COBALT BLUE, a novel by Sachin Kundalkar

The first thing that drew me to this novel was the fact that the author is a reader of Paul Auster- having read nearly everything Auster has written, I’ve often contemplated how an Indian novel with an Austeresque theme would turn out; and incidentally, the novel is set in Pune-a city I lived in for many years before moving to the States-furthering my interest in the book.

Then the plot- a brother and sister falling in love with the same man- is as daring as it is bizarre; daring not because it is a novel about homosexuality set in a culture that’s predominantly homophobic but because it offers a fresh perspective, a window into the life of an otherwise traditional Maharashtrian family profoundly altered by coincidence [a recurring theme in all of Auster’s works].

The book is divided into two parts; the first [and more interesting] part is Tanay’s story, his account of loving the paying guest who remains nameless till the end. The second is Anuja’s story; her cathartic recollections of the mysterious painter who eventually breaks her heart, as he does, her brother’s.  

Sometimes, a common memory is resurrected in both parts, serving to corroborate the characters’ recollections-for instance, both Tanay and Anuja remember an early memory of the paying guest offering change for the Auto; a quotidian event that the author makes significant by having his characters remember it. Another incident involves the painter waving a bra at the girl’s hostel opposite- it’s only when reading Anuja’s story do we learn that the bra is hers; more than risqué humor, I think the author was trying to reinforce the painter’s image as someone who is above prudish conventions, who isn’t embarrassed by acting in a way that’s usually embarrassing for others.

The author’s genius, in my opinion, is in his portrayal of the grief of one sibling versus the grief of the other; while both brother and sister are heartbroken, Tanay’s seems to be the greater injury; this because his suffering is surreptitious- also, the author appears to suggest that societal disapproval in his case, the queerness of it, would be more pronounced compared to the disapproval his sister met with. Another masterstroke by the author is in keeping the sister ignorant of not just her brother’s sexuality, but also the fact that he is her rival. When Anuja assumes that Tanay is depressed because of his concern for her, the author goes to show how easily we take feelings for granted; that her brother was grieving not for her but for her lover was inconceivable to Anuja.

Like Auster’s stories, Cobalt Blue preserves its mysteriousness, leaving me with many questions- strictly speaking, the painter can be seen as cheating on the siblings but given his bohemian nature, his refusal to be stereotyped on the basis of caste as portrayed in the beginning of the novel, I think it’s safe to assume he was, in his mind, free of guilt.  In fact it seemed inevitable that he should leave, that he should possess the will to escape the contempt that familiarity breeds. The title of the novel itself is encountered first through Tanay: “yesterday, when a cobalt blue smudge of the wall ended up in my hand, I wiped it on my trousers without thinking”-the novel also ends with the words “deep-blue water” into which Anuja takes a dive.

Thanks to Jerry Pinto’s excellent translation from the Marathi, Cobalt Blue is an accessible, unique novel by an author I look forward to reading in the years to come.


Man and Animals-Yuri Dmitriyev


Published in Moscow by Raduga in 1984, translated from the Russian into English by Raissa Bobrova, “Man and Animals” is an out-of-print book on man’s relationship with animals through the ages. I recently spotted the unforgettable cover featuring a giraffe, a sea serpent or kraken, a mythical Arabian Nights type bird (Rukh) carrying an elephant, a schooner, a butterfly and an anachronistic helicopter, on an Ebay listing for “Rare and antiquarian literature”. Though I was tempted to buy it, the book wasn’t cheap at thirty dollars. A brief search later, I found it on Amazon for four dollars and it is now sitting on my bookshelf, between a Harry Potter and a Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Like many Russian titles from the Soviet Era, the author remains largely mysterious; is he a zoologist, a wild life writer or just someone who happens to love animals? The back cover is blank, except for a small sticker in the bottom left that has the letters, “Imported Publications” on it with an Illinois address underneath. In this post-glasnost era, there still exists a limited market for Soviet relics, including Fairy Tale Books, Matryoshka dolls, communist propaganda and other items that are slowly vanishing into obscurity. As a result, thousands of excellent Russian books on a variety of subjects from Mathematics to Culture have been relegated to flotsam after a wreckage.

russianbook2041 Next to an outline of a sea populated by even more fantastic creatures, the author gives a brief description and I am quoting from it :

One book is not really enough to tell about the many different relationships between Man and animals. Nor have I tried to embrace the subject in its entirety. I wrote this book for children, striving, above all, to make them understand how important it is to know, love and protect animals”.

