Archive for July, 2011

Agha Shahid Ali diaries: on abstraction

July 30, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

May 2001

Today I drove Shahid and Patricia [O’Neill – a close friend of his] into Manhattan for Shahid’s last class [at Baruch College]]. He was very relieved that the course was coming to an end, even though he loves to teach and had hugely enjoyed teaching this particular class. But it was still a strain under the circumstances [of his recently-diagnosed brain tumour].

The class was in the dim recesses of the college. It was evident immediately that the students adore Shahid. They had started a magazine and the first issue was dedicated to him.

There was a long discussion about language and one of the students said something about Hebrew being more multi-layered than other languages. Shahid said: ‘I think all languages are equally complex. I can’t say about every language; I don’t know all of them, but I think language is inherently complex and all languages have many layers.’

From beginning to end he laughed and joked and was very much in his diva mode. One student began to hold forth about the difference between plausibility and inevitability in a poem. He went on at some length and Shahid broke in: ‘Oh you’re so naughty! You always make everything sound so abstract!’

Thirteen Hong Street

July 26, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (14)


Of late I’m often asked whether anything remains of the place that is referred to, in River of Smoke, as ‘Fanqui-town’ .


MIT Visualizing Cultures

[‘View of the Canton Factories’ by William Daniell, 1805-6*]


This is of course the old Foreign Enclave in Canton (Guangzhou) which was also known as the ‘Thirteen Factories’ (Saap Sam Hong).


MIT Visualizing Cultures

[The Thirteen Factories as depicted in a reverse-glass painting §]


The answer to the question is no: nothing remains of the Thirteen Factories today. They were burnt down in 1856 and never rebuilt. Instead a new foreign enclave was constructed on a reclaimed mud-bank called Shamian.

This model of historical Canton gives us an idea of the location of the Thirteen Factories in relation to the old walled city.




The Thirteen Factories were located at the south-western edge of the city (bottom left hand corner), just beyond the city walls and the south-west gate. The position of Shamian Island is not clearly indicated on this map, but it was somewhat to the west of the Thirteen Factories.




The newly-built foreign enclave on Shamian Island bore little resemblance to the old Thirteen Factories: it was a settlement in the mid-19th century European-colonial style


and Chinese people were not allowed to enter it except with special permits. It was connected to the city by bridges which could be sealed off in case of trouble.


Shamian has survived pretty much intact. It is much visited by foreigners and its hotels are popular among those who go to China to adopt children.


Many of its buildings are well-preserved








and some stand upon interesting foundation stones.









Some of the buildings have been turned into boutique hotels, bars and restaurants.








In the last century and a half Guangzhou has changed dramatically. The old city walls were torn down early in the twentieth century, and the riverfront has been hugely altered through reclamation.  The most prominent sights and landmarks mentioned by 18th and 19th century travelers have almost all disappeared, including the island from which (according to one legend) the Pearl River took its name – it was known to European travelers as the ‘Dutch Folly’ (and  ‘Pearl Island’ to the Cantonese).


[‘Dutch Folly Fort’ by George Chinneryn ß].


The Pearl River at Guangzhou is now much narrower than it was in the 19th century and many massive buildings, roads, and walkways have been constructed on the reclaimed land.









The southern bank of the river, which was known to travelers as ‘Honam Island’, has perhaps changed even more dramatically than the opposite shore. In the past this island was a kind of country getaway, and was much less built-up than the other bank, being lined mainly with temples, country estates and gardens.



[Looking south towards Honam Island from the roofs of the Thirteen Factories; early 19th century **].


Now the south bank has been completely incorporated into the city.








And the stretch of shore that would have been directly aligned with the Thirteen Factories has become a paved walkway.










There remains only one living trace of the Thirteen Factories: this is the street that marked the foreign enclave’s northern boundary. Known as ‘Thirteen Factory Street’ it was described by travelers as a busy, crowded thoroughfare, packed with shops and stalls. Much of the tea, porcelain, silk and other goods that were exported from China found their way to the world through this street.



[Silk Shop, c. 1825 Guangzhou ***]





Shop, Guangzhou, 2011




This street is still known as ‘Thirteen Factory Street’ (Saap Sam Hong Lu). Travelers who visit it in the expectation of viewing a quaint remnant of the past will be disappointed.









