Book review: Fahrenheit 451.

Ray BradburyTitle: Fahrenheit 451
Author: Ray Bradbury
Publisher: Panther Books
ISBN: 0-586-04356-X
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 158
Rating: 5/5

Recently, I went to Himachal for a 10-day vacation. Most of the vacation was, not surprisingly, about books and poetry and café hopping. Mcleod Ganj is the perfect place to just sit and read after you’ve chosen from the various teas and coffees available to you. Almost every café there is a book-café, after realising which, a book-café-starved-soul from the city – like me – feels at home and immediately gets down to the business of getting comfortable. And once that is done, there is no turning back.

Whenever I went to a book café, I wanted to take along at least one book from their collection but in return, I had to give something. And since I wasn’t ready to part with the few books I had, I settled on reading the books I liked from the café there itself or noting down their titles. On my last day, however, I was losing it. I desperately wanted to take a book from Common Ground café and I spoke to the owner twice but she refused to part with her copy of Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryōkan. Obviously. No give, no take. Fair enough.

So, I went back to my home for 10 days: Yellow Guest House. Lhamo, the owner, had by now become great friends with us. During our stay there, he would bear with our indecisiveness about the number of days we’d be staying, our late hours, and our demands for water bottles and cigarettes late at night. So, it was Lhamo who, once again, gave in to our demand of a book or two from his tiny shelf.

I picked up this petite, beat-up copy of Fahrenheit 451 and Revati picked up a French book. I was, obviously, immediately jealous – since both of us were looking for a French book for days. But then I looked at Lhamo stamping my book with the guest house address and I stopped thinking about who’s getting the better deal.

I left the same evening and the moment I settled in the bus, I started reading. No, I didn’t finish it on the bus journey. I struck up a conversation with the girl sitting next to me in true McLeod spirit. Soon, the lights were switched off and I decided to put the adamant child in me – who wanted to turn the bus back – to sleep.

It’s easy to guess that it took me a while to get over the fact that I’m back from the mountains to a city that resembled a gutter from the plane. In the week that followed, reading Fahrenheit 451 was somehow my foremost link to all the places and people I had left behind. It is strange since the book is about a possible future where firemen set fire to houses instead of putting them out. And not just any house, but one with books and with any kind of a free-flow of knowledge in it.

I realised that our relationship to the grasping of knowledge has changed a lot as time has passed. Bradbury was writing about the Age of Information – in which we’re right now living – in 1954. And his prediction rings frighteningly true. In the futuristic world he creates in Fahrenheit 451, people don’t have families but ‘parlour families’. Parlour families are wall-sized TV screens on all four walls of the parlour with virtual family members in them. A virtual family who tells you how special you are, how important, and keeps you occupied and updated with gossip and news. On train, bus, and subway rides, a recurring jingle keeps the mind’s attention on the surface, not allowing it to go deep inside. Billboards are 200-feet long and wide. People no longer think, read or have conversations.

They’re slowly being emptied of their essence, their minds are nothing but sieves. And this army of empty individuals is hell-bent on keeping the emptiness intact so that the monster of feeling doesn’t disrupt the order of things. They will do everything to stay distracted, to not pay attention, to not know.

In Captain Beatty’s words:

We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind.”

The story is about Guy Montag, a fireman, who is suddenly jerked awake to the reality of his world due to a series of incidents. These incidents make him realise that he isn’t happy despite all the fun parks and the culture of titillation that the city provides. No longer could the jingles and colourful visuals that form the empty clanking of his surroundings drown the war within himself.

But there is another, larger, war that is taking place outside the many Montags of different realities and worlds. What will the war bring? What do wars always bring?

However, Montag soon learns from his wiser, yet equally terrified guide, Faber, that saving the physical books in itself is not enough. Aren’t wars being waged even now when men and governments have free access to books and all knowledge? What needs to be saved and understood and taken into ourselves is what the books really say. Aren’t we all just hoarding sources of knowledge without really taking any knowledge in? In approaching the future, we’re approaching another Dark Age, I am convinced. But Bradbury convinces the reader that after every age of darkness, there is an age of light. And that even if they burn all the books, they can’t burn the books that have become a part of us. As long as we strive to remember.

‘Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as you’d drop dead in the next ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that, shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass!’”

And for this reason, Fahrenheit 451 has been a reassuring read.

Back in the city, I met Revati and we were in the company of books once more. And yet again, I ended up picking up a book in which books were being burnt. What cosmic sign is this? Until the next review!