Indeed, the author’s passion is manifest on every page. In lucid prose, he brings together history, zoology and anthropology, re-iterating how dependent man has been on animals for survival. Almost encyclopedic in scope, the book is rich in content, including in its pages prehistoric cave paintings, animal legends, Gerald Durell, Martha-the last passenger pigeon, the coelacanth and numerous black and white photographs, drawings and reproductions so that even if a child was reluctant to read, it could spend hours staring at the pictures, like I once did.

russianbook044-1 russianbook042


Polemics and religion


dsouza Dr.Naik


I am sure there are innumerable zealots but I would like to focus on a Muslim gentleman called Dr.Zakir Naik and a Christian writer named Dinesh D’Souza; while both these men are more or less equally despicable for their religious dogma, the former has a more modest aim of altering current perceptions about Islam  (often at the cost of grossly misrepresenting the truth) and the latter, the grander ambition of totally repudiating atheism or in other words, making a strong case for God.

Dr.Naik, hails from Bombay and has lived there all his life; Mr.D’Souza on the other hand migrated to the United States from Bombay when he was 16. Sporting the traditional beard and cap of Islam, Dr.Naik is a lean man who is old enough to be taken seriously though far too young to be considered senile. Mr.Dsouza is a not unimpressive looking man who, though older, appears younger than Dr.Naik by a few years owing to the absence of a beard. Both men are impeccably dressed, dusky in complexion and are passionate about their respective religions. Dr.Naik unabashedly wears religion on his sleeve while Mr.D’Souza has the  semblance of an academician. As speakers, both men are endowed with tremendous oratorical skills but their approaches to seducing their audiences are essentially different in that Dr.Naik’s speeches are rife with simplistic analogies and inaccuracies of politics and religion while Mr.D’Souza’s debates are sophisticated polemics that make a significant departure from the tiring mumbo jumbo that fanatics usually spill out.

These zealots use different mediums to propagate their views : Dr.Naik is the founder, president and the chief voice of a network called “Peace TV” that is aired throughout the world; Mr.D’Souza is a New York Times best selling author of books like “What is so great about America” and “What is so great  about Christianity” that support his conservative stance. 

Mr.D’Souza’s  systematic approach to laying out the virtues of Christianity, his interpretations of Western Philosophy on religion and his refusal to resort to scriptures to score points might have earned him the admiration of his critics, who mostly hail from intellectual circles and/or are members of the left. Frequently alluding to Nietzsche, Kant, Hume and others, Mr.D’Souza hopes to defeat atheism on its own grounds by exposing its inherent metaphysical assumptions. Though originally from India, his accent is indicative of how long he has been in his adopted homeland, fully embracing its conservative mores. His enemies are the enemies of the political right. He offers a controversial interpretation for the poverty of African Americans and blames 9/11 on leftists. Strong as his arguments may be, under all the sophistry of language, masterful intonation and knowledge is the heart of a person who puts faith before science, religion before humanity. Shrewd enough to be politically correct most of the time, he doesn’t openly support creationism being taught in schools but he is a creationist nevertheless and is opposed to Darwinism.

Dr.Naik, whose quackery apparently extends beyond medicine, offers his nostrums to listeners who are willingly deluded. His target is not the learned scholar or the occasional intellectual but the average citizen who neither knows the art of rhetoric nor the mechanics of argument; to such a person, an out-of-context quote or half-baked research seems impressive enough to qualify as truth. To bolster the drivel he dishes out so eloquently, Dr.Naik operates under a veneer of feigned modesty and false erudition. As a result, the audience experiences a mass epiphany akin to something spiritual and they revere him for the startling answers he offers to age old questions and quarrels such as vegetarianism vs. meat and monogamy vs. polygamy. Although some of his answers may not be entirely ridiculous, they are trivial when compared to the flippant evidence he lays out to “prove” historical riddles and put to rest conspiracy theories; most deceptive of all, when someone from the audience questions him, he reaches into his tool box for the nuts and bolts he needs to tighten his loose arguments, conjuring them up when they don’t exist.

