Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Central Time- in conversation with Ranjit Hoskote

Portrait by Nancy Adajania, Utrecht, 2013

Central Time: in conversation with Ranjit Hoskote

In his newest book Central Time (2014) Ranjit Hoskote brings together in its one hundred poems his many, many interests and concerns as a poet, translator and cultural theorist; concerns that persist, as after-images into lines and verses of great beauty. I invited him to talk about his book and its many laminae, sediments and grain, to which he responded with cheerful alacrity. What follows is this e-exchange in which Ranjit, in complete generosity muses, informs and explicates the under-layers that led to Central Time. In some detail, he recreates the 'structural' design of this book, the directions his writing has taken since his first book of poems Zones of Assault (1991), and the influences his own life has had on his writings. In a sense, and I am very grateful for this, our e-conversation culminated in a parallel text that can be read alongside the poems themselves, revealing surprises and giving delight, enriching the experience of reading them.

A bird sits on a branch
of the fury tree:
a bird as big as India.
-‘The Burden of History’

Looking outwards (and inwards) from this bird that is India, I am interested in the ways you project history – is your history performative, taking on the role of curating and archiving, preserving memory, freshening it, or do you use history as a way of contesting the past, providing alternate narratives to the present?

For many people, history becomes crystallized in the form of a collective memory, so naturalized and normalized that it serves them as an absolute guarantee of continuity. They regard it as tradition, as the inheritance of glory and injustice, and, above all, as a talisman of collective identity. In actuality, collective memory is a most malleable substance. It is a system of shifting constructs, contested values and rival narratives that changing elites seek to stabilize through ideological mechanisms from time to time. As a result, history is a not wholly reliable record, in which those elements that are sanctified by a dominant ideology are emphasized, while those it wishes to suppress are eclipsed or buried. And it is these eclipsed or buried elements that often form the most vital strands of history. We must address history critically, if we are to gain a sustaining energy from it.

To be productive, our approach to history must be a symptomatic, archaeological, re-constructive one. To engage with the past is to involve oneself in detective work. We discover the most interesting clues in the shadows and the interstices, which authoritarian histories leave disregarded or have suppressed for their potential to destabilize received wisdom. This is why I do not subscribe to the notion of a single ‘past’. Rather, we are all inheritors of multiple ‘pasts’.

I sense that your poetry does take a stand against history’s possible ‘burdens’. In your embracing its multiple inheritances, as you say, you deny these burdens, you shed its deterministic ballast. Like in your book ‘Confluences’, your poems bring out histories (in the plural), both those that are unseen as well as those seen in new and un-obvious ways.

My poetry draws strongly on these lost, potential or concealed pasts – as elements of selfhood to be retrieved from amnesia; as resources for the production of a new and capacious subjectivity that does not proceed from an imagined, primordial and unified sense of itself, but instead, confidently embraces its heterogeneity, engages with difference, and imagines itself into the future. To address history, we must range through the archive of our inheritances in various states of consciousness: not only the waking consciousness conditioned by the world’s assumptions, but also the states of mind of the dreamer, the quixotic explorer, the pilgrim, the sorcerer’s apprentice, the sleepwalker.

To those who believe that tradition is a static, absolute and unchanging lineage, I would say: Tradition is always a special form of modernity. It is a picture of the past that has been created in and for the present. Let me offer just one example of this, in admittedly schematic and summary form. The foundational 18th-century art historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, developed an idealized vision of classical Greece that was intended to celebrate Europe’s genesis in a period of elevated thought and aesthetic expression. In actuality, this was a projection of his own desire for a utopian point of reference to set against the disquietude and ferment of his own time. In imagining classical Greece to be the fountainhead of European civilization, ideologues drawing on Winckelmann’s account have ignored or repressed a variety of cultural and political realities that do not accord with this objective. Classical Greek temples were not pristine white; rather, they were adorned in vivid colours. The Greek alphabet drew heavily on the Phoenician, so-called Semitic, model. And Greek philosophy, far from having come down to modern Europe in an unbroken genealogy, was a gift made to Europe – which was trapped in its Dark Ages – by thinkers from the Islamic world, among them Arabs, Persians, Levantines, North Africans and Andalusians, who had embraced, interpreted, annotated and extended Greek thought. Indeed, as Hobsbawm and Ranger pointed out, tradition is continuously (re-)invented for the purposes of the present.

