In Singapore: The Year of the Goat, 2015

The Year of the Goat, 2015, Singapore
Welcome, The Year of the Goat, 2015, Singapore

It is my nature that on festival days, I feel very restless at home. It doesn’t matter whether it’s traditionally a festival I’ve followed for years or a festival I’ve just been immersed in due to the accident of location or company but there is that smell in the air and that sparkle in the light around that just does not let me stay at home while the city decks itself in lights, crowds and festivities.

And so it has been with Chinese New Year this year.

So on Thursday, armed with a guidebook that says SINGAPORE in large letters on the cover, I get to the train station in the afternoon determined to reach Chinatown. I carefully tuck the guidebook away in my bag because I hate to have people think I’m a tourist.

Not a UFO. It's my train station.
Not a UFO. It’s my train station.

Before the long weekend for the Chinese New Year starts, several people already warn me that I should stock up on groceries because “Chinese New Year is like Thanksgiving in the US. All restaurants and stores will be closed. Make sure you buy some groceries.”

The streets had indeed seemed empty when I had paid a visit to the local mall to eat on Wednesday evening, a place which is always throbbing with life but was shrouded in an unnatural, quiet stillness with most shops and food kiosks closed. No exhibitions inside the mall, no crowds on the giant escalators, no salespeople standing on stools hawking smartphones.

The Goat Lanterns at Eu Tong Sen St. and New Bridge Rd.
The Goat Lanterns at Eu Tong Sen St. and New Bridge Rd.

Continue reading In Singapore: The Year of the Goat, 2015

Writing Memoir on Social Media

I’m doing something in the room and The Boy walks in stealthily from behind me and suddenly there is a shower of bubbles in the air and lots of childish laughter. I turn my face and I see a host of bubbles floating up and up and up towards the light, their shiny surfaces catching the light and turning them into iridescent rainbow hues. It’s hard to tell how each bubble will float away, where it will stick and when it will burst.  But together they transform the room.

Actually I’m not just sitting here doing something. I’m writing yet another blog post. It isn’t unusual at all, while I’m writing, for a childish face to peek in and insist on typing a word or two or close a window or want to check out a blinking light below the touchpad. But bubbles? They are new.

The bubbles floating around me make me think of a lot of writing I’ve been doing lately. Light, beautiful, polished, iridescent and ephemeral.

What really has been the end goal of these pieces? To live for a bit, to catch the light, to stick in someone’s mind for a moment and then to disappear? To float directionless, to dazzle and to die? Continue reading Writing Memoir on Social Media

Friends down memory lane

It is in the thirties that we want friends. In the forties we know they won’t save us any more than love did. ―F. Scott Fitzgerald

We sit around a huge bed covered in a thick, rough, cotton fabric next to huge windows overlooking wide expanses of this city of asbestos roofs, open dumpsters, pretty apartment buildings with AC’s hanging off the walls and rickshaws and BMW’s parked next to each other spanning a vista that looks almost pretty in the bright sunlight if you had the eyes to see it.

We’re still sitting in a circle, almost happy, almost young, almost twenty.

Some of us (who can) look over our shoulders in a familiar gesture to see if auntie (one of our mothers) is at the door to supervise us. But she has become too old now and retires to her room in the afternoons.

At first, we start talking like we always did whenever we met for the past ten to twenty years, since the steady decline of opportunities in the city and this age of globalization showered it’s bounties upon some of us and catapulted us to various parts of the globe.

Other schools, other cities, other jobs, other husbands, other children, other friends, other neighbours, other colleagues, other languages and other ways of life while some continued here in the city, swaying with the pull of distant lands or staying steadily rooted, yet none being able to ignore the loss and gain of bonds in our new and changed world. Continue reading Friends down memory lane

The Old and the Young

For expatriates, visiting home after long periods of time reveals slow changes imperceptible to those who live close by. The changes most noticeable are those in the old and the young.

The Old Man sits on the same seat on the couch everyday lost in his own thoughts. There’s a din around him consisting of the cook’s angry exclamations on the dearth of red-pepper powder (the lack of which jars against her professional perfectionism), the washer-woman’s insistent tramplings carrying heavy wet clothes to the balcony to hang, the all-purpose domestic’s comings and goings looking for mosquito nets to fold or to look out the verandah to see who has been pressing the “calling” bell for the thousandth time.

