Siriwardena and Gamani Corea. The first issue contained articles by some of the top intellectual minds of the day, including Ralph Pieris. The introduction set the tone for the rest of the Journal: in its first paragraph, it pointed out that compared to “the intellectual activity in most other developing countries, Ceylon had little to offer in the form of serious writing by Ceylonese on contemporary social and economic problems.” It then went on to point out the need “for a more productive and socially responsive intellectual community”, which could facilitate research into these problems. In this context, Marga set as its aim the promotion of “the conditions for the growth of a more active intellectual community” in the country. The editorial, however, was aware of the financing issues that could beset such an endeavour, and to this end recommended that it “establish a fund which will initially help to maintain the journal till it is established on a sound financial basis.”

Over the next few decades, Marga’s contribution to development research remained, to say the least, substantive. It set the tone and the pace for other institutions, both independent and State-funded, and became something of a landmark in the context of civil society and academia in the country. To say that is not to belittle, still less ignore, the convulsions in civil society and academia which the institute had to wade through: as Vinod Moonesinghe has observed in a research paper, the neoliberalisation of the country’s economy after 1977 led to a fundamental shift in the way civil society outfits, especially NGOs, operated. Many of these outfits developed a “hegemonic identity” that was more political than economic, or more “rights” oriented than “development” oriented. Ahilan Kadirgamar’s point about the evolution of these institutions, that there has been “a shift away from analysing agriculture and food which research centres focused on four decades ago”, can be reiterated here as well. In that light, Marga remains defiantly symbolic of the alternative paths that think-tank outfits, especially those concerned with development, could have traversed.

This country urgently needs a rehaul if not overhaul of the idea of development, research institutions, and think-tanks. The shift to private sector funding and State patronage – the latter, in my view, much less onerous than the former – has led to a few think-tanks and institutions, concentrated in Colombo and limited to the English-speaking elite and middle-classes, dominating civil society discourse in the country. Organisations like Marga showed that it was possible, in the context of their time, to rethink development, and to raise not just the material-economic but also the moral-ethical dimensions of growth in the Global South. But that was a time when economics was dominated by figures like Gamani Corea, S. B. D. de Silva, and G. V. S. de Silva. Godfrey Gunatilleke, the founder of Marga, is very much active, an indefatigable contributor to development debates in this country. Yet such voices are few and far between. To continue their legacy, to add to what they have contributed, it is necessary to rethink development research. That is what Marga once did, what Marga can once again do, and what Marga in fact should be doing.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at

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Have Humanities and Social Sciences muddied water enough?



By Maduranga Kalugampitiya

The domain of the humanities and social sciences is under attack more than ever before. The relevance, as well as usefulness of the degrees earned in those fields, is being questioned left, right, and centre. The question of whether it is meaningful at all to be spending, if not wasting, the limited financial resources available in the coffers to produce graduates in those fields is raised constantly, at multiple levels. Attempts are being made to introduce a little bit of soft skills into the curricula in order to add ‘value’ to the degree programmes in the field. The assumption here is that either such degree programmes do not impart any skills or the skills that they impart are of no value. We often see this widely-shared profoundly negative attitude towards the humanities and the social sciences (more towards the former than towards the latter) being projected on the practitioners (students, teachers, and researchers) in those areas. At a top-level meeting, which was held one to two years ago, with the participation of policy-makers in higher education and academics and educationists representing the humanities and social sciences departments, at state universities, a key figure in the higher education establishment claimed that the students who come to the humanities and social sciences faculties were ‘late-developers’. What better (or should I say worse?) indication of the official attitude towards those of us in the humanities and the social sciences!

While acknowledging that many of the key factors that have resulted in downgrading the humanities and social sciences disciplines are global by nature and are very much part of the neoliberal world order, which dominates the day, I wish to ask if we, the practitioners in the said fields, have done our part to counter the attack.

