Great Writing

Shipton on Nanda Devi …

Posted on June 2, 2019. Filed under: Great Writing |

“would be difficult to give an adequate description of the loveliness of the country in which we found ourselves.

Beauty of the wild, riotous kind such as one usually finds in high mountain regions we had expected; but we found, as well, luxuriant pasture, brilliant with wild flowers, and lakes, on whose deep blue and green surfaces was reflected the crusts of icy peaks; birds of great variety and brilliant colours, and large herds of thar and bharal, which were so tame and regarded these strange new visitors with such curiosity, that I was almost glad we had not brought a rifle.—” 

Eric Shipton, Illustrated London News, 12 January 1935 – Writing about the Nanda Devi Sanctuary after crossing the Rishi Ganga Gorge …

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The Humble Hashtag – # …

Posted on November 2, 2018. Filed under: Great Writing |

Joanna Rozpedowski – 

From fashion trends to global events, the hashtag (#) has become the conspicuous symbol of the Twittersphere.

What only a decade ago denoted a numerical symbol of no special significance or attribution is now a call to arms for causes that are many and varied.

The “#” is a social organiser, which emerged spontaneously and dynamically from the content generated and updated by social media users. The initial intent behind the “#”, when Twitter launched in 2006, lay in its simple use as a means of organising data and information.

An indexing tool for grouping anything from the politically relevant to the culturally hip, the “#” soon found itself aligned with some of the most significant events in history.

Capturing a broad spectrum of the public’s preoccupations with popular culture, social exclusion, relief efforts following natural disasters or political conflict, the hashtag, as some have argued, has allowed for the efficient emergence of “certain types of communities and ad hoc publics forming and responding quickly to particular events and topical issues”.

And these have developed a social and political power we have only recently begun to fully uncover and comprehend.

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Bertolt Brecht – the Poet …

Posted on August 13, 2018. Filed under: Great Writing, Personalities |

Extracted from Anjan Bose Article  in The Wire –

The 19-year-old Brecht was writing such haunting lines as these:

Half-way along the road from night to morning

Naked and strewn in a rock-strewn glen

A chilly sky across it like an awning

You’ll find the heaven for disenchanted men. ……..

Ever silence where great rocks are lying

The glow remains although the light has gone

Sullen souls, fed up with their own crying

Sit dreamless, dumb and very much alone.

The dainty Polly Peachum, daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (who is very nearly the model of bourgeois respectability) stuns her parents by announcing her resolve to marry Mack the Knife, the London underworld’s uncrowned king. Polly has had many suitors – all of them well-heeled as well as well-groomed – and yet, she always said no.

But then one day, and that day was blue

Came someone who didn’t ask at all

And he went and hung his hat on the nail in my little attic

And what happened then I can’t quite recall.

And as he had got no money

And was not a nice chap

And his Sunday shirts, even, were not like snow

And as he had no idea of treating a girl with due respect

I could not tell him: No. …………

Oh, the moon was shining clear and bright

Oh, the boat kept drifting downstream all that night

That was how it simply had to go.

Off and on he wrote what he called ‘Psalms’, evocative prose pieces that read like chants:

Evenings by the river in the dark heart of the bushes I see her face again sometimes, face of the woman I loved: my woman, who is dead now.

It was many years ago and at times I no longer know anything about her, once she was everything, but everything passes.

And she was in me like a little juniper on the Mongolian steppes, concave, with a pale yellow sky and great sadness. ………..

The 22-year-old Brecht puts on paper his last memories of his mother in a tender little haiku-like poem that could well be a song:

And when she was finished they laid her in earth

Flowers growing, butterflies juggling over her …

She, so light, barely pressed the earth down

How much pain it took to make her as light as that!

Brecht jotted down some lines that were later to be chiselled into the magnificent Of Poor B.B., which begins thus:

I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.

My mother moved me into the cities

As I lay inside her. And the coldness of the forests

Will be inside me till my dying day.

A speeding train on a dark night must have seemed to the 24-year-old Brecht  the perfect symbol of Weimar Germany – tentative, transient, even unreal.

In the grey light before morning, the pine trees piss

And their vermin, the birds, raise their twitter and cheep.

At that hour in the city I drain my glass, then throw

The cigar butt away and worriedly go to sleep.

Of those cities will remain what passes through them, the wind!

The house makes glad the eater: he clears it out.

We know that we’re only tenants, provisional ones

And after us will come: nothing worth talking about.

Memorably, this scepticism merges with the moral ambivalence of nowhere land:

In the earthquakes to come, I very much hope

I shall keep my cigar alight, embittered or no.