Despite all the din, The Old Man’s world is quite silent. He sits with the unfurled newspaper most days or just with his thoughts. He has grown a little frailer, lost a little weight, grown a white beard to complement his white hair. Yet, when there’s a soft discussion in the background between the domestic and The Old Lady that there’s no fish in the house for The Boy, he stirs from his seat as though to go to the market in the burning heat. When I pull up my huge American suitcase up the stairs, quite out of scale in this Calcutta apartment, he gets a grip on it pulling it up (looking as though he shouldn’t be), while all us ladies look on with concern trying to persuade him with words to let go but not daring to touch the handle to take it away from him. Continue reading The Old and the Young

Goodbye, Friend, until we meet again

I cannot say, and I will not say
That he is dead. He is just away.
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
He has wandered into an unknown land
And left us dreaming how very fair
It needs must be, since he lingers there.
And you—oh you, who the wildest yearn
For an old-time step, and the glad return,
Think of him faring on, as dear
In the love of There as the love of Here.
Think of him still as the same. I say,
He is not dead—he is just away.

Away by James Whitcomb Riley via ma.tt

Dear Friend,

I must say that at first I could not believe that you had left us this week. In fact, if I had to believe that it would have to be one of us who had been in such a hurry to leave, it wouldn’t have been you.

Somehow, you had seemed so stable, so very well grounded than the rest of us that I wouldn’t have thought that of you at all. And I doubt that if you’d been here with us today, sitting across a table perhaps at a restaurant or on your couch in your solid, suburban house that I could have been so candid with you.

For wasn’t that how it was that last time we met, all us girls, about how fun and carefree it was, how girlish, us in that very sleek, very grownup Manhattan apartment and fancy Thai restaurant, ducking our heads loaded into that taxicab rushing along Holland tunnel, giggling in our headiness at having defied those silly rules, as though we were still in our maroon and white school uniforms tarrying a bit too long at the water cooler missing Subbu’s Chemistry class?

We had kept our grownup selves at bay for a few hours to relive our girlhood once again after what was more than a decade of separation. Yet, you were the one who had insisted on trying to eat the unexpected dish that arrived, an entire fried fish, huge, with eyes staring and all, when the rest of us had been doubtful about touching it. You were the one that had wanted to take the train as the sensible way to cross the river that night. You were the sensible one, even more than me in our little group and that is why it is so much harder to believe that you would leave first and even harder to think that you might have known about the journey that was inevitably coming, which would be so much longer than simply crossing the Hudson that night.

The usual baggage of life, the cache that does not get cleared, the burden we live to carry on in our adult lives had separately been on each separate minds as we had played at schoolgirls  that evening. I knew we hadn’t shared all like we did in our schooldays  but I never thought that the play itself was coming to an end for one of us so soon. That your missive for your mission was already here while the rest of us were still struggling with the prologue.

It was mid-afternoon late on Thursday when I saw your obituary. It was clear as clear could be and very professional. It said it had been all over on Wednesday, which means it may have been Thursday where I am already. It is the miracle of social media that carries news so fast across a twelve hours’ time difference that it makes the shock as fresh and as acute as though I was right there in New Brunswick with you. Hence, while you were in deep sleep, even deeper than those in your part of our earthly abode, I was in the workplace at mid-day, suddenly seeing your face against some text on Facebook, knowing the inevitable, even while voices around me discussed schedules and curriculum and meeting times and the card readers on doors kept beeping as a reminder of place and time and context impinging on my dumb comprehension of those facts on the page.

Things clicked in my brain in quick succession then, why you were so unusually striking the way you were for the past three years and the difference between what I had seen and understood and what you were really trying to do. While it would sound like a cliché, I cannot believe you were so brave, fast forwarding life in so many spectacular ways to raise awareness and make memories for others that will have to carry on in your absence.

It wasn’t until I got home that day that I cried a bit. That puzzled me for truth be told, I wasn’t as close to you as that act would suggest in the last many years of our lives. It was only the second time I’ve cried in the last year and the first time was about something as banal as harsh detergent and peeling hands in a tiny shower. After that one cry, I continued on as usual, on my Skype chat later that night, my meetings the next day and my weekend date with Shakespeare in the park.

