PanMacmillan India Posts

“Kratu” by Samarpan

When I first heard about Kratu ( PanMacmillan India), I wanted to read it. I wanted to know what a Hindu monk, as the author describes himself, had to say about mortality, spiritual awakening and perhaps even about “moh-maya” that we are taught about in Hindi poetry. But it all came to a grinding halt when I read the book blurb. I have been unable to process the description of the book especially when it describes the protagonist of the novel “burdened by deathless memory”. I am so lost as to what it means. I was advised to read the book and understand what the author is conveying. But this phrase instead of making me curious has just left me baffled. Life is too short to read an entire book-length exposition on the subject when the blurb itself fails to communicate clearly. I am deeply disappointed.

I strongly urge those with a spiritual bent of mind or who are keen readers of MBS ( Mind, Body, Spirit) literature to pick this book up. They are probably the intended audience.

14 Jan 2021

Oliver Sacks’s “The River of Consciousness”

Sometimes it is impossible to “review” a book except to say “Read it”. Oliver Sacks The River of Consciousness is a fine example of this.  It is a collection of his essays on diverse topics but with one objective — how does the brain work? How does it process? How does it affect memories? What is true and what is false? What is a figment of our imagination? What does science reveal? This is precisely the fundamental argument Siddharth Mukherjee makes in his Laws of Medicine TED talk. Irrespective of all the advancements in technology, it is the brain which remains the most important for the speed at which it analyses and processes information, constantly pushing known boundaries to discover new frontiers of knowledge that are so far unimaginable.

The River of Consciousness is a posthumous publication but in it is much food for thought. Whether it is discussing creative energies to how the brain works while analysing information as in the case of Charles Darwin or even how do children learn and process information are fascinating points to ponder upon. For instance Prof. Sacks says “Children have an elemental hunger for knowledge and understanding, for mental food and stimulation. They do not need to be told or ‘motivated’ to explore or play, for play, like all creative or proto-creative activities, is deeply pleasurable in itself.”

The River of Consciousness is an excellent book to possess and to return to often too.

To buy The River of Consciousness ( On Kindle ; Paperback ; Hardcover)

14 August 2018 

 

Guest post: Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History, Sami Ahmad Khan

Guest post: Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History, Sami Ahmad Khan

Sami Ahmad Khan( On 21 February 2014, during the World Book Fair, New Delhi, Sami Ahmad Khan was in conversation with thriller writer Aroon Raman and Sangeeta Bahadur. Aroon Raman had just released his latest novel, a historical thriller – The Treasure of Kafoor and Sangeeta Bahadur had published Jaal.  Both the authors are published by PanMacmillan India. Here is an account of the event sent by Sami Khan. ) 

Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History

We’re a nation built around myths. Or maybe we’re just a myth built around a nation. Whatever the case may be, can we ascribe historicity to myths and study such mythologies as running parallel to certain socio-historical processes spawned by the material realities of their times? More importantly, where does mythology end and where does history begin?Aroon Raman

Similar questions raged in my mind as I strode towards the Authors’ Corner at Hall 10-11 of Pragati Maidan on February 21, 2014. The Delhi World Book Fair 2014 was in full swing and I was moderating a session scheduled to begin at 2.30 pm. Wading past Siren-esque stalls (that featured books on sale) and Charybdian crowds (replete with delightfully engrossed bookworms), I odysseyed to my destination to converse with two brilliant minds and wonderful writers – Sangeeta Bahadur and Aroon Raman.

I knew Aroon Raman from before, having read him earlier with much gusto. Raman had obtained his masters degree from JNU, Delhi, an MBA from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and was now an entrepreneur based out of Bengaluru. The Shadow Throne was Aroon Raman’s debut – an electrifying thriller involving the R&AW, ISI and an India-Pakistan nuclear standoff. The Treasure of Kafur, his second published novel, was incidentally written first. A fast-paced, historical thriller set in Mughal India, the novel fictionalized the treasure of Malik Kafur being sought after by contemporary figures such as Akbar, Rana Pratap, and (quasi-historical?) characters such as Asaf Baig (of Khandesh) to wage war for the control of Hindustan.