To me, a far more vibrant model of tradition is that of the gharana. In the spirit of the gharanas of Hindustani classical music, themselves invented as provisional group or lineage identities during the new mobilities and moments of self-assertion of the colonial period, I regard tradition as an experimental continuity, one that proceeds by disrupting itself, improvising and performing itself afresh.

Can you trace a trajectory in your poems from Zones of Assault (1991) to Central Time (2014)? I am interested in the themes and ideas that concern you and the forms you choose to express them.

The question of a trajectory is always important, especially when you are committed to several domains – as of course you know, from your own multiple practices as poet, translator, architect and pedagogue. In Zones of Assault (1991), which brought together poems written in the six years preceding, my concern was to create poems that were sharp, provocative linguistic artefacts; poems that recovered resources from the deep strata of the language, the hard consonantal sound patterns of Anglo-Saxon played across the sumptuous softness of Latinate phrasing. Metal was my ideal. I wanted my poems to come across as weapons, breaking through the crust of expectation.

Between Zones and The Cartographer’s Apprentice (2000) and The Sleepwalker’s Archive (2001), came my Iowa experience. I was visiting fellow and writer in residence at the celebrated International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, in 1995. The roster of IWP alumni reads like a who’s who of world literature, and it is a wonderful tradition to be part of. In our own context, those of Anglophone poetry in India, Dilip Chitre, Adil Jussawalla and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, among others, are all IWP alumni. I was 26 when I arrived in Iowa City, with two books behind me, Zones of Assault and my translation of Vasant Dahake’s poems, A Terrorist of the Spirit (1992). Living in a community where literary writing was not something to be secured against the world’s demands, but was the everyday activity of practically everyone around you, was a liberating, enriching and enchanted experience. I’ve been on a number of residencies afterwards, and enjoyed them greatly and got a lot of work done there, but Iowa will always remain special. It was my first writing residency; I made friends there, gained enormously from the sense of living and working in a community of writers.

The range of writers who came through, giving talks, lectures or readings, launching books or meeting people in informal colloquies, was amazing: Mark Strand, Jorie Graham, David Lodge, Louise Glück, Mark Doty, Daniel Halpern, to name only a few. Iowa City’s key bookstore, Prairie Lights, was a dazzling platform and meeting place. And I discovered one of my favourite used book stores, Murphy Brookfield, with its erudite and always surprising collection, in Iowa City. And, of course, I assembled, re-drafted and wrote The Sleepwalker’s Archive at 833C Mayflower Hall, on my friend, the diasporic Goan intellectual and Iowa academic Peter Nazareth’s electric typewriter.

Many of the poems in The Cartographer’s Apprentice and The Sleepwalker’s Archive were impelled by questions of refining a voice while improvising among voices, of speaking through masks while also unmasking the speaking subject who segues through a sequence of personae and mirrors. By 2003, when I took several bagsful of drafts, fragments and notes to Munich and settled into the Villa Waldberta on the idyllic shores of the Starnberger See for a three-month residency, these preoccupations had taken definite shape. I reconfigured or wrote all of the new poems in Vanishing Acts: New & Selected Poems, 1985-2005 (2006) at Waldberta. Vanishing Acts also allowed me to deepen my concern with travel, displacement and nomadism, and their relationship with improvised forms of belonging.

In these new poems, I continued to work with ways of being the speaking and experiencing subject in a variety of situations, whether historical predicaments or everyday dilemmas of place and direction. Childhood experiences have formed a pattern within the trajectory through these four books, with the variations of proximity and distance, intimacy and reflective poise, that they offer: being taken to a barber’s for the first time and watching your hair being cut and fall to the floor; reaching out to hold a moth and having it turn into struggling powder in your hands; watching the high, circling flight of birds on thermals. Another pattern has been, of course, my consistent fascination with the inexhaustible power of the visual arts to engage the viewerly imagination. Velasquez, Goya, Magritte, Francis Bacon, Ram Kumar, Mehlli Gobhai, Vivan Sundaram, Raja Deen Dayal, and many other artists have been constant fellow pilgrims on the path.