It is now the centre of Guangzhou’s wholesale garment export industry









and has become even busier and more crowded than it was in the past. It is in fact the busiest market I have ever seen – if Calcutta’s Bow Bazar, Bombay’s Crawford Market and Cairo’s Khan el Khalili were crammed together in one place I doubt they would generate as much activity as Thirteen Hong Street on a weekday morning.









To me it seems a triumph of historical continuity that this street has remained so true to its character.


But disappointed nostalgists can always console themselves by walking down a street that offers mannequins











and wigs









and through a square with a statue that commemorates Canton’s mercantile past,










to one of the city’s famous dim-sum restaurants








where friendly diners will help them pick out the best that Canton has to offer.








And when the feast ends, they can work it off by going for a walk along White Swan Lake, where the Pearl and North rivers meet.






* With thanks to the MIT Visualizing Cultures Project:

§ Courtesy MIT Visualizing Cultures Project, see above]

ß  Peabody ‘Essex Museum, photo Jeffrey R. Dykes (courtesy MIT Visualizing Cultures site, see above)

** (courtesy MIT Visualizing Cultures Project)

*** China Gouache on paper Gift of Mr. & Mrs. B. Rionda Braga, Peabody Essex Museum 2007 Photo Jeffrey R. Dykes (courtesy MIT Visualizing Cultures Project)




Book Tour Journals; Bengaluru (Bangalore); June 26-28

July 25, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



My visit to Bangalore began propitiously with an excellent dinner at the home of Shoba Narayan, whose books and articles I have been following for a long time: she is without a doubt one of the best food writers in the country. But my luck didn’t last: scarcely had I settled into my hotel room than I was struck down by Bangalore’s  infamous allergens. Reduced to a state of groggy hoarsness, I thought I would not be able attend any of the many events that had been organized for River of Smoke.

But on learning of my condition a concerned friend caused magically to appear in my hotel room, a flask of a miraculous elixir called kashayam.











This potion was so delicious, and so soothing, that I drank copious amounts of it. Sure enough my voice was restored and I was able to carry on which was a fortunate thing since the bookstores









had taken a great deal of trouble over the events.









Afterwards, determined to obtain a recipe, I called the hotel’s kitchen. The chefs were nonplussed: kashayam is something they make on autopilot, as it were, not by adhering to a recipe. All they could tell me was that it is made by boiling together, in a pot, with an unspecified amount of water, the following ingredients: ginger, cardamom, jaggery, coriander seeds, mint leaves and black pepper. After the resulting broth is strained, some honey and a small amount of filtered coffee is added to it.

Since then I’ve found several recipes for kashayam on the Net (I was interested to find that some of the people who’d commented on the recipes had been drinking kashayam since they were children, and their memories of it were by no means as happy as mine!). The ingredients are mostly the same, but one recipe includes ajwain (carom seeds) and jeera (cumin) and recommends toasting the spices before boiling, which makes sense. Another offers a more complicated list of ingredients, including galangal and liquorice. The addition of the coffee appears to be an innovation particular to the West End Hotel – I saw no mention of it anywhere else.

I felt  doubly beholden to the restorative powers of kashayam when a chance phone call led to a meeting with two enthusiastic readers – Vikram Kirloskar and his charming  and talented daughter Manasi.









Vikram is an MIT-trained engineer and Manasi is studying painting at the Rhode Island School of Design in the US. They are members of the industrial family that now manufactures cars in India, in co-operation with Toyota.

But for me the name Kirloskar will forever be identified with a different kind of product – water pumps.

In 1980, when I went to live in rural Egypt,


Interior, Governorate of Beheira, Egypt, 1980

I discovered, somewhat to my astonishment, that the pumps used in the fields were all ‘Kirloskar’ machines, manufactured in India. To the villagers al-Hind (India) meant two things: Bollywood films and Kirloskar pumps. I have written about this elsewhere:

The other principal association that rural Egypt had with India, was the matter of water-pumps, which were of course very important in rural communities. In those days Egypt imported so many water pumps from India that in some areas these machines were known as makana Hindi – or simply as Kirloskar, from the name of a major pump-manufacturing company. The purchasing of a water pump was a great event, and the machine would be brought back on a pick-up truck, with much fanfare, with strings of old shoes strung around the spout to ward off the Evil Eye. Long before the machine made its entry into the village, a posse of children would be sent to summon me: as an Indian I was expected to be an expert on these machines, and the proud new owners would wait anxiously for me to pronounce on the virtues and failings of their new acquisition.

