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Valorising mythology to invalidate known history

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By ROHANA R. WASALA

Feisal Mansoor (‘Muslims and ban on cattle slaughter’/The Island/October 9, 2020) opens his piece with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, obviously taken from the web: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” However, there is some doubt about the authenticity of that alleged Gandhi quote, because it is not traceable to his writings or his speeches according to quote-researchers; besides, he was usually better known for his great concern for the weak members of human society than for animals. But even if someone just imagined it, there’s no harm done, for the expression of concern for animal welfare attributed to Gandhi, can be easily supported by what we know about him as a champion of non-violence. But the problem here is this: Whether genuine or fake, the Gandhi quote has little or no relevance to the truth that FM’s arbitrary opinions about Sri Lanka’s ‘ancient culture’ misrepresent or conceal, in favour of something else. He seems to completely ignore the millennia long recorded history of the island, which is almost entirely coterminous with its established Buddhist religious culture and is inseparable from it. (Incidentally, the spirit of secularism and democracy that it encourages in governance is a distinctive feature of the country’s majority Buddhist culture; but this is something difficult for most believers of other religions and Sri Lanka-baiters to understand or appreciate.) The greatness of our culture is that it is absolutely tolerant and accommodating towards minority cultures, subject to the implicit legitimate condition that they don’t try to make undue inroads into its space or to subvert it in other ways. To me it looks like FM’s statements are meant to distort, rubbish, and obviate, if possible, Sri Lanka’s ancient Sinhala Buddhist cultural heritage. Is the Gandhi quote meant to imply that our nation has no claim to greatness, and that our treatment of animals falls short of required moral standards observed in civilized countries?

Having said that, it must be stated with emphasis that it is perfectly alright for FM to try to share his personal convictions with others. That is his right as a free citizen. I am enjoying here the same right to articulate my reaction as a Sri Lankan to his views about the ancient history and culture of our beloved Motherland.

First of all, let’s be clear about this: At the very inauguration (i.e., in official terms) of the Buddha Sasana in the island of Lanka, Buddhist missionary Arhant Mahinda Thera admonished the monarch of the land king Devanampiya Tissa in 236 BCE (2256 years ago) thus as recorded in the Mahavamsa (Chapter XIV):

“O great king, the beasts that roam the forest and the birds that fly the skies have the same right to this land as you. The land belongs to the people and to all other living things, and you are not its owner but only its guardian.”

Isn’t this considerably before today’s animal rights protectors, animal ‘status’ guarantors, animal welfare standard maintainers, and various other ‘a fair deal for animals’ worriers, represented in organizations that annually celebrate the World Wildlife Day (March 3), World Animal Day (October 4), etc., at some cost, started talking about the subject?

Compassionate treatment of all sentient beings is an ideal that people brought up in our culture, take for granted. Of course, there are instances where the ideal is observed in the breach. That is human nature. A whole society should not be judged on the basis of the behaviour of a few individuals, who could themselves be victims of circumstances.

FM’s first paragraph is an attempted fusion of the Ravana myth and his religious beliefs, to the exclusion of the historically factual Buddhist element. That Ravana flew his ‘dandu monara yanaya’ (wooden peacock aircraft) and abducted Seetha from what is now called India, is a story. Not even children take that as proven history, but it is a wonderful story, wherever or whenever it originated. Talking monkeys, animal fortune tellers, and other human personality attributed birds and beasts are common in literature in all cultures. The stories that compose our Jataka Potha are shared property in various North Indian literary traditions. The Sanskrit ‘Panchatantra’ from India, interweaves five skeins of moral traditions into a single text composed of stories in which so many animals feature, invested with human qualities. We have a number of talking, philosophising, admonishing birds in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