An intermezzo, at this point-
to this list of books, I would add Pale Ancestors (2008), an artist book on which I collaborated with Atul Dodiya. It took the form of a dialogue between 48 of his watercolours and 48 of my texts. These texts spanned the gamut from poem to prose poem and micro-fiction. A selection of recast, rewired or sometimes substantially reworked pieces from this book has been integrated into ‘The Institute of Silence’, which is the last section of Central Time.

In Jatayu's Forest II, by Atul Dodiya, 2007
Central Time (2014) brings together poems written between 2006 and 2014. In fact, some of the poems in this volume have been in process for as long as 20 years. ‘The Poet in Exile’ is an example. I was helping my parents with some spring cleaning earlier this year, and found, among a mass of papers, a notebook of mine from 1992, in which I found an early avatar of this poem, complete in itself. The poem has travelled with me over two decades, in electronic form, and I have returned to it constantly over this period. Although the file carries the date of the first version, I had not consciously noted the fact that it had been with me for such a long time.

Forests die quietly as the pages catch fire.
The flames play across my chalky walls
and river mist kills my windows.
I wake up wearing a halo of leaves:

my own laureate, my own hangman.
-‘The Poet in Exile’

‘The Poet in Exile’ brings together a cluster of themes that have exercised me greatly. Here, you will find my three key figures, Ovid, Ghalib and Bhartrihari: poetry and power, the poet and the court, centre and periphery, belonging and exile, posterity and extinction, sensuality and renunciation.

As you see, the inner temporality of my writing is not linear, since I range back and forth over drafts, fragments and notes made over three decades – these are my log books, if you will. I also cross over between my various textual practices, or translate material from one form of text to another. For instance, the prose poem, ‘The Last Annal of Alamgir’, as it appears in Vanishing Acts, has gone through several avatars, beginning as a fiction text presented during a workshop with Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee in early 1994 and developed into a prose poem, first published in The Cartographer’s Apprentice (2000), then reworked back into fiction and published in Penguin’s anthology, First Proof #1, in 2005. Eventually, the precipitate of these various acts of tinkering appeared, in a text that shares the qualities of both prose poem and fiction piece, in Vanishing Acts (2006). It was subsequently recrafted for theatrical presentation as a dramatic monologue, directed by Avaan Patel of Stage Two with Tom Alter playing Alamgir (Y B Chavan Centre, Prithvi Theatre and other venues, 2009).

'Forked' by Anju Dodiya, 2006
‘Couple’ is, almost verbatim, a passage from a catalogue essay that I wrote for an exhibition of Anju Dodiya’s paintings at Bose Pacia, New York. That text, in any case, tended deliberately in the direction of literary rather than art-critical tonality, with a ghazal by Ghalib revealing itself line by line in each section of the essay. Some parts of it, such as this passage, were crafted with the cadence of verse. I enjoy the transitions that happen, whether in everyday speech or in literary production, from regular speech through recitative to music.

Perhaps you could talk of your engagement with Ghalib. He makes two appearances in Central Time. You have also written a poem about him ‘Ghalib in the Winter of the Great Revolt’, which is included in Vanishing Acts. You have translated a ghazal from his Diwan in your current book. 

The doors and windows of my shaky house,
says Ghalib, have broken into green tendrils.
Why should I complain,
he draws his shawl closer in the rain,
when spring has visited my house?
- ‘Monsoon Evening, Horniman Circle’

Yes, Ghalib recurs in Central Time, in various guises. As you point out, ‘Monsoon Evening, Horniman Circle’, includes a free translation of a single-couplet ghazal of Ghalib’s:

ug rahaa hai dar-o deevaar se sabzah Ghalib
ham bayaabaan mein hain aur ghar mein bahaar aayi hai

(Green tendrils are sprouting from the doors and walls.
I’m wandering in the wilderness and spring has visited my house.)

The book also includes ‘Night Runner’, which is a translation of the Ghalib ghazal that opens with the couplet:

har qadam doori manzil hai numaayaan mujh se
meri raftar se bhage hai bayaabaan mujh se

Ghalib has long been a very special and important presence for me. I was born in 1969, which marked the centennial of Ghalib’s passing. My mother has always admired Ghalib’s poetry – she studied Shakespeare and Keats formally with Armando Menezes and V N Gokak in the mid-1950s, and read Ghalib by herself – and my father presented her with a number of publications that had appeared during the centennial. From these, she would read to me, as I was growing up.