Book review: The Perfect Groom

Title: The Perfect Groomthe-perfect-groom-NEW
Author: Sumeetha Manikandan
Publisher: Indireads Inc.
ISBN: 978-1-927826-14-0
Genre: Chick Lit
Pages: 122
Rating: 2/5

I am reviewing The Perfect Groom as part of the Indireads Reviewer Program. I feel this initiative is great as it encourages dialogue between writers and readers.

The Perfect Groom is the story of Nithya, a young Indian girl who comes from a poor family, and how she finds her perfect groom. In the first chapter itself, the reader learns that Nithya is stuck in a bad marriage, just like her mother was. Also, Nithya’s marriage is arranged by her cunning uncle, just like her mother’s was arranged by her cunning step-mother. For me, there is excess drama in this situation.

Nithya is any other girl who, despite her poor background,has somehow managed to finish her studies in the field she wanted to. Only, even after she gets married, she finds herself stuck in another situation and chooses to stay stuck in it for her mother and her sister’s sake. But there is nothing else you know about Nithya the person. She’s the heroine, that’s it. Her mother’s character is stereotypical, too: a poor and helpless woman who has a drunkard for a husband and two daughters. The younger daughter is better off since the mother and the elder daughter have protected and provided for her.The family is, therefore, constantly kept in a state where they are at the mercy of others and need rescuing.

Most characters in the book are flat: they’re either black or white, good or evil. There are no grey shades or depth to them. Even Nithya, the protagonist, gets out of her situation, not because she does something but because the difficult situation gets resolved by itself.

Around 30 pages into the book and the reader, unfortunately, starts getting a hint of what the twist is going to be about. Still, one continues to read till the end to find out whether what they’re thinking is right. The book is mostly well written and free of superfluous language, except for a few clumsy lines like:

He turned around and took my hands in his. A jolt of pleasure went right to my breasts. I looked up and met his eyes. They were alight with remorse and a passion that touched the deep core of my soul.”

The only good thing, I think, about the story is Sumeetha’s treatment of Nithya’s relationship with the hero.

I would recommend this book to someone who is looking for a quick, easy read.

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Book review: Heidi

Title: Heidi 
Author: Johanna Spyri
Translator: Eileen Hall
Illustrator: Cecil Leslieheidi-johanna-spyri-hardcover-cover-art
Publisher: Puffin Classics
ISBN: 0 14 036.679 2
Genre: Children’s Book
Pages: 295
Rating: 4/5

When I first started reading Heidi, I was fifteen and travelling in a train with a bunch of friends I had made on the trip. We were on our way back home and I was speeding through the book, trying to finish reading it before we reached our destination since it was someone else’s copy. Everyone was singing songs, trying to have fun just before the hour of parting forever. I remember they were singing “It’s the time to disco!” and it is then that someone ( I don’t remember who) said to me, “It’s not the time to read books!”

Forced to agree, I shut the book and never got my hands on it until last year. I tried catching up with the story on TV: a beautiful animated series (cartoon we call it in India) titled Heidi, Girl of the Alps. But then college happened and I lost track of Heidi one more time.

This year, however, I read the whole book from start to end without interruptions.  Heidi, short for Adelheid, is a five-year-old girl who lives with her aunt Dette. But since Dette finds a better job, she is unable to care for Heidi anymore and does the unthinkable: leave Heidi with her reclusive grandfather, who lives in solitude on top of a mountain in the Swiss Alps.  The rest of the village thinks Dette has lost her mind, leaving the child with such a grumpy old man. But Heidi is a happy child and Uncle Alp is like the ants in Ant Bully ‘hard on the outside, soft on the inside’.

Heidi has a happy childhood in the mountains with her grandfather and the goatherd Peter. The descriptions of the snow-clad mountains, the sunset, the grass, and the goats is the essence of this book. Here’s Heidi’s first experience of watching the sun go down:

It was getting late and the setting sun spread a wonderful golden glow over the grass and the flowers, and the high peaks shone and sparkled. Heidi sat for a while, quietly enjoying the beautiful scene, then all at once she jumped up, crying, ‘Peter, Peter! A fire, a fire! The mountains are on fire, and the snow and the sky too. Look, the trees and the rocks are all burning, even up there by the hawk’s nest. Everything’s on fire!’

When she gets home that evening, she asks her grandfather about the huge fire in the sky since Peter was not specific:

It’s the sun’s way of saying goodnight to the mountains. He spreads that beautiful light over them so that they won’t forget him till he comes back in the morning.

Slowly, Heidi comes to recognize the mountain with the feeling of home, and when she is taken away to the city, she withers away like a bud denied the rays of the sun. But Heidi is not someone who doesn’t know how to make the best of the situation she is in, so when she is struggling, her mind constantly mirrors the sunset on the mountains – a sign of hope.

