This wasn’t what I wanted to write about!

“What kind of times are these, when 
To talk about trees is almost a crime 
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?”

– Bertolt Brecht

 

I started writing this post yesterday. In the notepad of my head, that is.  

I began by writing about my walk around the park, about the nostalgic scent of neem trees in full bloom, about the elderly couple I pass by every morning. I wrote about how the bench under the ‘poovaaka’ tree I was planning to sit on had come apart, and how I then decided to sit on a pink bench under the canopy of pink bougainvilleas that would contrast so nicely with my blue tracksuit. About the neat back-view of the Filipino lady who cycled past me in a snugly fitting grey and purple suit. Things like that.

You know what I mean – the good stuff. I had even taken a bunch of photos to go with the post, including that of a white-with-black-patches catperson who had stretched out languorously on a bench. 

But that was yesterday morning. 

Yesterday morning, much before the shockwaves of the details of eight-year-old Asifa Bano’s rape and murder hit the news. Before the comments from people who justified it, and the tweets that started with what about when— began to rise in yellow, bilious waves from the fault line of my stomach. Yesterday, while I still had the satisfaction of having taken a stand on some of the things that I should have, long ago, basking in the afterglow of having stood up to some well-meaning people. People I am otherwise fond of, who keep trying to convince me about the greatness of Hinduism and the need to protect it from malicious forces. Can’t you see? they keep asking me. 

I can’t. And yesterday I told them that. 

I used to not respond at first, silence being golden and all that. Then one day I decided that this was not the time to remain quiet. So I began to go to great lengths to explain why I disagreed with their sentiments. And shared whatever solid pieces of evidence I came across, to support my argument. See, this is what I’m trying to tell you.

This despite knowing that I would get thrice the number of what I had sent. And you see what we are trying to tell you!

It has taken me a while to register that there are doors to human minds which remain shut to logic and reason.

I was still naive, though. So I decided to out. Let’s not talk religion or politics, ok? I typed. I can never agree with you on these matters. To my pleasant surprise, our decision to agree to disagree was made amicably. I felt damn proud of myself for finally standing up to them. Because you see, for all my opinionatedness, I do have a fear of hurting the sentiments of those I respect. Or is it the residue of a latent fear of authority? Freud would know.

Last night though, I broke the mutually agreed-upon disagreement by bringing their attention to the sheer evil behind the abduction of an eight-year-old girl by some senior guardians of the law and religion who had kept her inside a DEVI TEMPLE (Oh god!) and repeatedly drugged and gang-raped her before wresting her life out in unimaginably barbarous ways. And those waving our national flag in support of the perpetrators.  I didn’t exactly ask, Can’t you see what’s happening? Because I was sure they would.

Now I stand corrected. Stripped of my illusions. 

Because today I am asked why there was no such outrage when Hindu girls were raped.  What about when– I am asked. Why only for this? I reply that I cannot believe that they are saying this, given the circumstances. But we are talking about the—

Stop being one-sided! I am told. 

One-sided. As if there are subtleties to child rape and murder that I am incapable of understanding.

I give up. Even my 3KM morning walk has not given me enough endorphin and serotonin to keep going. Maybe I should have stuck to our agreement and not talked religion or politics.

You should have! Now stop sharing your one-sided sentiments. 

I’m stopping. Here. Now. Maybe there’s nothing quite as impenetrable as those doors that are locked and keys thrown away. Doors to human minds.

***

This was not what I had wanted to write about. Even when I sat at my laptop a while ago, this was not what I had as topic of the day. I had still meant to write about my sanity walk, the sight and sounds thereof, and the high that it all gives to my menopausing self. Really. That was the intention I had started out with.

But how can I get rid of the image of light dying in a smiling pair of large, eight-year-old eyes from my mind? Or the overwhelming sense of defeat I feel in being able to do anything about it – not even convince those close to me.

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Photo courtesy: https://twitter.com/kalkikanmani

 

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Abandoned

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Maybe my boys are patient listeners. Or maybe they love me enough to listen to countless repetitions of the same old stories of the same old people and places and songs and books.