Growing up, and as I grew more specifically interested in the late Mughal period and the colonial encounter, I found Ghalib a most intriguing and enigmatic figure – poet and courtier, survivor and negotiator, a man nearly executed for his proximity to Bahadur Shah Zafar’s regime during the 1857 Uprising and providentially rescued, a man who then petitioned the British ascendancy and wrote a panegyric celebrating British rule, a poet renowned for his path breaking Urdu poetry, which he personally felt was inferior to his own poems in Persian. For me, Ghalib incarnates the poet in turbulent times, the artist as citizen, confronting the complete range of existential difficulties and defining himself against crises of often epic proportions. A heroic figure, he was fully aware of and attentive to the importance of his contribution, but also capable of self-irony and self-deprecation, and never unaware of the fundamental precariousness of his situation.

You use several forms in your poetry, the Nazm being one, where your lines form distinct couplets. How attuned are you to the musicality of the words as spoken, to rhythms that inhere within them? 

The nazm al-jawahir is a form I am greatly attracted to, the ‘garland of pearls’ that is a legacy of ancient Arabic poetry. It allows for the creation of poetic meaning in multiple ways, with each segment of the poem being complete in itself, while sparking off resonances and assonances with every other segment. It can be read as a sequence, or in parts, and indeed, offers the reader an active role in the production of poetic meaning.

In the context of cadence and musicality, I should perhaps talk about my interest in certain kinds of musical practices, for instance, those of Jan Garbarek and Steve Reich. I am thinking, for instance, of the wind harp and saxophone conversation in Garbarek’s Dis (1976) and the electrifying transitions from wind to cymbals to piano in his I Took Up the Runes (1990). Likewise, I have been endlessly fascinated by the kinetic textures and tempi of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1974-1976), its circling and gathering of sections into wholes and the reverse, the manner in which its pulse structure is based on how long the human breath can carry a tone, whether in voice or clarinet, and how this temporality is brought into a pattern of dynamic adjacency with the insistences of the metallophone, xylophone and marimba, to generate a richly gamelan-like complexity and cascade of music.

In this context, I find extremely interesting, also, Brian Eno’s richly suggestive ideas on ambient music, how everyday acoustic realities come into states of interplay with more formally structured suites of sound, such as music, and his location of ambient music at the ‘cusp between melody and texture’. As ways of structuring time-as-experience and speaking to a plurality of senses and shapes of voice, cadence, melody and utterance, these are compelling models for me.

Is there a scheme, a construct to the organization of the various sections of Central Time? How can a poet write with allusions, as you so profusely do, and still maintain a level of accessibility with the reader?

I had decided, early in the process of preparing this book that it would have a hundred poems. I intended this as an act of homage to the tradition of the centum, or the sataka. Bhartrihari, the great Sanskrit poet with whom we associate the Niti-sataka, the Sringara-sataka and the Vairagya-sataka – and whose work I have been translating for a number of years – was a presence. I was also thinking, in terms of scale, of another favourite collection to which I often return: Kenneth Rexroth’s translation of classical Chinese poetry, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese.

The architecture of Central Time is that of a cycle in five phases or sections. Each phase or section has twenty poems, and articulates the mindspace of a particular character, temperament, or season of the spirit. Of course, my process of preparation relied as much on an intuitive formation of links among poems, as on principles of structural design. As I completed work on the book – and this was triggered off by a re-reading of the philosopher Gaston Bachelard – I thought I could detect the presence, in each section, of a dominant element, or combination of elements, which made compelling sense, although retrospectively.

Section 1, ‘Zoetrope’, seems to unfold in the mind of a man with a magic lantern. He twirls his magic lantern every time he wants a fresh relay of images. Many of them have to do with buildings, bridges, houses, cathedrals, plans, earthworks. Earth, with air, is the prevailing element.

Section 2, ‘The Pilot’s Almanac’, is the record of a pilot struggling to keep his calendar in order even as archetypal patterns impose themselves on history, while forward speed is resisted by the drag of memory. Weather and terror explode with equal force. Ether, with water, is a dominant presence.

