Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

Narendra Modi in the Big Apple

With my Mother

With my Mother

[update below] [2nd update below]

In my last—and only—post on Narendra Modi, from 4½ months ago, I opined that were he to become Indian PM following the general election there the US would no doubt lift the visa ban he was slapped with in 2005, for his implication in the infamous events in Gujarat three years prior. It is indeed hard to imagine an Indian Prime Minister being denied entry to the US and not welcomed at the White House with open arms. So PM Modi arrived in New York City yesterday for, as WaPo reports, a five-day “rock star-like U.S. tour,” which will involve, entre autres, a speech “to a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden on Sunday in a show replete with laser lights, holo­graphic images and former Miss America Nina Davuluri as co-host [and with the event being] broadcast in Times Square and 100 other venues around the country.” Moreover “[t]he Port Authority of New York and New Jersey [will add] extra trains to accommodate the expected crowds [and a] red carpet will be unfurled.” Definitely rock star-like. À propos, an academic gauchiste half-Muslim Indian friend—whose political views are the antithesis of those of Modi and his supporters—informed me today that, to her exasperation, her Facebook news feed has been inundated with links and comments by excited friends and relatives who plan to attend Modi’s US events. A post in the NYT’s The Upshot blog on Thursday indeed called Modi “A Facebook leader, too,” informing the reader that he had 21.8 million official fans on his FB page—two days later it’s over 22 (see above image)—, which is way more than any other political personality anywhere save Barack Obama (who has 42MM). By contrast, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was bragging recently about how he has more Facebook fans than François Hollande, has yet to hit a million…

On Narendra Modi’s US appeal, the très gauchiste historian Vijay Prashad, who teaches at Trinity College in Hartford CT, had a comment in The Guardian yesterday on how “Tough guy Modi is the man of the moment for wealthy Indian Americans.” Money quote

For wealthy sections of Indian America, Modi represents a strong man who evokes pride in India. When Modi brags about his 56-inch chest, his machismo indicates India’s arrival in world affairs. Poverty is swept away by his braggadocio. Eyes are averted from the slums and instead rest upon his promises to toss environmental and labour laws in the dustbin. Trains will run on time, workers obey their supervisors and the armed forces will spread their testosterone along India’s borders. Experiences of racism and discrimination inside the US will be forgotten in the presence of Modi. If America sees Modi’s toughness, say his US supporters, the petty humiliations of life in the west will vanish.

As I observed in my post of 4½ months ago, Modi bears a distinct resemblance to Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Poor India.

Pankaj Mishra, in the November 21st 2013 NYRB, had a review essay on the latest books (co-)authored by Indian economist frères ennemis Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, “Which India matters?,” in which he made observations similar to Prashad’s

Rising social unrest is making an insecure Indian elite gravitate to such hard-line leaders as Narendra Modi, whose well-advertised toughness with labor unions and PR-enhanced business-friendliness make him the preferred choice of many corporate leaders, economists, and commentators as India’s next prime minister. Bhagwati, for instance, has described Modi as a “positive role model” with “an unblemished record of personal integrity.” As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was allegedly complicit in the killing of over a thousand Muslims there in 2002 and was barred from traveling to the United States as a result. But he still embodies managerial efficiency and iron discipline to those disturbed by the political assertiveness of the poor and the disaffected.

And Mishra writes supra that

India’s ruling class today consists, as C. Rammanohar Reddy, editor of The Economic and Political Weekly, defines it, “of large Indian businesses, the new entrepreneurs in real estate, finance, and IT, the upper segment of the urban middle classes, the upper echelons among the bureaucracy, and even large sections of the media.”

What’s immediately striking about this class of the relatively affluent is the degree to which it shares the same interests and beliefs, and its reflexive hostility to government spending on welfare—although political parties feel particularly obliged to indulge in such spending before elections. But the conservative rhetoric about buoyantly self-reliant entrepreneurs hides the fact that, as [Atul] Kohli writes [in his 2012 book Poverty Amid Plenty in the New India], the Indian state since the 1980s has been “pro-business” rather than pro-market, responsible both for the dynamic forces at the apex of India’s economy and “the failure to include India’s numerous excluded groups in the polity and the economy.”