They do get frustrated at times. Mostly though, they give me a hug – quick or tight, as the occasion warrants – and let me ramble on. For better or for worse, they’ve had the onus of bringing up their mother, you see. She who so often disappears into those deep, dark, alone places full of shadows. Those abandoned houses of a fragmented childhood.

This is for them, my boys Appu and Adu. My poem that appears in RIC Journal.

a door groaned shut
and a lizard, startled
stopped in its tracks

the last anxious voice
faded away
at a distance

…and so on and so forth.

Read it in full here:  https://ricjournal.com/2018/03/17/abandoned-mini-s-menon/ 

I’m thrilled to be featured in RIC Journal! Why? Because it is quirky, generous, and so Red in Corner.

 

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Khasakkinte Ithihasam: an epic of forgotten dialects

Among the many items I had left behind of my childhood are some dialects. About half a dozen of them, in fact. Very peculiar to the times, micro-geographies and cultures of the places I grew up in. Dialects that smelled of green fields and steaming paddy. Of cow-dung, rain and persistent anxiety. Of palm-trees and claustrophobia of the wide open spaces, and a loneliness that stuck to your clothes like yellow, gluey mud you scratched off the sides of the lotus pond.

“Enthinaanu thambraatti agiranathu? Namma ippo veettilethoolle?”

At the time I’d not even noticed the peculiarity of the lingo in which almost every vowel sound began and ended with the close-mid sound of ‘ɘ’. It was just a part of the landscape, like the greenness of the field or the blueness of the mountain, like the humid heat and the dark, lean bodies with their stench of sweat.

I’d just nod, not really sure why my eyes had filled up in the first place. Was I missing home or was I anxious about reaching it? I still don’t know.

Somewhere along the way, I made a choice – that of selective memory. Which meant that I let go of a lot of my childhood, including its dialects. I chose my memories in the order of their sunshine, and wove my narrative around them. I carefully picked the vocabulary, tone, and semantics of all the languages and their variations that had flowed past me, and created my own lingo. So now I have a set of streamlined memories that I can look back on and smile, and a language that rarely prods sleeping dogs. Malayalam with a hint of Tamil, which could have originated anywhere between the banks of the Nila and the blue shadows of Western Ghats. Liberally peppered with the English of all those cities I have lived, loved and read in.

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Perhaps that was why rereading Khasakkinte Ithihasam (Legends of Khasak) was like a punch in the gut.

True. Like any self-respecting Malayali teenager with intellectual aspirations (pretensions?), I too had read O.V. Vijayan’s epic while still in school. But what I had never admitted to anyone was that most of what was in there had flown right past me without leaving a dent. I had understood little, and I remembered even less. When people spoke so highly of it, I would nod in agreement, embarrassed that I had nothing to contribute to the conversation.

The other day, while browsing through the collection in a tiny DC Books store in Karama, I picked up Khasakkinte Ithihasam again. A burst of enthusiasm triggered as much by the prices, as by the cover illustration. And of course, sheer curiosity.  What is in there that has triggered so much dialogue for so many decades?

Life comes back to where it started – in one way or the other. The world I had eased myself out of enveloped me again like a quagmire, oozing out of the 168 pages of the O.V. Vijayan’s classic novel. Only now, with almost half a century of life behind me, there is no way I can escape the vagaries of Khasak.

There is little I can say about the book that has not been said before.

Ravi is familiar – a young, literate, well-read man from a reasonably well-to-do family in the throes of existential crisis. The quintessential protagonist of Malayalam literature of the time. I have met him in various forms and names between the pages of the many novels I have read. Vijayan, however, does not make any concessions for Ravi unlike some other ‘heroes’ of that era. He is what he is by choice. Or compulsion – take your pick. But the last thing he needs is your sympathy.