Section 3, ‘Gravity Leaps to the Eye’, is conveyed in the voice of narrators who struggle between nomadism and place, momentum and gravity. Questions of location, orientation and selfhood operate here. Sight, location, illusion, mirage, occasions missed and potential, self and proxy, inhabit these poems. Air, with earth, is the ruling element.

Section 4, ‘The Existence Certificate’, is a catalogue of feints, sleights, exits, entries, passages between histories and fictions. It explores the museum of discarded identities and superseded affiliations; revisits childhood, intimate memory, and the landscapes of ruin and retrieval. Its key figures are the stranger, the navigator, the secret agent. Fire predominates here, with strong inflections of air, water, earth and ether.

Section 5, ‘The Institute of Silence’, sets up a log of strange and melancholy journeys, cognitions of direction and re-cognitions of self, mappings of relationships to inherited exemplars like the hunter or the saint, engagements with visceral experiences like sleep, diving, swimming, the fear of diving, the incendiary nature of the contemporary. Water, with ether, predominates.

The book acts as a turning kaleidoscope, in effect, with the elements, voices, narratives, constantly achieving new re-alignments. The trope of the kaleidoscope that is always being pieced together from its fragments, of history as narratives that have to be bricolaged together – always with a surplus, an excess, an infinitesimal or maximal quantum of additional/ contextual energy – holds great significance for me. Hence the epigraph to Central Time, which comes from the writings of the brilliant sociologist Richard Sennett:

“The skilled restorer of porcelain will collect not only the visible chips of a broken pot but also the dust on the table where it rested...”

The title of the book, Central Time, has been with me since 1995. It refers, at one level, of course, to Central Standard Time, the time zone in the Midwest, the measure that defines time in Iowa, where I discovered how one could most forthrightly and productively be a poet leading a literary life among poets. Metaphorically, I associate it with a felicitous situation secured, however momentarily, through and against an experience of continuous mobility, displacement, marginalization.

Increasingly, I tend to think that space and spatiality will always be mediated through conflict and inscribed by multiple claims, so that our occupancy of them will always be contested. By contrast, time and temporality retain the potential for privacy, secrecy, security, as though their very disembodiment and elusiveness allow them to offer us a sanctuary inside which we might be inviolate and unclaimable.

The title also makes oblique reference to the notion of a ‘central poetry’ that Wallace Stevens proposes in his 1948 essay, ‘Effects of Analogy’. Stevens discusses the difference between a deliberately “marginal, subliminal” poetry based on a poet’s belief in “the imagination as a power within him not so much to destroy reality at will as to put it to his own uses” and a “central poetry” anchored in a poet’s conviction that the imagination is “a power within him to have such insights into reality as will make it possible for him to be sufficient as a poet in the very centre of consciousness.” I am attracted to this latter proposition, which is both a challenging provocation and a stimulation to renewed poetic exploration, even as we accept, as Stevens does in his meditation on a bowl of carnations, ‘The Poems of Our Climate’, that
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.

Your encounters with various objects and cultures as a theorist do make their way into your poems that then are expressed with a unique phenomenology, quite your own, that stays on the edge of the world as we know it, but glances at the other side, without tipping over. That is why I love to read your poems, you write about things outside of you, but they aren’t really outside, are they? Like the gargoyle at Notre Dame, you are ‘stapled to the view’, unable to flap your webbed forelimbs and escape your perch.

Very true, I am indeed ‘stapled to the view’. Nothing is outside of us, and we are outside of nothing. We make things our own by reaching out to them with our minds and senses, and we create our own sense of the world through these acts of improvisation with varied itineraries and appropriations. We make the world’s predicaments our own. Here, I would draw strongly on the Yogachara Buddhist teaching of chitta-matra, ‘mind-only’, which is sometimes mistaken for a ‘mentalist’ or solipsist position. The Yogacharins acknowledge explicitly that we know all that we know, and experience whatever we experience, because we receive, process and respond to the world through the mind.

