Fostering Hospitable Silences

[Trigger Warning for mention of sexual abuse]. 

As a person who works with survivors/victims sexual and domestic abuse, I’m quite used to getting calls from people all over the city, most times it’s when I’m at the center — I talk to them and we assess the situation, whether the caller is in immediate danger or not – generally they want someone to listen to them. Very rarely do I get requests to meet up with people — which can be dangerous for both of us — but every time I’ve met someone, it’s only to have them rushing back in a maximum of twenty minutes, for the time-window their abusers leave them, where they have some amount of unaccounted time-slot is often very less. Last week I got a call from a woman living in South Bombay, in one of the most reputed neighbourhoods and she wanted to meet me to discuss long-term solutions (which the group I work with occasionally handles as well). She called me after midnight and I was set to meet her the next day, and she wanted to change the location for she wanted to remove all possible run-ins with anyone who may report back to her family — and every place I came up with her was unacceptable for her. “Barista?” “It’s too public”, “[x] book store?” “that’s hardly the place for polite conversation”, “[x] place?” “We aren’t supposed to talk about these things there” and both of us eventually burst out laughing at how absurd this conversation was — both knew what we were going to discuss and there wasn’t even a single space we could discuss those things — and then we both fell silent. We need silence now. Right? To keep peace? To keep the surface calm?

I want to talk about this silence, this polite hospitable silence — often used as a conscious or otherwise decision to mask, hide, distract or forget altogether about the rough friction, of intersecting differences, that de-stabilise us, that move together to move any ‘safe’ or ‘home’ space. This silence shows up everywhere we construct spaces to be “homelike” — in  classrooms, in actual homes, in well-loved literature texts — and we learn to nurture them. Last month a student came out to me as queer and she waited till our last “official” class was over and then did she decide to tell me — and when I asked her why did she have to wait till it got over considering we’ve talked about just about everything, she explained that she didn’t want to “upset” the rhythm of the class. Alternatively, I should have asked her why was “keeping” the rhythm so important to her, but that time I was quiet, parsing what she’d just told me. In home spaces¹, it seems the general reaction is to secure and perpetuate a sense of a border or a territory, a line we must learn to never cross. Many times, between friends, in classes, whenever the talk goes to any “taboo” topic, immediately and inadvertently my voice softens itself and then I have to remember to revert back to my general tone and loudness — and these are spaces I generally feel comfortable in, a performed home of sorts, and yet this silence is always around.

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Writing Over Bodies

My book obsession is quite well known, in most circles I move and am allowed in; there is a long-standing joke that I don’t need food but just a fresh page to live. So when my student asked me rhetorically whether I ‘ever tire of theory’, he was rather surprised to know I did — can’t entirely blame him for holding this view, after all I did spend the last seven months talking solely in theories and of texts — in fact, I agree with Spivak¹ when she accuses prose of ‘cheating’. We are taught theory in a manner that we will be able to ‘frame our realities intelligibly’ — pretty problematic on its own already — but when it comes to translating words to practice, somewhere we break and falter. I teach English to children of lower caste and socio-economic backgrounds — technically speaking — this is the space I should be unleashing my postcolonialism in, making sure the harmful ideas that say, “Only a person speaking Good English will ever get a job anywhere”, but I can’t. The truth is, they do need a functional level of English to be employed anywhere  and if I start saying, “Forget the Empire’s tongue! Let’s subvert it and smash the system”, I will confuse them and even humiliate them — for subversion happens once you’ve mastered the tongue — and as first-generation learners of English, learning this tongue is hard enough as it is. On most days, the best I can do is not scold them — as the institution ‘requires’ me to — and not shame them when they code switch² to their native tongues.

