Visiting Kyrat!

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In the past five years, I have travelled to many places. Each time, however, when there was a conference to attend, sightseeing and doing my own thing was limited to a rushed half-day after or before the conference. This time I decided to travel for the sake of travelling. A vacation, nonetheless. As the plane crossed over from India into Nepal and I saw the high Himalayas in the distance, I knew I had been here before. Not deja vu this. This was Kyrat - the little mountain-country that is the locale of Ubisoft's videogame, Far Cry 4. Later, in the course of my journey I would spot many similarities between the sites of Nepal and Kyrat - the chorten or small stupas that are scattered in the landscape, the winding Himalayan roads, the muted Buddhist chants, the little villages so characteristic of a third-world country and finally, even the ultralights that fly rich tourists towards vistas of the high mountain peaks all make their appearance in the Kyrat of Far Cry 4. The name Kyrat, I was soon to realise, is no figment of the Ubisoft story writers' imaginative powers.

In Sanskrit, Kyrat  means 'crown' and Nepal and its neighbouring Indian state of Sikkim both have links to the historical and mythical Kyrat. Situated at the 'top of the world' in the high Himalayas, this claim to crowning glory comes as no surprise. In the 6th Century Sanskrit text, Kiratarjuna, the Pandav hero Arjun shoots a boar and then discovers that a Kirata man has also shot the animal. In the contest that ensues, Arjun is nonplussed at being unable to defeat the man and the tale ends with him discovering that the Kirata is none other than the God Shiva in disguise. The Kirateshwar temple in West Sikkim is said to mark the spot of their encounter. Arguably the same as the Kirata of the Indian epic, the Kirati people today comprise multiple tribes - the Limbu, Kaccha, Sonwar and others. Ubisoft's Far Cry 4 has combined all of them into one people living in a country that resembles Nepal in more ways than one. 

Like the Maoist struggle in Nepal of not-so-long ago, Kyrat is experiencing civil strife. The government is under the dictator, Pagan Min  - strangely, the name is the same as that of the Burmese emperor whom the British hounded out of Burma after committing gross acts of aggression in the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. The key architect of that war was Lord Dalhousie, governor-general of India and arguably, also responsible in part for the events of 1857 in India. Now  why the villain of Far Cry 4 should have the same name as a Burmese king who opposed British colonialism is something that eludes me. There is an obvious inference that one can make though: the powers that defy the European rules of the game, are to be cast as villains and the name Pagan also, of course, has distinct non-Christian echoes. In the game, Min has seized power after the fall of the country's royal dynasty and now styles himself the king of Kyrat.

Pagan Min in Far Cry 4 shares his name with a former king of Myanmar

Gamers in Nepal responded quite positively on the whole to the game's setting but complained that the Kyrati people speak Hindi instead of Nepali, which is a different language altogether. The Kyrati people are shown as following one religion, quite comfortably avoiding the multi-religious complexity of the region, where Hinduism and Buddhism co-exist. The people worship the god Banashur and his daughter, Tarun Matara, who is worshipped as a living goddess. As Ajay Ghale, the non-resident Kyrati who returns to Kyrat from the USA after his mother's death, the player-protagonist has a lot to take in. Not least among them is how the game's developers have introduced various complexities and hinted at a plural culture, only to end up perpetuating the set of oriental stereotypes that belie the initial potential of the game. 

The player will most likely join the Golden Path (there is a possibility of choosing otherwise but of that later), which is the armed resistance to Min's government and was founded by his father Mohan Ghale.  The two leaders of the Golden Path have sharply contrasting world-views. Sabal, the traditionalist is described by the Far Cry Wiki thus:
He sees great value in his heritage, race, culture, history and legacy and believes that Kyrat needs the stability of traditions to bring peace to its people. Sabal often seeks moral guidance from the religious texts and teachings of Kyra. He is also smart enough to know how to use religion as a political tool. These views are in direct conflict with Amita's world view.
Amita has a different agenda:
With tensions rising between the two leaders, Amita is now head to head with Sabal over the installation of Bhadra as the next Tarun Matara. Amita sees the practice as superstitious, old, and ultimately sexist, objectifying young women and robbing them of autonomy, a good education, and social life. She believes that intellectual, social, and financial progress is the only way to ensure a stable future for Kyrat.
Ajay can let either of these two agendas prevail when he liberates Kyrat. There is also the more complex world-view of Pagan Min that seems outright evil at the outset but is complicated by his criticism of the practice of having a young girl consecrated as the Tarun Matara, exposed to the leering gaze of the gathering of men around her - exactly what Amita preaches. Min also continually points out problems with the religious practices in Kyrat and goes to the extreme of  closing down the sacred Jalendu Temple and stopping religious worship altogether. 

