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Tea Leaves

Sri Lanka's cautionary tale of pandemics and sorcery

When the state buys into local superstitions and homemade potions, it makes for an unhappy ending

Portugal's colonial involvement in Sri Lanka ended in 1658, but the colonists left behind a vocabulary that is still audible in the "baila" that reverberate across the South Asian island. The word, derived from "bailar," the Portuguese for "dance," refers to the catchy tunes that get Sri Lankans dancing at festive occasions such as wedding parties and cricket matches.

But this musical genre -- also popular in the Indian coastal state of Goa, another former Portuguese colony -- has also made waves through its lyrics, sometimes because of their pointed social commentary. Foolish public behavior and the arrogance of the political class have become fair game in foot-tapping melodies that are taken in good part even by the pompous and pilloried as a nod to the country's ability to laugh at itself.

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