All said and done, having people like these makes life interesting. Dogma aside, these men provide an impetus for atheism to re-assert itself. To give the devils their due, Dr.Naik’s lectures have, on occasion, attacked loose statements like “Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims”. While he tries to cast Islam in a new light, which is commendable, Dr.Naik takes a dig at other religions, faiths and practices bringing out the fanatic in him.  Mr.D’Souza’s speeches on the other hand reveal a superior orator willing to battle it out till the end, using every subterfuge of language and logic known to him. He may not understand string theory but he is confident enough to make you believe he does. Great talkers as they are, it must be remembered that these are also men who would consign the non-believer to hell without thinking for a second.


Drain Pig And The Glow Boys In Critical Mess – Dan Pearce


Drain Pig is the first and most memorable graphic novel I have ever read and oddly, one nobody has even heard about. When my father delivered it into my hands after chancing upon it in a used book stall in Fountain, Bombay, the black and white cover of the squint eyed porker jutting out of a man hole with a squeamish expression on its face was not very impressive. A round badge pinned to its shirt had the words, “Nuclear Power? No Thanks” curved around a smiling sun. With little exposure to anything outside the usual range of comics about Super Heroes, Folk Tales or American High school, the strong political message, dark humor, mordant satire and bleak existence portrayed in Drain Pig, the debut work of British cartoonist Dan Pearce, presented a startling revelation to my 11 years of relatively sheltered upbringing.


My first encounter with the graphic novel strangely coincided with my own entry into adolescence, a wretched time when my body was undergoing transformations that I was struggling to accept. Even otherwise, it was one of the most miserable periods of my life as I was new to the city of Bombay (though I was born there), imprisoned in a concrete jungle and innocent to the vulgarity of my peers. Coming from a slower, less-noxious part of the country, the city was to me a museum of horrors : Public displays of desperation on beaches upon whose sands infinite quantities of plastic bags and feces were deposited in the morning after the tide’s withdrawal. I was never enthusiastic about attending school but the school I was in back then was a veritable mad-house with a psychotic principal who enjoyed barging into the class room to impart jaw-breaking slaps to anyone who wasn’t in his bench and nauseatingly boring bench mates with whom I seldom conversed. To add to the repression, it was an only-boys school, another thing I wasn’t used to . On the other hand, the kids in my building were smart asses who were better than me at everything. In the torment and confusion of those days, I could, in some way, relate to the brutal world of Drain Pig, the terrible injustice done to an animal whose only mistake was to have been born intelligent. My grudge on the other hand, was to have been born dumb.

Having said why the book means a lot to me, I’m providing a summary :

In the first illustration, we are shown the back of a woman, wearing high heels in all likelihood, (the author’s “TIC TAC TIC TAC” tells us that), as she walks along a street that seems to be up-slope during some ungodly hour with cars parked on sidewalks next to box-shaped buildings suggesting that the district is commercial. In the following sections, a man hole cover opens and a pig’s head pops out.

dp2The solitary figure on the road is visible now-a portly middle-aged woman with a fur coat wrapped around her, carries a handbag : She appears strikingly bourgeoisie, has a cigar-shaped nose, thick lips and make-up on her face. The pig, now fully outside the drain, the initials “DP” stitched into the back of his shirt, affectionately lunges at the shocked woman as he calls her “M-M-Mummy!”. While the woman proceeds to beat the shit out of our protagonist with her hand bag, their sounds attract a policeman who gallantly comes to the rescue of the lady by giving DP a whack on his skull with a baton. The policeman’s words – “Gotcha this time drain pig…” indicate that Drain Pig has been a wanted felon even before this incident. Drain pig gets thrown into the cooler and the gallant policeman drives the lady, whose name happens to be Mrs.Hunt, to her opulent house.

At this point, the question looming in the reader’s mind is what is the relationship between DP and this woman? Is there anything at all or does “Mummy” have no significance? The author, departing from the traditional story line, chooses to explore the roots of this relationship through flashback later on.

The main characters in the graphic novel are Drain Pig and Mag, an upcoming reporter who works for a rag. Although fundamentally different beings, their destinies eventually inter-twine as the Nuclear Plant Mag is investigating turns out to be annexed to a high security jail where Drain Pig is locked up with other convicts for being a constant source of trouble to previous jailers. These convicts, called Glow Boys, are treated relatively better than in their previous correctional facility, as they perform the highly dangerous job of changing leaky reactors.