What the humanities and the social sciences engage with is essentially and self-consciously social. What these disciplines have to say has a direct bearing on the social dimension of human existence. It is near impossible to discuss phenomena in economics, political science, or sociology without having to reflect upon and use examples from what happens in our lives and around us. One cannot even begin to talk about teaching English as a second language without taking a look at her/his own experience learning English and the struggles that many people go through at different levels doing the same. One cannot talk about successful ways of teaching foreign languages without recognizing the need to incorporate an engagement with the cultural life of those languages at some level. No reading of an artwork—be it a novel, a movie, a painting, a sculpture, a poem, whatever—is possible without the reader at least subconsciously reflecting upon the broader context in which those artworks are set and also relating her own context or experience to what is being read. A legal scholar cannot read a legislation without paying attention to the social implications of the legislation and the dynamics of the community at whom that legislation is directed. The point is our own existence as social beings is right in the middle of what we engage with in such disciplines. To steal (and do so self-consciously) a term from the hard/natural sciences, society is essentially the ‘laboratory’ in which those in the humanities and social sciences conduct their work. There may be some areas of study within the humanities and social sciences which do not require an explicit engagement with our social existence, but I would say that such areas, if any, are limited in number.

Needless to say that every social intervention is political in nature. It involves unsettling what appears to be normal about our social existence in some way. One cannot make interventions that have a lasting impact without muddying the water which we have been made to believe is clear. How much of muddying do we as practitioners in the field of humanities and social sciences do is a question that needs to be asked.

Unfortunately, we do not see much work in the humanities and social sciences which unsettles the dominant order. What we often see is work that reinforces and reaffirms the dominant structures, systems, and lines of thought. Lack of rigorous academic training and exposure to critical theory is clearly one of the factors which prevents some scholars in the field from being able to make interventions that are capable of muddying the water, but the fact that we sometimes do not see much muddying even on the part of the more adept scholars shows that lack of rigorous training is not the sole reason.

Muddying the water is no simple matter. To use a problematic, yet in my view useful, analogy, a scholar in the said field trying to make an intervention that results in unsettling the order is like a hydrogen atom in H2O, ‘water’ in layperson’s language, trying to make an intervention which results in a re-evaluation of the oxygen atom. Such an intervention invariably entails a re-evaluation of the hydrogen atom as well, for the reason that the two atoms are part of an organic whole. One cannot be purely objective in its reading of the other. Such an intervention is bound to be as unsettling for the hydrogen atom as it is for the oxygen atom. Similarly, in a majority of contexts, a scholar in the area of the humanities and social sciences cannot make an intervention, the kind that pushes the boundaries of knowledge, without unsettling the dominant structures and value systems, which they themselves are part of, live by, and also benefit from. For instance, the norms, values, and practices which define the idea of marriage in contexts like ours are things that a male scholar would have to deal with as a member of our society, and any intervention on his part which raises questions about gender-based inequalities embodied in such norms, values, and practices would be to question his own privilege. Needless to say that such an intervention could result in an existential crisis for the scholar, at least temporarily. Such interventions also entail the possibility of backlash from society. One needs thorough training to withstand that pressure.

In place of interventions that unsettle the existing order, what we often see is work, which re-presents commonsensical knowledge garbed in jargon. To give an example from an area that I am a bit familiar with, much of the work that takes place in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) identifies lack of motivation on the part of the students and also teachers and also lack of proper training for teachers as the primary reasons for the plight of English education in the country. This reading is not very different from a layperson’s understanding of the problem, and what we often see as research findings in the field of ESL is the same understanding, albeit dressed up in technical-sounding language. Such readings do not unsettle the existing order. They put the blame on the powerless. Very limited is the work that sees the present plight of English education as a systemic or structural problem. Reading that plight as a systemic problem requires us to re-evaluate the fundamental structures which govern our society, and such re-evaluation is unsettling is many ways. I argue that that is what is expected of scholarship in the ESL field, but unfortunately that is not what we see as coming out of the field.

If what gets produced as knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is jargonized commonsense, then the claim that such fields have nothing important to say is valid. If what a scholar in those fields has to say is not different to a layperson’s understanding of a given reality, the question whether there is any point in producing such scholars becomes valid.

In my view, the humanities and social sciences are in need of fundamental restructuring. This restructuring is not the kind which calls for the incorporation of a bit of soft skills here and a bit of soft skills there so that those who come out of those fields easily fit into predefined slots in society but the kind that results in the enhancement of the critical thinking capacity of the scholars. It is the kind of restructuring that would produce scholars who are capable of engaging in a political reading of the realities that define our existence in society and raise difficult questions about such existence, in other words, scholars who are capable of muddying the water.