This “collaborative capitalism,” of which Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat, is the most egregious exponent, consists of the state extending tax benefits to India’s largest businesses and facilitating their cheap access to national resources of oil, gas, forests, and minerals. In turn, “the disproportionate control over economic resources,” Kohli writes, “enables businessmen to ‘buy’ politicians,” shape decision-making through the media, and even enter politics themselves.

The spitting image of RT Erdoğan. If Modi acquires anything resembling RTE’s electoral base, he’ll be around for many years to come.

UPDATE: Pankaj Mishra, in a column in Bloomberg View (September 29th), says that “Narendra Modi is a dangerous cliché.”

2nd UPDATE: Meera Nair, who teaches writing at NYU, has a post on one of WaPo’s blogs (October 3rd) informing us that “Narendra Modi was speaking in code when he visited America. Here’s what he was really saying to his Hindu nationalist base.”

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The Indian election

Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi

[update below]

I don’t follow Indian politics too closely, though am, of course, aware that a general election is underway there, and which will most certainly result in the victory of the BJP and accession to power of its worrisome leader, Narendra Modi. If one wants to get up to speed on this—as I’m trying to do—I can recommend a couple of good articles that I’ve read over the past 24 hours (h/t Mira Kamdar and Roane Carey).

The first is by the well-known South Asia specialist William Dalrymple, “Narendra Modi: man of the masses,” in the New Statesman (May 12th). The lede: Modi, implicated in a massacre in 2002 while chief minister of Gujarat, is poised to become India’s next prime minister. Is he a dangerous neo-fascist, as some say, or the strongman reformer that this country of 1.2 billion people craves?

Modi may be a lifelong member of the fascistic RSS but that does not ipso facto make him personally a neo-fascist. To me, he sounds like an Indian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—though with some blood on his hands—, which will be just fine for BJP supporters but not so fine for those who don’t support the BJP.

The other article is by Zahir Janmohamed, “Could a Hindu Extremist Become India’s Next Prime Minister?” in The Nation (May 13th). The lede: Narendra Modi’s role in the horrific 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat has never been properly investigated, but now a timely new study is raising the right questions.

Janmohamed, pour l’info, lives in Ahmedabad and is writing a book about the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, and has previously worked as a foreign policy aide to Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) and as the advocacy director for Amnesty International. The “timely new study” Janmohamed reviews in his essay is The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra, by Times of India journalist Manoj Mitta. Money quote:

In Manoj Mitta’s new book The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra, published by Harper Collins India, Mitta argues that if there has been no real attempt to get to the truth of Modi’s actions during the riots, it’s because of the “cavalier” approach to justice. Through extensive documentation, Mitta shows that Modi might be on trial today, as opposed to campaigning for prime minister, if only he had been asked the right questions about his role in the riots.

If the US visa ban on Modi—which he was slapped with in 2005—is still in effect, one may assume that it will soon be lifted.

While I’m at it, for those who can get behind the NYRB’s paywall, Pankaj Mishra had a review, in the August 15 2002 issue, of Human Rights Watch’s report ‘We Have No Orders to Save You’: State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat (in which Narendra Modi is mentioned forty-eight times).

À suivre.

UPDATE: Vinod K. Jose, executive editor of The Caravan: A Journal of Politics & Culture, has a very good article, dated March 1 2012, entitled “The Emperor Uncrowned: The rise of Narendra Modi.”

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Ilo Ilo & A Simple Life

Ilo Ilo Movie Poster

This is a gem of a film from Singapore I saw last September, when it opened in Paris, and that a stateside friend informs me is currently playing in the US (he saw it and liked it). The film—29-year-old Anthony Chen’s directorial debut and for which he won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes last year (and to a 15-minute standing ovation)—is set in Singapore during the 1997 financial crisis and centers on a middle-class couple going through a rough patch—the office employee husband (actor Chen Tian Zen) having lost his job, which increases the already existing tensions in their relationship—and who hire a live-in Filipina housekeeper and nanny, named Terry (actress Angeli Bayani), to tend to their turbulent, headstrong 10-year-old son, Jiale (played by the remarkable Koh Jia Ler, in his first role), while his working mother (actress Yeo Yann Yann) sees through her pregnancy. The parents cannot cope with the bratty, undisciplined Jiale, and who torments Terry when she joins their household. But Terry is patient with him and the two eventually bond—and which arouses the jealously of Jiale’s mother, who was already cool toward her. As the couple’s financial difficulties mount they decide they can’t afford to keep Terry—and despite the important, stabilizing role she plays in Jiale’s life—, so she returns to the Philippines.