The secret of Drain Pig’s origin is revealed when Mag, who is Mrs.Hunt’s daughter, visits her parents. Being a reporter, she covers the court hearing where her Mother testifies against Drain Pig. Refusing her mother’s story, Mag pushes Mrs.Hunt for the truth till she eventually tells Mag how she was working as a servant for a Professor who kept pigs as a hobby when one day he discovers an intelligent piglet whom he teaches to speak and christens “Danny”. Being an old man, the professor fears for Danny’s future and entrusts his wealth to Mrs.Hunt stipulating on the will that she be responsible for Danny. Once the Professor dies, Mrs.Hunt feels increasingly embarrassed to care for a pig and in a fit of rage, flushes Danny down the toilet awakening his love for sewers. Mag, with her sense of integrity, is appalled by this story of her mother and decides to fight for Danny.

As the meeting between Danny and Mag draws to a close, we encounter several interesting characters and critters : Judge Strangeways with a penchant for kinky at Madame Fifi’s correctional establishment,


Mag’s repulsive editor- Kevin Grit of “The Daily Dross”, Bernie- a peace camp member who apparently designed the power plant and whom his assistant Sophie calls “ a real Buckminster, Fuller Freak”, mutant crabs, Fingers-Danny’s best friend who turns blind after a dose of radiation, Mr.Hunt-Mag’s moronic father, Robinson-the unscrupulous manager of the power plant and his naive, alcoholic colleague, Walt.

Mr.Pearce’s extraordinary illustrations are incisive in capturing twisted expressions of sadism and in creating an utterly believable atmosphere of despondency, corruption and apathy, overflowing with satirical brilliance . At the same time, they provide glimpses of rare innocence, such as in the defeated character of Fingers , in crusaders like Bernie fighting losing battles and in the intense longing for freedom in Danny’s eyes.

But the real horror in the graphic novel that matched the horror strewn on the beach every morning in Bombay was in the depiction of Mag’s dream as she dozes off reading a book titled “Nuclear Nightmare”


where she encounters glow boys, hordes of mutant crabs inching towards her and Danny the Drain Pig, who safely lifts away her naked body only to drop her into the polluted sea. This, for me, is where the book transcended fiction as the pollution of Pearce’s Sizemould Bay was metaphorical of everything happening in my life at that time.


Note: You can reach Dan at dan@mirandan.com

His website is http://www.mirandan.com/

I have a copy of the rare book with me and will soon be uploading it on ISSU.


Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth




Barry Unsworth’s epic tale of greed and suffering centers around two men in the eighteenth century- Matthew Paris, a doctor aboard The Liverpool Merchant- a slave ship bound for America and his cousin, Erasmus Kemp, landlocked in a Victorian romance that eventually leads to the latter’s emotional downfall. Through The Merchant, the author explores the ghastly triangular trade where baubles are bartered for slaves along the West Coast of Africa en route to the new world, and re-bartered for goods that would be sold in England completing the somber triangle. The title, Sacred Hunger, is as profound as it is original; just as profit is sacred to those who strive for it, so is the drive that impels them, the hunger which finds a dark apotheosis in this brilliant work that in its essence raises philosophical questions much like Camus’ The Stranger.  


Few characters in modern literature evoke the degree of terror and brutality as that of the captain of the vessel-Thurso, a shrewd and merciless reprobate greatly feared by his crew. Paris, the slaver’s doctor on the other hand is in strong contrast to Thurso, as a man remarkably enlightened for the century and era he was born into. The Doctor’s reason for embarking on such a calamitous voyage aboard The Liverpool Merchant that had little monetary benefits to offer is steeped in tragedy. For him, it was less a perilous adventure than escape from a land where his happiness was impossible. No stranger to suffering himself, one cannot help but be touched by the good Doctor’s genuine empathy towards the slaves eventually leading him to make decisions that would change the course of his life forever.