(Maduranga Kalugampitiya is attached to Department of English, University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall thatparodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Selective targeting not law’s purpose



By Jehan Perera

The re-emergence of Donald Trump in the United States is a reminder that change is not permanent. Former President Trump is currently utilising the grievances of the white population in the United States with regard to the economic difficulties that many of them face to make the case that they need to be united to maintain their position in society. He is coming forward as their champion. The saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, among many others, though Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) stated that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790. The phrase is often used to emphasise the importance of being vigilant in protecting one’s rights and freedoms.

Ethnic and religious identity are two powerful concepts by which people may be mobilised the world over. This is a phenomenon that seemed to have subsided in Western Europe due to centuries of secular practices in which the state was made secular and neutral between ethnicities and religions. For a short while last year during the Aragalaya, it seemed that Sri Lanka was transcending its ethnic and religious cleavages in the face of the unexpected economic calamity that plunged large sections of the population back into poverty. There was unprecedented unity especially at the street level to demonstrate publicly that the government that had brought the country to this sorry pass had to go. The mighty force of people’s power succeeded in driving the leaders of that government out of power. Hopefully, there will be a government in the future that will bring the unity and mutual respect within the people, especially the younger generations, to the fore and the sooner the better as the price is growing higher by the day.

But like the irrepressible Donald Trump the old order is fighting to stage its comeback. The rhetoric of ethnicity and religion being in danger is surfacing once more. President Ranil Wickremesinghe who proclaimed late last year that the 13th Amendment to the constitution would be implemented in full, as it was meant to be, and enable the devolution of power to be enjoyed by the people of the provinces, including those dominated by Tamils and Muslims, has gone silent on this promise. The old order to which he is providing a new economic vision is clearly recalcitrant on ethno-religious matters. As a result, the government’s bold plan to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as promised to the international community in 2015 to address the unresolved human rights issues of the war, is reportedly on the rocks. The main Tamil political parties have made statements that they will not legitimise or accept such a mechanism in the absence of a genuine devolution of power. Politics must not override policies.


The sense of threat to ethnicity and religion looms too large once again for forward movement in conflict resolution between the different communities that constitute the Sri Lankan nation which is diverse and plural. Two unlikely persons now find themselves at the centre of an emotion-heavy ethno-religious storm. One is a comedian, the other is a religious preacher. Both of them have offended the religious sensibilities of many in the ethno-religious Sinhala Buddhist majority community. Both of their statements were originally made to small audiences of their own persuasion, but were then projected through social media to reach much larger audiences. The question is whether they made these statements to rouse religious hatred and violence. There have been numerous statements from all sides of the divide, whether ethnic, religious or political, denouncing them for their utterances.

Both comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya and pastor Jerome Fernando have apologised for offending and hurting the religious sentiments of the Buddhist population. They made an attempt to remedy the situation when they realised the hurt, the anger and the opposition they had generated. This is not the first time that such hurtful and offensive comments have been made by members of one ethno-religious community against members of another ethnic-religious community. Taking advantage of this fact the government is arguing the case for the control of social media and also the mainstream media. It is preparing to bring forward legislation for a Broadcasting Regulatory Commission that would also pave the way to imprison journalists for their reporting, impose fines, and also revoke the licences issued to electronic media institutions if they impact negatively on national security, national economy, and public order or create any conflict among races and religions.

In a free society, opportunities are provided for people to be able to air their thoughts and dissents openly, be it at Hyde Park or through their representatives in Parliament. The threat to freedom of speech and to the media that can arise from this new law can be seen in the way that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which is the world’s standard bearer on civil and political rights has been used and is being abused in Sri Lanka. It was incorporated into Sri Lankan law in a manner that has permitted successive governments to misuse it. It is very likely that the Broadcast Regulatory Commission bill will yield a similar result if passed into law. The arrest and detention of comedian Natasha Edirisooriya under the ICCPR Act has become yet another unfortunate example of the misuse of a law meant to protect human rights by the government. Pastor Jerome Fernando is out of prison as he is currently abroad having left the country a short while before a travel ban was delivered to him.