Sangeeta BahadurOn the other hand, it was the first time I was going to meet Sangeeta Bahadur, writer of Jaal and Vikraal. I was told she had graduated from Sophia College (Mumbai), an institution I admire a lot. Bahadur is an Indian Foreign Service officer who is currently posted as the Director of the Nehru Centre, London.  If Raman writes about politics, coming-of-age, and action, Bahadur too weaves a deep, engrossing web of inner conflict – this one around mythological fiction. She utilizes Indian spirituality and metaphysics, fuses them with the world created by her own mind, and comes up with a whole new mythos. Bahadur’s Jaal is the first of a trilogy – set in a syncretic, eclectic past where a young boy must train himself to become the ultimate fighting machine to combat the forces of Maya, the novel is a more spiritual version of LOTR set in a land that resembles India. A sequel called Vikraal will be out soon.

How do we comprehend, decode, and analyze mythological and historical fiction written by people from such varied backgrounds and visions? As Bruce Lincoln defines myth as “ideology in narrative form,” one of the first questions I asked Bahadur and Raman was how mythology and history interacted in their minds and in their texts – and if they chose their respective genres to enable them to fuse their narrative styles with the content, i.e. what (and how) they wanted to say.

Their answers were complementary to each other (an aspect that continued throughout the duration of the conversation) – both made me realize something I had so criminally overlooked – writers make genres, genres do not make writers. Both regarded writing as an act of unbridled creation – unfettered by the limitations of any genre. Yes, they wrote about mythology and history, but as fiction writers, they perceived both as two sides of the same coin. Both clarified that rather than being true to the narrative conventions of any genre, culture or style, they rather wanted to be true to the reader and to themselves. The end-result, for both Bahadur and Raman, was to use any template close to them that could give the readers a fast-paced, layered and interesting narrative for the reader.

I then raised the question of spirituality – both Bahadur and Raman draw upon Indian classical traditions. While Bahadur’s primary lens to synthesize different mythologies and traditions and further the plot is primarily aastik in its outlook, advaita-vedanta in particular (which becomes explicit at times), Raman has his implicit groundings in the naastik traditions of Buddhism. Both Jaal and Kafur have a dense spiritual/philosophical subtext that not only drives the plot further but also seeks to define why characters do what they do. It is their belief in fixed ideological structures that make these characters come alive – and shapes their behavioral patterns.

For individual questions, I asked Aroon Raman why his second book was markedly different from his first, and why he chose to jump across genres despite the commercial success of his debut venture. The Shadow Throne is a contemporary military/political thriller, whereas The Treasure of Kafur is historical fiction. Apart from reiterating that genres do not matter for a creator, and that thoughts and ideas rarely come to writers filtered and censored via the sieve of pre-existing notions and genres, Raman made me realize that the end-goal was to write a book that was fun to read, and that a writer should concern himself with creating without worrying about genre pigeonholing – and that the two books weren’t that different after all. Both his books have a central character caught in hostile surroundings and his constant striving to prevent evil from triumphing – the temporal dislocation does little to blunt this action-oriented narrative.

I then asked Bahadur that while Raman may write about ISI and RAW, she, as a serving government officer, cannot. So was this mythological fiction, replete with betrayals, realpolitik, machtpolitik, coups, warring kingdoms and political federations, actually a political allegory meant for the contemporary times? In response, while Bahadur graciously acknowledged that although historicity did shape some parts of Jaal, the novel was in no way a political allegory. She was not merely utilizing an already established ideological narrative, but creating a whole new ideating philosophy, politics, sociology and world in her head.

The two also talked about how, as writers, both were aware of the social implications of the outlooks of their characters. Raman talked about spending time in Tihar as a student-activist (and a member of the JNU Students’ Union) almost 30 years ago – but then accepted that now he was a capitalist entrepreneur, though that did not render him politically unconscious or reactionary. His characters, to prove a point, are strongly feminist, anti-casteist, pro-hoi polloi, progressive, and anti-parochial – people who speak up for the masses. Bahadur also has some similar characters who seek unity in diversity (rather than differences), and raise their voices against injustices and hegemony. This forms the basis for a layered characterization by both the writers.