The film, as Kenneth Turan put it in his (stellar) review in the L.A. Times

quietly demonstrates that in the right hands [of director Anthony Chen] even the familiar stuff of everyday life can move us deeply. (…) Created in a sensitive, neo-realistic style, “Ilo Ilo” deals with how emotional connections are made and frayed, with the different ways individuals become important to us and how that dynamic plays out in the lives of children who are essentially powerless over their personal situations. (…) The great joy of “Ilo Ilo” is that, aided by naturalistic acting by all concerned…everything is allowed to happen believably in its own space and time, pulling us gradually but deeply into these people’s lives. It is difficult to overstate how real and touching all this feels and how much it ends up affecting us.

Yes, absolutely. The story was inspired by the director’s own childhood experience, of his family’s live-in Filipina maid until he was 12-years-old and to whom he was attached. She was an important person in his early life—he called her Aunt Terry—but the family lost touch but with her, remembering only that she came from the province of Iloilo in the Philippines (thus film’s international title; the Chinese title translates as “mother and father are not home”). Reviews of the pic have been tops across the board, in both the US—e.g. see Stephen Holden’s in the NYT—and in France. The trailer may be seen on the film’s website.

Similar to ‘Ilo Ilo’ was a film from Hong Kong I also saw last year, ‘A Simple Life’ (en France: ‘Une vie simple’), by director Ann Hui, about a 40ish film producer named Roger (actor Andy Lau) and his lifelong domestic, Ah Tao (actress Deanie Ip), who has served four generations of Roger’s upper middle class family over six decades. Roger, who’s a bachelor, is the only one left in the house, as his siblings have long married and moved out, his father has passed away, and his mother lives abroad, so Ah Tao tends exclusively to him, cooking his meals and all. But she’s in her late 60s and suffers a stroke, so obviously has to stop working. Roger wants to hire a caregiver for her at home but she insists on going to a nursing home, so he accedes to that. She’s been Roger’s family’s domestic all his life—and most of hers—and has become an integral member of the family—and to whom he is closer than he is to his own mother. And the situations are now reversed, with him now taking care of and tending to her.

I loved this movie, as did the friend with whom I saw it (it made my Top 10 list of 2013). It is so moving and touching, well-acted and just all around excellent. The relationship of Ah Tao to Roger and his family is at the center of the film but it also depicts, more generally, a world that is disappearing, of middle class families in Hong Kong—and other societies—and the domestics who worked for them, who were engaged by the families as children and served them for a lifetime. In Hong Kong, poor families who sent their children to be domestics with well-to-do families often named them “Chun” or “Tao,” to the point where these names came to be associated with domestics. There’s a great scene in the movie where Ah Tao, before she moves into the nursing home, is interviewing a job applicant to replace her. She informs the young woman of what will be expected of her, of how she is to tend to Roger—fussing over him, giving him massages, and all—, to which the applicant responds to the effect of “I’m not going to do that shit! Fuck that!” and then gets up and walks out. Lower class women in today’s Hong Kong are no longer available for that kind of work (as in Western societies, where housekeepers and nannies are invariably immigrants). As it happens, the film is based on the real life story of its producer, Roger Lee. Reviews were tops in France and in the US (see, in particular, this 4-star review by the late Roger Ebert). Trailer is here.


