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Bathsheba Demuth’s ‘Floating Coast’

August 21, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

In 2018, I heard Bathsheba Demuth deliver what is possibly the best talk I have ever listened to. It was on whales and the indigenous peoples of Beringia (the region around the Bering Sea).

            Demuth has now written a book: Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait. Having read an advance copy I can confirm that it fully lives up to the promise of that talk.

            Although the subtitle describes Floating Coast  as an ‘environmental history’, the book’s scope is much wider: it is a narrative about the ways in which beings of all sorts – animals, human, plants, spirits – interact with each other over time.

            Beringia is a region where historically neither animals nor people have paid much attention to natural boundaries. But it is also the region where US-style capitalism and Soviet socialism stood face to face for the better part of a century – and strangely, in their stance towards indigenous peoples, animals and the environment, they were not very different from each other. Christian missionaries on the US side, and socialist workers on the other, both came to the conclusion that the indigenous peoples of the region were ‘backward’ and needed to be weaned away from their beliefs and practices, forcibly if necessary.

            ‘The instinct of capitalism and communism,’ writes Demuth, ‘is to ignore loss, to assume that change will bring improvement, to cover over death with expanded consumption. Such modernist visions are telescopic: from the present, each leaps into a distant world, a future place of freedom and plenty. The present must accelerate to reach that far country. Speed is quantified in what can be converted to material value for sale or the state.’ [134]

            In respect to whales and walruses there was a chronological difference between the two sides. The slaughter wrought by American whalers peaked in the 19th century whereas Soviet industrial whaling only got started in the 1930s. But by then whaleships were more mechanized and efficient so the slaughter they wrought was on par with, or exceeded, that of American whalers. Driven by socialist (Stakhanovite) work incentives Soviet whalers massacred whales with a blood-lust that defies belief.

            Some parts of Demuth’s narrative are so gruesome as to be difficult to read. She writes of Soviet whalers that ‘they learned to use young whales as lures and to tie carcasses to their ships as “fenders” to insulate contact between vessels. For objects do not suffer, even when nursing calves paddled up the slipways after their mothers’ corpses, still lactating and covering the decks in mil.’ [292]

            The slaughter ceased only forty-one years ago, in 1979, when the USSR phased out its industrial whaling fleets. But in a sense it has not ceased at all, but only mutated, for many of the industrial needs that led to the mass slaughter of whales are now being met by palm-oil, which is proving to be just as destructive.

            Anyone who believes that capitalism is the sole defining feature of the Anthropocene needs to read this book. It establishes beyond a doubt that Soviet-style socialism was no less violently extractive that capitalism. They are in fact two related avatars of the same phenomenon: industrial modernity. ‘In Beringia,’ Demuth observes, ‘the Soviet experiment showed to whales and other beings that socialism and capitalism could look similar, and transform the world on remarkably similar terms…’. [305]

            Elsewhere Demuth writes: ‘There is not a history yet that puts in human terms the cetacean experience of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this great annihilation of generations of whale minds: minds that listened as their seas grew quiet, watched as their clans shrank, fled as their families were consumed year after year in the adrenal chase, the strike, the final gouting blood.’ [295].

But Demuth has now herself written the history she calls for. Floating Coast is a historian’s Moby Dick, a great white whale of a book that spans centuries and links landscapes, living beings, and the flux of time, into a marvelously readable narrative.

Amitav Ghosh

Letter from a Reader

July 17, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)

Dear Sir,
A decade and a half back, my elder brother (a voracious reader) gave me (an occasional reader, at best) The Hungry Tide and told me in an offhand way, “ney, pore dekhte parish“. He had an impish smile on his face and a glint in his eye. I started reading the book somewhat reluctantly. At that time, I barely knew anything about you. By the time I finished The Hungry Tide, I was spellbound, captivated. I made a couple of decisions. First, I would read whatever you wrote. Second, I would not read everything at once. Your writing is like the finest of wines – to be taken in small sips with every sip meant to be savoured.