What Vijayan narrates, however, is not Ravi’s story – it is the history of Khasak in all its myriad yet dark hues. Madhavan Nair, Appukkili, Mollakka, Nijaamali, Mymoona, Chandumma, Kunjaamina…. the list of Khasak’s children is endless, and each one plays a vital role in taking the narrative forward. Even the ghosts, gods and folklore of Khasak are living, breathing entities in Vijayan’s eerily familiar world, as real as it is imaginary. A world that is raw, primal and open to the elements.

Which, like life, brings me back to where I started – the dialect. It was the Malayalam that Vijayan has chosen for his epic that took me by the scruff of my neck. And it dropped me right in the middle of a world that I had safely stayed away from for decades. A very Khasak-like universe where a third of my memories (because my idea of ‘home’ was split three-ways during my growing up years) are set in.

“Ootareelu Jayettande padau odunundu. Namukku puggua thambraa?”

Pazhanimala would tether the bullocks to the cart and we would go to the theatrein Oottarawith its thatched roof and stained screen to watch Jayan seducing married women with his pecs and biceps. Mutton biriyani from Rahmania Hotel after, and a return journey under the starry, starry sky, with the tinkle of little brass bells lulling me to sleep…

If all was well that is.

A stray memory that drifted in.

There is a Khasak napping inside me, like there is in so many others. And it has now become restless.

Every good prose, I feel, has poetry running through it like a golden thread. It is there in a turn of phrase, a line that you want to utter out loud. Poetry lingers like melancholy in Vijayan’s writing, woven into the harsh overtones of its vernacular, adding to its poignancy, its earthy shadows. Touching you in a way that only poetry can.

If the hallmark of good literature is to disturb the reader, to shake them out of complacency, then it’s little wonder that Khasakkinte Ithihasam continues to revive and thrive, decade after decade.

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Split Mind

By Srilakshmi Srinivasan

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Mock me not, oh mind mine! 

My feelings are true. 

You are in me and belong to me, 

So why this shaming and why this hunt? 

You know my secrets, my sadness, and my weakness, 

You know my dreams, my joy, and my strengths.

 Then why? Why these obstacles? Why this doubt? 

When all I want is to get up and move on. 

Maybe, just maybe everyone has 

Their own goals, path, and secret doors. 

Maybe, just maybe they are not 

The same as yours (mine) ours anymore. 

Come along dear friend 

Let’s move towards light, 

Cutting through the dark tunnel 

To scale new heights.

Srilakshmi is, in her own words, ‘A doctor passionate about Kannada literature who just happened to translate one poem for you me.’  So it seems only appropriate that I include the original Kannada version of the poem. How I wish I could read it! 

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Though Srilakshmi and I are yet to meet in person, we are connected by a shared love for the written word. So when she generously translated a poem she wrote in her native tongue for me to read, I was more than touched.
Then there is the topic – depression and de-personalisation. My old friend, the dementor, seen through another pair of eyes. A familiar dark world captured in the few lines of a poem. Of course I made my ‘guest blog’ request; some voices have to be heard.
P.S. Srilakshmi’s daughter Srushti is a budding writer, and I had the occasion to publish her lovely little piece ‘Wonderland’ in a blog I have created for my students. (No, she’s not my student – she’s just young enough to be one. Read Wonderland here: https://minismenon.wordpress.com/2017/04/19/wonderland.
***
*The image was chosen by the author from an article on the topic of anxiety and depersonalisation.  (https://healdove.com/mental-health/anxiolytics).

Jottings

By Naveen Kishore
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Collage by Sunandini Banerjee

I

The conversations around you. Brittle and brisk. Without meaning. Words hurriedly strung together. Shoved into a tin can. Shaken. Made to rattle in short bursts. Like gunfire at close quarters. Tweets of fate. And happenstance. Like firing squads. Immediate. Transient. Relentless and vicarious babel. Grab and shoot. Who has the time? To think? Or breathe normally. The normal? Now a different shade of pale. Like running a hundred meter dash in less than 9 seconds. On shards of glass. Breathless. And bleeding. Gladiator sport. The kind that seeks out language only to thrust a sword into it. While the mob brays. For more bloodletting.