FM writes: “As Creation is the supreme force in the universe, the beneficence of life and its comprehension through love, is to facilitate as many expressions of life as possible.” That belief is not shared by the predominant religious culture of our country, but is not targetadly criticised or attacked so as to hurt others’ religious beliefs or sentiments. There is evidence that our ancestors ‘worshipped’ the sun as the source of all life, especially plant life, hence important for agriculture. If they deified the sun, it was very meaningful. That ancient religious tradition survives today in the secular Surya Mangalyaya or the Sinhala Aluth Avurudda, held in the month of Bak (Felix/Lucky) in the Sinhala calendar. The ignorant insensitive British colonial authorities arbitrarily renamed it Sinhala Hindu New Year for their own purposes. Tamils and Sinhalese can and do live peaceably together, while observing their separate culturally distinctive festivals. Whether our ancestors called themselves Aryans because they were sun worshippers is highly improbable. Aryans were a white skinned race.The Sinhalese are not. It is not impossible that the Swastika – a sign that symbolizes the Sun was later appropriated by those white people, including Adolf Hitler. The legendary Vijaya of the Mahavamsa could have descended from such a tribe, but that origin story is not accepted today. Newly available archaeological evidence provides proof that our ancestors were a civilised a people (with their pure dark skin) even during the time of the Buddha, and that there were lay Buddhists and Buddhist monks before the arrival of Arahat Mahinda; whose coming appears to have been the result of an official diplomatic mission; he and his retinue were, most probably, royal emissaries from Emperor Asoka’s court as much as Buddhist missionaries. (Read between the lines, the Mahavamsa passages support this impression.)

FM’s reference to Aldous Huxley needs a comment. In the Maha Parinibbana Sutta, the Buddha tells the monks: ‘Atta dipa viharatha’ – ‘Be islands unto yourselves’, meaning you are your own saviour, that is, ‘Realise Nibbanic Bliss, put an end to samsaric suffering, through your own effort’ (which is not beyond you, if you are diligent enough). Writer and brilliant intellectual Aldous Huxley might have independently arrived at this island metaphor to describe his own illusion of self, elusive self-identity. The contemplative W.B. Yeats, himself no mean intellectual, expressed it as ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ It is also possible that both of them came across this idea in Buddhist literature.

Apparently, FM mistakes this profound idea for selfish self-absorption. In his confusion, he imports the phrase ‘enlightened self-interest’ that Adam Smith (considered the ‘father of modern economics’) coined to express his idea that by pursuing one’s own economic benefit one ultimately contributes to the good of others as well, without probably intending to do so. (But it can be thought that he tried to elaborate it as a morally acceptable concept, rather than as a coldly amoral economic one.) However, that is something very different from the Buddhist idea of working for the benefit and wellbeing of others without expecting a reward, generosity or altruism.

 

FM has written:

“As such, enlightened self-interest is the only personal inquiry we can make, with the all- important caveat that in our self-discovery we may not interfere with anything else’s self-discovery.”

He may be seen as giving idiosyncratic twists to the terms ‘enlightened self-interest’ and ‘self-discovery’, which are actually technical terms in their respective characteristic contexts. FM also makes a confusing verbal medley out of words like ahimsa, Dhamma, and Mahasammata. These are words charged with meaning and emotion for Buddhists. ‘Mahasammata’ (the Great Elect/the Universally Chosen One/The People’s Choice) occurs in Chapter II of the Mahavamsa as the earliest genealogical ancestor of the Buddha (and humankind, probably) who lived countless aeons ago. For Sinhalese Buddhists ‘Mahasammata’ is not a historical figure; he is the legendary first king on earth. In the Agganna Sutta (On Knowledge of Beginnings) the Buddha mentions Mahasammata as the first ruler who was appointed, based on his handsome appearance and moral strength, by common consent, to rule over the group of rice growers that was the loosely formed human society then. He was tasked to prevent stealing, to punish the miscreants by banishing, etc. Mahasammata was given a share of the rice crop as payment for his service. Actually, the Agganna Sutta can be interpreted as a scientific account of an alternately expanding and contracting universe, and a gradually evolving earth; and much later anatomically modern humans and organized human societies emerging on earth. There is no talk of a creator or creation, which FM takes for granted. Dharma is what the Buddha preached. Ahimsa is the ideal of nonviolence that is common to most Indian religions, including principally, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