With the exception of The Great Derangement, I have now read all your books.I finished reading Gun Island a couple of days back. All I have to say you is: Thank You. This comes from the very depths of my heart. Your books have opened my eyes to a myriad of things – language, history, folklore, trade, nuclear armaments – and, good heavens – even horticulture! And it is not just books. Of others, I recall an article you wrote in The Outlook about Spice Trade. That was such an eye-opener!

Gun Island, to me, was not just a story about Bonduki Sadagar’s journey. Throughout this book, I could hear echoes of the books you have written so far. The sense of a voyage from Circle of Reason, the references to Misr and Jews from Imam and Antique Land, two Bengals from Shadow Lines, Sunderbans from Hungry Tide, the ‘magical mystery tour’ from Calcutta Chromosome, migration and shipping from the Ibis books, climate from Derangement – they are all there. To me, Gun Island is also about your own journey – as the thinly disguised Deen – through your own creations back in time.

I had been wanting to write to you to thank you for a very long time, but nervousness held me back. Gun Island felt like a culmination of all that you have written. That is why I felt that now is the most appropriate time to write to you.

The only book of which I could not find a reference was, incidentally, my favourite book – Glass Palace. Maybe it is there, lurking somewhere where I cannot see it yet!And the only regret I had after reading Gun Island was that – and I hope I misunderstood – I felt a shift in your writing, an ever so mild but nonetheless, a perceptible movement to an ism of your comfort, just a few millimeters away from that solidly neutral perspective of yore.

In both Calcutta Chromosome and Gun Island, I felt that your blending of fact and imagination was outstanding. Indeed, who knows what where the circumstances that led to a tale like Manasa Mangal. I am so glad that you have been mining the folklore of Bengal for some of your books. Bengal’s folklore is interesting as it is curious. I recall that many years back, I happened to read a book named Bangalar Puranari, a compilation of (now) lost epics by Dinesh Chandra Sen. The beauty of the old verses and the mystery behind the incidents described in them left me in a trance for many days. Reading about Bon Bibi and Bonduki Sadagar in your books took me back to those days of wonder. As an aside, I hope Bon Bibi remains Bon Bibi, I heard reports that Bibi is morphing into Debi faster than we can imagine.

A curious question to you – as somebody who is a genre-defying author – would you fancy yourself as a ghost story writer too? I find it astonishing that while talking about your fiction, nobody talks of this dimension of yours. I say this because each of the three ghost stories that you wrote – whether it is the elephant episode in Glass Palace, or the Phulboni train incident, or the translation of Kshudita Pashan – were terrific. I would like to specially mention the Phulboni train incident. That was an extraordinary piece of writing. It is only an author of supreme ability who can make every single hair on the body of a fully grown adult like me stand on its end. Probably the only other ghost story which nearly gave me as cold a chill as yours was Sharadindu Bandopadhyay’s Oshoriri. I sincerely hope that in the coming books, we can get one more peek of you as a ghost-story writer.

And coming back to magic and mystery, indeed it seems unlikely that the coincidences and connections what you described in Gun IslandCalcutta Chromosome or Glass Palace can happen in real life. However, strange things do happen. The way certain words kept recurring in Deen’s life reminded me of an incident in my life. At the risk of sounding like a bore, let me share it. A few years back, I had started reading the Ibis Trilogy. The very next day that I started that book, my manager in my office informed me that I needed to switch to a new project code named – Ibis. A day or two from thence, a mail was circulated in our office that owing to construction works, our parking lot would be unavailable. We were asked to keep our cars in the basement parking of a hotel across the street, named – Ibis. A few days later, I took my family for our maiden phoren trip to Singapore. At the Jurong bird park, of all the birds, my wife and I were most captivated by a beautiful white bird with a slender black neck and beak. As I leaned over to read the name of the bird in the board, I got a mild jolt when I saw that it was nothing but Ibis! This incident is absolutely true and I have not made up anything at all. The string of coincidences of utterly unrelated objects named Ibis was beyond my explanation. After all, Ibis is not such a common word that one comes across everyday.  

Let me also take this opportunity to let you know another point which I simply loved in Gun Island. Just two little phrases – “Buzla” and “Shomoshya Nai“. I could hear them being spoken in my head, with the correct intonation, and I could even get a feel of what kind of social background the speaker had. There are many Bengalis who have and will read Gun Island. But I wonder how many will realise how beautifully you hit home with these two little phrases.