I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities

From the black forests inside my mother long ago.

The long years in exile produced poems of several different kinds, including such quatrains as:

This, then, is all. It’s not enough, I know.

At least I’m still alive, as you may see.

I’m like the man who took a brick to show

How beautiful his house used once to be.


In the dark times

Will there be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing

About the dark times.

Or the tongue-in-cheek epigram written while in Los Angeles:

Every day, to earn my daily bread

I go to the market where lies are bought


I take up my place among the sellers.

In his poetry as much as in his plays, Brecht was in his element in irony, as witness this laconic account of a friendly Encounter with the poet Auden:

Lunching me, a kindly act

In an alehouse, still intact

He sat looming like a cloud

Over the beer-sodden crowd.

And kept harping with persistence

On the bare fact of existence

I.e, a theory built around it

Recently in France propounded.

Talking about irony and satire, though Brecht was an icon of the communist East German state and was awarded by the Soviet Union the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954, he famously lampooned the authoritarian state in poems such as The Solution:

After the uprising of the 17th June

The Secretary of the Writers’ Union

Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinalle

Stating that the people

Had forfeited the confidence of the government

And could win it back only

By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect another?

And yet, even in his last few years when his dramatic output had thinned considerably and he kept returning to poetry, the dominant themes were not built around cynicism or hopelessness. He again wrote lyrical poetry, evocative, often wistful:

And I was old, and I was young at moments

Was old at daybreak, young when darkness came

And was a child recalling disappointments

And an old man forgetting his own name.

Well after his death in 1956, the editors of the excellent Methuen collection note, “Brecht the poet remained like an unsuspected time-bomb ticking away beneath the engine-room of world literature”. It may well have been so, but it had not been possible even for Bertolt Brecht to hold back from the world’s view his most consummate achievement as poet, the incomparable To Those Born Later, written in exile in Denmark:

Truly, I live in dark times!

The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead

Suggests a hard heart. The man who laughs

Has simply not yet had

The terrible news.

What kind of times are these, when

To speak of trees is almost a crime

Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

That man there calmly crossing the street

Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends

Who are in need? ………..

I came to the cities in a time of disorder

When hunger reigned there.

I came among men in a time of revolt

And I revolted with them

So passed my time

Which on earth was granted me.  …….

You who will emerge from the flood

In which we have gone under


When you speak of our failings

The dark time too

Which you have escaped.

For we went, changing countries oftener than our shoes

Through the wars of the classes, despairing

When there was injustice only, and no resistance.

And yet we knew only too well

Even the hatred of meanness

Contorts our features.

Anger, even against injustice,

Makes our voice hoarse. Oh, we

Who wished to lay the foundation of kindness

Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when at last it comes to pass

That man can help his fellow man,

Do not judge us

Too harshly.

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Tribute to a Mother …

Posted on May 21, 2018. Filed under: Great Writing, Personalities |

That ‘Maverick’ Shashi Tharoor – on his Mother –

My mother just bought a new car. It is a gleaming red Nissan Micra, and she proudly drove it to the temple to get it blessed before journeying to the market and bank. Nothing exceptional about any of this—except that she is 82.

I have been pleading with her for years to get a full-time driver, but to no avail. She relishes her independence. A couple of years ago, she finally agreed to hire a driver for her frequent four-hour drives from Kochi to her tharavadu veedu (ancestral home) in Palakkad district.

But for shorter trips, she prefers to be behind the wheel, not in the back seat.

She also stubbornly refuses to hire full-time domestic help. She cooks, cleans and entertains guests. Yes, a maid comes in for an hour a day to scour the dishes and mop the floors, but that’s it. Self-reliance is my mother’s mantra. She doesn’t like depending on others’ help.

My sisters live abroad. My mother lives alone. In recent years, I have begged and pleaded with her to move in with me, but she declines. She comes for a few weeks at a time and gets restless. She likes being in control, enjoys her routine and her neighbours. She regularly phones a wide circle of friends and relatives.

She reads incessantly and borrows books from a circulating book club. She admits she feels lonely, but that has been the case since my father, a larger-than-life dynamo, passed away a quarter of a century ago at 63.

Her antidote to boredom is the internet. She is a tireless emailer and browser of articles, which she forwards widely. Recently, she has discovered WhatsApp and is unremitting when it comes to passing on morning greetings, trending videos, and, occasionally, ‘fake news’.