Although Min may have shut down the temples, he has barely dented the religious beliefs of Kyrati society. The role of religion in the game is one that game researchers have not focused on so far. Coming from a Hindu background myself, I was somewhat surprised at the amalgam of Hindu and Buddhist rites shown in the Kyrati religion. The importance of religion has already been underscored as one of the reasons behind the people's dissatisfaction with Min's rule and as the key factor in determining the events beyond the game's ending. Evidence of religion in practice abound all over the landscape with many locations showing shrines to some god and usually these places have fresh garlands and flowers on them. Many of them have religious names, especially connected to Banashur (incidentally an asura or demon in Hindu mythology who has, rather irreverently, been turned into a god in the game) and there is also the Chal Jama Monastery, where Ajay goes on a pilgrimage, 'which includes spinning a mani wheel, adding powder to fire, lighting a candle and lighting a stick of incense', hinting at a complex mix of Hindu and Buddhist religious practices. Adding to the controversy is the figure of the Tarun Matara - despite the disapproval shown through characters as disparate as Amita and Min.

The Tarun Matara, in the game, is the daughter of the God Banashur who is embodied in a living child selected by the community for this purpose. Those unfamiliar with local traditions will fail to see the clear similarity to the Kumari in Kathmandu, Nepal, who is still worshipped as a living goddess. The Kumari puja is a longstanding tradition among Hindu communities across the Indian subcontinent and it is popular among all sections of society. Indeed, the abolition of the tradition as a way of upholding women's rights might be considered problematic even in South Asian Feminist discourses. For example, here is an alternative point of view:
Chanira Bajracharya, a 19-year-old Nepalese student, was a Kumari of Patan, a city within Kathmandu Valley. Fulfilling the role from age five to 15, she says she still looks up to the goddess: "I feel I'm blessed and a lot of my success comes from those blessings." She says the tradition encourages respect for women in a male-dominated society. (for the full article, click here).
There are many views on the status and role of the Kumari and they present a complexity that cannot be easily described. The straightforward option of choosing to ban the tradition by either siding with Amita or letting Min rule is way too simple if one believes that abolishing the Tarun Matara custom, will be a major pro-women reform. The game seems to suggest this as a solution but then again, like any open-world game, it leaves the final choice to the player. 

Anyone who knows the history of Nepal would recognise  in Pagan Min's usurpation of power a reference to the end of the Nepali Royal Family (the Shah dynasty) that ruled the country for centuries until in the previous decade, the Crown Prince gunned down his entire family and the country ended up facing civil war involving Maoist rebels and government forces in the years after. This also effectively closed the country to tourists for a long time. A BBC report from 2003 states "While the Maoists are not targeting tourists, the war has started directly hitting the tourism sector - Nepal's most important industry." Ajay is also shown as entering Kyrat at a time when tourism has all but closed down. While reflecting the recent history of the region, the Kyrati civil strife also helps the designers to set the context for the adventures in the gameplay of Far Cry 4. 