I had meant to write just a Thank You note to you. Unfortunately, I could not hold myself back in writing such a big mail to you. I know you are a voracious reader as well, and so, I apologise for taking your time. I look forward eagerly to many many more fascinating books from you in the coming days. 

Satyajit Dutta


El arroyo de la sierra
Me complace más que el mar

Sugata Ray’s ‘Climate Change and the Art of Devotion’

July 13, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Over the last couple of decades a deepening awareness of human dependence on climatic stability has created a surge of interest among historians in earlier eras of climatic disruption. Much of this interest has been focused on the so-called Little Ice Age that peaked in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

This fascinating, and rapidly growing, body of work has tended, however, to be centered on certain specific themes and regions. Thematically the focus is usually on political issues, broadly speaking, rather than literature, culture and the arts. Geographically the focus is usually on Europe and North America, rather than, say, Asia or Africa.

This is why Sugata Ray’s Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna 1550-1850 is doubly welcome: because it is focused on the art and architecture of the city of Mathura, in ‘the enchanted world of Braj, the primary pilgrimage center in north India for worshippers of Krishna, (where) each stone, river and tree is considered sacred.’

Climate Change and the Art of Devotion is a wonderfully imaginative addition to the growing body of literature on the Little Ice Age. Sugata Ray traces the influence of climatic variations on South Asian art, architecture and devotional practices with extraordinary interpretive skill. This book is a must read for everyone with an interest in human responses to climate variability.

Jnanpith Address

June 16, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)

For me, as for anyone who has grown up within an Indian literary milieu, the Jnanpith is an award unto itself, possibly because it recognizes something that goes beyond literary achievement: it acknowledges also the trust and affection that sometimes arises between writers and communities of readers. This bond – which one might almost describe as a kind of love – is perhaps the greatest reward that any writer can hope for.

When I started writing, many, many years ago, I could not have imagined that the Jnanpith would ever come my way. In those days Indians who wrote in English were accustomed to thinking of themselves as marginal, both to Indian and to English literature. This despite the fact that even back then writers from the Indian subcontinent had produced a corpus of work in English that was truly impressive for its breadth and quality. Many of the writers I read in my formative years are still well known, but I think it would not be out of place here to mention a few who are now at risk of being forgotten, for example Aubrey Menen, G.V.Desani, Kamala Markandeya, Attia Husain and Manohar Malgaonkar. Although these writers were better known back then it wasn’t always easy to find their books. They were often to be found, not in bookshops, but in the libraries of the British Council.

 How different things are today! It is now possible to walk into bookstores almost anywhere in the world and find many books written by talented young writers from India. Much of this of course, has to do with the increasing dominance of the English language, which is rightly a matter of deep concern to writers who write in other literary languages. Although I write in English myself, I fully share this concern for English is not, by any means my only language; nor would my work be what it is if I had grown up in a circumstance where one language predominated over all others. I am all too well aware that my work has been shaped, formed and enabled by the linguistic diversity and pluralism of the circumstances in which I grew up.

 When we use the words ‘pluralism’ and ‘diversity’ we tend to think of a multi-colored mosaic, with many solid blocs of color adjoining but not spilling over into each other. But this is a false picture. There is nothing solid about the way that languages interact with each other in the Indian subcontinent: they mingle, flow and infiltrate, not just between groups but, most significantly, within individuals. The distinctive thing about our reality is that diversity and pluralism are intrinsic to our innermost selves – simply because it is impossible for an Indian to be monolingual in the manner of some Europeans and most Americans. All Indians grow up multilingual to a greater or lesser degree: we speak one language or dialect at home, another on the streets, yet another with our friends, and still another in the workplace or when we deal with government offices. It is almost impossible to function in an Indian city or town with a single language.

 My father for example, grew up speaking Bhojpuri with his brothers and sisters, standard Bangla with his parents, standard Hindi with his friends, and English at his workplace. Which was his ‘real’ language? This question might make sense on a census form but it has absolutely no relevance to the inner worlds that writers draw upon when they write. The whirling flow of languages, and the creative tensions, they generate are precisely the wellsprings I draw upon when I write.