‘Now it so happens that I am one of those people who is hard put to tell a spanner from a hammer or a sprocket from a gasket. At first I protested vigorously, disclaiming all knowledge of machinery. But here again, no one believed me; they thought I was witholding vital information or playing some kind of deep and devious game. Often people would look crestfallen, imagining, no doubt, that I had detected a fatal flaw in their machine and was refusing to divulge the details. This would not do of course, and in order to set everyone’s fears at rest, I became, willy-nilly, an oracle of water-pumps. I developed a little routine, where I would subject the machine to a minute inspection, occasionally tapping it with my knuckles or poking it with my fingers. Fortunately no machine failed my inspection: at the end of it I would invariably pronounce the water-pump to be a makana mumtaaza – a most excellent Kirloskar, a truly distinguished member of its species.’

To meet Kirloskars in the flesh – and two such interesting and well-read members of the family at that – was wholly unforeseen:  I reckoned that Bangalore had compensated me more than fairly for my onslaught of allergies

had been to a great deal of trouble. 

Letter from a historian

July 23, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

July 21

Dear Amitav,

We met briefly when you were in Abu Dhabi for their book fair in 2009.
At the time I was teaching at Zayed University there, but moved to
Qatar this past year. As a historian of China (and sometimes Mughal
and Raj India), and a voracious reader, I have loved your works. When
I finished “River of Smoke” last week, I wept, not just for Bahram, and the end of yet another thoroughly extraordinary novel, but for the image of the cut sleeve.

Although formally trained as a historian at Harvard, I have always
sought to bring voice to those whose lives are so often left
unnoticed, and have very much admired your ability to do that. My own
work focuses on Islam in China, and if there were ever a community
whose history was left unheard, it is that one.

Also, as someone who spent formative years in Thailand as a child, and
then Beijing in the early 80s as a student, I am also someone who has
come to appreciate the view one gets from the margins.

I am writing now to recommend, if you have not already done so, that
you see the current exhibit at Singapore’s Art/Science Museum,
“Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds.” It’s only on exhibit
till July 31, and although it was supposed to be headed to the
Smithsonian next, complications have arisen.

It is an amazing collection of artifacts from a 9th century dhow that
was fully loaded with cargo from China and went down off the coast of
Indonesia on its way back to the Gulf. The exhibit reveals the extent
and range of trade that took place between the Abbasid and Tang
Empires at that moment in time. The level of craftsmanship and the
varied aesthetic sensibilities represented in the surviving objects is
stunning. The catalog is also excellent.

I saw the exhibit while I was in Singapore presenting a paper on the
revival of trade between the Gulf and China, the billions of dollars
involved, and the growing impact on people. If you have not already
visited Yiwu, a few hours south of Shanghai, I would highly recommend
it. As happened in Zaytun and Guangzhou over a millennium ago, tens of
thousands of Arab traders have settled there. There is a part of town
in which you feel as if you in the Middle East, with shisha cafes,
shwarma, backgammon, and of course Al Jazeera Arabic playing non-stop
in the background.

And finally, I’m presently putting together a roundtable proposal for
the next Annual Meeting of the Association of Asian Studies on how to
use your work in teaching the history of India and China.
Unfortunately none of my U.S. based colleagues have been able to get a
hold of “River of Smoke.” If you have any historian friends who have
used your work in teaching and might be interested in taking part,
please let me know.

As sad as I was when I finished “River of Smoke,” at least I knew I
could reread “Sea of Poppies.” I remember very clearly in Abu Dhabi
when several of us anxiously asked you when you might finish the next
volume, and you replied that in fact you were in no hurry to finish as
you had grown so attached to the characters. I think there was a
collective moan of despair amongst us, but now I have a much better
understanding of why.

I hope you continue to enjoy writing about the lives of these
characters you’ve created.