Although sections of Sacred Hunger are vaguely reminiscent of Spielberg’s movie Amistad, the novel is unlike anything ever attempted before in terms of mastery of craft- Unsworth’s words delineate history with enormous detail-from wanton acts of necrophilia to the bourgeois delicacies of English households, nothing ruins this high-wire act across the valley of time; and in terms of plot, it is flawless. Utterly convincing. There are no cheap gimmicks here-not an iota of pretense. Despite everything-the squalor, the abysmal cruelty human beings are capable of, the humiliation of the weak, the triumph of greed; it would be puerile to call this a depressing novel. It is beyond that. Beyond redemption even. A blasphemous rendering of one thoroughly fucked-up time. The novel is nothing short of a work of genius in that the writing measures up to the monumentally difficult task of re-creating a bygone era to an extreme degree of credibility. It would not be an overstatement to say that Sacred Hunger is one of the most ambitious literary resurrections ever attempted.  It is an endeavor that reeks of masterful storytelling entwined with scholarship and a deep understanding of human psychology. Sadly, it remains one of the most underrated works of the 20th century despite being an imaginative tour-de-force.


Trick Or Treat

Today is Halloween. With four days left for the United States Presidential election, anyone can surmise that unless something goes drastically wrong, the conservative right will lose the race. It is evident from the speeches on television that the Republican Party is beginning to feel increasingly desperate. After all, McCain has been outspent and out-endorsed. Colin Powell, Billy Joel, McClellan and Bill Clinton have all fervently expressed their support for Senator Barack Obama.  Does McCain really think that Joe-the-plumber’s voice will be heard against that of these political and cultural heavy weights? Can the American people really lack any sense of discretion? The answer to both these questions, fortunately or unfortunately, is yes.

By using an ordinary middle-class god-fearing white American blue collar worker as a symbol of America’s work force, McCain’s strategy is to win over a majority of the votes from people who are more or less in the same occupational status as Joe. From people who more or less share his love of god and an unabashed sense of pride that supports the reasoning that a citizen of the most powerful country in the world can and should afford to be not-apologetic. To paraphrase Joe, “Why must we be so apologetic dammit! We live in the world’s no.1 country”. Yes, the sad truth is that the no.1 country in the world or at least the people who run it (Guess who? Not Joe-the Plumber, Joe-the CEO) can wreck all the havoc they want wherever they want in the name of patriotism. Or worse still, under the guise of freedom. After eight years of throwing tax-payers money down the proverbial drain, you might think the nation has finally opened its eyes to the truth. You might think that the dawn of realization has finally arrived to awaken the slumbering masses lost in the miasma of deception-it is now more probable for SETI to locate alien signals in space than for the US army to locate any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

And yet, there is a significant section of the population that firmly believes that the war can still be won. Yesterday, Sarah Palin urged her listeners to vote for a candidate who will not shy away from a war that is on the verge of being won. Really, who is she kidding ? The answer is obvious – that significant percentage of the population that is kidding itself.

The United States is at present in an economic crisis; apparently the worst since the great depression. While greedy bankers are largely responsible for the steep decline in interest rates by doling out an excess of sub-prime mortgages, the war on Iraq has no doubt played a major and devastating role in emptying the country’s coffers. And yes Joe, that is one amongst several hundred other reasons why an American must be apologetic. If someone doesn’t understand the language of humanity- a hundred thousand civilians dead, half-a-million children crippled, no food supplies for three hundred miles, no water supply for six months (I am sure Joe understands this part about the water supply at least, he is a plumber after all), speak in the language of money- $2 billion a week. Even Bill Gates cannot afford to finance this war for more than 6 months. A year into the war and he will be on welfare – and you don’t need to take my word for it, ask him yourself. In a recent interview with Larry King, Michael Moore was asked how Obama can manage to stabilize the economy in just 6 months and in a reply that shouldn’t have been surprising at all but nevertheless was as I have rarely heard anyone put it so bluntly; Michael said, “How about stopping the war on Iraq? That is $40 Billion an year”. If only all voters thought as rationally as Mr. Moore. But many of them are in fact so stupid that John McCain and Sarah Palin are counting on it. They are depending on every cross-carrying, cheeseburger-chewing yank to fall for their lack-luster, dressed-up policies. People slip into costumes on Halloween. Policies slip into costumes every day.