It should be noted that this predicament is not particular to me as a writer who writes in English; it is shared by every writer in the subcontinent, no matter what language they write in. We all contend with multiple currents of language, many of which flow across the borders and boundaries that divide us from our neighbours: for example, Bangla, Punjabi, Urdu, Bhojpuri, Nepali, Tamil, Sindhi, Gujarati, Tibetan, Chin, Tai and Nagami.

This reality existed long before the arrival of the English and their language. For thousands of years, literate Indians have been expected to be conversant not only with ‘Languages of Place’, or desabhasas, but also with at least one language that transcended place and region. Sanskrit was for millenia the exemplification of such a language, and Tamil was another. In medieval times Persian too came to be viewed in a similar light. In India, uniquely, linguistic pluralism was never seen as a source of confusion, as in the story of Babel. It was instead embraced, celebrated and incorporated into literary practices. The writer and critic Rajashekhara, formalized these practices over a thousand years ago when he wrote: ‘[One] given topic will be best treated in Sanskrit, another in Prakrit, or Apabhramsa or the language of spirits…’

The creative potential that arises from the intersection of languages can perhaps best be seen in the work of three great multilingual writers from Karnataka, two of whom stood here before me and one who, sadly, did not: U.R. Ananthamurthy, Girish Karnad and A.K. Ramanujan. The latter was to my mind, one of the greatest writers and thinkers of the late 20th century, and his works spanned Kannada, English, Tamil, Sanskrit and much else.

Even though I write in English, I draw constantly on Bangla and its vast imaginative resources. Here is an example. My last non-fiction book was called The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. In writing this book I came to the conclusion that modern literature offers few answers to what I take to be the most important literary challenge of our era: that of giving voice to the non-human. So I turned to pre-modern literature instead, and began to read the work of medieval Bangla poets like Bipradas Pippilai, Sukobi Narayan Deb and Kobi Krishnaramdas. It was through the work of these great poets that I re-discovered a legend that I had loved as a child: the story of Chand Sadagar. This legend is at the heart of my new novel Gun Island.

Apart from giving me access to the resources of an immensely rich literary tradition, Bangla also opened the door to the vibrant literary milieu of Bengal. I consider myself hugely fortunate in having been befriended by inspiring writers like Sunil Gangopadhyaya and Mahasweta Devi. Sunil-da once described my book The Hungry Tide as a Bengali novel written in English: I prize those words to this day.

Communication between languages, and across different habits of mind, always requires humility, patience, and a willingness to listen. These attributes do not come about by accident; they require a certain kind of habituation, and certain protocols, which in turn need the support of institutions that make it their mission to provide platforms where writers from many languages can meet and interact as equals.

The Jnanpith Foundation is precisely such an institution which is why the writers I looked up to held it in unparalleled esteem, as a body that was independent of the government and fair in its evaluations. Although there are undoubtedly some major lacunae in the awards, most notably in relation to gender and caste, it remains true, I think, that the Foundation has generally aspired to cleave to the principles of pluralism in relation to language, region and community.

These principles are likely to be sorely tested in years to come. We are living in a time when writers are increasingly beleaguered, embattled and marginalized. Around the world, everywhere we look, there is a closing of minds, a narrowing of horizons, and a palpable fear of the future. Nor is this fear unjustified: it is increasingly clear that the world’s dominant economic model is profoundly dangerous: not only is it corroding our political processes it is also altering the planet’s atmosphere in catastrophic ways. Technologies of communication, which once seemed to brim with emancipatory promise, are now seen to be capable of disseminating rage, prejudice and disinformation with unprecedented speed and efficiency. Under the circumstances we have to accept that the fundamental premise of modernity – that everything will always get better and better – is no longer credible. What lies ahead is a time when it will become ever more necessary for institutions like the Jnanpith to defend the ideals of plurality, diversity and fairness, ideals that were embodied by writers such as Firaq Gorakhpuri, Ashapurna Devi, Gopinath Mohanty, Qurratulain Hyder, Indira Goswami, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Srilal Shukla and Mahasweta Devi. To be chosen to follow in the wake of these great writers is, for me, an honor beyond all measure.