The session concluded with both Sangeeta Bahadur and Aroon Raman giving the audience some tips about writing fiction. They urged budding writers to break free from the shackles of form and classification – and just go write a good story that was fun to read and did not spoon feed the reader what the writer thought.

It was great talking to these two thinkers – they just proved that to write one sentence, one must think an hour at least! Lastly, all this is based on my understanding on what the writers said and meant, not to mention a failing short-term memory – it may not wholly coincide with what they actually meant, but I hope I’ve been able to be true to their ideas.

I look forward to more such opportunities.

 Sami Ahmad Khan read Literature at Hindu College, Delhi University, completed his master’s in English at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and then went to the University of Iowa, USA, on a Fulbright grant. Currently, Sami teaches at IIT-Delhi, apart from being a Doctoral Candidate at JNU, where he is working on Techno-culture Studies. He has engaged in theater, writing, and teaching. His debut thriller Red Jihad won the “Muse India Young Writer (Runner-Up) Award” at the Hyderabad Literary Festival 2013 and Ministry of Human Resource Development/NBT’s “National Debut Youth Fiction Award – Excellence in Youth Fiction Writing” at the Delhi World Book Fair 2013. He is now working on a SF sequel to Red Jihad. He can be reached at sakhan1607@gmail.com

( On Sunday, 24 August 2014, Sheila Kumar wrote a lovely review of the novel in the Hindu Literary Review –  http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/more-than-just-a-treasure-hunt/article6344815.ece . On 26 August 2014, Aroon Raman will be in conversation with Sumeet Shetty at Literati, SAP Labs Book Club, Bangalore. http://bit.ly/1pazgf4 )

26 August 2014

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’  Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’ Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

On 20 July 2014, The Hindu Literary Review carried an interview I had done with Zia Haider Rahman. A shortened version was published in print, a slightly longer version on the newspaper’s website ( http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/writing-is-really-an-interruption-of-reading/article6228449.ece ) and I reproduce below the complete and unedited version of the interview that the author sent and approved. The book is available in India with Picador India, PanMacmillan India. ISBN: 9789382616245

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanZia Haider Rahman’s novel, In the Light of What we Know, is a forceful debut. It is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first meet as students at Oxford. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008.

Zia was born in rural Bangladesh but migrated to the United Kingdom before his sixth birthday and was raised in a derelict squat before moving to state housing. His father was a waiter; his mother a seamstress. Zia won a scholarship to read mathematics at Balliol College, Oxford, and completed graduate studies at Cambridge, Munich and Yale universities. After working as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, he turned to practising as an international financial lawyer before moving to human rights work.

1. What was the gestation period for this manuscript? How long was the first draft? How much time did it take from manuscript to printed book?

Many of the ideas and images in this novel have been percolating for rather a long time; some of the governing themes have grown out of preoccupations that have been with me for the whole of my life. I imagine this must be true of many authors and must hold for even books subsequent to their first.

The first draft was about the same in length as the final one, as I recall. Before I began revising anything, my editor made some helpful suggestions conceding that those comments might actually increase the length of the novel by ten or so per cent. In the end, I decided to make a few small cuts here and there and so the word count did not change much between the first draft and what is there now in the printed book. I find that certain writing is not improved by tinkering or revising, particularly passages or scenes of strongly emotional content: the rawness is a vital part of the energy.

From final manuscript to printed book, it took about three to four months. I made life a little difficult for myself by choosing to keep the British English version and the American English version distinct; the punctuation as well as vocabulary, of course, is different. The US version, for instance, has adopted the serial comma, which most non-American readers would find inhibitive to fluent reading.

2. How many notebooks did you maintain to create this novel or was it written directly on the computer? When and where was the research done? Does it ever cease?

As a matter of routine, I have always kept notebooks, jotting down ideas and things of interest. I used to try to keep track of them. Once I’m through a dozen or so, I sit down and take a few hours to type them up. This refreshes my memory but also allows me to discard ultimately uninteresting material. But the real reason I do it is that an electronic document is easy to search through.