Take care,



Jackie Armijo
Associate Professor
International Affairs
Qatar University
Doha, Qatar


[A subsequent letter (for which many thanks Jackie) explains:

The catalog for the Singapore exhibit is available on Amazon, and
here’s the full citation.

Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds,
Regina Krahl (Author), John Guy (Editor), Julian Raby (Editor), J.
Keith Wilson (Editor) (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2011)

The current controversy as to whether or not it will next move to the
Smithsonian as originally planned is covered here:

As a result, perhaps the exhibit in Singapore will be extended.]

Modernism and the Museum

July 21, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (0)


I cannot remember when I last came upon on a book as stimulating as Rupert Richard Arrowsmith’s Modernism and the Museum: Asian, African and Pacific Art and the London Avant-Garde (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011).

Arrowsmith is that rare thing, an art historian who is equally well informed about the traditions of ‘West’ and ‘East’, ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern’. He holds a Doctorate in English Literature from Oxford and has also spent a great deal of time in Asia; his web page informs us that he has lived for three years in Burma, where he was also ordained as a Buddhist monk.

The premise of his book is this: ‘There is a problem with the study of Modernism as a global phenomenon. Histories of the period have been written, until very recently, by scholars with little or no knowledge of culture provinces other than their own… this situation has led to a distorted view of Modernism as essentially a European invention, with comparable movements on other parts of the globe characterized as imitative of ‘advanced’ art and literature in Europe… The possibility of multi-directional, transnational exchange in aesthetic concepts, art-historical knowledge, and literary and artistic technique is thus discounted, played down, or at best acknowledged in tentative and misleading ways’ (p.1).

Arrowsmith sets out to correct this with much gusto and panache. Modernism and the Museum is a marvelously rich work: in illuminating some of the neglected conjunctions and confluences of the past Arrowsmith also shines a light towards exciting new possibilities ahead.

Accounts of China in Gujarati

July 19, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)


A reader writes:


Dear Amitav
It would have slipped your mind but we spoke briefly during your sumptuous book launch in Mumbai last month. I had promised to send you details of a few books in Gujarati on China and related to the China trade published before 1850 – but have kept procrastinating – to read River of Smoke; having completed it, this is the least i can do.

  • Patell, Cowasjee Sorabjee Cowasjee: Chinno ahewal ??? ?? ??????  In two volumes. Bombay: printed at the Telegraph and Courier Press by Jeejeebhoy Byramjee, 1848. 432 + 457 pages. [Perhaps an earlier edition was published in 1844.]
  • Chinoye, Hormusji Framji: Chin ane England khatena veparnu ganit pustak. Bombay: printed at Daftar Ashkara Press, 1850.
  • Chinoye, Hormusji Framji: Calculation book of pearls; ?????? ????? ????? ?????? ?????. Bombay: printed at the Summacher press, n.d.

The first one is a massive tome; starts off with advice on preparation previous to a China voyage; then describes the route (and options) in detail; halts at Singapore for a chapater or two and then the usual stops at Macau and Lintin; i do not remember if it includes Hong Kong. It goes on to provide details of various Chinese provinces (probably translated from English) among other subjects. The other two are commercial handbooks; has a lot of incidental information on the China trade. There are also a couple of chrestomathies – basically Gujarati-English (and vice versa) glossaries of items of trade, etc.
And as they say, available in all good libraries, at least in Bombay.


What a pity that none of these have been translated. And how incomprehensible that no one has yet done a thesis on this subject!




6 Tanyin Alley, Liu Zongren

July 18, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (0)


Liu Zongren: 6 Tanyin Alley, China Books, San Francisco, 1989.

A deeply affecting story about China’s turbulent ’50s and 60’s, as seen through the eyes of the people who live around a single courtyard in Beijing (6, Tanyin Alley). Written in lucid, direct English,  6 Tanyin Alley is a gritty yet restrained novel: its power comes from a gradual accumulation of details.

I came upon the book at a yard sale in Brooklyn: it appears to be out of print.





‘Life on a plantation’

July 16, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)



This 19th century cartoon is from Edward Jenkin’s, The Coolie: His Rights and Wrongs, (New York, 1871, pp.12-13).