The journey that has brought me here was a long one, and on the way I have incurred more debts than I could possibly hope to acknowledge. But I would like to recall the memory of a man, who, would have been very glad for me today: my long-time editor and publisher, Ravi Dayal, who taught me more about reading and writing than anyone else.

Moments of celebration such as this are rare in a writer’s life. For the most part we lead lonely, quiet lives, struggling with that most elusive of instruments – language. My constant companions in these struggles have been my children, Lila and Nayan, and most of all my wife of thirty years, Debbie. Without her love, support and encouragement I would not be here today.

Amitav Ghosh

June 12, 2019

David Wallace-Wells, ‘The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming’.

February 6, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

David Wallace-Wells’ 2018 article The Uninhabitable Earth became a sensation almost as soon as it appeared, quickly becoming the most-read piece ever to appear in New York magazine. Since then it has been read by millions more, giving the lie to the belief that climate change is of negligible interest to the lay reader.

But the article also attracted some criticism for its supposedly ‘alarmist’ tone. The argument went that ‘alarm’ and ‘panic’ are paralyzing emotions and can be politically counter-productive. In my view the criticism was misplaced, for the simple reason that the political effects of alarm or fear are impossible to determine with any accuracy. Academic studies of this subject have come to widely varying conclusions.

For my part I thought the article was well-researched, well-timed and very well-written, so I welcomed the news that it was to be expanded into a full-length book. Having read a proof copy I am all the more convinced that Uninhabitable Earth is a book that everyone should read.

This gripping, terrifying, furiously readable book is possibly the most wide-ranging account yet written of the ways in which climate change will transform every aspect of our lives, ranging from where we live to what we eat and the stories we tell.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, 2019.

Amitav Ghosh

Ashok Alexander’s ‘A Stranger Truth’

October 6, 2018 in Reviews | Comments (0)



In 2003 Ashok Alexander left a top job at McKinsey & Co. and took on the task of setting up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s India AIDS Initiative. Under Ashok’s stewardship the Initiative soon became the world’s largest privately sponsored HIV prevention program; it is credited with having played an important part in the subsequent decline in India’s HIV epidemic.

A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India’s Sex Workers (Juggernaut, 2018)



is the story of this remarkable journey. Written in the form of a memoir the book is, in one of its aspects, an organizational chronicle, a fascinating story of bureaucratic and institutional infighting, enlivened by sketches of the author’s encounters with Bill Gates, Richard Gere and many other celebrities.












In another, even more compelling aspect, the book is a richly detailed ethnography of sex work in India, filled with tales that are sometimes desperately sad and sometimes heart-warming. In both these aspects the book is always engaging, thoroughly readable.

A Stranger Truth is a portrait of contemporary India like no other: in its pages some of the richest and most powerful people in the world cross paths with some of the poorest and most desperate.

Having known Ashok since my college days it comes as no surprise to me that he turned out to be a managerial wunderkind.


What does come as a surprise is the discovery that he is also an unusually gifted writer.



‘Swerving to Solitude’

July 18, 2018 in Current Reading | Comments (0)

Nice to receive a copy of the poet Keki Daruwalla’s new novel, ‘Swerving to Solitude: letters to Mama.’ It’s an interesting and idiosyncratic meditation on history with some evocative scenes of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.

Forthcoming, Simon and Schuster India.

‘What’s happening to the weather?’

June 13, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

Since the publication of ‘The Great Derangement’ I’ve received many reports of freakish weather from friends and readers. One such arrived on May 31, from Turin. It was from


Anna Nadotti,


who has been my Italian translator for thirty years (see also this earlier post).







The message, which was written in Italian, was really vivid, so I decided that I would translate my translator (with her permission of course).


There was a hailstorm here in Torino yesterday afternoon when I was coming home, at around 4. Coming out of the Metro I found myself facing a scene out of ‘Bladerunner’. It seemed like night had fallen and the narrow streets of the city centre were literally fuming in the darkness, giving off a dense vapour that fell back upon the city minutes later in the form of hailstones, so heavy that umbrellas couldn’t stand up to them. The storm lasted just a few minutes but was extremely violent, with gusts of wind that could sweep you away.