Slow everything down. Let your fingers grind to a halt. The forty-five on your turntable. Your skin scraping the grooves. Slurring the song. As if strangling the words. Almost.

Start afresh. Begin a new sentence. A long one. One in which with extreme patience and a strong dose of diligence you once again lay down the ground rules for language with a past history of elegance and a turn of phrase that makes you gasp with admiration for the one who has penned it with such élan and taste and wit and a sense of literary tradition passed on from writer to writer through centuries of fine writing where the meaning of words as they combine and mingle with each other takes precedence over mere ornamentation and where the complexity and density of a thought is chiseled to succinct and purposeful perfection in a heady mixture of fine prose or poetry or drama or whatever be your particular calling.

Now punctuate it. 

II

Show them how things work. Or at least strew the air with hints. Let them be razor sharp. The clues. And full of wit. And irony. And the chutzpah that says it like it is. Up in your face. Like truth. So that no one believes it. As the truth. As nature. Both yours. Mine. And Natures. The way things appear to work in Nature. In life. Or on stage. Like the web that the spider weaves. Against the light. Visible. A work of art. Or a trap. Depends on who is admiring the spring like strands that shine and glint in the sunlight or turn invisible as they snare a fly. The strings on stage that create the magic of a floating cloud. An entire flotilla of white that suspends belief even as it is suspended in the air above the stage floor. Look carefully and you will see the nylon threads that like the spider’s web hold the white bags of polyester filled with yesterday’s news. Crushed and torn into different fluffy shapes. Light as the air they are meant to simulate. Be something they are not. Sleight of hand. Or a trick that the eye missed. The ones that do not bear muster close up but in the right kind of light. And colour. Glowing with gold and red and silver white. With spotlights that make no attempt at being hidden. Hung and patched. In full view. On metal battens. With exposed wires. Process. The craft of magic made visible.

The truth is always other than what it appears to be.

***

Naveen Kishore is poet, writer, theatre lighting designer, photographer, publisher – Seagull Books [http://seagullindia.com/]. 

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Image courtesy Naveen Kishore

 

When I thought of inviting some of the writers (and lovers of the written word) I have come to be acquainted with to pen down a few lines for my blog, the first name that came to my mind was of Naveen Kishore – a writer, poet and person I tremendously admire and respect. Not to mention the publisher of some of the most beautiful books in existence today.

I admit I was skeptical – asking the one who publishes Nobel Laureates and their ilks to write for my humble blog sounded preposterous even to myself. But I did, eventually, and Naveen graciously obliged with a casual ‘See if these ‘jottings’ work. Call it whatever you wish to.’

Today is Seagull Books’ 35th anniversary, and I can’t think of a greater honour than to be able to host his words on my blog. And Sunandini Banerjee, whose magnificent collages are the lifeblood of Seagull Books, has allowed me to use ANY collage I’d like! 

Could I have asked for more?

Dubai Diaries: Day 5 – Blue!

Today was going to be my Taxi Tales day. Because, as I was saying, there are so many I’ve collected, and I’m bursting to tell them. But it has been a very long day, and I’m too tired now to string two decent thoughts together. And then there is all the excitement about my newly acquired turquoise nail polish – a gift from Juhi – that is making me look at my fingernails every so often, wondering momentarily whose they are. The fingernails I mean.

You see, I’m usually more conservative with my nail polish. But what the heck – YOLO, as Aditya used to make fun of me, back when he was just a strapping lad. Now he’s almost seventeen, you see.

Blue

So I’m cheating. I’m using my turquoise-tipped fingers to copy-paste something I’d jotted down one glum morning a few weeks ago. A morning when the earth and the sky were glum, as were me and my thoughts.

***

a sky with dark circles

under the eyes

brushing off last night’s dreams

from her clothes

the moon biting her fingernails

waiting 

for the sun who wandered away

lost in borrowed thoughts

a desert hungry for words

that fall on sand and die

***

That’s where I’d stopped. On that grey-blue morning in the last leg of winter.