Also, I found, the story has many verses from the Bible, and Spyri stresses on education and learning. Since it is a Children’s book, I think it is allowed a little bit of didactic undertones.

Overall, Heidi’s is a simple story of wanting the simple things in life: fresh air, good food, good thoughts, books to read, and a loving family. Who would not like that, now?

Book review: Crime and Punishment

Title: Crime and Punishment
Author: Fyodor Dostoeyevsky
Translator: Constance Garnett
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Limited
ISBN: 978-1-8402-2430-6
Genre: Classic/Literary Fiction
Pages: 462
Rating: 5/5

I had thought that I’ll read the Russians in the original, which is why I had not read a single Russian author willingly. I had read a short story by Anton Chekhov since it was in my second year syllabus. Anyway, I soon realised that I was being unreasonable and decided that knowing the story of a novel in translation will only help me when I actually get around to learning the original language. So here I am, reviewing the first ever Russian novel I read: Dostoeyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I decided upon for no particular reason. 

So there is going to be a crime and there is going to be a punishment, but despite knowing that, as a reader I found myself asking questions like who, why, when, how, and so on. In walks Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov – the protagonist- who is muttering to himself, making arguments and counter arguments, while walking haphazardly in the cold without a hat. While Raskolnikov walks, Dostoeyevsky gives the reader an insight into the city of St. Petersburg: its streets, the people who walk those streets, and the poverty that seems to be sucking the marrow out of their existence. 

Raskolnikov is a student who has dropped out of University because of lack of funds. Though intelligent, he seems to be gripped with a theory that is destroying him bit by bit. It is this theory that has led him to neglect his health, finances, and relationships. And it is ultimately this theory that makes him commit the crime, too. He has also written a paper on the very theory, and it is published in a journal shortly after he has committed the crime. Slowly, as is written in the paper, Raskolnikov suffers a bout of serious illness. And it is this paper that helps Porfiry, the police officer, “solve” the crime. 

The events that follow the crime give the author the opportunity to explore the human mind in its darkest places: pride, the illusion of greatness and superiority, fear, sickness, delirium and alienation. Also, the reader is engaged in Raskolnikov’s many plans and arguments; in the suspense of whether he gets caught, and what happens when he finally surrenders.

Though Raskonikov is portrayed as someone who is a nihilist, there are more than one instances in the novel where he is seen helping the Marmeladovs out. However, this could be seen as nihilism too, in the sense that he is helping only those who are usually neglected or considered to be lower  in the social hierarchy. 

His character is interesting to say the least. And through him come Dostoeyevsky’s pleasing insights into the human mind:

I used to analyze myself down to the last thread, used to compare myself with others, recalled all the smallest glances, smiles and words of those to whom I’d tried to be frank, interpreted everything in a bad light, laughed viciously at my attempts ‘to be like the rest’ –and suddenly, in the midst of my laughing, I’d give way to sadness, fall into ludicrous despondency and once again start the whole process all over again – in short, I went round and round like a squirrel on a wheel.

And my favourite lines:

Strength, strength is what one wants, you can get nothing without it, and strength must be won by strength.

There is also a strong sense of religion in the novel, and it is evident that Dostoeyevsky was influenced by it. The major chunk of it in the novel comes through Sonia, Marmaledov’s daughter who works as a prostitute to support her family. Towards the end, it is Sonya to whom Raskolnikov confesses his crime and it is she who convinces him to confess to the police, thus bringing him closer to humanity again. 

More Russians are now going to be read!
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Book review: Letters to a Young Poet

Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke

Title: Letters to a Young Poet
Author: Rainer Maria Rilke
Translator: Charlie Louth
Publisher: Penguin Group
ISBN: 978-0-141-19232-1
Genre: Non-fiction
Pages: 117
Rating: 5/5

When I started reading Rilke, I found myself being understood, being taken seriously. He came to me as a much needed friend on lonely train rides and empty classrooms. After reading him, these spaces devoid of company didn’t deter me, but became spaces where I could be with myself completely. Each letter is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. With each letter, a knot in my stomach undid itself. For me, therefore, Letters to a Young Poet is not a book; it is a person- Rilke himself. I was completely unsure of my poetry when I started reading the book. I thought my poems didn’t mean a thing; I was doing exactly what Franz Xaver Kappus was doing- looking outside for answers.