This is Jenkin’s explanation of it:

The picture is a tolerably fair representation of a manager’s house on its brick pillars. To the left, at the bottom of the picture, is a free Coolie driving his cattle. To the right a rural constable is seizing an unhappy pigtail to convey him to the lock- up, being absent, as we see, from the band just above him, with his arms unbound. This indicates that he is trying to avoid the restraints of his indenture, and for this he is liable -to punishment. Above him, on the right of the picture, is a group of Chinese, and on the left of the steps a group of Indians, represented with their arms bound, an emblem of indentureship. They always speak of themselves as “bound” when under indenture. At the foot of the steps, on either side, is a Chinaman and a Coolie, from whose breasts two drivers are drawing blood with a knife, the life fluid being caught by boys in the swizzle-glasses of the colony. A boy is carrying the glasses up the steps to the attorney and the manager, who sit on the left of the verandah, and who are obviously fattening at the expense of the bound people below them. A fat wife and children look out of the windows. Behind, through a break in the wall, are represented the happy and healthy owners in England; to the right, under the tree, through a gap in the fence, are aged Chinese, weeping over their unfortunate relatives. In the right-hand corner of the verandah is the pay- table, with the overseers discussing and arranging stoppages of wages. The smoking chimney of the kitchen and the horse eating his provender seem to be intended to contrast with the scene in front. This, then, gives a picturesquely sentimental and satirical aspect of the grievances likely to arise under the Coolie system.


I was sent the cartoon by Ashutosh Kumar, a brilliant young research student in Delhi University’s history department. Ashutosh’s  principal interest is in the migration of indentured workers (‘coolies’) from U.P. and Bihar in the 19th century. Being a Bhojpuri-speaker who is deeply immersed in the culture of the region he brings to this subject a very special perspective: I have no doubt that his research, when it is completed, will be a major contribution to subject.

Ashutosh believes that the reference to ‘drawing blood with a knife’ harks back to a rumour which was widely circulated in the 19th century. This is how I described it in Sea of Poppies:

The most frightening of the rumours was centred upon the question of why the white men were so insistent on procuring the young and the juvenile, rather than those who were wise, knowing, and rich in experience: it was because they were after an oil that was to be found only in the human brain – the coveted mimiái-ka-tel, which was known to be most plentiful among people who had recently reached maturity. The method employed in extracting this substance was to hang the victims upside down, by their ankles, with small holes bored into their skulls: this allowed the oil to drip slowly into a pan.’ [Sea of Poppies, p. 340, Indian ed.; 314, UK ed.].

The rumour is mentioned by George Grierson in his Report on Colonial Emigration from the Bengal Presidency, 1883. ( p.19): ‘I hear complaints that the uneducated (the phrase used is always the same jo log nahi jante hain) abused the coolies for leaving their fatherland, and repeated the ridiculous tales quoted by Major Pitcher about mimiai ka tel, or the oil extracted from a coolie’s head.’

[The above reference is to Major D.G. Pitcher who also wrote a report about emigration(Government of India, Department of Revenue and Agriculture, prog. no. 1-12, February 1883.): ‘the feeling of the native community on the subject of emigration is, for the most part, either nil , or a ludicrous distorted image, in which the coolie hangs with his head downwards like a flying-fox, or is ground in mills for oil or is otherwise oppressed by the Briton.’]


July 15, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



Today I received a link to a  compelling letter by the  Chinese artist, Hou Hanrou, writing in ART IT, a Japanese web journal.

The same issue also contains a fascinating article on Africans in Guangzhou, of whom there are apparently 150.000 (it would be interesting to know the corresponding number for people from the Indian subcontinent – it is probably not much smaller).The article makes an interesting connection between the African presence and the new Guangzhou Opera House, designed by Zaha Hadid.

The foreign presence in Guangzhou is of course a very ancient one.




Guangxiao Temple, Guangzhou, said to have been founded by an Indian Buddhist monk, in the 4th century of the common era.




Entrance to the tomb of Abu Waqqas, uncle of the Prophet Mohammad, Guangzhou.