Dubai Diaries – The Beginning

Seven evenings, you said, to create a body of work. Adding that it’s a long, slow process.

Well, why not? I have great belief in long, slow processes – being one myself. The fact that there’s more than just me in this process lends a certain level of accountability. (Notice how I’ve already taken your presence for granted?)

I have to clean up my act now. And start on my Dubai Diaries. Or shall I call them Desert Diaries?

All morning I thought about it. How do I begin? Where do I begin? More importantly, where do I stop – draw the line, so to speak? 

Begin at the beginning, as the King had told Alice, and go on till you come to the end: then stop?

Ideally. But then, what if this exercise turns out to be like trying to contain a sky-full of small white clouds inside an IKEA glass jar? What if? 

Anyway.

My Evening # 1 will have to start with my morning walk. Because I can’t write a text about Dubai without including my morning walks. Because that’s when I do most of my writing. In my head, that is. While treading the oh-so-familiar path to the park – between buildings, past the closed shops, across the road, past the buildings and across the sand, past the mosque, across the zebra crossing, past the gates and onto the jogging track around the pond…

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Today is Friday – the Day of Invisible People. Of those who otherwise blend into the background and remain unseen/unheard in this city. 

I can see the paper boys stopping by the pavement to chat, the night-shift workers still in reflective gear sitting at the entrance of the park and happily sipping tea, the housemaids enjoying their day off…

I’m vaguely aware of the songs that are playing. I think it was Rahman’s ‘nilaa kaaykirathu…’ when I stepped out of the house, and then somewhere along the way, I remember Jagjit Singh singing ‘din kuch aisa guzaartaa hai koi…’ in my ears.

Spring still prevails, at least in the park – though there are more flowers on the ground than on the trees now.

The other Friday I met a cleaning lady from Tamil Nadu who showed me the calluses on her knees. “No holiday one month, Madam. My body aching…” But it was with a beatific smile that she told me about how she had persisted with her request for a day off until her boss finally agreed. She did win, after all.

It’s not in the park that I met her— But then, that’s another story, better saved for another day.

Friday is also evident in the absence of the usual suspects: the yoga people with their mats and good cheer, the gang of young mothers led by a loud-voiced girl who spoke Gujarati, the tall Egyptian man who looks as if all he does with his days are workouts…

My legs hurt easily these days. I’m not sure if it’s the age, the weight or the desert that is catching up. So my 3-kilometer walk is often punctuated by bouts of sitting and nursing my aching shin.

As I make my way back home, I remind myself to start my walk earlier – the sun has begun to show its true desert colours. I’m sweating profusely, and the increasing brightness hurts my eyes.

It is with relief that I open the door to the air-conditioned darkness inside my apartment. Summer has risen.

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Of Gods Past and Present

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When I was a child, gods were everywhere.

My mother would spend most of her waking hours with them – chanting prayers, singing hymns, preparing things for pooja or performing it. The pooja room of my tharavad (ancestral home) had a million – or so it seemed – framed images and statues of gods, with the central position given to my mother’s Krishna statue. Our backyard was under the supervision of Ayyappa and the many Sarpas (serpent gods), from whom we often borrowed space to play in the afternoons. 

Our family and its property was remotely protected by goddess Kali; the former by Chitturamma who lived a few kilometres away, and to whom we proclaimed undying slavery every year in the form of a coin placed on a brass sword. Another Amma, who lived in the middle of the paddy fields and demanded an annual pooja, guarded the latter. No one like a mother to take care of her family! 

When we bathed, it was either in the pond that was part of the Krishna temple next door, or the one near the Shiva temple a little further. Either way, a visit to the temple was mandatory at the end of each hour-long bath.

Gods were quite demanding, back then.

Our next door neighbour, as I said, was Krishna (the blue one who played flute and teased women, and was generally a cool dude as gods went). We kids gathered every evening at the temple, gossiped, skipped rope, played hide and seek and giggled at secrets. We prayed too, but mostly in times of emergency; an impending exam, for instance, brought out all our latent piety. 