“You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me that. You have asked others, before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you worry when certain editors turn your efforts down. Now (since you have allowed me to offer you advice) let me ask you to give up all that. You are looking outside, and that above all you should not be doing now. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself. Examine the reason that bids you to write; check whether it reaches its roots into the deepest region of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would die if it should be denied you to write. This above all: ask yourself in your night’s quietest hour: must I write? Dig down into yourself for a deep answer. And if it should be affirmative, if it is given to you to respond to this serious question with a loud and simple, “I must”, then construct your life according to this necessity; your life right into its most inconsequential and slightest hour must become a sign and witness of this urge.”

After reading the first letter, I knew I’d found a friend- a great one; I had found a way to find myself, and deal better with writing poetry.

“And if from this turn inwards, from this submersion in your own world, there come verses, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses. Nor will you attempt to interest magazines in these bits of work: for in them you will see your beloved natural possession, a piece, and a voice, of your life. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. The verdict on it lies in this nature of its origin: there is no other. For this reason, my dear Sir, the only advice I have is this: to go into yourself and examine the depths from which your life springs; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you have to write. Accept this answer as it is, without seeking to interpret it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then assume this fate and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking the rewards that may come from outside. For he who creates must be a world of his own and find everything within himself and in natural world that he has elected to follow.”

He further introduced me to solitude, and how to apply it. In the first letter he merely says ‘go into yourself’, but in the letters that follow, he explains exactly how to do it. Though Rilke never meant to, he has, through his letters, sketched a way to almost live a solitary life happily– which is difficult to accomplish.

“These things cannot be measured by time, a year has no meaning, and ten years are nothing. To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap, and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simple there in their vast, quiet tranquility, as if eternity lay before them. It is a lesson I learn it every day amid hardships I am thankful for: patience is all!”

On being patient, he elaborates in this next letter- the passage that lured me into reading the book:

“You are so young, all still lies ahead of you, and I should like to ask you, as best as I can, to be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future. Perhaps you do carry within yourself the possibility of forming and creating, as a particularly happy and pure way of living. School yourself for it, but take what comes in complete trust, and as long as it is a product of your will, of some kind of inner necessity, accept it and do not despise it.”

Further comes the most difficult bit- the actuality of not being understood by the ones you love the most- your parents, siblings, and at times even your partners. Instead of lamenting about the shortcomings of human existence, Rilke shares with us ways to accept it as it is, ways of dealing with things meaningfully.

“But everything which one day will perhaps be possible for many, the solitary individual can prepare for and build now with his hands which are more unerring. For this reason, love your solitude and bear the pain it causes you with melody wrought with lament. For the people who are close to you, you tell m, are far away, and that shows that you are beginning to create a wider space around you. And if what is close is far, then the space around you is wide indeed and already among the stars; take pleasure in your growth, in which no once can accompany you, and be kind-hearted towards those you leave behind, and be assured and gentle with them and do not plague them with your doubts or frighten them with your confidence or your joyfulness, which they cannot understand. Look for some kind of simple and loyal way of being together with them which does not necessarily alter however much you change; love in them a form of life different from your own and show understanding for the older ones who fear precisely the solitude in which you trust. Avoid providing material for the drama which always spans between parents and their children; it saps much of the children’s strength and consumes that parental love which works and warms even when it does not comprehend. Ask no advice of them and reckon with no understanding; but believe in a love which is stored up for you like and inheritance; and trust that in this love there is a strength and a benediction out of whose sphere you do not need to issue even if your journey is a long one.”

Rilke’s letters have the power to set people free from their self-induced limitations, to stop them from shying away from difficulties, and to constantly keep seeking newer ways of being themselves.

These are the bits I took away from the book the most. Rilke’s thoughts on the difficult topics of God, sex, criticism, etcetera are equally appealing, and anyone who enters into this conversation of his with Kappus will find himself/herself eavesdropping quite often.

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Book review: One Hundred Years of Solitude


Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Translator: Gregory Rabassa
Publisher: Penguin Group
ISBN: 978-0-140-157512
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 422
Rating: 5/5

One Hundred Years of Solitude: the giant, the Classic, hyped, according to some. Well, as many people, as many opinions. I am sharing here my experience of reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, at last. It was difficult to read the book with the things I’d heard about it playing in my head: about how great it is, about it being Márquez’s masterpiece, and most importantly, about it being a literary masterpiece. So, at one point, tired of this distress in my head, I decided to shun all the hearsay and plunge into it head first. And I did.

I was struck by the peculiarity of the place, and the people and their behaviour. And I guess that was because the Colombians are different from the sort of people I know. My point is, Gabriel García Márquez’s description of the people is honest, straightforward. And don’t we all love a writer without an air of pretense about him? I do.