In her time anything that appeared in print was reliable, and she extends the same credulity to what she reads on the internet. But offline, her scepticism is her shield.

My mother and I have not always had the easiest of relationships. What mother and son do? I know my personal and professional journeys have challenged her. And, as I know too well, she is a direct, no-nonsense woman.

She can be charming if she wants, but generally does not waste time on pleasantries. When others feel the whiplash of her tongue, I shrug apologetically: “Welcome to the club.”

Growing up, I often felt that nothing I did was good enough for my mother. She had the highest expectations of me, which meant she never allowed me the luxury of self-satisfaction. She never congratulated me on my prizes or distinctions; they were expected, nothing more.

The result was that she drove me to excellence. She drove me, too, to debate and quiz competitions, to All India Radio to participate in children’s programmes, and to act in school plays. As the mother of two beautiful daughters, she pressed them to enter the Miss Calcutta contest in 1979. One sister won, the other was first runner-up. My mother expected nothing less.

My mother is multi-talented, but does not stay focused for long. She sings beautifully, but is untrained. A music director who heard her at a party once called her for an audition, but she chose an unwisely high-pitched song and, unused to the studio’s sound system, screeched herself out of a playback career.

She has tried pottery and ceramics. Every visitor to my home is awestruck by a Ganesh she painted on glass in the Thanjavur style, and yet she has given up painting. I dedicated my 2001 novel, Riot, to her: “tireless seeker who taught me to value her divine discontent”.

Still, she can be determined when she has something to prove. After my father passed away, she single-handedly built a house in the Coimbatore suburbs, overcoming innumerable obstacles, and named it for her childhood home. Her point made—that she could do it—she sold it thereafter.

She disapproved of my entering politics, and prays regularly that I quit and return to what she sees as respectability. But, she has queued up to vote for me each time, and when I faced a particularly tough race in 2014, gamely climbed onto my campaign wagon to show her solidarity and support.

She goes on vacations with her septuagenarian friends, pays tribute annually to Sai Baba’s samadhi at Puttaparthi and travels widely solo. She embodies the principle that you are only as old as you allow yourself to feel.

As she confidently soldiers on in her 80s, with two titanium knees, both eyes surgically freed of cataracts, but refusing to surrender to age, I feel an admiration welling up for her that I have rarely been able to express before. I grew up thinking of my mother as critical and temperamental.

But, I failed to see the steel beneath signs of her insecurity, brought on by the ill-health of an improvident husband.. Her strength in coping with such an early bereavement, independence of mind and body, faith in herself and determination to face life on her own are an extraordinary lesson.

I am lucky to have a mother who sets such an amazing example. Happy Mother’s Day, Mummy.


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Macaulay’s Best …

Posted on October 25, 2017. Filed under: Books, Great Writing, Personalities, The English |

Lays of Ancient Rome, a series of very popular poems about heroic episodes in Roman history which Macaulay composed in India and published in 1842.

The most famous of them, Horatius, concerns the heroism of Horatius Cocles. It contains the oft-quoted lines:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?”

PS As a rival you might enjoy

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‘Afterwards’ by Capt Cyril Morton Horne …

Posted on June 3, 2017. Filed under: From a Services Career, Great Writing, Searching for Success |

Beautiful lines by an Irish Officer from ‘Songs of the Shrapnel Shell.’

In the Afterwards, when I am dead,
I want no flowers over my head.
But if Fate and the Gods are kind to me
They’ll send me a Sikh half Company
To sweeten my sleep, when I am dead.
To fire three volleys over my head
 And these are the words they will write for me –
“Here endeth a Fool’s Philosophy!”
 Some shall sneer, some shall sigh,
Yet I shall not hear them as there I lie,
 For this is the Law of Lover and Friend –
That all joy must finish – all feelings end.
 Many will laugh but Some will weep,
I shall not know as I lie asleep;
A worn-out body, a dried-up crust;
Ashes to ashes and Dust to Dust!
 And they’ll drink a toast up there in the Mess,
“Here’s to a friend who is no more!”
 Music and talk, for a while, shall cease
As my Brothers drink to their Brother’s Peace.
 And the Sikhs, once my own, shall say
“Who rode with us now rides alone!”
And leaning over the grave they’ll sigh –
“Sahib Margaye … Ki jai, Ki Jai!”
And I, who so loved them one and all
Shall stir no more at the Bugle call,
But another Sahib shall ride instead
At the head of my Sikhs, when I am dead.
And this thought which hurts me so,
Shall cease to trouble me when I go.
My chestnut charger, Mam’selle,
She was fleet of foot and I loved her well!
Shall nibble the grass above my head
Unknowing that the one she loved is dead.
 Someone – my Horse or my Company
Shall fail to smile at the comedy;
But strive to reason yet fail to guess
That Life is little and Death is less!
And they shall sorrow over my space
Till somebody comes to fill my place;
But all their sorrow, grief and pain,
Shall be expended upon me in vain!
And you – if you read this my epitaph –
Harden your heart and I pray you, laugh!
But if you would deal with me tenderly
Place one dew-kissed violet over me;
I claim not this and I ask no more,
Yet – this was the flower that Someone wore
in the dead yesterdays that have gone before.
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Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’ …