WhatsApp and Facebook exploded with updates, your Wall filled up with shocked comments by those who did not know this was coming and strangely, questions from those who, perhaps, still thought you could provide answers on your wall. Generally very voluble on social media, I could not find anything to say, not even on your funeral website made by your Funeral home in the style of your adopted country that you had made your own. The cacophony on all our online homes was distressing though, like loud voices at the end of a somber play or the harsh jangle of a bagful of coins falling to the floor during a moment of silence.

A story had unequivocally ended and had closed off a part of the story of my life with it. Perhaps that was it—the real source of my distress.

I don’t quite remember the start of that story in third grade but I do remember the moment when your smart, older cousin (much admired by me) had brought you over to my place. “My cousin from England,” she had said proudly and I knew you were something better than us, and by a quirk of fate, by that act of moving from England to Calcutta you had created the lucky chance for me to get a seat in the school that had set the tone for the rest of my life by making the school admit a few students out of season in the middle of a term.

Over the period of the next nine years, we’d be growing into a comfortable closeness simply based on proximity and the shared experience of a bunch of girls growing to almost womanhood in a closed environment. Because we never grew overly close, our lives, to me, always seemed parallel, growing in different directions, making different choices within the limited ones available to us those days, similar enough to warrant comparisons in my head and different enough to lend meaning to the narrative of my own life. That narrative of your life, which was always present in my peripheral vision alongside mine is rounded off and closed now and I am at a loss.

Just wanted you to know that I shall miss you and I shall miss that.

Yet, there’s been more pain than this account would suggest.

That afternoon two young faces flashed in front of my mind. The youngest is only as old as my nephew. At that age, I remember, my mother would be so very careful of me even spending a single night away from her watchful eyes at home. I wondered how you must have felt knowing that you would have to embark on this long journey leaving such young children behind. I could only grasp at what strength of mind you had summoned in the last few years to lead such a full life knowing what you did doing your utmost to leave behind memories for them.

I doubt that I could have been so candid about how I felt were you really here sitting across a restaurant or a cafe in Edison or on a plastic chair holding a plastic cup next to me just keeping our voices audible over the evening programs at a Durga Puja hall in New Jersey. Then we would have exchanged the facts of our lives with some censorship, talked about some common friends in an attempt to keep the past alive. We would have taken pictures, uploaded the best ones on WhatsApp, talked about whether we were taking a cab or the train home or whether someone was picking us up letting the banalities of the everyday swallow what I really should have said to you.

But since that will never happen now, not in a Thai restaurant in Manhattan, not at a bus stop on Lindsay St. in Calcutta, not at Durga Puja in that Ukranian Church in New Jersey, I thought I would just say what I wanted to say in a letter and let this go into the chaos of the internet, which, for some reason, seems like another world to me, as though I could reach you there.

I have spent three rather sleepless nights since you left, I really don’t know why, and that while you may not have been aware of it, you shaped my life in some ways just by choosing to be you in your parallel life. But this early twist in the tale and the sudden exit is something that I hadn’t anticipated and so I wasn’t prepared for it. So since you left, I’ve been thinking about my own life a lot, what matters and what doesn’t and how short everything is.

I have to say I am very proud of you for having lived the way you did, so gracefully, knowing what you did and I hope I can find the same strength to live in style against all adversity so long as I have to continue on this journey until, perhaps, we meet again.

Goodbye until then and rest in peace.

Your Friend.

What Blog Is

Sometimes a blog is just what a blog is. The recording of a moment, a sudden attempt to capture what is by nature ephemeral, to grasp at the truth as though it can be held back as it slips through the sieve. Sometimes, a blog is just talking to yourself, catching something that made you smile, pouring out something that would make you burst otherwise, as is, half formed, half lived, half tested. For the heart is what it is. Continue reading What Blog Is

The Circle of Life

Kahin To Yeh Dil Kabhi Mil Nahin Paate
Kahin Pe Nikal Aaye Janmon Ke Naate
Ghani Thi Uljhan Bairi Apna Man
Apna Hi Hoke Sahe Dard Paraye

Kabhi Yun Hi Jab Hui Bojhal Saansen
Bhar Aai Baithe Baithe Jab Yoon Hi Aankhen
Kabhi Machal Ke Pyaar Se Chal Ke
Chhuye Koi Mujhe Par Nazar Na Aaye

Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaye
Sanjh Ki Dulhan Badan Churaye, Chupke Se Aaye
Mere Khayalon Ke Aangan Mein
Koi Sapnon Ke Deep Jalaye

The bridge glows like a jewel in the dark in front of me. Many a time I had crossed it earlier without knowing what a spectacular view it provided to the casual onlooker from a distance against the dark sky and the wide expanse of the bay spread out like a black satin sheet at this time of the night.