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Tokyo, May 25 2012 (Photo: AFP)

Tokyo, May 25 2012 (Photo: AFP)

[update below] [2nd update below]

The TPP. Any idea of what that is? Most likely not. I hardly knew myself until today, and I like to think that I’m well-informed on international affairs. It’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade agreement the Obama administration is presently negotiating below the radar screen with several Asian and Latin American countries (map below). And it is very important. So important for the business interests that are driving it—and of the governments doing their bidding—that, from their standpoint, it best be kept way below that public radar screen. The redoubtable Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, who has been organizing around trade and globalization issues since the ’90s, explains what’s at stake with the TPP in this Democracy Now! interview. It will take 14-minutes of your time to watch it (it starts at the 13th minute) but is well worth it if you’re a citizen of any of the countries involved. So please watch it now.

Re Lori Wallach: Talk about being well-spoken and having your facts and arguments down cold. I would dread being on the opposing side of a debate with her. For more by Wallach on the TPP, see the article she wrote last year in The Nation, “NAFTA on steroids.” The lede: “The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would grant enormous new powers to corporations, is a massive assault on democracy.” If Wallach’s characterization of the TPP is at all accurate—and I have no reason to believe that it’s not—, it represents, at the very least, a significant, European Union-like transfer of national sovereignty to a supranational entity. Except that, unlike the EU—until the enlargements of the past decade plus Greece—, the TPP involves countries with vastly different standards of living, political institutions, systems of governance, and economic legislation (labor, consumer, etc), to name a few, but without any EU-type supranational institution (commission, parliament, council, court) and absent any pretense of democratic accountability. Moreover, one has a hard time imagining what benefits could accrue to significant numbers of citizens in the countries involved, and particularly the United States. This thing needs to be stopped, and beginning with Congress refusing fast-track authority to President Obama. NAFTA, which I was all for twenty years ago, turned out to be a mistake. The TPP will definitely be a mistake and a much bigger one.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a post (December 12th) on his blog on why he doesn’t think the TPP is a big deal. Dean Baker explains on his blog why his friend Paul is in error on this, that the TPP is indeed a big—and bad—deal.

2nd UPDATE: Joseph Stiglitz has a must read article on the TPP, “On the wrong side of globalization,” on the NYT op-ed page. (March 15, 2014)

newTPP map cropped

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Fukushima’s worst-case scenarios


I have had absolutely nothing on this blog on the Fukushima accident, which is not to say that I haven’t been following the story closely over the past 2½ years and fretting over it. A certain number of articles I’ve read on the subject, including lately, have been alarmist, indeed catastrophiste, as to the situation at the plant and how it could go from bad to worse, particularly in the coming months. But I just read this article in Slate by former WaPo journalist Paul Blustein, who lives in Japan, informing us that “[m]uch of what [we]’ve heard about the nuclear accident is wrong.” The article is based on an initially secret—and still not widely known—evaluation of the accident by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The bottom line: there is no plausible worst-case scenario that threatens the city of Tokyo. Even in the most nightmarish of eventualities, 30 million people—or even a portion of that—will not need to be evacuated. A very interesting article and absolutely worth the read.

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Ini Avan & Metro Manila


‘Ini Avan’. This is a fine movie from Sri Lanka I saw last week—the first I’ve seen from that country (can’t think of any other). The title (Tamil) translates as ‘Him, Here After’—which is what the pic is called in English—, though when written as one word (iniavan) means ‘sweet man’. The double entendre is deliberate. The story is about a former LTTE fighter—his name is never mentioned; he is simply ‘avan’ (him)—who returns to his village near Jaffna after having done time in a government rehabilitation camp (he likely surrendered or was captured in the final Sri Lankan army offensive in 2009, that decapitated the LTTE and put an end to its three decade-long insurgency). The former fighter

[hopes] to find meaningful work, reconnect with his lost love, and create a new life as an “iniavan” in his old village. But the village has turned against Avan and the separatist cause he fought for. From the first moments in the film, his old neighbours, all believably portrayed by amateur actors, stare at him in disapproving silence, and a child runs away from him. An old man comes to shout that Avan “killed” the man’s sons by luring them into the LTTE; we learn that he recruited everyone in the village who supported the cause, and they all died in the war. It was only Avan who survived to return and face those who were left behind to mourn their relatives while living in fear of LTTE extortion and government violence. He doesn’t want to face them, though. When anyone tries to talk to him, he replies, “piraiyosanam illai”: “no point”.