(Un)Ironically, what I do end up doing is teaching postcolonialism, Said, Spivak and others to my IB students who are at times even more caste and class privileged than I am. We talk of the Subaltern, while when talking to the Subaltern — my code-switching students in this case — we still re-enforce the most heinous ideas concerning them, their languages and perhaps most importantly, routinely erase their Englishes. When this broken pattern of relating to people above and below us in the hierarchy of being is brought to light, the best we do is, “acknowledge privilege” and then hit a dead-end. The only difference is that now we have Shiny Good Activist Medal™. This isn’t to imply that my students — or even the Subaltern itself — don’t know about the neato colonisation thing, or the reason why certain texts are canonised and others weren’t, we’ve talked of those things — but that’s what it really is: rhetoric, words and talk. These words swirl out of my tongue, out in class, they nod and ask questions and we study on. When they see exam questions using standard forms of English — one they haven’t mastered particularly well — and their ‘intelligence’ is rated on how they fare in these exams, that are designed in an Othering tongue, so to speak. Then we hear stereotypes like,” Those damn Dalit buggers! We educate them, but what use? They still fail exams and waste our time and money. They are basically a waste of space and seats, I tell you!”, when we’re making sure they remain in the same position — one step under us.

Three weeks ago, I went to an international conference on Queer And Transgendered Bodies* and somehow I was one of the few ‘visibly dusty’ people there — whatever that is supposed to mean. The person I went with was Indian too, but she has light-skinned privilege; so when we were talking about some Western Feminist Fail, I got relatively more hostile reactions than my light-skinned friend, who in this ‘temporary’ white space merged in with many speakers and was ‘read’ as white, more than once. When we brought this up in the consequent discussion, it was waved away with, “But we understand why this happens. As a white person, I sympathise with your position and you are right! There are uneven dichotomies present in the world…”, which led the whole discussion to an end as the Shiny Good Activist Medal™ was passed around when people acknowledged that they were, in fact, a privileged group. This isn’t to intone that accepting and acknowledging privilege is easy, or as Jamie explains it, “The more privilege one has, the harder it is to conceive the gap between livable life and mere existence and thus the harder it is to perceive the need to act positively to bridge that gap”, rather that when it comes to not being able to bring my postcolonialism in a class of underprivileged students or about spending days in an air-conditioned classrooms debating the politics of poverty or being accountable to voicing marginalised people, it all boils down to privilege — and just listing or acknowledging it simply cannot do as a ‘solution’. By placing importance on the idea of ‘debunking privilege’ or ‘taking theories down’, what we’re doing is swathing words with more rhetoric — and this is framed as the only way to ‘deal’ with privilege — and thus effectively avoiding doing anything with our said privileges.

What we routinely do in theory — for instance — is separate the ‘object of race’ and ‘subject of racism’, forgetting that any marginalisation happens on bodies, living-breathing-tired-raging bodies. Within feminist circles, ‘intersectionality’ is a term that gets thrown around a lot without realising its magnitude. We frame oppression in neat, tidy terms and columns while this codified oppression leaves physical, psychological and systemic wounds on our bodies³. Acknowledging one’s position in kyriarchy is a start and not the end to ‘owning up to privilege’. We need to contextualise our bodies — if and when we can — see marginalisation outside of words we theorise in, see our unique intersecting identities, how complicit each and everyone is in each other’s oppression and work for a way forward; these bodies of flesh, colour and hues, with history and agency, bodies that are naturalised and silenced. It’s not enough to cite Donna Haraway — for instance — when speaking of a cyborgian reality and using her example of the ‘radical cyborg’ who “makes chips in Santa Rita or India by day” and transforms into a cyborg by night, merging technological and biological boundaries to write (her)self into history, those bodies from Santa Rita and India need to inject themselves into reality and history, by their own will. As marginalised people, accepting and owning our bodies is one of the most radical acts we can do, by locating it in a hierarchy, in theory, in action we can claim support, love, respect and care.

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1. She says, “Plain prose cheats” when asked why she chooses to write terms like “subject-position”, “chromatic-heteronormativity” as opposed to ‘understandable’ terms.

2. Magda has a wonderful post — a phonetic delight to be honest — on code-switching and postcolonial English. The code-switching that happens in my classrooms is a tad different though, here the lack of privilege that ties itself with ‘knowing’ English performs the code switch.

3. Descartes may be dead, but we do love his legacy of dichotomies, no?

*Of course, saying ‘Transgendered’ but meaning ‘perhaps not straight’ and coming nowhere close to any trans* representation at all.