When you’re on a bridge you rarely know what crossings overs look like.

Yet, jewel the bridge is not. The hard, glittering, diamond-like effect against the night sky is not static. The light is softened by a dynamism that makes it come alive. Continue reading The Circle of Life

Festival Art and Ephemerality: End of Durga Puja 2014

It was Durga Puja. The air was full of the non-stop beat of pujo’r dhaak (drum), music, microphone announcements, children’s elocution recitations, honks of a thousand cars, autorickshaws, rickshaws, voices of screaming kids and parents, lost and found announcements, children bursting crackers in their toy guns (“caps”) that went off with loud booms, pujo mantras (incantations) and loud ghanta’s (pujo bells) for the last five days.

Now there is all silence.

Pujo Pandal. Gigantic boat on the Ganga where the waters are blue hands lifted upward asking to be saved (Ganga Aaamar Maa--Burosibtala, Behala)
Pujo Pandal. Gigantic boat on the Ganga where the waters are blue hands lifted upward asking to be saved (Ganga Aaamar Maa–Burosibtala, Behala, Calcutta)
Buroshibtala Pujo, Behala
The water is a million hands (top) and inside the pandal it’s cool (AC’s) with scattered fish, mermen, rowers and underwater creatures (bottom two pictures).

The roads were full of streams of crowds from all walks of life, mostly youngsters and huge groups from distant parts of the city and outside suburbs walking along the roads inside bamboo barricades, dressed in their best new finery (some of which had zari borders that glowed in the dark). They had to stop at police ropes at intervals, taking tiny detours around sleeping dogs who seemed pretty nonchalant, considering the crowds who were desperate to see the pujo pandals, either patiently waiting or getting into skirmishes with police and volunteers, lifting their hands as far above the million heads as possible to take pictures, posting on social media in real time, desperate in their desire to savour the moment.

And this morning, it’s all empty.  At least as empty as Calcutta can get. Continue reading Festival Art and Ephemerality: End of Durga Puja 2014

Street Food: Calcutta Durga Puja–Shoshthi Shaptami 2014!

If you’ve lived in one of the great Indian mega-cities for any length of time, one of the things that you can never forget is the street food. But street food during a festival like Durga Pujo? You have to see it to believe it.

Calcutta street food
Phuchka, Shoptomi morning

I’ve only really lived in one Indian city, Calcutta/Kolkata, and even though I grew up almost on a daily  diet of various kinds of street food (my parents being a little less strict about this than many and my stomach having grown most resilient via this eclectic exposure) I wasn’t prepared for the number, scale and magnitude by which street food culture had proliferated in the city during my absence of fourteen years and the subsequent fifteen annual Durga Pujo’s I had missed.

The crowds in front of a pandal, Behala, Kolkata
The crowds in front of pizza, coffee, ice cream, paan, coke

I took all these pictures on Shoshthi evening and Shaptami afternoon, the first and second of the five days when Pujo crowds are only warming up. I just walked a little in the evening, barely a ten minute walking stretch from my parents’ place to the major road in my area. It’s a very middle-class neighbourhood and didn’t include any of the city’s major intersections or Pujo-visiting destinations or markets and must be a very miniscule picture of the city’s crowds and street foods this Pujo.

Yet, just as the spirit of the Goddess inheres in the smallest Debi idol in the tiniest by-lane in the littlelest poorly-lit Pandal as she does in the award-winning enormous mega-Pujo’s, I’m hoping that this chronicler’s mini-attempt at reflecting the spirit of the season will convey a little bit of the excitement and anticipation regarding how the Goddess has transformed a city of a 4.4 million people (14.38 million if you take the metropolitan area into account and swelling during Pujo) into a cosmic food court. Continue reading Street Food: Calcutta Durga Puja–Shoshthi Shaptami 2014!