The state media reported that a “Police officer said that since there is information that she was a person who was in the Aragalaya protest, they are looking into the matter with special attention.” This gives rise to the inference that the reason for her arrest was politically motivated. Comedian Edirisooriya was accused of having violated the provisions in the ICCPR in Section 3(1) that forbids hate speech. Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act prohibits advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility. The international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has pointed out that in the case of Edirisooriya that for speech to be illegal on the grounds of being hate speech it requires “a clear showing of intent to incite others to discriminate, be hostile towards or commit violence against the group in question.” Amnesty International also notes that “When the expression fails to meet the test, even if it is shocking, offensive or disturbing, it should be protected by the state.”

Ironically, in the past there have been many instances of ethnic and religious minorities being targeted in a hateful manner that even led to riots against them, but successive governments have been inactive in protecting them or arresting their persecutors. Such targeting has taken place, often for political purposes in the context of elections, in blatant bids to mobilise sections of the population through appeals to narrow nationalism and fear of the other. The country’s political and governmental leaders need to desist from utilising the ICCPR Act against those who make social and political critiques that are outside the domain of hate speech. The arrest of Bruno Divakara, the owner of SL-Vlogs, under the ICCPR Act is an indication of this larger and more concerning phenomenon which is being brought to the fore by the Broadcasting Regulatory Commission bill.

The crackdown on the space for free expression and critical comment is unacceptable in a democratic polity, especially one as troubled as Sri Lanka, in which the economy has collapsed and caused much suffering to the people and the call to hold elections has been growing. The intervention of the Human Rights Commission which has called on the Inspector General of Police to submit a report on the arrest and its rationale is a hopeful sign that the independence of institutions intended to provide a check and balance will finally prevail. The Sri Lankan state will hopefully evolve to be a neutral arbiter in the disputes between competing ethnic, religious and partisan political visions of what the state should be and what constitutes acceptable behaviour within it. Taking on undemocratic powers in a variety of ways and within a short space of time is unlikely to deliver economic resurgence and a stable and democratic governance the country longs for. Without freedom, justice and fair play within, there can be no hope of economic development that President Wickremesinghe would be wanting to see.

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Girl power… to light up our scene



Manthra: Pop, rock and Sinhala songs

We have never had any outstanding all-girl bands, in the local scene, except, perhaps…yes The Planets, and that was decades ago!

The Planets did make a name for themselves, and they did create quite a lot of excitement, when they went into action.

Of course, abroad, we had several top all-girl bands – outfits like the Spice Girls, Bangles, Destiny’s Child, and The Supremes.

It’s happening even now, in the K-pop scene.

Let’s hope we would have something to shout about…with the band Manthra – an all-girl outfit that came together last year (2022).

Manthra is made up of Hiruni Fernando (leader/bass guitar), Gayathma Liyanage (lead guitar), Amaya Jayarathne (drums), Imeshini Piyumika (keyboards), and Arundathi Hewawitharana (vocals).

Amaya Arundathi and Imeshini are studying at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, while Gayathma is studying Architecture at NIMB, and Hiruni is the Western Music teacher at St. Lawrence’s Convent, and the pianist at Galadari Hotel, having studied piano and classical guitar at West London University.

They have already displayed their talents at various venues, events, weddings, and on TV, as well (Vanithabimana Sirasa TV and Charna TV Art Beat).

Additionally, the band showcased their talent at the talent show held at the Esoft Metro Campus.

The plus factor, where this all-girl outfit is concerned, is that their repertoire is made up rock, pop, and Sinhala songs.

Explaining as to how they came up with the name Manthra, founder member Hiruni said that Manthra means a word, or sound, repeated to aid concentration in meditation, and that the name was suggested by one of the band members.

Hiruni Fernando: Founder and leader of Manthra

She also went on to say that putting together a female band is not an easy task, in the scene here.

“We faced many difficulties in finding members. Some joined and then left, after a short while. Unlike a male band, where there are many male musicians in Sri Lanka, there are only a few female musicians. And then, there are some parents who don’t like their daughters getting involved in music.”

With talented musicians in their line-up, the future certainly looks bright for Manthra who are now keen to project themselves, in an awesome way, in the scene here, and abroad, as well.

“We are keen to do stage shows and we are also planning to create our own songs,” said Hiruni.

Yes, we need an all-girl group to add variety to our scene that is now turning out to be a kind of ‘repeating groove,’ where we see, and hear, almost the same thing…over and over again!

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