While writing the novel, my note-taking activity increased hugely. I was quite itinerant at the time, so it was vital to have something to hand in which to record thoughts as they arose, if I was waiting for a train or plane, or if I woke up with a thought that I wanted to record. But when I was properly drafting any text for the novel, I did this on the computer. I type very much faster than I write long hand.

The research was done in various places. Some of it was done on the internet, although the internet is really only helpful as a starting point and also to confirm some fact or other. At one point, I used the internet to watch what felt like every US congressional hearing on the financial crisis, which was considerably more than was necessary for the novel, but I found them inherently fascinating and full of drama. The libraries I used were principally the British Library in London, the New York Public Library and the library of a small town in upstate New York, near Yaddo (a foundation for writers,  artists and composers, where I wrote most of the novel). The last library is actually plugged into the wider library system of upstate New York and has very swift access to the many books within the system. It’s quite extraordinary, actually, with large sunlit rooms and many shelves of books, as libraries used to have, and has not been overrun by technology, multimedia and so on.

It’s no doubt possible to do more research than necessary. But if the activity of research is in itself rewarding then one is not so much doing research as merely indulging oneself in the pleasure of reading.

3. Who are the authors and writing styles/ traditions that have influenced you?

Everything I read leaves something and I can no more identify my literary influences than I can point to particular meals I’ve had that have been exceptionally nourishing. Over the years, many, many books and authors have had an emotional impact on me, although whether and how they might have influenced my writing is, in most cases, harder to see. To name a few that spring to mind: Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Sebald’s Austerlitz, many of Philip Roth’s novels and Coetzee’s, James Baldwin’s, and the list goes on and on, as one might expect of any author, because writing is really an interruption of reading and vice-versa.

4. You have a lot of epigraphs in the novel but they seem to be used in an unusual way. What is their purpose?

You’re right. There is something unusual about them. Ordinarily in novels, epigraphs are evidence of the writer peeking in from behind the curtain; here, the narrator has actively included them after retrieving them—or most of them—from Zafar’s notebooks, as he himself explains. There is also the fact that near the end of the book the epigraphs of a particular chapter are the venue for a disclosure: the epigraphs actually do a job of storytelling. Described in this way here—and not encountered in the course of reading—it might seem like the assignment of epigraphs to and by the narrator is a breach of a convention of the novel. After all, epigraphs typically stand above, aside, aloof. I have no aversion to breaches of convention, provided they are effective, but I’m not sure there is a breach here in any event. All that is happening is that the narrator is laying claim to real estate on the page ordinarily owned by the author.

5. At a time when it is easy to Google for information why did you introduce extensive footnotes in the text?

As you know, the narrator himself does precisely that—go to internet search engines in order to look things up. The narrator uses footnotes where he wants to elucidate something that Zafar says, without interrupting the flow of Zafar’s account. Having said that, there are also a couple of rather long footnotes, notably one likening map projections in cartography to the translation of poetry and another relating to the war of 1971, where one has the sense that the narrator simply doesn’t want to omit something that Zafar said or wrote and yet cannot justify to himself the inclusion of the material in the main body of text. The narrator, as one quickly gathers, is to a certain degree rather unreliable: he thinks he is smarter than he actually is, he has a rather undeveloped attitude to women, and, of course, he is fundamentally compromised by a certain set of circumstances which we cannot go into without issuing a spoiler warning. The footnotes—their presence, form and the kind of material they include—are an example of what emerges from the first person perspective here. In a third person narration, they might not have emerged in a necessary way.

6. How did your training in mathematics impact your manuscript drafts and plot structure?

Mathematics is fundamental to my outlook on very many things and in ways that I cannot easily measure. In my formative years it was everything to me, the single place of beauty in my life, and of breathtaking beauty at that. I still believe that pure mathematics is the most creative thing that our species does, though I am no longer a part of the mathematical project.

The mathematical tilt remains basic to my epistemological perspective, my insistence on reasons for a claim—reasons that that are capable of yielding to interrogation. Mathematics gave me that. Other experiences might have left me with the same outlook, as I expect other things do to other people. But my debt is to mathematics. Nothing in life can be relied upon in the way that a mathematical proof can. Nothing anyone ever says or does or tastes or feels will so much as perturb the trust we have in a mathematical truth. And though elsewhere in life we cannot achieve the same conviction, the presence of this standard in one realm ought to be regarded as a beacon illuminating the dark poverty in the quality of reasoning we seem to settle for in other aspects of our lives, in the political and social especially.