My Writing Process

This post ought to have been left blank because I realized that I have no process. Or perhaps there is no process.

Except that process where you have shown perseverance in spending time glued to the chair at your desk, tearing your hair (if you have any left), sighing in despair, pacing up and down the floor and sitting through the bouts of time when there has been no writing.

I realized also that you must have reached a goal, albeit set by yourself, weekly or monthly, of a number of pages/words that you decided to write, even if the writing was all gibberish, to have started thinking about a process.

The gibberish is an important ingredient to start with.  It is the one that might or might not lead to magic.

Unfortunately, I have realized through the years that there is no magic in the world that you haven’t produced yourself. But try enough times and you’ll see that for those who know how to look for it, lo and behold! “Zim zam zambowe/ Magic comes from nowhere!” (so sings the wise, white-haired, white-bearded sorcerer from the Indian children’s show Chota Bheem).

The sorcerer with Chota Bheem and his gang. The image is linked to the the image url. Thanks to The Boy for locating this image.

The following steps are solely how it happens with me. I’ll be very glad to hear how it happens to you. Continue reading My Writing Process

Does writing advice really help?

from pixabay
from pixabay

People vary vastly in their approach to work or play. So when I see a lot of writing advice doing the rounds (including my own), I’m rather skeptical.  Unless the advice is really specific, regarding tone, structure, syntax or something else, it serves little purpose for me beyond motivation, which, admittedly, is a huge part of success in any endeavour.

Some of the advice comes from writers themselves, when a dry spell probably compels them to write about something and what better a topic than the one they know most about—writing?

A lot of the impetus for writing about writing comes from a high demand amongst readers, who would be writers, and are looking for some magic recipe that will tell them how write. They expect such instructions to be clear and bulleted, exactly like the ones on how to put a bookshelf together or how to identify nasty weeds in your garden.

Again, such lists serve a purpose, to an extent, if you’re looking to churn out writing that will fulfill a purpose, and in theory, will help the next person write a similar thing should s/he be able to get to the instructions just like you did. Catch the reader’s attention with the intro, use a quote or an anecdote and end with a question or comment. Or, make sure the characters develop and edit out the parts that don’t fit.

But really, if someone has not recognized that they need to catch the reader’s attention or to make the characters come alive like real people from his or her reading of good authors, and is spending valuable reading time on reading a list of five points with clear headings and sub-headings on how to write, is this a person who should be thinking about writing for an audience at this stage?

That is not to say writing about writing serves no purpose. In a discussion or workshop based setting, whether face-to-face or online, talking about craft in a specific manner really helps. Where is this piece not working? Am I failing to connect here? Am I too verbose? But without a specific piece to start from, is it possible to discuss writing? Continue reading Does writing advice really help?

Tales by The Boy

Thanks to the exploits of The Boy on the word processor, the nascent blog post I wrote has been deleted.

Mischief by H. Brückner. Print showing a boy and a girl pouring ink and water on papers they removed from a desk and placed in a wastebasket.

Various experiments were performed by The Boy on a solitary sentence I had churned out after almost half an hour’s worth of staring at the screen when said boy decided to alter words here and there to check the various colours in which a spelling and grammar check was going to underline words.

Several minutes were spent finding words that were not words so that the underlining could happen effectively until we discovered that it isn’t easy to misspell words when you badly want to. Then fonts were changed and clip art inserted and magnified to fill the entire screen until the sentence was edited beyond recognition.

Hence, on the palimpsest of my poor, solitary sentence, having run out of ideas, I had no option but to regale you with stories by The Boy himself. Continue reading Tales by The Boy

Freshly Pressed! Times 5

I was pleasantly surprised when I opened my email! I’m going to be Freshly Pressed for Writing Memoir on Social Media.

Freshly Pressed
Freshly Pressed

I must acknowledge my debt to two people for the post: Cheri Lucas Rowlands (who also happens to be the editor who chose the piece) whose recent post brought to my attention The New Yorker article by Dani Shapiro I talk about and The Boy who blew the bubbles that turned into Writing Memoir.

Please like me on my Facebook page because, well, there’s stuff that I can do on Facebook that I can’t do here on the blog. Continue reading Freshly Pressed! Times 5

From eleven-year-old Bottledworder

You all have been reading Bottledworder for the past two years. Thought you might enjoy something I chanced upon covered in brown paper tied with a jute string this week.