I was also struck by the freshness of Macondo. The novel is set in the fictional town of Macondo, which is founded by José Arcadio Buendía. The initial days after the founding of Macondo are like a dream. It is an ‘orderly, hardworking, and happy village’, and the reader will find himself hoping that nothing would happen to this romantic setting, where people are, most importantly, among other things, happy.

But of course, things happen, like they happened to Colombia. Slowly, Macondo gets exposed to the outside world: the gypsies, the progress (with the coming of the railway track), the war, and finally, the company. The dreaded company. With each such progression, I felt for Macondo and its people. A little research and I could relate Macondo and its people to Colombia and the Colombians; and though I learned at University that all colonialisms are not the same, I found myself associating the slow, ultimate decadence of Macondo’s people to India and her people as well.

All the historical events that happen in the novel: from Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s Civil War to the Treaty of Neerlandia, from the coming of the Banana Company to the massacre of the labourers, are depicted with much recklessness of feeling, and have an impact on the reader. And what helps Marquéz to convey his contempt and his helplessness is Magic Realism. The fantastical elements Marquéz uses are devices to show in his characters the effects of war, and of governments and of people in black coats. This is how truth gets a chance in fiction; the real effects and consequences of history on the psyche of a people get a chance. No amount of historical records, especially those found in school textbooks, can convey what Marquéz manages to convey through One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is why it is a classic and a masterpiece.

This passage is about the massacre that took place in Ciénaga, Colombia. (the number of casualties of this massacre has never been confirmed):

“‘One more minute and we’ll open fire.”

“‘You bastards!” he shouted. “Take the extra minute and stick it up your ass!”

After his shout something happened that did not bring on fright but a kind of hallucination. The captain gave the order to fire and fourteen machine guns answered at once. But it all seemed like a farce. It was as if the machine guns had been loaded with caps, because their panting rattle could be heard and their incandescent spitting could be seen, but not the slightest reaction was perceived, not a cry, not even a sigh among the compact crowd that seemed petrified by an instantaneous invulnerability. Suddenly, on one side of the station, a cry of death tore open the enchantment. “Aaaagh, Mother.” A seismic voice, a volcanic breath, the roar of cataclysm broke out in the center of the crowd with a great potential of expansion. José Arcadio Segundo barely had time to pick up the child while the mother with the other one was swallowed up by the crowd that swirled about in panic.”

Is it just me or does the passage resonate the Jallianwala Bagh massacre?

Moving on, many of the aspects One Hundred Years of Solitude reminded me of Midnight’s Children. Like Marquéz, Rushdie, too, deals with a history that has been concealed, twisted, and manipulated. It is ironic that these fantastical books are our best authentic source to experiencing historical reality.

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Book Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Title: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publisher: Vintage Books
ISBN: 9780099532538
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 180
Rating: 3/5

When I picked up Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, I was excited about reading it. I had waited long to get my hands on it, and having heard numerous friends going gaga over it, I had high hopes from it, too. And the book didn’t disappoint me. Well, not entirely.

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running is a very personal and detailed account of Murakami’s running and writing life, about how the activities of running and writing complemented each other for him to continue leading a meaningful, healthy existence. It was Running- an attempt at keeping himself fit physically so as to push his mental limits- that helped Murakami the writer to come out in the open and survive.
The language used in translation is simple, the tone honest.
While reading one can feel the clear distinction of roles there seems to be in Murakami’s head- that of a writer and a reader. The reader-writer relationship is established from the very start of the book, more so because he is writing as himself, as Haruki Murakami the writer. An emphasis on his identity as a writer is necessary here since this is what the book is about: Murakami growing, identifying, and establishing himself as a professional writer.
For the most part, Murakami describes, with meticulous precision, his running routine. This precision, though, is sometimes too detailed and slows up the narrative, making it drab at times. In this routine he describes his training before the races he mentions, the challenges he faces during the race, the mistakes he makes, the external threats that come up, and what he takes away from each race. And that’s when the classic Murakamian insights bob their heads above the water. Insights that make you go, “Yeah! This is what life’s about!” And reading them gives one this amazing feeling of being inside a writer’s head:

The end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It’s the same with our lives. Just because there’s an end doesn’t mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence.”

The wondrous quality of Murakami’s fiction is the result of the struggle he has gone through, the process of which is What I Talk about When I Talk about Running. This struggle has made him see the simplicity there is in living, made him simplify the complex, which is why he is reachable to millions of readers worldwide. Though clichéd, Murakami is the flesh and blood example of the maxim “Simple living, high thinking.”
The book is a treat for Murakami’s fans, and an even bigger treat for fans who love to run, and not walk; since he never walked, either.

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