Next, FM quotes two passages from the book ‘Portuguese Encounters with Sri Lanka and the Maldives’ edited by C.R. de Silva, Ashgate, 2009, to assert “that there was no slaughter of cattle in Lanka prior to colonisation”. It is ridiculous in this trivial context to quote from an eminent historian like the professor mentioned. These encounters took place in the 16th to 17th centuries. The book is a scholarly collection of writings taken from Portuguese histories and archives in translation combined with those from local sources. Publishers say: “These documents contribute to the growing understanding that different groups of European colonizers – missionaries, traders and soldiers – had conflicting motivations and objectives. Scholars have also begun to emphasize that the colonized were not mere victims but had their own agendas and that they occasionally successfully manipulated colonial powers.” (I took this extract from Google.com- RRW)

So, the book shows that the natives of these countries matched those invading European interlopers bent on ‘temporal and spiritual conquest’ in their cunning and countervailing skills. They were not half-civilized savages. By the way, I don’t think FM found himself nodding in agreement when reading sentences like the following written by an ignorant Portuguese scribe:

“… In this country there are many false beliefs sown by the devil, and to eradicate them there is a need for much time and trouble…..” (This must be a reference to local Buddhist and Hindu religious beliefs of the time; but the colonizers were too uneducated and uncultured to understand that Buddhism and Hinduism are not ‘religions’ in their sense of the term, and that religion in the colonizers’ sense was, as it still is, a facile superstition to Buddhists. – RRW)

“They (some native people who didn’t kill even the meanest of creatures) do not eat bread, however hungry or needy they might be. Their food is made up of the leaves of a certain creeper (betel leaves) that climbs other trees like ivy. These leaves are smeared with the same kind of lime that they use for whitewashing their houses…”

“There is another class of people that eats fowl and wild boar and deer, but does not eat the flesh of cows, since they believe their souls enter into cows after death; they will never kill a cow and eat its flesh…”

It looks like FM has missed this book: ‘A 16th Century Clash of Civilizations: The Portuguese Presence in Sri Lanka’ by Susantha Goonatilake, 2010. It gives a clear assessment of the effects of the Portuguese colonial presence in our country, which was actually ahead of those European invaders in terms of human civilization. The Portuguese went to Sri Lanka in compliance with a papal bull.

FM makes extremely fallacious claims like the following about his fictitious ‘Lanka of Mahasammata’:

“A vocational caste system handed down secrets to successive generations, in a system where one’s knowledge was one’s wealth, with the Divine as the Supreme Master of one’s craft, one performs one’s duty with an aim to perfection in union of mind and spirit so each attempt brought one closer to the Ultimate Prize.” (Divine as the Supreme Master of one’s craft, Ultimate Prize, What are these?)

“In a land ruled by the Unseen King, in both metaphor and practise, the King embodies Mahasammata and sets the standard for the people”. (There was no Mahasammata in our country’s history. I explained the ‘Mahasammata’ concept above. Who is this Unseen King, FM? Surely a figment of your imagination?)

“The people know that if they live in dhamma, Dhamma would protect them, and the land would be safe”. (This is a misinterpretation of the piece of wisdom which runs in Pali: ‘dhammo have rakkati dhammacarim’ ‘The Dhamma protects the one who lives by the Dhamma’. There’s no protective magic or divine intervention here. But don’t take it literally. You may be sure you live according to the Dhamma. But be mindful enough not to stand in front of an oncoming train.)

The rest of FM’s article makes even less sense. From this point onwards, I fail to find anything in FM’s article worth talking about. The next to nothing he has to say about the subject proposed in his title is: ” I believe that as a Sri Lankan Muslim, it is incumbent on me to respect the mores of my compatriots and to live in a way that will lead to greater social cohesion, amity and unity of purpose…” That is a harmless thought, but I for one do not believe that pre-colonial Sri Lanka was paradise on earth. Besides, that sentiment runs in the face of what FM has been trying to prove to the very end.



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Opinion

In favour of ‘thoughtfulness’

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As KT has enunciated, all human progress is indebted to people who observed, experimented, invented, created and above all used their imagination with hardly any guidance from mindfulness gurus. Billions of people have lived and contributed to shape the world to what it is today – of course, with all its beauty as well as ugliness- the latter resulting from dogma, stultified mindsets and navel-gazing. What it takes to enhance the beautiful side of the world is to rely on more thought, more reasoning and more judgment.

by Susantha Hewa

Prof. Kirthi Tennakone’s (KT) article, “Thoughtfulness or mindfulness?”, which appeared in The Island of June 5, 2024, would surely appeal to those who are more “thoughtful” than “mindful”, the former indicating a mind functioning naturally with all cognitive faculties fully awake and the latter indicating a mind being turned inwards and focusing on one’s thoughts, sensations and feelings in a nonjudgmental mode. As KT claims, “Almost all human accomplishments are consequences of thoughtfulness”, thoughtfulness indicating the quality of a sharp mind registering all relevant facts and assessing them for their worth and relevance.