 

A Conspiracy Of Silences

A couple of weeks ago, the lady I buy my bi-weekly magazines from near the railway station started talking to me. The caste system is so pervasive¹ that all we’d ever exchanged over the past three years is, “Has [x] magazine come yet?” — from me — and she’d say, “No Madam, no one reads this one, so I have to send out a special order for you” and we’d smile at that gesture, but that would be all. So two weeks ago, when I went to the stall after a few weeks of absence, somehow, she asked me about my plans after graduation and I mentioned something about going out of Mumbai and before I knew it she was telling me about her daughter; how she wants to study further but doesn’t have the means. I’d seen her daughter a few times, helping out around the stall, I’d thought she was around my age, but it turned out she had two years to graduation. That day, I put this newspaper lady in touch with a couple of activists who worked specifically with underprivileged Hindu girls — the newspaper lady’s family came from a challenged economic background, but as Hindu Brahmins, they occupy higher shelves of the caste system. I don’t particularly like these activists and their goals but knew they’d help these two women out. Yesterday, I come to know the daughter rounded up about nine more girls from similar economic backgrounds but from varying castes which of course, the activists couldn’t stand for and helped only the Hindu girls. As people, we are constantly choosing and prioritising one over another, even if we don’t want to; build-ing and break-ing communities and spaces, they always carry with them little parts of us we show and hide. I didn’t want to approach these activists at all for their restricted goals, but by reaching out to them six more girls benefitted. However, the three that get left behind, their silences roar the loudest.

When I heard this yesterday, the first thing I did was look for financial aid that would suit these three girls, and as it turns out being caste, religious and a gender minority means you enter How Oppressed Are You Really Game™ which is almost always designed to leave you out, and two of them didn’t ‘fulfill’ the criteria for receiving the aid; though the one who did get aid brought forth two more girls. Next week, these girls are seeing another educational reform activist — this one is specifically for Dalit women — and hopefully some solution will emerge. In social justice too, we are constantly con-structing similar communities — not speaking of individual acts, rather the ones that are cultural context based — whether these communities have origins online or in physical geographical borders, they are shaped by production process — read dominance of the digital dollar — and actual histories. What troubles me is, we start with logical and factual fallacies or the Need To Help As Many As Possible, like this small group of girls sometimes we too look at solutions only in singular steps and spaces. In the case of safe spaces, there is an overwhelming urge to create a space where silence isn’t an act of violence but a choice, maybe even a protective gauze that will save us from the omnipotent presence of the DoucheColonial Empire. I confess, this is a tempting and beautiful fantasy to even consider, the possibility of a space where marginalised bodies and voices can express themselves without being attacked and cracked open is too tempting– the myth of ‘reverse-racism’ would be the first one to go if I had my way — and then we’d be human equivalents of unicorns. But even in ‘safe spaces’ — virtual and otherwise — a dichotomy slips through that dictates who remains inside, who eventually speaks, who has the authority to be believed; virtually speaking in most spaces that I’ve interacted in, all we do ‘see’ are absences, ‘hear’ only absences. It gets even trickier when the body you’re interacting with has a face and a name to go along with², this voicelessness is ‘harder’ to ignore — of course we can quantify pain, humiliation and violence! Like this for instance  — and the desire to make an insular community deepens.

Given the differences in languages, dialects, caste and class statuses re-aligning margins and commonalities — within our unique marginality — is not only impossible, but an extremely dangerous concept to even consider. Providing one marginality and slipping into someone’s space is step one to obscuring someone else’s struggles, which flies into the face of the ‘safe space’ goal, not to mention how it serves to homogenise people and their specific intersecting locations. So instead of the Revolution™ or that Perfect Safe Space, can we just interrupt — if and when we have the ability — the bigger mainstream ideal, be it in feminism or elsewhere? I’m not insinuating that communities that have been proven unsafe over and again for marginalised bodies need to be contested and constantly challenged — I’d rather talk to you of time travel instead — just pointing out how the onus is always on the marginalised body to carve out that ‘space’, ‘community’ or ‘origin’. Instead of ‘building communities’, what if we focus on shifting locales of power and loosening borders? Whether we like it or not, most of us are points of access to others — for instance, while teaching I am the point of access for children between theoretical knowledge and practical use when learning and re-forming syllables — I have little to no control over being ‘this’ via medium. What I can do, is ask access at whose cost and context? There are times when I absolutely loathe this position of access — being a cable wire for the ‘global’ to objectify the ‘local’ isn’t fun! Who knew! —  but what if we negotiate this ‘position’ of access?  Instead of challenging the militant Hindu activists — and not receiving any help at all — what these girls chose to do is seek aid elsewhere, while bringing forth more people in the chain.  Similarly, instead of fighting in harmful and unsafe spaces, if we leave our absences behind, we can re-orient ourselves to providing access to marginalised bodies, to local producer communities so that they can re-insert themselves as actors within the global arena and prevent re-appropriation of their identities.