Whenever we lied or cheated, we would silently appeal to him for forgiveness, swearing that we would never do it again. Until next time.

We would often bribe him too – three extra laps around the temple, two incense sticks, a banana… And most of the time he would oblige. I remember how he breathed life into Amitabh Bachan after his accident on the set of Coolie, just because my friend Vimala had offered to light a whole packet of camphor if he (Amitabh, of course) lived to tell the tale. She had been in tears for days, and as our friend and neighbour, he (Krishna) could not turn his back on her request now, could he? 

Gods were generous, back then.

The nuns in the school I went to – Vijaya Matha Convent English Medium Girls High School, Chittur, the only convent school in the radius of 10 kilometres – brought Jesus and Mary into my life. I remember how I had taken an intense liking to ‘Samayamaam rathathil njaan…’ (little knowing at the time that it was a funeral song) and would sing it at the drop of a hat each time someone asked me to. My pretty PT teacher in grade two was my biggest fan, and the huge smile on her face each time I sang it loud and clear for her used to be my biggest reward. 

We had in our class a girl called Beena who would fast during Ramadan. I secretly admired her determination to not even sip water, though I could not understand why she did it. It used to worry us, her classmates, that she turned all pale and near fainting by the end of each day, and we would be eager to support her in all possible ways. I don’t remember if Shani used to fast, but it was from her that I learned to pronounce Bismillahi Rahimani Rahim properly. I was so proud when she told me that I now knew Qur’an, which was a good thing. 

Gods were good things, back then.

I also remember the metre-tall lunch box that Shani’s mother used to send with the driver every afternoon, from which came out the most divine mutton cutlets and biriyanis I had ever tasted. (My lunch box usually had rice and eggs in varied forms, a meal that got a little unappetising over the years.) The best school lunches in my memory were the ones that Shani, Sheeba and I had shared, sitting on the floor of the landing next to the locked terrace door of the school building. 

Later in college, Nazir would bunk classes till lunch break so he could bring steaming hot pathiri and chicken curry his mother had made for his ‘college gang’. After lunch, we would all gather around Henry listening to him sing ‘Nilaave Vaa…’ for the nth time, good-naturedly indulging our – Honey’s and mine – repeated requests for Tamil songs. I would pester Henry for the meaning of the lyrics, and Praveen, Nazir and Anand would tease me mercilessly for that, chorusing ‘and that means…’ at the end of each line. Subramanian would intervene with words of wisdom and common sense, and all would be well. 

In my Bombay days, I used to seek sanctuary in the pews of St Thomas Cathedral near Flora Fountain on Saturdays after work before heading back to my hostel. My most intimate conversations with god would happen there, below the high-arched ceiling, under the marble eyes of the bas-relief angels that adorned the walls.

One day I admitted to the priest there that I tended to address Jesus as Krishna in my prayers, and he reassured me that He wouldn’t mind. Later, when I told him I was getting married, the elderly Father advised me to make sure that I retain my own individual bank account – not just share one with my future husband. It was important, he told me, that women were financially independent. I folded my hands and bent before him. He drew a cross on his chest and blessed me with closed eyes.

Gods were fluid back then.

They kept us separate, but did not divide.

Then came men with metal rods and plastic bombs. And gods are not the same anymore.

***

Photo: St Thomas Cathedral, Bombay – Marble Bas-relief (courtesy https://playingwithmemories.com)

Five random musings

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1.

the mirror looked back

her smile a glimmer

the stranger blushed

quickly hiding her song

behind lowered lashes

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2.

words like trembling fingers 

hesitant 

lest they startle the song 

gently tracing 

summer shadows on the skin

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3.

drawing the night 

a little closer

the dawn 

snuggled

sighing

reluctant 

to let go 

of the dream

nestled between 

eyelids

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4.

the colour of life

muted

the whisper

of dreams

dying

inside eyes

glazed

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5.

lurking words

dark shadows

of past

conversations

desolate

this landscape

of silence

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