His article itself is a fine demonstration of thoughtfulness rather than of mindfulness, as all discerning minds may agree. Even the gurus of mindfulness have to deal with many thoughts simultaneously as they write or speak, if they wish to make sense, and that is more of an exercise of “thoughtfulness” requiring several skills including organising, reason, elaboration, clarity, critical thinking, analysis, judgment, etc., than one of “mindfulness”, which is said to be focusing on one’s feelings and thoughts without judgment, from moment to moment.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, thoughtfulness is 1) the state of thinking carefully about something, 2) the quality of being kind and thinking about other people’s needs, and 3) the quality of thinking carefully about how to do something so that it is effective. All these three meanings are to do with using one’s mind to its fullest capacity. And, as the second one indicates, it also includes being considerate towards others, which is directing your mind outwards- which is not involved in mindfulness in the sense in which it is popularly used to describe “the practice of being aware of your body, mind, and feelings in the present moment, thought to create a feeling of calm” (Cambridge Dictionary).

The products of thoughtfulness are there for everybody to see, as KT has clearly explained and enumerated in his essay. On the other hand, mindfulness seems to thrive on a state of mind that is turned inwards, which is often explained as paying attention to your present thoughts, feelings and sensations nonjudgmentally.

It looks as if we have to wait for centuries to see the wonders of this rather solitary and obscure exercise. The one thing that is clear is that even those who have practiced mindfulness for years on end have to be thoughtful rather than mindful, when they choose to communicate with others with any clarity, either in speech or writing, for the simple reason that the audiences are thoughtful, critical and judgmental, rather than uncritical, meditative and nonjudgmental.

Surely, you have to open your mind to what others are saying – rather than shut it, for any human communication to be meaningful, effective and useful. If mindfulness happened to be the natural mode of the mind, we would be living in a dull and dreary world where everybody would “be ‘mindful’ of their own business”.

A community of people may practice ‘mindfulness’ for a while everyday but it can only be an intermission and not the basic mode of a productive life, which is anchored on what you may call “thoughtfulness”. It would be redundant to illustrate this because KT has done it adequately in his article, which is a product of – no prizes for guessing- thoughtfulness. Just take any activity in our day-to-day life and you will see that thoughtfulness is the indispensable operative mechanism behind each of them. As KT asserts, “Thought could have sinister motives and the only way to eliminate them is through thought itself”. We are yet to know whether mindfulness has played any role in this.

In almost any important or urgent situation, a ‘thoughtful mind’ will score higher than a ‘mindful mind’, if you know what I mean. In the classroom, you are sure to immediately pay the price if you suddenly shift from ‘thoughtfulness’ to ‘mindfulness’. As many of us would remember, our teachers wanted us to have all our faculties functioning when they told us “Sihikalpanawen hitiyoth hondai” (you had better be alert), alertness to be understood as being attentive to what is being discussed- not focusing on your own feelings and thoughts in a nonjudgmental mode.

Sometimes people talk excitedly about ‘practicing mindful driving’ but what they unwittingly mean is exactly ‘thoughtful driving’, if you understand safe driving as heeding the following instructions: “avoid your own distractions, stay vigilant, scan the road for surprises, check the body language of other vehicles, try to anticipate how a situation might evolve, and be ready to react”. This can only remind us of those good teachers’ admonition to be sharp-eyed when in the classroom.

If mindfulness is to be alert to what is going on around you, taking in ‘things’, assessing, judging, etc. exactly as in ‘thoughtfulness’, we wouldn’t need experts telling us that ‘mindfulness’ is a different or a superior game. And, as is obvious, whenever people study, work, play, read, write, research, or do anything requiring cognition and judgement, they would surely be in the ‘thoughtful mode’ rather than in the ‘mindful mode’.