To paraphrase my friend’s words, “As a Third World Woman, don’t expect me to build anything, ever. What I will do is express myself with break and silences as I disrupt the hegemony. Don’t expect me to smash and tear anything down, I have enough people doing that to me as it is”. Ultimately, what I hope to do is give and receive access that will enable Othered bodies and me the position of strength to negotiate within hierarchies and hegemonies. Meanwhile, my silences conspire and leave marks, re-present to us absences. Today, this minor disruption is more than enough.

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1. I couldn’t ask about her ‘problems’ as it would definitely be me squandering my caste-privilege about considering I didn’t know a thing about her then; she couldn’t ask me because of the invisible — but firm — class dichotomy me being a customer created.

2. Many virtual interactions are considered ‘unreal’ because ‘bodies don’t matter online’, or in an essence ‘get left behind’.

The (Othered) Woman In The Veranda

The past two weeks, the US-ian leaning feminist blogosphere has been on campaigns against the horrid and religious-state sanctioned policy on codifying when can one press charges for being ‘really’ raped; this way the State-Religious-Oligrachal system that embodies most US-ian policies, can re-define a person’s right to abortion, which in not so pleasant terms comes down to only when the State deigns the person to be ‘really’ raped¹. I don’t need caffeine in my system to conclude that this is one of the most heinous laws I’ve come across; I’d probably file it under the law that proposes to normalise a particular hijra body over another and above the one that anyone who is NotWhite needs to identify themselves and prove their ‘legitimacy’. Last week I was chatting with a self-proclaimed ‘White Feminist With More Privileges Than You Can Count’ when she said, “I’m just glad that abortion in India is legal and you don’t have to fight such basic human rights”; and these words haven’t left me. She’s not wrong, well not wholly anyway considering abortion laws out here are pretty diffident to encroaching on human rights — there are definite loopholes when it comes to trans*, hijra, ‘mentally unstable’ bodies — and that the Govt doesn’t seem to want to start an overt war over reproductive laws. Not yet anyway.

But, like most narratives seen only through the Western lens, this one is too simple too neat too easy to consume without challenging it. Under this narrative, our only challenge is access and the patriarchal control of female — queer identities get erased yet again, of course — bodies; but when we look at it theoretically, the law is in place to all protect the right of uterus-carriers at least. This assumption is all too familiar that all we have to fight against is Our Orthodox Culture, the age-old trope that if we have to be patronised ‘helped’ it is to ‘save the brown women from the brown men’ and that our ‘problems’ exist in this horribly restrictive frame only. Here, the Third World Woman’s body — quite literally — becomes a palimpsest to be written over, She is simply a medium through with competing discourses of Imperial Feminism and Irate Conservative-Nationalism represent their claims, yet again written over with words of other’s desires, other meanings.

If I am to go by traditional representations of women from both nationalist as well as imperial feminist perspectives, the feminine body is more or less coloured invisible, especially since both ask us to choose between the ‘woman question’ and anti-colonial discourses, dichotomising not only our (in)visibility but also lived-experience. More often than not, it’s at the intersection of race, gender, class, disabilities, caste that the Third World Woman is positioned in; and choosing one over another is almost always impossible — though it does not have to be the only alternative — and as we fail to choose, the gendered Subaltern is once again robbed of a voice.  Quite predictably, one of the most theorised topics in Indian feminism by the First World is female feticide, child marriage, honour killings and dowry deaths, all in the name of furthering philanthropy; while at the same time, this system as seen as quasi-acceptable as there are no ‘real’ barriers to abortion, theoretically speaking. Barriers of access — caste and class based — social stigma that is at once local and specific most ‘female’ bodies, that follows abortion and counter-conception discourse around gets ignored as once again we laud the legal framework. Such imperial hazing-over largely ignores the sanitising space the ‘Home’ is, where the vile idea that ‘females’ and feminine-identified bodies should only be Seen And Not Heard, where the ‘Home’ in essence must remain unaffected by the Evil Scheming And Cultureless West, Untouched By Material Realities and that ‘Woman’ is the embodiment and representation of this dance that sways to supposed equal parts tradition and ‘progress’. Meanwhile, the ‘Woman’ remains ‘bound’ in the Inner Veranda or the Inner Courtyard², steps one more step toward invisibility.