The parallel history that Ubisoft constructs is intriguing on many other counts. There is a conscious attempt at thinking through the history of South Asian nations and Kyrat is a composite of the cultures of Nepal, India, Burma and even parts of China. As mentioned earlier, the developers, however, managed to completely ignore the fact that the Nepali people have their own language, which is somewhat different from Hindi, the language spoken in Far Cry 4 . Hindi is spoken in large sections of Northern India and is also the popular language of Bollywood - no wonder the Nepali fans of the videogame were left dismayed at the developers' decision to make the Kyrati population speak Hindi in a setting that largely resemble Nepal. Maybe Bollywood has to be the stereotype for all things South Asian. There are other stereotypes too - all the villains in the story are foreigners. Pagan Min is Chinese and so is his chief general and adopted sister, Yuma Lau. His other governors, Noore and Paul Harmon "de Pleur"are both foreigners and they are both people who came to Kyrat either as tourists or as human rights workers. There is also a corrupt CIA agent and a couple of hippie drug-dealers. Ajay Ghale himself seems to be an American citizen but besides him, Kyrat does not seem to have any outside influence on its political climate. The UN, the USA and even the nearby powers such as India and China seem happy to leave it alone. Finally, the outlook on the country's and indeed, the region's history is bleak. If the player supports Sabal and let's him take over the government, a series of pogroms against the other faction begins and the country goes back to its orthodox religion that deprives women of their rights. If the player hands over the government to Amita, eventually Kyrat becomes a drug-producing state, where all the energies of its population go into cultivation narcotics and in building an army. Just as Far Cry 2 sees no happy ending for the nameless African country it is set in, Far Cry 4 too has the same fate in store for Kyrat. Another formerly-colonised country doomed to a continuing state of confusion and suffering. Clearly, the people aren't capable of looking after themselves after the European colonial powers leave. Once again, the game characteristically attempts to present plurality and complexity but ends up with extremely predictable stereotypes that seem to hint that things were better off under colonial rule. Resistance either creates villains like Pagan Min (as his real-life Burmese namesake might have seemed to the British East India Company) or confused bigots and ideologues such as Sabal and Amita, all of whom lead the country to destruction.

Crab rangoons!

The best metaphor for describing the game's attitude perhaps lies in a faux-oriental dish that is part of American Chinese cuisine: as much an American invention as General Tso's Chicken, this is a type of fried wonton (Chinese dumpling) made with crab-meat or imitation crab-meat and is called Crab Rangoon. At the very beginning of the game, Pagan Min offers Ajay a plate of crab rangoons. Just like Min, the recipe also claims a dubious connection with Burma (hence the 'rangoon' in its name - Rangoon or Yangon is the capital of Myanmar). In a very strange gameplay device, the whole outcome of the game depends on what the player does with the crab rangoons. If the player ignores everything and sits for long enough eating the crab rangoons, the game takes a very different turn to its alternate ending where there is no meeting the Golden Path rebels, the player is able to immerse his mother's ashes and life goes on undisturbed under Min's rule.  Not eating the crab-rangoons will lead to all the adventures and bloodshed that make up the gameplay of Far Cry 4. 

The crab-rangoons, for me, are quite important because they symbolise how the local culture is treated in the game. Just like the dish is a mix of many Asian cuisines and at the same time, a very North American fabrication, Kyrat in Far Cry 4 is kind of similar. With its hotch-potch of South Asian and Western influences, the game seems to struggle with representing an unfamiliar (to the West) and exotic part of the Orient and to end up with a very Western notion of the place. Kyrat itself is like a crab rangoon - a Western impression of a mix of South Asian cultures. Although most would like their money's worth and play out the game battling Min's forces, the hidden message is that whatever heroics Ghale performs, Kyrat is doomed anyway and perhaps the best way is to let Min continue his rule and keep supplying the West with heroin and slaves. Eating the crab rangoons and opting for the status quo would mean not rocking the boat at all - it would also mean accepting a very  Orientalist (in the sense Edward Said uses the term) notion of South Asia, where the next best thing to colonialism is the perpetuation of colonial codes within the so-called postcolonial nation-states. As for me, I do not like crab-rangoons much so I naturally ended up upsetting the apple cart (or the plate of crab-rangoons, as it were). Then again, I guess there are a lot of people who'd prefer the crab-rangoons. Who knows!


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Another book. More on Postcolonialism.

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So my second book has now been published. I have a lot of people to thank for it and although this project was a bit off-piste for me, I thought there was a huge research gap and the work needed to be done soon:



Videogames and Post-colonialism: Empire Plays Back

This book focuses on the almost entirely neglected treatment of empire and colonialism in videogames. From its inception in the nineties, Game Studies has kept away from these issues despite the early popularity of videogame franchises such as Civilization and Age of Empire. This book examines the complex ways in which some videogames construct conceptions of spatiality, political systems, ethics and society that are often deeply imbued with colonialism. 