They were old exercise books. Peeking out of one of them was an old, yellowed exam sheet with the words Better English, Class V-A on top.

Not ashamed to say the word “good” was written in red with my English teacher’s signature on the front. However, I seemed to have scored only 26.5 out of a possible 30 in the whole test.

Here’s where I lost a point-and-a-half of those missing 3.5! Not ashamed to admit, again, that I’m wondering, even after all these decades, what I was supposed to write for a full 5.

Ms. R, if you ever chance upon my blog, could you please explain? :) Continue reading From eleven-year-old Bottledworder

The room of my own

When my brother and I were little, we used to play this game in the afternoons sometimes. My brother would sit on one side of the bed and I would sit on the other and we would imagine that the bed was a boat and that we were floating away on the ocean.  We would imagine that the space in the middle was one where we would keep all our prized possessions. My brother would keep his tools and I would pat the bed and say, “This is where I’ll store all my boiled eggs.” Continue reading The room of my own

Them in the City

Something or the other is always happening in Calcutta.

Many of these events would be quite outside the scope of my experiences in the US and yet here they seem to fit in so seamlessly with the daily course of things. The events I’m talking about could be as simple as an altercation with an autorickshaw-wallah regarding the lack of change while paying the fare or hearing of a hanuman (big monkey) sighted on my street in the early morning sitting and eating kachori at a popular roadside stall with other customers (even while in many ways city life here is in no way different from anywhere else in the world as people use smartphones and laptops and commute to work on buses and cars and the underground metro).

Here’s a really unexpected event that occurred this week which reinforces my belief that if you’re looking for stories, there’s no better place in the world to come to than our very own Calcutta!

On Monday evening, my parents are about to leave for the market. I am ready to see them off when we open the door to an unexpected sight.

Our very long term domestic help P’s saree is strewn all over the landing between the main doors of the two apartments that face each other. A bunch of black hair, clearly cut with a pair of scissors, is strewn on the floor next to it.

The hair looks dark and glossy and freshly cut. Continue reading Them in the City

The Calcutta Cricket

One of the new experiences you have to adjust to when you visit your home in Calcutta from your home in New Jersey, travel from the temperate zone to the tropics, is that of living with the constant presence of insects in the summer. Even in city apartments, these companions make their presence known in various obscure or aggressive ways.

The glow worms are beautiful when they float in during a power cut.  The ants and the spiders are a silent lot. If you leave a box of sandesh on the table, in no time will you see a group of industrious ants pushing globules of sweet, white balls away. You might have to keep an eye out for the spider doing the silent dance around the toilet seat or the lizard suddenly bursting into a loud tick-tick-tick on the wall. The millipede could climb on your arm while you’re asleep or a winged cockroach might decide to spend its last few hours with you. Then of course the mosquitoes will sing to you and keep you company through the night until dawn. Those who are wise know that a single one inside the mosquito net could treat you to its serenade all night long.

But here’s my experience this summer with a harmless insect I’d never thought I’d have to battle with so vehemently in a city apartment. Continue reading The Calcutta Cricket

Hello

Dear Friends:

Hope all of you are well and keeping up with your blogs. Thanks for your concern on my Facebook page regarding what on earth may have happened to me. It’s true that when a nameless, faceless person disappears from the interweb, it’s as if the person never was. Only the blog remains like the smile of the Cheshire cat.

But I am indeed alive and somewhat kicking!

It is perhaps a cliché to say that life is a journey. But would it be such a cliché to say that a blog is a journey too? My blog has accompanied my life in its travels through hills and valleys, nooks and corners, the bright sides and the dark sides like a little murmuring brook on the roadside that has spoken to me as well as you. A blog like this isn’t exactly true in that it hardly ever records facts and yet it isn’t exactly false in that it does hold up a very distant and distorted mirror to the lights and shades of life.

This blog has been a tiny home for me in a changing world that I’ve been able to come back to from time to time. It houses the mirrors that reflect the flame that lights this tiny space but must also show the darkness below the lamplight when it’s time to say nothing.  Both sound and silence are necessary to meaningful speech and the last couple of weeks were just that here–silent.

Why? Just because.

Hope to meet you old and new readers more frequently here on this platform soon.

BW

easy reading is damn hard writing

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