Reproductive rights are close to non-existent when we look at minority bodies of Dalit or tribal women, if you add disabled to this mix, these reproductive laws get chipped away even further; when we see here too there is a State-sanctioned and controlled framework when it comes to human rights — usually funded by the West. What is interesting is how the Third World Woman is at once the object of pity, of wonder, of disgust and of ‘well-intentioned’ condescension; she simultaneously is the pitiable statistic of female feticide as well as the one with ‘free’ legal access to abortions. Meanwhile, in the ‘real’ dusty realities we are too fighting to be heard and to be visible when speaking out against sexual assault considering many rapes against caste minorities are State sanctioned. Just like E. M. Forster’s ‘memashib’s in A Passage To India, many imperial feminist constructions of the Third World Woman locate the blame in native men, in their attempts to forge alliances with the ‘colonised’ woman who at times is the center of her sexual frustration, as well as a model of kinship as both seemingly live under fairly patriarchal standards. In the words of Mrs. Callender from the novel, “The best thing one can do to a native is to let him die”, the fight over possessing and territorialising the Third World Woman is between two inherently masculine modes of discourse, which slice her body in half, both want to ’emancipate’ her on their terms.

We need to localise our histories, forge bonds with hybrid realities and identities in order to fully and faithfully engage with the ‘Woman Question’. Neo-colonising-Empire-licking practices will simply not do.

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1. This game can also be used to determine Who Is Really Oppressed as we all know that any form of oppression exists solely in a void and is quantifiable, no?

2. Most traditional houses have ‘women’s spaces’ in the Inner Courtyard, where there are barriers — physiological and psychological ones — between ‘women’s spaces’ and the world outside.

Sub-Merged Margins And Us

Last week while returning a couple of books at the library, I saw the woman in the line next to mine was holding a copy of  ‘Writing Caste, Writing Gender‘, a book I’ve read cover-to-cover a few times. She saw me looking at the book and started  a conversation about the editor and how this was her first book on Dalit feminism. So I told her a few other names, and she marveled how I knew ‘so much’ about ‘them’ — as it turns out I’ve got ‘Privilege’ and ‘Hindu’ stamped on my forehead in invisible neon ink — because as she assumed correctly, I couldn’t possibly be ‘one of them’¹. While I smiled at her, I was cringing inwards to see how swiftly she spoke in ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ speak, forgetting the ‘We’, we forged somewhere in the middle, if the Constitution is to be believed at all. As insulting her words were — of course she ‘meant well’, after all Hindu Ladies have never really been evil, check our scriptures if you want! — this erasure of Dalit people, or the failure to acknowledge them as humans isn’t new. ‘Caste’ seems to be a word we love to forget, dropping it from our consonants as if it doesn’t matter at all, or as if the entire country just comprises of one monolithic Hindu ethnic identity. Moving across borders, an otherwise non-imperial article on Nepali bonded labour of little girls mentions the intra-generational debt, servitude and communal ‘tradition’ of gendered slavery, but yet again re-writes caste-struggle as a largely class-based one. Any time people want to play hide and seek with the term, I can only think of my aunt who calls Dalit women, ‘women like that‘ and almost wish I could ask them to pronounce the word like I do with my students when we learn new French words and phrases, just to make sure the word ‘caste’ can sound from their tongues too.