The scene could be from the aftermath of so many civil wars, where villagers supported the insurgents when they were in the ascendancy and the village sons had joined—not always on their own volition (there is a significant degree of impressment in these conflicts or offers one can’t refuse)—, suffered the actions of the army—killings, rape, destruction of property—but also of the insurgents themselves (their “revolutionary taxes”—i.e. extortion—, high-handed behavior, killings, and the like). And, in the case of the LTTE’s insurgency, it was all for naught. ‘Avan’, who was a gun slinging local big shot during the insurgency, is now a pariah. He tries to find work in Jaffna but his identity is known and he has no particular skills—apart from being a fearless tough guy who can be entrusted to do jobs outside the law. On the streets in Jaffna he encounters men from his insurgent past; they don’t look nice and he doesn’t want to deal with them: and they clearly have issues with him. And no one wants to hire him, except a local mafia-type who precisely knows his past. And a story thus ensues. The film is engaging, hangs together, and ends as it should. It has only opened in France so far (reviews here). Hopefully it will make it to the US and elsewhere. Trailer is here and interview with director Asoka Handagama is here.

Another film from that general part of the world seen in the past week was ‘Metro Manila’, which is from the Philippines but written, directed, and produced by the Englishman Sean Ellis (who’s made a couple of films I hadn’t heard of). It’s a sort of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ set in Manila, as more than one critic has observed. French reviews are mostly good—though Le Monde panned it—and Allociné spectators have given it the thumbs way up, so I was definitely going to check it out. But I regretfully had to agree with Le Monde’s review and part company with the Allociné spectators, whose collective assessment of films is normally on the mark. I did not like this movie and almost from the get go.

It begins in a village in northern Luzon, with a (good-looking) young rice farmer who can’t make ends meet and thus decides to migrate to Manila. So he sets off to the big city, with (attractive) wife, (adorable) five-year-old daughter, and (cuddly) baby in tow. There were several problems right off the bat. First, the family was too well-groomed and scrubbed to be dirt poor farmers. Peasant-wise, they didn’t cut it. And one learns in the course of the film that the husband, named Oscar (actor Jake Macapagal), had worked in a factory before becoming a peasant. Not too credible. Usually it’s the other way around. Secondly, they seemed to have no family in the village—or anywhere (a bit odd for folks from the sticks)—and knew no one in Manila. But when people migrate—whether rural-urban or cross-border—they are invariably imbedded in networks—family, friendship, village—, with knowledge of where they’re going—and that determines that destination—, a place to stay when they arrive, and information about employment. Migrants, even the poorest, possess a degree of social capital. But this couple clearly had none. They were entirely on their own. Thirdly, they were utterly clueless once in the chaotic Manila-Quezon City metropolis—where they’d clearly never been—, both enthralled by it and with no idea of what they were doing, thereby leaving them easy prey for the inevitable predators and swindlers. Again, peasants may be peasants, but they’re not that naïve when in the big city. The clichés here were a little much. Fourthly, Oscar, despite being a rube, had served in the army, so one learns—which normally should have provided some sort of network—, knew how to find the employment office, and make phone calls in English. Again, not entirely credible. Fifthly, they find digs in a particularly fetid, malfamé shantytown, though manage to keep clean, cook food, get the baby’s diapers changed, etc. Not clear how they did all that, and while being flat broke to boot. And finally, they were so nice. Such good people: decent, honest, trusting, ethical, moral… Even the daughter protects a kitten that is being abused by neighborhood boys. And on this level, the film grated, as it tugged at and manipulated your emotions (and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing). And you just knew, almost from the outset, that bad things were going to happen to the family. Bad things happening to good people. I hate that. For this reason alone I found the pic excruciating to sit through—angoissant—and couldn’t wait for it to be over.