Book Tour Journals: Chennai (Madras), June 29-30, 2011

July 14, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Within minutes of arriving in Chennai, I set off to visit Gopalkrishna and Tara Gandhi, who live in a flat on the outskirts of the city, just off the main Pondicherry road. Here, as during their time  in Kolkata’s palatial Raj Bhavan, they go to great lengths to be ecologically responsible. During Chennai’s frequent power cuts they run a couple of lights and fans with a solar inverter – something I had never heard of before.

Their modest flat is dotted with mementoes of Gopal’s illustrious grandparents.



On the maternal side: Alarmel Manga and Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (last Governor-General of India, founder of the Swatantra Party and opponent of nuclear weapons);













and the paternal:





Kasturba and Mohandas K. Gandhi (to whom Gopal always refers as ‘MKG’).

(‘MKG’s youngest son, Devadas- my father -,’ says Gopal, ‘married CR’s youngest daughter Lakshmi – my mother – after a celebrated courtship’).

The youthfulness of the Mahatma’s face in this picture reminded me of Durban, South Africa








and of some pictures I had seen








in the Gandhi  ashram








in Phoenix (near Durban).








The next day Gopal spoke before the Chennai launch of ‘River of Smoke’.

As always he found a way of immediately engaging the audience:

‘Book launches have four players – the author, the publisher, potential readers of the book in the shape of the audience, and finally the person slated to launch the book.

This last-named entity personifies that most essential thing at ceremonies, namely, the utterly dispensable. He is that part of the book launch’s architecture that threatens to turn it into a ruin.

He is just about tolerated by everyone present.

The author does so out of courtesy, the publisher out of custom, the audience out of compulsion.

And he is held  in  withering contempt by that other most essential entity, the gate-crashing free-snacker.

The launcher, of course, thinks he is the cock of the walk and proceeds to speak on the theme of the book in a manner that suggests he, not the author, oughtt to have written it. Or, he goes on to review the book, page by page, line by line, to show how he has mastered it , acquired control over it, actually tamed it like some horse-rider might, a difficult mare.

These exercises in self-deception are impossible when it comes to an Amitav Ghosh book…’


Listening to Gopal I was reminded of a time when my family and I had accompanied him on a trip to the ancient temple town of Nabadwip, in West Bengal.

He was then the Governor of West Bengal, and he was greeted with an outpouring of popular affection




the like of which I had never seen before.










On another occasion, when I was writing ‘Sea of Poppies’, we traveled








up the Hooghly River, along Kolkata’s beautiful but sadly neglected waterfront








past the Howrah Bridge









up to Barrackpore.

[Photographer: Francis Frith; date: Between 1850s to 1870s; whole-plate albumen print from wet collodion glass negative *]

As Governor, Gopal took the intiative in restoring the historic government house in Barrackpore.

[Photograph by Samuel Bourne (1834-1912) taken in the 1860s**]

When I heard of this I could not resist sending him a fragment from a journal I had found in the Greenwich Maritime Museum in London.

(Journal of William Kershaw, Feb 1815).

Went to Barrackpore, rode over the park. Ostriches in all parts of the Park, 8 or 10 feet high –

– a very large lion

– a large Black Tiger

– 2 Royal Bengal Tigers, just caged, as savage as it is possible-

– several beautiful Leopards, one quite tame, the Keeper opened the door, but I shut it, thinking strangers might be disliked –

– a very fine aviary, well stocked

The Keeper brought out ‘under his arm’ an Orang Outang, a perfect satire on Human Nature, it is a female and in every respect resembles the sex. Its arms are long, but its features, are very expressive, nothing savage, I gently touched her with my whip, which she laid hold of. I then took her hand, and she hung her head on the Keeper’s arm, looking at me; it stands 2 ½  feet – hair on the back of umber colour – I think as well as I could understand, it was brought from the East of the Bay –

– several bears and wolves …

Gopal remains to this day a deeply beloved figure in West Bengal, revered for his integrity and venerated for his courage, especially his forthrightness in denouncing the violence in Nandigram and Singur. Living as he does, in contented retirement in Chennai, Gopal summarily dismisses all talk of a return to a public life – this is no loss for him perhaps, but it is a profound misfortune for India.


* from ‘Old Indian Photos’:

** from Robert College Photography 5 History site:,r:19,s:0





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