Looking beyond India’s borders, when the words ‘an Indian lady‘ are mentioned, the image that is the most popular is the Sari-Clad dusty woman, preferably looking docile and happy. Even a Dusty Lady as internationally recognised as Arundhati Roy, or rather the image² we know as ‘Ms. Roy’ caters to the same trope where beautiful bodies of spectacular South Asian women in silk and cotton saris, face framed with wispy, curly hair invites the consumer to gobble and cement the Image Of The Third World Woman as the one of Serenity, Peace and Wisdom™ and by extension further exotifying us. And in this one idealised ‘womanhood’ or ‘femininity’, Dalit or ‘lower-caste’ femininity, needless to say has no space to survive. No matter how subtle a form of body-policing is, when you erase or censor a body you censor words and voices too, the art of which Hindu society has perfected over centuries. In feminist circles and academia, talking about the Self as the Margin is a lofty trend, for occupying ‘Marginalia’ is the new PovertyPorn, where you can critique and consume your position in one easy move! While writing while woman is a hard job, writing while ‘marginal’³ is a far more lucrative option — especially if you belong to a community that does indeed squat in the mud, for nothing says ‘marginal’ like a ‘tribe’ or a ‘family’ that lived on trees or was related to Gandhi. While manufacturing this parallel universal that caters solely to the DoucheColonial Gaze of the Universal, bodies that are Othered step another foot back into oblivion. This is probably why we know of Jumpha Lahiri and not Bama today. Embodying the ‘marginal’ in writing films, in manners wise or otherwise, smacks too much of the lens filmmakers like Shekhar Kapur or Danny Boyle use, namely: See How They Squat Prettily, while guilting the audience into tears and gasps and nodding solemnly when it comes to collecting the profits. Playing this CharityCharade works only if the audience wants to see the same breakdown of seeing brown (feminine) bodies being saved from brown (masculine) bodies or any other notion that doesn’t challenge any Empires, of years past or the one we live in now.

A few years ago, when I went to Delhi the first time, like the over-excited tourist I did go to see the Taj Mahal and the tour guide spoke of length about the screens through which the Emperor’s wives looked from, the rationale behind them being somewhat similar to that of the hijab, to protect the woman from the MaleGaze and to preserve a certain amount of modesty. He used a funny word, he called it ‘women’s wall’ and since that day, any time I see any predominantly Mughal construction, I always look for that ‘women’s wall’. Recently, in many academic and theoretical discussions, this ‘marble slab’ or women’s wall builds itself up too, whenever the talk shifts to ‘those lower castes’ who always must be ‘given a solution to work with’. As upper-caste Hindu Ladies, there are quite a few systems that keep our tongues heavy, at the same time, we perpetuate the same suppression by keeping other feminine bodies and spaces as curtailed as we can, playing into the bait of embodying the victimiser, if only for a little while. Margins still exist, even if they’re constructed by feminine spaces or bodies; the ‘lower’ caste feminists need to erase their invisibility one step at a time, in spaces that are feminist and otherwise; whether we acknowledge this de-tonguing or not, it is a daily reality for them. Like the Bigger Whiter Universal culture sees many women of colour as ‘revolutionaries’ — or ‘terrorists’, pick one according to your mood! — as we come from ‘politically unstable countries’, the Dalit Woman is also cast as a Maoist, out to kill and destroy the precious government.

The Gendered- Subaltern, which occupies the lowest step on the ladder of humanity, is seen as a ‘submerged’ land, which will unfold and break away from the chromatic hegemony of Upper Castes and Classes, only through unraveling itself via memories, private testimonies and mainly, by re-writing and re-voicing it’s ‘voicelessness’. In this frenzy to ‘heal’ and ‘join’ spaces, people, communities — only tokens, mind you — repeatedly cast ourselves as the ‘marginal’, the detongued animal-subaltern-marginal sub-merges, bobs up and dives into silence. A few years ago, Spivak asked whether this Subaltern even has the ability to speak, today another question pops up, IF the Subaltern speaks, can we even listen anymore?

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1. We have a lot of convenient labels for all sorts of unnecessary words. Instead of saying ‘people’ or ‘Dalit’ we just say, ‘them’; which serves as a distancing and a condescending tool, all in one.

2. This ‘image’ of Arundhati Roy has nothing to do with her as a persona, activist or an author but rather how this ‘persona’ is packaged and sold to us, engaging in (ironically) the same dichotomies her texts generally break away from.

3. ‘Marginal’ is the liberal-elite version of the Marginal –as it were — where differences are constructed so they can mark, decode bodies and cultures easily for instant consumption.

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