And the bad stuff does happen—though not entirely and definitively. The way the bad stuff happens—and the film ends—is also contrived. Somehow I can’t imagine a Filipino director making this movie. It took a ‘Slumdog Millionaire’-inspired Westerner to do so. Now the film does have a certain “authenticity”—it is entirely in Tagalog; the script was in English, with the cast translating as they went along—and one does get a feel for Manila in its teeming, bustling sprawl, seaminess, violence, concentrated wealth and mass poverty—the technical feat of shooting the movie in that city during the workweek is to be commended—, but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor. US reviews are here, here, and here. Trailer is here.

metro manila

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the act of killing

[updates below]

This film opened in New York City yesterday, so I read. I saw it a couple of months ago here in Paris. I’ve never seen a documentary like it (well, actually I have; see below). I was floored by it. It left me speechless. It’s about what happened in Indonesia in 1965-66, after the overthrow of Sukarno, when 500,000 to one million members and supporters of the Indonesian communist party—who were mainly ethnic Chinese—were massacred by the (US-backed) regime of General Suharto. Like any geopolitically knowledgeable person I of course knew about the massacres and their scale but not the details, of how they were carried out or of their historical memory in Indonesia. After seeing the documentary, one knows all about it and then some. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer spent two years in Medan—the largest city in Sumatra—, interviewing and filming some of the perpetrators of the massacres there: local criminals and thugs who were recruited into the regime’s paramilitary youth organization, Pemuda Pancasila. The men, who are getting up there in age, regret nothing. Au contraire, they’re proud of what they did. They willingly—almost gleefully—talked of how they went about selecting the victims and then tortured and executed them (mainly by strangulation and demonstrating the method, which looks efficient indeed; a fine way to save on ammunition, and with no blood). They had great fun speaking about and playacting their deeds. No shame. And their reputations are well-known, not only locally but nationally. They’re tied in with government officials, even ministers, as the film shows, and with their actions in 1965-66 given positive recognition, recounted on television talk shows, etc. As one journalist observed (not in the film), it’s as if Hitler and his accomplices had survived and then gotten together fifty years later to act out their favorite scenes of the Holocaust before a movie camera, and were celebrated in Germany today. As for families of the victims, they maintain a low profile. No demands for justice or retribution, as they know what would likely happen to them were they to make an issue of it.

That’s as much as I’ll say about the film, which absolutely has to be seen to be believed. For more, see this very good essay on the NYR Blog by Francine Prose, “Indonesia’s happy killers.” And for those who read French, there’s this lengthy and informative interview with Joshua Oppenheimer on the Allociné website. The film’s website is here.

Seeing the film reminded me of a similar one that I saw in 2006, ‘Massaker’, by German filmmaker Monika Borgmann and (her Lebanese husband) Lokman Slim, on the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. The documentary consisted of interviews with six former militiamen in the Lebanese Forces, now in their 40s, who participated in the massacre. The men were interviewed separately, indoors, and from the torso down—i.e. no faces, as they feared retribution if their identities were known. Of the six, only one expressed even an inkling of regret for what he did. They all spoke in matter-of-fact detail and without remorse of the killing they perpetrated over those three days in September ’82—of babies, children, women, elderly people—, of women they gang raped before murdering, and other such acts. Listening to their accents (in dialectical Arabic, which I won’t say I understood too well), it was clear they’re of modest social origins, probably from villages in Mount Lebanon. It was a bone-chilling documentary—and which hardly anyone saw (and no one I know), as it didn’t receive the same attention as ‘The Act of Killing’ presently is. A few of the Paris critics reacted negatively to the film, calling it voyeuristic and amoral. I ignored them. As with ‘The Act of Killing’, it is an important document, as it shows something about the behavior of human beings which, given the right conditions and circumstances, could happen anywhere.

UPDATE: TNR has an article (July 29th) on “The making of a surprise hit documentary about genocide: Joshua Oppenheimer on ‘The Act of Killing’.” And the July-August issue of Film Comment has an interview with Oppenheimer.

2nd UPDATE: Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, has an op-ed—well worth reading—in the NYT on “Indonesia and the act of forgetting.” (February 28, 2014)

3rd UPDATE: The NYT has an article on how the “‘Act of Killing’ film fails to stir Indonesia.” (March 2, 2014)

massaker affiche

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