I was just a few blocks from my house but like everyone else, had to take shelter in a shop, for the fear of giving myself a barnacled head. The sound of the hail hitting cars left quite an impression. The storm was followed by a heavy downpour that flooded the streets.

The question on everyone’s lips was: ‘What’s happening to the weather? It seems like the end of the world…’

In fact it was the infernal aspect of the city that was so striking – the sudden darkness, the vapour, the shards of hail….


There are a few videos of the storm on Youtube.




Ravi Agrawal’s ‘India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy ‘. A Review

May 5, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)


Ravi Agrawal (who I’ve known since he was an undergraduate at Harvard) served as CNN’s bureau chief in New Delhi from 2014 to 2017. Before that he was the senior producer of Fareed Zakaria’s television show GPS. And he has recently started a new job as Managing Editor of the influential American magazine Foreign Policy.


Ravi is also a gifted writer and his first book is to be published later this year. It is a remarkable work of non-fiction—India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy (forthcoming 2018, Oxford University Press).







India Connected is a fascinating – and very well-written – account of the ways in which the smartphone is transforming every aspect of Indian life, from marriage to politics, and not always for the better. During his tenure as CNN’s bureau chief in New Delhi, Ravi traveled a great deal. It comes as no surprise then that his is a working journalist’s book, with extensive reportage from far-flung corners of the country.


In the very first chapter, in a village in Rajasthan, Ravi discovers that an illiterate woman can use the internet by speaking to her smartphone and asking it to play a video of the Taj Mahal. This, of course, would not have been possible without the advent of mobile technology. But that flash of optimism is immediately tempered by a dispatch from a village in Gujarat where the smartphone is banned for young girls.







The book features portraits of many memorable individuals, some unknown and some very famous (like the porn star Sunny Leone). Ravi is careful to avoid big pronouncements, but it is evident from his narrative that the transformations that are being effected by the smartphone contain as many – or more – dystopic possibilities than otherwise.



‘Bangalore mom and son on cellphone November 2011’ Wikimedia Commons

He cites research in the U.S. showing a correlation between smartphone use and increased rates of depression in teenagers.









Quoting Dr. Manoj Kumar Sharma of the National Institute of Medical Health and Neuro Sciences, Ravi writes: ‘Dr Sharma believes India is heading toward a catastrophe unless a major awareness campaign is initiated. “We have to make sure people understand how addictive technology is, and what it can do to our brains. We don’t even know the extent of the implications right now, because things are changing so quickly here. If we don’t stop to think about this, who knows what could happen?’

In many ways India’s experience with a national digital identification system (the Aadhaar card) is a harbinger of what hi-tech portends for India. The card was, no doubt, conceived of with the best of intentions. But several instances of data leaks have now been widely reported in the press. As the activist Nikhil Pahwa notes: ‘People in tech just foolishly assume that the government is going to do the right thing … But the one thing you know about the Indian government is incompetence. We’re only just realizing how much of a mess we have created here in India.’

India Connected is a must-read for everyone who is interested in contemporary India.



Thirteen Factories Museum

December 7, 2017 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Dear Mr Ghosh,

I noticed on your blog that a number of the readers of the Ibis Trilogy have enquired about what now remains in Guangzhou from the scenes that you have described in the books. I was also inspired to visit Guangzhou in November 2017 after completing a reading of your excellent Ibis Trilogy books.

I thought that your readers may be interested in the fact that the Chinese Government has now opened a new museum on the original site of the ‘Thirteen Factories’ It is called the ‘Quangzhou Thirteen Hongs Museum’ and is dedicated to presenting the culture and history of the development of the Thirteen Factories. The museum houses a fascinating collection of around 1600 artifacts including glazed porcelain, mahogany furniture, embroidery, silverware and numerous watercolour and glass paintings, etc.



Photo: Dr Jasbir Gill



I would highly recommend a visit by anyone interested in the history of the Opium Wars and the activities of the Thirteen Factories.


(Dr) Jasbir Gill





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