The most important question looming over this nation right now is whether the people of America will be tricked or treated on the 4th of November. Assume a scenario, however hellish it might be, where John McCain and Sarah Palin make it to the White House. There are two obvious consequences. 1. The War on Iraq continues.   2. Greed flourishes unchecked. Less obvious is the fact that this nation will lose, from what we know so far,  an eminent leader unlike any seen in the history of America. And I am not talking about race here although Obama’s win will at least set a precedent for an African American (albeit only 50%)  to occupy the highest office of the, no doubt, most powerful nation in the world. Now is it possible to ignore this nagging and utterly unpleasant question about race? The answer is a definite No. It has hardly been 50 years since segregation was the de facto standard in many institutions. And a little more than 50 since Rosa Parks refused to shift seats from the white section of a Montgomery Bus in Alabama to the black section. True, 50 years is a long time in politics and culture. True, America has left the era of segregation long behind. That said, Obama’s presidency will be a brutal and sanctifying slap on the cheek of White supremacist groups (By the way, the KKK site proudly asserts that “We do not endorse Obama”).  Only last week or was it this week, two white supremacists had been arrested for plotting a shoot-out in an African-American school. Eventually, their plan would lead to the assassination of Senator Obama. Now is race an important factor to consider in this presidential race?  Consider that a rhetorical question.

Focusing again on Michael Moore’s interview with Larry King, Moore asked a great question. “Even if he (Obama) is a Muslim, how does it matter?”.  Surely, it shouldn’t matter to a country that has separated state and religion. It seems ridiculous to the utmost degree to assume, especially in this case, that Obama’s supposed Islamic faith might interfere with the interests of America. I said supposed because Obama is an avowed practitioner of Christianity. But even if he were a practicing Muslim, it would be retarded to assume that he is a fundamentalist. Fundamentalism is a religion by itself that parasites on all religions of the world- Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and Christanity. But Palin and McCain are counting on the people’s ignorance of that, aren’t they? Treat that as another rhetorical question.







Remembering MISHA



Back in the 1980s, Misha (which translates to bear in Russian) was the most popular children’s magazine in India published in English. Within its glossy pages, you were treated to folk tales, science fiction, riddles, photographs,


pen pal sections, puzzles and illustrations. As an added bonus, it smelled awfully good. Unfortunately the collapse of the USSR spelled death for many Soviet publishing houses (Raduga, Mir and others) and Misha soon became extinct. For years I searched for magazine back issues in second hand stalls all over Bombay finding a tattered copy every once in a while. Even expert book sellers who run bazaars such as the ones in the Fountain area hadn’t heard of the magazine. In the beginning of 2003, I found a man on the footpath in Dadar T.T. (next to the fly over) selling old novels and as I have a nose that is particularly sensitive to valuable and out-of-print literature, I spotted or rather, sniffed a stack of Mishas containing several issues that had been published through the 80s and 90s.


The moment was, needless to say, exhilarating. At that time I had 120 rupees with me, (roughly the equivalent of 2.5 dollars). I offered the man 100 rupees and he happily gave me the stack without making me resort to haggling. Even If I’d had a 100 dollars, I’d still have given it all to him. The seller had no idea how rare the magazines he was selling were. They were moreover in excellent condition with barely a few creases here and there. No dog eared pages, no silver-fish damage or greasy stains. I really have no idea how much the magazines are worth and don’t plan on ever selling them. For those of you keen on obtaining actual copies, I only have one word of advice- persevere. You never know when you might strike gold. As one of the commentors aptly mentioned, famous second-hand book sellers may not have the rare gems decaying in smaller, more perishable establishments. Before I conclude, I request you to not entreat me to send you a physical copy of the magazine as some have-I do not need your money nor your gifts. Some things just cannot be bought, no matter how trite that sounds.

Update (December 5, 2008) : Thanks to Javi, the Argentinian guy who commented on this post, I will be using ISSUU as a platform for upoading MISHA. It’s fast, convenient and makes for easy reading online by allowing a magazine format. The September 1987 copy is a little tattered as can be seen from the scan. I assure you that most of the other magazines in my possession are in a far better condition considering their age and the abuse wrought on them by the elements of nature and careless vendors.

March 1984: http://issuu.com/arohufish/docs/misha843
September 1987: http://issuu.com/arohufish/docs/misha879001

NEW ISSUES AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD FROM https://roshogollabitch.wordpress.com

Sorry it took this long!



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