Posted on March 23, 2017. Filed under: Eloquence, Great Writing, Searching for Success |

The poem is “about universal aspirations” and improving ourselves and is a great source of inspiration and motivation.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

PS  Rabindranath Tagore was an admirer of Tolstoy’s humanism. However according to Tagore, “Everything about Tolstoy is filled with strength and energy and violence!”
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The Young Winston Churchill on Islam ….

Posted on December 18, 2014. Filed under: Books, Great Writing, Personalities | Tags: , , , |

Islam is noted for many things – among which are its ferocity as well as wide following. Edward Gibbon has covered it very well and we have a few posts from his work .Here is however the young Winston Churchill in an extract from his book, “The River War”.

“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries!
Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy.

The effects are apparent in many countries, improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce,  and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live.

A degraded sensualist deprives this life of its grace and refinement, the next of its dignity and sanctity.

The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.

Individual Muslims may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.

Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step.
Were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of
modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome ”

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Best Case for Commensurate Pay for Defense Services …

Posted on June 21, 2013. Filed under: From a Services Career, Great Writing, Guide Posts, Indian Thought, Personalities |

We need a permanent solution to the tussle over emoluments so that the armed forces need only confront the enemies of the nation, says TR Ramaswami, IAS.
In the continuing debate on pay scales for the armed forces, there has to be a serious and transparent effort to ensure that the country is not faced with an unnecessary civil-military confrontation. .
This country requires the best armed forces, the best police and the best civil service. In fact that is what the British ensured.. By best one means that a person chooses which service he wants as per his desires/capabilities and NOT based on the vast differential in prospects in the various services.
How much differential is there?
Take Maharashtra, one of the most parsimonious with police ranks thus still retaining some merit. The 1981 IPS batch have become 3-star generals, the 1987 are 2-star and the 1994 have 1-star.
In the army the corresponding years are 1972, 1975, 1979.  i.e. a differential of 10-15 years. While the differential is more with the IAS, the variance with the IPS is all the more glaring because both are uniformed services and the grades are “visible” on the shoulders.
First some general aspects. Only the armed forces are a real profession where you rise to the top only by joining at the bottom.
We have had professors of economics become Finance Secretaries or even Governors of RBI. We have any number of MBBSs, engineers, MBAs in the police force though what their qualifications lend to their jobs is a moot point. You can join at any level in the civil service, except Cabinet Secretary. A civil servant can move from Animal Husbandry to Civil Aviation to Fertiliszrs to Steel to yes, unfortunately, even to Defense.
But the army never asks for Brigade Commanders or a Commandant of the Army War College or even Director General Military Intelligence, even from RAW or IB. Army officers can and have moved into organizations like IB and RAW but it is never the other way round. MBBS and Law graduates are only in the Medical or JAG Corps and do nothing beyond their narrow areas.
Every Army Chief – in any army – has risen from being a commander of a platoon to company to battalion to brigade to division to corps to army.
Next, one must note the rigidity and steep pyramid of the army’s rank structure. In the civil services any post is fungible with any grade based on political expediency and the desires of the service. For example I know of one case where one department downgraded one post in another state and up-graded one in Mumbai just to enable someone continue in Mumbai after promotion!
You can’t fool around like this in the armed forces. A very good Brigadier cannot be made a Major-General and continue as brigade commander. There has to be a clear vacancy for a Major General and even then there may be others better than him. Further the top five ranks in the army comprise only 10% of the officer strength. Contrast this with the civil services where entire batches become Joint Secretaries!
Even the meaning of the word “merit” is vastly different in the army and the civil services. Some years back an officer of the Maharashtra cadre claimed that he should be the Chief Secretary as he was first in the merit list.
Which merit list? At the time of entry more than 35 years before? The fact is that this is how merit is decided in the IAS and IPS. Every time a batch gets promoted the inter-se merit is still retained as at the time of entry. In other words if you are first in a batch at the time of entry, then as long as you get promoted, you continue to remain first! This is like someone in the army claiming that he should become chief because he got the Sword of Honor at the IMA.
Even a Param Vir Chakra does not count for promotion.