As KT has enunciated, all human progress is indebted to people who observed, experimented, invented, created and above all used their imagination with hardly any guidance from mindfulness gurus. Billions of people have lived and contributed to shape the world to what it is today – of course, with all its beauty as well as ugliness- the latter resulting from dogma, stultified mindsets and navel-gazing. What it takes to enhance the beautiful side of the world is to rely on more thought, more reasoning and more judgment. Indulging in nonjudgmental observation may at best bring temporary calmness to individuals; so would art and music, with even more demonstrable benefits. And, for thought and reason to be functional, minds should be directed outwards rather than inwards.

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Opinion

Change is good: Provided it is for better and not for worse

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Aragalaya

by Jayasri Priyalal

Many Sri Lankans may have joined in commemorating the 2568 years of Buddha Parinirvana with much discourse about the fundamental truth, the core teaching of Buddhism about impermanence, last week. As we all realise the fact, that there is nothing permanent in this world; everything is subject to change. Change is the only permanent constant in the universe. This essay focuses on change from socio, political and economic angle.

Sri Lanka is undergoing its worst ever economic crisis without any hope of getting it into a recovery track soon. There is a clarion call from the masses aspiring for a system change as a springboard towards chalking out a recovery path to overcome the crisis. Yet, no one knows or discusses what that system should be to put in place.

One fact remains as an acceptable analogy. Those who cannot cope with change will never be able to initiate change in any circumstances. This applies to all stakeholders including those who caused and contributed to the current crisis. Fair share of responsibilities falls on the electorate who got carried away with populism engineered by a few; with an ultimate aim of state and regulatory capture for their advantage leaving the country into a dire state grappling with debt. Therefore, capacity and capability to initiate that essential change is absent in the DNA of politicians who deceived their constituents.

This year 2024, is remarkable for those countries where representative democracy functions. Over 2 billion voters are expected to cast their votes at polls. As per predictions in 70% of the elections a change in government is anticipated. Some elections are already over and results are known. In Sri Lanka there are two main elections in the pipeline namely the Presidential and parliamentary polls.  The UK gets ready for polls on 4th July 2024. Change is the campaign theme of the Labour Party led by Sir. Keir Starmer. Chase or change dilemma will be an option for the electorate in the USA to test in upcoming presidential elections in November 2024.

Change and the Chase Countercyclical in Sri Lanka

In the last presidential election in 2019 Sri Lankan electorate rallied with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa giving him an absolute mandate with 6.9 million votes, anticipating a change for the better. It was too late for Sri Lankans to realise that their bet was on the wrong horse.  That change triggered the public to rally towards a chase. People’s power proved greater than those who come and hold political power.

The so-called people’s movement Aragalaya forced the Prime Minister to resign with the ipso facto resignation of the cabinet of ministers. Amongst many wrong doings President Gotabaya Rajapaksa nominated an unelected PM to lead the cabinet without dissolving the parliament with the reluctance to test the pulse of the people to secure the right mandate to govern. Rest is history, and finally the people’s power chased out President Gotabya Rajapaksa culminating the grand achievement of the GoHomeGota campaign. Thereafter, people’s aspiration and hope for a change short lived and shortchanged, widening the mistrust between policy makers and electorate further.

Have we learnt from similar power struggles from the past?

Our present has direct links in many ways to the past. The island nation has been deceived by many egocentric figureheads -as they cannot be named as true patriotic leaders- misjudged the public sentiments and aspirations and surrendered the sovereignty of the country to Colonial Masters. Does history repeat itself? Have we forgotten the bitter lessons learnt from history is what is discussed in the next few paragraphs?

This writer is enthusiastically influenced by the historical knowledge shared by Prof. Raj Somadeva via Neth FM radio and the YouTube programme. Due credit should be given to the Professor for all his extensive historical studies and the efforts to share them with the rest of the Sri Lankans in and outside the country. Prof. Somadeva narrates the stories very well with an appeal to draw parallels to the contemporary political power struggles with a warning not to repeat the past mistakes.

Coronation of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, last King of Kandyan Kingdom   1798

Having defeated the British Army battalion sent by the Governor Frederick North badly in 1803, the powerful Kandyan Kingdom fell to the British by 1815. Internal power struggles between the Kandyan elites to capture the throne from the Nayakkar clan paved the way for colonials to step in effortlessly to end the 2300 of historical royal lineage, to govern. Finally, Ceylon became a colony of the British Empire under King Gorge III.