Moving beyond questions pertaining to European and American gaming cultures, this book addresses issues that relate to a global audience – including, especially, the millions who play videogames in the formerly colonised countries, seeking to make a timely intervention by creating a larger awareness of global cultural issues in videogame research. Addressing a major gap in Game Studies research, this book will connect to discourses of post-colonial theory at large and thereby, provide another entry-point for this new medium of digital communication into larger Humanities discourses. 



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Darmok and Jalad at DiGRA: Keynoting at DiGRA 2017 in Melbourne

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DiGRA 2017 is over and many participants are by now already home either in lovely Australia, where it was hosted, or in other parts of the world. This DiGRA was different for me, it will always remain special because I was one of the two keynote speakers. Melanie Swalwell, whose work archiving and preserving videogames and digital heritage needs no introduction, was the other keynote speaker. I, however, spoke on a different kind of preservation and another perspective on archiving. It was time I had to speak on Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with the Darmok episode of Star Trek will think I am raving but watch the episode you must if you are to learn the secret. The Darmok episode is about a superior alien species establishing contact with the starship Enterprise and even the ship's super-advanced universal language translator is unable to parse what the Tamarians mean to say. The words are clearly translated but the meaning is beyond the wildest guesses of the crew: 'Darmok and Jalad in Tanagra'. Only later, through a test of faith and cooperation between the Tamarian captain and Captain Picard (of Enterprise), is it established that the Tamarians use a different system of signification - one where there culture and history form the basic units of communication. 'Darmok and Jalad in Tanagra', then means 'friendly cooperation' just as was found between the Tamarian historical heroes Darmok and Jalad on the planet of Tanagra. Kind of like saying Achilles and Patroclus in Troy to indicate loyalty and friendship. There were two reasons for my using the Darmok example: I was talking about the plurality of history and how history itself can become a way of talking about a people; I was also talking about the impossibility of representing the history of a culture using one unified and inflexible system. Those who know my recent work on postcolonialism and videogames will have guessed it. Here's me bringing subaltern studies (and historiography) to game studies. And the feedback was encouraging, I'm happy to say.

Melbourne is beautiful and fun

Before I say more about my keynote-talk, let me first say a bit about some of the fascinating talks that I managed to attend. Mia Consalvo and Chris Paul spoke on 'value-crafting' and indie games  - something I need to share with my Indian indie developer friends to see what they think. The paper is available here. I also enjoyed the presentation on indie and dojin games by Michael Fiadotau - the dojin culture in Japan was unknown to me. As was the fascination with Pachinko (Ozu has a movie about Pachinko) that was discussed in another paper. Similarly, it was fascinating to hear of Maria Garda's work on the videogaming practices as reflected in the archives of Communist-Poland. Rene Glas and Jesper Vught's paper on using Let's Plays in the classroom reminded me of the class exercises that I had for my games and storytelling course in Oklahoma City. You can find an extended abstract here. I chaired a session where Espen Aarseth and Pawel Grabarczyk spoke on the game-identity of the games that are ported as well as of other kinds of iterations of the game. This was followed by Marcus Carter and Adam Chapman's intriguing analysis of truth and authenticity in Total War: Rome 2 and the fantasy world of Total War: Warhammer. Darshana Jayemanne, Antonio Zarandona and Adam Chapman presented an interesting enquiry on the destruction of built-heritage in videogame worlds. Again, something that my own work on digital archives of colonial cemeteries speaks to. Finally, I was also part of Phillip Penix-Tadsen's wonderful panel on the Global South and videogames, where I spoke on India and learnt a lot about game curation in Argentina, game development in Brazil and Nigeria, as well as games education in South Africa. In my own talk, I highlighted the key problems and promises of the Indian industry, the Western stereotypes and our own lack of innovative designs but I also projected the genius of some of the leading game designers from India. People were particularly interested in hearing about Missing, the serious game about child-trafficking in Bengal. There were many papers that I would have loved to hear but couldn't due to the lack of time and the parallel sessions (after all I don't have the time-turner). I did get a lot out of the doctoral consortium run by Steven Conway and the diversity workshop run by Adrienne Shaw and organised by Darshana Jayemanne. Highlights from the doctoral consortium  - a project on narratives by Arseniy, Mahli-Ann Butt's PhD proposal on self-care in games, Kiona Niehaus's project on how racial characteristics are represented in game design, Lars de Wildt's project on comparative studies of religious representation in games and Marcus Toftedahl's work on videogames in India and China.