In the armed forces, merit is a continuous process – each time a batch is promoted the merit list is redrawn according to your performance in all the previous assignments with additional weightage given not only to the last one but also to your suitability for the next one. Thus if you are a Brigade Commander and found fit to become a Major General, you may not get a division because others have been found better to head a division. That effectively puts an end to your promotion to Lt General.
The compensation package must therefore address all the above issues. In each service, anyone must get the same total compensation by the time he reaches the ‘mode rank’ of his service. “Mode” is a statistical term ie the value where the maximum number of variables fall.
In the IAS normally everyone reaches Director and in the IPS it is DIG. In the army, given the aforementioned rank and grade rigidities and pyramidal structure, the mode rank cannot exceed Colonel. Thus a Colonel’s gross career earnings (not salary scales alone) must be at par with that of a Director. But remember that a Colonel retires at 54, but every babu from peon to Secretary at 60 – regardless of performance.
Further, it takes 18-20 years to become a Colonel whereas in that time an IAS officer reaches the next higher grade of Joint Secretary, which is considered equal to a Major General.
These aspects and others – like postings in non-family stations – must be addressed while fixing the overall pay scales of Colonel and below. Thereafter, a Brigadier will be made equal to a Joint Secretary, a Major-General to an Additional Secretary and a Lt General to a Secretary. The Army Commanders deserve a new rank – Colonel General – and should be above a Secretary but below Cabinet Secretary.
The equalization takes place at the level of Cabinet Secretary and Army Chief.
If this is financially a problem I have another solution. Without increasing the armed forces’ scales, reduce the scales of the IAS and IPS till they too have 20% shortage!  Done?
Even India ‘s corruption index will go down.
If the above is accepted in principle, there is a good case to review the number of posts above Colonel. Senior ranks in the armed forces have become devalued with more and more posts being created.
But the same pruning exercise is necessary in the IAS and more so in the IPS, where Directors General in some states are re-writing police manuals (one is doing Volume I and another Volume II!
Further the civil services have such facilities as “compulsory wait” basically a picnic at taxpayers cost. And if you are not promoted or posted where you don’t want to go they seem able to take off on leave with much ease. In the army you will be court-martialled. Also find out how many civil servants are on study leave. The country cannot afford this.
Let not someone say that the IAS and IPS exams are tougher and hence the quality of the officers better. An exam at the age of 24 has to be tougher than one at the age of 16. The taxpaying citizen is not interested in your essay/note writing capabilities or whether you know Cleopatra’s grandfather.
As a citizen I always see the army being called to hold the pants of the civil services and the police and never the other way round. That’s enough proof as to who is really more capable.
Also recall the insensitive statements made by the IG Meerut in the Aarushi case and the Home Secretary after the blasts.
Further, when the IAS and IPS hopefuls are sleeping, eating and studying, their school mates, who have joined the army, stand vigil on the borders to make it possible for them to do so. Remember that the armed forces can only fight for above-the table-pay. They can never compete with the civil services and definitely not with the police for the under the table variety. 
Finally, there is one supreme national necessity : The political class  better become more savvy on matters relating to the armed forces. Till then they are at the mercy of the civil service, who frequently play their own little war games. At ministerial level there are some very specialized departments – Finance, Railways, Security (Home), Foreign and Defense – where split second decisions are necessary. It is always possible to find netas savvy in finance, foreign relations and railways. Security has been addressed in getting a former IPS officer as NSA at the level of a MoS.
It is time that a professional is also brought into the Defense Ministry as MoS! The sooner the better. In fact this will be better than a CDS because the armed forces will have someone not constrained by the Army Act or Article 33, of the Constitution.
Of course the loudest howls will come from the babus. The netas must realize that a divide and rule policy cannot work where the country’s security is concerned. Recall 1962?
Our army, already engaged in activities not core to their functions, including rescuing babies from borewells  apart from national calamities, should not have to engage in civil wars over their pay scales.
I only hope our Defense Minister or anyone who would take a reasonable stand for defense forces ever gets to see this article. It would definitely affect any person with an iota of integrity.


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A Prayer …

Posted on June 21, 2013. Filed under: Great Writing, Guide Posts, Searching for Success |

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 

Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as how it should be; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will;

That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next. Amen.

–Reinhold Niebuhr

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