Maha Adikaram Pilimatalawe engineered the coronation of Kannasamy Naidu a nephew of Sri Rajadhi Rajasinghe over the legitimate claimant to the throne Muttusamy. Pilimatalawwe was ambitious of becoming the Kandyan King, worked closely with the British and installed Kannasamy in the throne assuming he can control the King to meet his egoistic goals.

The change he anticipated never happened. Then he conspired to kill the King. Pilimatalawwe and the conspiring gang were beheaded by the King. Pilimatalawwe engineered the change and had to work on a chase and he got eliminated by the person whom he elevated to power.

Power crazy Maha Adikaram installed a weaker character in the throne so that he could overthrow him with the help of the British. The whole strategy backfired ultimately sacrificing the nation on a platter to the British ending a royal lineage of over two millennia.  The miscalculations of those close to political power to serve their selfish needs have ruined many countries bringing in misery, hardship and colossal loss of lives and property to its citizens. The island nation has many such cases throughout its history.

Putting a Wrong Guy in a Critical Position – Are we repeating the same mistake?

Throughout history we Sri Lankans have repeated the same mistake and disrupted the nation’s progress leaving the plight in the hands of outsiders.  Although there aren’t any competing empires in the current context, there are clear indications that the local political expectations are gravitating towards the emerging geo-economic-political centres.

The current political leadership or the conventional thought processes are not spurred with an organic strategic growth trajectory with originality backed thought process. None of the political parties have identified the right causes that led to the current crisis.

Moreover, they are getting ready to deceive the electorate to secure the mandate to govern to continue to repeat ill-conceived policy tools without coming up with viable policy options to break the vicious debt trap. Adage goes on to remind that – right diagnosis is half of the solution. Instead, many are getting ready to prescribe the failed remedies with a strong dosage as prescribed by the defunct cold war institutions. It appears that the healer itself is the disease leaving the patient bewildered and leaving the disease into an uncontrolled debt pandemic. We Sri Lankans need to think locally and act globally and not the other way around. In the absence of original ideas and remedies, local politicians are happy to swallow the bitter medicines prescribed on the basis of diagnoses.

Since Independence the ideology of various political parties were developed based on systems and discourses practiced in other countries introducing a welfarist socio economic system. Now, it has turned towards the aspirations of the emerging geo-economic centres. Sri Lankans need to forge a unique turnaround strategy to serve the best interest of its people, and not to become subjects of other countries.  Therefore, the Sri Lankan electorate needs to collate its political mandate in the hands of a leadership who will change the destiny of the country for the better and not for the worst.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

Colonial masters connived with the power crazy Kandyan elites and captured the last King of Ceylon, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, dethroned, imprisoned and deported to India. Once you fast track the historical events, we can extrapolate the current situation drawing many parallels. Unlike in the past, the leaders who mislead and mismanage the future of the nation without any original thinking and being subservient to foreign advice will never be deported. They will be facing a prisoner’s dilemma remaining on the island, having given away ports, harbours, airports and other critical infrastructure to foreigners to manage and own.

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Opinion

A poser to Sajith and Anura

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Sajith and Anura

Just one question to both of you. Wouldn’t it be beneficial to the country if both of you set aside your political ambitions and personal differences and make a bold decision to join hands to face the forthcoming presidential elections as an alliance?

You are aware that the present government will leave no stone unturned to introduce controversial legislation, irrespective of the fact whether they are constitutional or not. It engages in controversial projects, on the pretext of privatisation, detrimental to the interests of the country. It suppresses protests through high-handed undemocratic actions. It abuses democratic practices to further its interests.

Politically your views may differ but your goals are the same. As things stand, both of you enjoy popular support. You have talented intellectuals in your parties. Most of the current corrupt politicians are in the process of forming either with or in support of the incumbent government with a view to hoodwinking the masses.

Your unity will certainly be advantageous to the country but divided you both could fail in achieving your ultimate goal.

Let’s hope that wisdom will prevail over their political ambitions.

WILLIAM PHILLIPSZ 

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