Besides all the networking and attending presentations, I had the wonderful opportunity to catch up with James Manning and continue somewhat our debate from almost eight years ago - on storytelling in videogames. Chatting with Nick Webber on games and history (he had presented on the Britishness of games) and with Peter Nelson about Chinese notions of spatiality and Le Corbusier were other hghlights of the trip. I met the fantastic Laura Crawford, who in between serious discussions on postcolonial identity squeezed in advice on where to get marmite and veggie mite. Last but not least, I got a full-day tour of Melbourne courtesy my friend, Tom Apperley and his daughter Lyra. And I also got to see the MCG and pose beside a statue of Sir Don himself.

But to return to the keynote. Yes, it worked out despite the huge stress that I was under. Here's a description of both the keynotes. To be a DiGRA keynote speaker - it was a dream come true. Veritably.  

So here's how I started. And the beginning will give you an idea of what followed:
Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. 
Everyone here except diehard Star Trek fans is probably thinking that I am insane.
But I wanted to begin with these words from a rather strange episode of Star Trek where Captain Picard meets an alien spaceship captain who speaks to him in a language with familiar words but which remains incomprehensible despite the Enterprise’s universal translator machine.
After an almost deadly confrontation, Picard is able to figure out that the semantics in this alien language is not connected to individual words but to the knowledge of the entire history of the alien culture.
History, in the form of metaphor, serves as a language here. The episode serves
1. To remind us of the different ways in which history can be perceived
2. And tell us how this multiplicity of perceptions is important to comprehend
what we think of as different, Othered, alien and even monstrous.

It is with these two points in mind that I have called my talk ‘Playing Alternative Histories’
So I was talking about how videogames represent histories and especially, certain types of history. I emphasized the need for understanding other(ed) patterns of narrative constructions and the potential for videogames for doing so. I spoke about how even though some of the real-time strategy games provide the opportunity to play out alternative and counterfactual histories, their main premise is the hardcoded notion of imperial expansion. Whether the British are conquering India or vice versa, it is the same logic! I also said in passing that the code for these games could have a bias in that most of the triple-A games are manufactured in Europe and the U.S.A - but this was just a passing thought and needs more research. Is code influenced by cultures? Something to think about.

In formerly colonised nations, there is often a trend to have a nationalistic reaction after independence. Whether or not bordering on jingoism, such a reaction also replicates a similar logic to that of Empire. Somebody has to be controlled and if that's not possible, what people remember also has to be controlled. Instead of such a portrayal that almost reflects the logic of empire, I posited the multiplicity of videogames as being a fitting platform for the plurality of historical narratives - especially, the unheard and the voiceless histories that subaltern historians have attempted to represent. Meg Jayanth's work on the dialogues in 80 Days and Dhruv Jani's (Studio Oleomingus) Somewhere were the examples I used. This was the alternative history possibility that I wanted to highlight in videogames - just like in the Darmok episode, here is a situation where we need to reexamine our historical framework and be open to other forms of representation.

Here's the full slideshow:




I had two more days two explore Melbourne after the conference. With the last libations and farewells over, I set out for the two ludic attractions that I had planned to visit. The first one was a cricket-lover's pilgrimage (I mean the game and not the insect) to Melbourne Cricket Ground and the second was to ACMI or Australian Centre for the Moving Image. At the MCG, I was totally enthralled by the Sports Museum and especially its Cricket section. Here's a Lego version of MCG (seen in a departmental store) andof course, a statue of the Don in the MCG Sports Museum:


LEGO  MCG Stadium

Sir Don in the Sports Museum


ACMI, too, was a real revelation and I liked the displays ranging from the magic lantern to the latest VR technology. I got to play some very old games such as Tempest and Pong;  for the first time (can you believe it!) played Pro Evolution Soccer and then got my very own bullet-time sequence capture.