To the Yogacharin, the mind must be clarified of its discontents and delusions, if we are to most clearly and gracefully be present in the world and overcome its conditions and conditioning. We must analyze and empty out the alaya-vijnana, the great storehouse of sensations, thoughts, reflections, reflexes, syndromes and psychic habits that lies beneath our waking consciousness. As a poet, I accept this model of the consciousness but would happily hold on to the alaya-vijnana, to see what patterns emerge from it, and how these may be crafted into expression.

He will cross the bridge of the seasons alone,
laughing, sobbing, constant at his post,
too strong for the pilgrim chain-gangs
that strain and push to get past him:

stone wings folded, last angel, he's stapled to the view.
- Gargoyle, Notre Dame

About the precise choice of word here, ‘stapled’, I’ve changed the verb in this line several times during the last many years, before fastening on it. This word suits me best here because, first, it mudges the entire moment of the poem towards a memory mediated through photographs or archival pages. Secondly, I find a vivid visual analogy mixed with paradox when I compare the gargoyle’s wings and the brace of a stapler, the way these bifid objects cleave together and away, effecting in one case, potentially, connection, and in the other case, potentially, flight. And thirdly and in some ways most persuasively – I am obsessed to a degree with etymology – the Old Norse origins of the word ‘staple’ relate it to ‘stopull’, meaning ‘column’ or ‘pillar’, which sets up a mysterious connection between this verb and the Gothic architectural context of the poem. I am sure that, as an architect and architectural historian, you will warm to this last line of reasoning!

The Sennett quote you invoked earlier that leads off your poems brings to mind the Japanese art of kintsukuroi, of repairing broken porcelain with powdered gold embedding the object with its own history- an affirmation that at once shows both strength and the fragility of existence. How fragile, do you think, is our time in this world, and how central is it to us?

It is amazing and telepathic that you should have thought of kintsugi in the context of the passage from Richard Sennett’s Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation that I have taken as the epigraph to Central Time. I have long been fascinated by the concept of shibui, and by the Heian-period aesthetic of mono no aware, an elegiac awareness of the transience of things coupled with a desire to acknowledge what has lived, breathed, accomplished a measure of expression. I find greatly compelling, also, the related concept of wabi sabi. It gestures towards the illuminating potentiality of the world’s dynamic asymmetries, as for instance through the perceived mutually balancing imbalance between the shine of newness and the lustre of patina, the tender freshness of a shoot and the withered toughness of bark, the smooth rim of one bowl and the chipped rim of its twin. As a cultural and aesthetic ideal, wabi sabi invites us to meditate on the transience of the world, the transitoriness of our own existence, and on the cyclical successions of mood, season and phase of existence through which time progresses, while our lives are shaped within it.

My first introduction to these ideas was visceral, through practice, as a child. My mother studied ikebana in the early 1960s with a visiting Japanese artist couple who spent some years in Bombay. The Akinos had rented a studio residence in Kalanagar from the artist Cumi Dallas; they had come to India in the wake of Akino-san’s mother, the celebrated and even revolutionary Japanese artist Fuku Akino, who was visiting professor at Santiniketan at the time. My mother continued to practice this art, for which the English term ‘flower arrangement’ is sadly reductive, for many years. Watching her at work, and receiving instruction from her in it, was an integral part of my childhood, through the 1970s. Ikebana, like most of Japan’s traditional arts of peace and war, profoundly embodies the principles of shibui and wabi sabi, at the heart of which resides the presence of beauty in decline, decay or decadence, and the experience of regarding and recording evanescence.

Our time in this world is, I think, an invitation to create value and embed it back in the ethos that sustained us, where it might perhaps come in handy for others – as pleasure, as instruction, as institution, as epiphany, as folly. I would home in on another splendidly evocative phrase of Sennett’s. In The Craftsman, he writes of the “embrace of the incomplete”, which is crucial to the work of the artist-artisan, and is profoundly available in a haptic as well as conceptual way to those who work directly with their hands in contact with their materials – pen and paper, clay, wood, stone, or musical instrument – and less available to those poring over blueprints, even less so to those whose work is eased yet paradoxically diminished by a reliance on computer-aided design. It is this full-bodied ‘embrace of the incomplete’, with its surprises, disappointments, hits, misses and discoveries that – I suspect – we are invited to undertake when we approach the world and record that encounter in art.

(interview with Mustansir Dalvi, June 2014)
© Mustansir Dalvi, 2014, all rights reserved.

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