I am unsure how to begin to answer your question—or even if I can—since thinking mathematically, day-in and day-out for a long time and at a formative age means that its effects are marbled into my foundations.

7. The analogy between cartography and translation is a fascinating concept on the art of representation via illustrations and word. How do you view your novel in the light of this theory?

In the novel, the narrator relates Zafar’s observations on one underlying similarity between map projections and the translation of poetry. There are many ways to represent the curved surface of the planet on a piece of paper. And there are many ways to go about translating a poem in one language into another. In cartography, for instance, you might choose to preserve relative areas or relative subtended angles. In poetry, you might choose to preserve rhyme or meter. The list of things to consider is actually quite long in both cases. Both involve choices about what to preserve and what to let go. Moreover—and this is crucial—in both cases a decision to preserve one thing limits or even destroys the freedom to preserve others. In both cases, also, the underlying need that drives the enterprise is that without either a map or a translation nothing would be knowable; after all, you cannot give someone a miniature globe with all the details of the earth’s surface along with a powerful magnifying glass and tell her to use these to navigate her journey across New York, London or Delhi, any more than you can give her a poem by a Hungarian poet along with textbooks to learn Hungarian and expect her to be moved to tears—assuming she’s not a native Hungarian speaker, of course!

The similarity of the two enterprises speaks to the pervasiveness of an underlying point: in order to gain access to the world, we undertake an activity of representing it that necessarily involves destruction. We are forced to abandon any hope of seeing some things in order to see anything at all. Zafar’s perspective is bleak, on one level, but on another it could be read as epistemic humility, an acknowledgement of one of the kinds of constraints on our perception of the world and on our access to knowledge. There are several themes in the novel but its backbone is to do with the status and nature and limits of knowledge.

8. There are so many identities that you mention in your novel whether defined by religion, nationality or language. Even within one religion there are many sub-categories such as Wahhabi and Sunni Muslims; Coptic, Arabic and Pakistani Christians, Anglicans and Catholics. Would you say that In the Light of What we Know is exploring the concept of a “global or an immigrant” novel?

I remember walking into a famous independent bookshop in New York a few years ago and discovering that under fiction they had an “Asian writers” section, as well as other ethnically or regionally defined categories. This sort of arrangement is not uncommon. But it is impossible to criticize the bookshops themselves; the industry of bricks and mortar booksellers is under enormous strain, with outlets folding by the day, not to mention whole chains of stores. Bookshops are simply responding to customer demands and preferences; in an environment in which margins are being squeezed, there is little room to do anything but organize books in a way that caters to customer tastes and maximizes sales. Some are throwing in the towel and have transformed into cafés or gift shops in all but name; if they can flog you a book on your way out, that’s a bonus.

The geographic and cultural categories into which novels are placed, often by people, other than the author, assigning her an identity, is driven by a market that has become habituated to conceiving of literature in terms of these categories. The root of the problem is a word: novel. The novel is such an expansive menagerie, holding such varied beasts, that a taxonomy is inevitable because it is useful. But the expansiveness of the idea of a novel gives rise to all manner of problems. For instance, it means that two novels might be compared that are fundamentally incommensurable. The label novel is misleading. But the publishing industry needs it in order to widen the market for every book it promotes: You like novels? Well, here’s a novel. I suspect that your question has more to do with aspects of my own particular novel. But I think that the question is related to the business of book-selling. The publishing industry is slightly schizophrenic in a certain respect. Discussions about lofty ‘literature’ rarely include matters of publishing industry realities.  I understand this—in fact, a little part of me dies when I hear talk about the art of novels and the business of publishing in the same breath. But—to bring us to your question—it seems to me that the current taxonomies are not responsive to the changing world and our changing understanding of the world. What happens twelve time zones away has as much impact on us as something happening on our doorstep. The geographic, economic, and social scope of the particular world each of us inhabits is widening, the perceptual field broadening. To return to the taxonomy analogy, even biologists have been introducing new taxonomies of living things that reflect better understandings of relationships between organisms.