On the more retro side, I also got to see a zoetrope and to make some cool scary shadows of myself a la Nosferatu. My friend, Tom Apperley and his little daughter, Lyra, were supposed to come and pick me up for a visit to the zoo so I stopped making scary shadows and headed towards the exit. On the way out I saw these messages left in the ACMI by people (mainly kids) from all over the world saying what the future will be about:

Someone has written this in the visitor's book for a wishlist of the future: 'Playing computer games using your mind to control characters.'


Straight out of Star Trek. Maybe we'll get there someday. And it might be worth remembering the Darmok episode, then.

Just check the Twitter feed for DiGRA where @adrishaw says ' was easily my favorite DiGRA'. I totally agree. Great work by Marcus Carter and everyone else in his organising team.




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Games and Literary Theory Conference, Krakow Keynote

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The jet-lag has not yet left me and although I’ve been jostling crowds in the overly busy Calcutta streets and ‘invigilating’ at exams in my university, I still keep seeing the beautiful disproportionate spires of the St. Mary’s Church in Krakow and waiting in anticipation for the trumpeter to emerge from the tower windows to announce the hour with his melodious but incomplete notes. The story goes that one of his ancestors was shot in the throat by Tatar invaders as he was announcing the arrival of the enemy. The interrupted note is what tells Krakow the time each hour. There’s something about this city, I thought, as I headed towards my conference venue with my hands full of gifts for home. A brisk walk took me to Golembia Street and the Department of Polish Studies at the Jagiellonian University. On the way, plaques announced illustrious alumni such as Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) and Nicholas Copernicus. Once inside the medieval-looking gate, I was in the welcoming zone of the Games and Literary Theory Conference 2016, organised ably by the inimitable  Tomasz Majkowski and his sterling group of students. I am quite tired of fighting old battles in Game Studies all over again  but mark my words, this generation of Polish game scholars are going to change the field.



The welcome (further accentuated by a delectable spread of Polish food) was lavish and in stark contrast to the extremely cavalier treatment that I received from the Polish embassy in New Delhi who wouldn’t deign to respond to my emails or take my calls. Anyway my getting to Poland was a major victory for both Tomasz and me in that I had never faced so much trouble in getting a visa to a European country before. I haven’t said why I was there in the first place: I was one of the two keynote speakers at the conference. The other keynote did not have as many problems in getting there as I did but when she did get to the venue, I met one of the most sensible Game Studies scholars in my career. Joyce Goggin left us spellbound and simultaneously tickled by bringing up questions of the literary and ludic yet again. No, the other disciplines aren’t out to colonise us (they often don’t even know we exist) and if you throw me a ball, then that it doesn’t tell a story. But then there are different ways of looking at colonisation, throwing balls and telling stories. Now that’s not exactly what Joyce said - her keynote was much more erudite, with references to Finnegan’s Wake (by another Joyce), stories with multiple endings and close readings of Huizinga.




Other highlights for me were the discussion of a herstorical (yeah, you read right: Her Story as opposed to HiStory) board game by Piotr Szerwinscki, another one on an environmental board game, one on the quotidian and commonplace occurrences in videogames, Daniel Vella’s romantic analogy for (some) videogames, Sebastian Moering’s introduction to his upcoming work on existentialism and care in videogames and Darshana’s brilliant reading of Pynchon vis-a-vis videogames. I loved hearing about games and ecology; a brilliant analysis of the quotidian in games and a survey of videogame periodicals in the U.S.A and Canada. Daniel Vella brought back memories of my Romanticism lectures (I had to teach Shelley not so long ago) with his references to M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp.



My own keynote was on post colonialist themes in videogames (or rather the lack of these). After having thanked the British, our former colonial masters, for giving me the language to present academic papers in (some members of the audience got the Caliban reference) and compared my visa-predicament to Papers, Please! , I managed to bring to the table postcolonial theory and the discomfort many of us have with the insensitively colonial approach of the global games. My position is not a popular one and the problem is that such an obviously glaring issue has been hitherto ignored. One of the interesting takeaways for me was that many members of the audience started debating the role of Poland as coloniser/colonised; the other was a comment that Sebastian (who has been a friend since 2008) made: he said he thought this was my most personal talk ever and I was gratified. I think I spoke my mind and people listened with sympathy - nay, empathy. With the world changing as it is now, all this needed to be said.

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