9. Post-9/11 there have been a number of novels tackling the issues of identity, cultural politics, and new geo-political orientations, with literary conversations dissecting the rise of the Muslim novelists. Yet In the Light of What we Know focuses on “conflicts” happening along various fault lines—in the world of finance, within marriages or on real battlefields. The frightening truth to emerge in your story is the sense of wrongs and injustices of history being repeated over and over again, going against the popular theory of one particular community being responsible for terrorism. Please comment.

Every general election anywhere seems to mark a turning point, we’re told. Or something is a landmark event. Every military surge is a new initiative that will turn back the tide. The consumption of news would fizzle out if it did not bear the sense that what is happening is new in the sense that it is bringing in change, is going to alter the way things are. We all like to plan—we can plan like no other animal—but our ability to plan goes hand in hand with an appetite to learn what’s new, what’s news, what might affect our plans. News media feeds this appetite endlessly and would do itself out of a living if its reports ran along the lines of, say: Such and such happened today and it’s terribly similar to what happened ten years ago and also to what happened forty years ago and everybody thought then that it was going to change everything but it didn’t.

There is hubris in regarding ours as the pivotal moment in history—a shocking hubris given that every age has thought this way—but it is vital to the sale of news to maintain this pretence. To see the repeated patterns may not actually make it easier to resolve the problems we now face—after all, the most common repeated pattern is one of failure—but I have wondered whether it would lead to a feeling of familiarity, which would have a calming effect, a sense that we are not at the edge of a precipice without parallel. Of course, this is a nightmare to those who rely on us feeling frightened all the time.

10. During the Global Summit to end Sexual Violence in Conflict, London (June 2014) the birangonas stories were not shared in the official programme; a silence that was marked by protests. Whereas in your novel there are many epigraphs drawing the reader’s attention to the Bangladeshi women raped during conflict. Please comment.

What is there to say that hasn’t been said already? Tahmima Anam, the distinguished Bangladeshi novelist, has written evocatively about the plight of the Birangonas. But one finds oneself still asking: who is listening? Every aspect of the suffering that these women have been through at the hands of Pakistani soldiers and Bangladeshi collaborators is stomach-churning. But it galls me to think that after rape and violence during the war many of them returned to communities that turned their backs on them.

11.  How would you define yourself? By the country of origin or domicile or a bit of both like Zafar who is perceived as “Anglo-Bangla”?

I am often asked where I’m from—in Europe, mainly because of my skin color, and in the US, mainly because of my British accent. I know that this is the case because in the US when I say that I was born in Bangladesh, nine times out of ten, an American probes further to get an explanation of the accent. But if, instead, I tell Americans that I grew up in the UK, there seem to be no further questions. I’m explaining this because nobody ever actually asks me to define myself; the question is invariably “Where are you from?” and behind that question there is a desire to have something specific resolved—why the skin color or accent? Nor do I myself ever stand in the mirror and ask: Zia, how do you define your identity? Identity, per se, has not been an issue I have felt a need to resolve. Does a lion need to know that it is called a lion?

That said, I have long sought a sense of belonging to a place, something lacking in my psyche. The insufficiency is not without its advantages, of course. I think it keeps one a little removed from things, which is a helpful vantage from which to observe. And this slight dislocation can make for interesting personal experiences. But the cost is brutal. Human beings need roots, perhaps not all humans, but I rather suspect it is the norm to attach to a piece of land, to the ground that will one day take us back.

12. You are represented by the legendary literary agent Andrew Wylie, a dream beginning for a debut author. How did this come to pass?

I was introduced to the agency by a mutual acquaintance. I have been lucky in many ways over the years beginning with the enormous good fortune of having access to healthcare and schooling and libraries and, at least after the first few years, to a decent meal every day, all the way through to the sheer luck of living in a place where university education did not require me or my family to bring resources of our own. If humanity cared enough about fairness, then luck of this kind would have no place in determining the fate of a child.

22 July 2014 

 

 

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