The World Before Her – A Review

The World Before Her – A Review.

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The World Before Her – A Review

I saw Nisha Pahuja’s critically acclaimed documentary “The World before Her” on Netflix. It is about to release in India this week. It is a powerful and compelling portrait of two extreme opposite ways of life of some women in India. This is a story of two women, who seek identity and direction, in our fast changing yet deeply traditional and patriarchal country. One (Ruhi) is a Miss India pageant contestant, and the other (Prachi), is an aspiring leader and trainer at Durga Vahini  – A religious boot camp for girls by the RSS women’s wing.

Remember, it is a portrait of extremes, and it completely leaves out the large and fast growing section that consists of women who choose education as the vehicle for empowerment, who work in various fields and strive for success, and find a better life. It is not exactly a representative sample of what choices women have in India, and provides insufficient context to a viewer of another country and culture who is not familiar with India’s diverse fabric.

But even then, many of us, women who grew up in or into the middle class can still relate to the stories of Ruhi and Prachi to a great extent. And that is why it hits us hard. Both are shown in an honest and candid light. Their journey will make one sad, but their spirit will make one hopeful at the same time.

I will not elaborate further on Ruhi and Prachi, and will let you make your own judgement as you see and hear about their contrast lives.

But, my heart goes out to the bright young teenage student interviewed at the Durga Vahini camp. She is feisty, intelligent and articulate. She displays amazing confidence and optimism for the future. It is a shame that she learns hate, intolerance and regressive ideas from her teachers who vehemently preach that women should not be educated, and should be married off at the age of 18, otherwise it is hard to ‘tame’ them.

The archaic beliefs from an oppressive era hammered into young impressionable minds are cringe worthy, and disturbing, but not unfamiliar. Ironically, at the same time they are also taught self defense and the camp seems to inculcate discipline, confidence and self esteem – key factors for women’s empowerment.

My heart also went out to the girls in the beauty pageant. They are thinking young women, articulate, confident and ambitious, looking for a future of success, achievement and self worth. Who, at the end are merely reduced to being commodities and paraded like objects so their physical attributes can be measured for commercial utility.

Despite the dichotomy of the two worlds, ironically, it is as if the societal forces collude against reason, and in the battle of oppressive tradition and pseudo-modernism it is the women who lose. It is 2014 and counting…

It is a must see film. Don’t miss it.

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All That I Need

Dear lord, dear nature,
O being of ethereal stature
Give me all that I need
To live, grow and nurture

Clean air to breathe
Some food on my plate
And a mostly sound
Physiological state

A cover from rain
And sun and dirt
Some drops of life
To quench the thirst

So I continue to condition
The flow of my air
Because your atmosphere
Is now beyond repair

I now synthesize
The food that I grow
Its bigger and better
Than your natural store

I now ‘need’ to create
New drinks in plastic
Your water is no longer
As sweet, or fantastic

I am compelled to show
I have much and lot more
Best things, fine clothing
Fast cars, faster gizmos

How else do I fill
My empty spaces?
Or show off my victory to
Friends in high places?

So much is made
There is so much to be had
Who in this world
Do you say is still sad?

Those unfortunate?
Out of sight, out of mind?
Or someone so close
A self, I cant recognize?

Poetmamma wrote for a rhyme and a reason! 😉

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No Country for Women


The last month of last year brought us a dark incident, which triggered a mass reaction. A reaction that questions the very core of our social and cultural being. It is not about the rape of that unknown woman. It was not the first, and sadly it will not be the last of such incidents. This incident has touched each and every individual and family. Even those of us who typically watch such news like outsiders, with indifference. A rape or molestation, is something bad that happens in some other world to someone we don’t know. We are not concerned for it in our day to day, safe, sheltered lives, right? It is something to be read in newspapers, and seen on TV, and rarely, heard in gossip grapevines, and discussed in hushed tones.

But dig a little deeper, and we realize that it is an ugly manifestation of a deep rooted cultural phenomenon, that no one has escaped. Not you, not me, nor any girl or boy who grows up in India. A phenomenon which is close to home, and very personal.

I was stalked as a schoolgirl. I was street harassed innumerable times, when I was a teenager. I am very lucky that I did not have to face anything worse like molestation or rape. But I have grown up in the shadow of that fear, of something terrible happening. The youthful growing years of adolescence, when one is trying to cope with the fast changing environment, and one’s own hormones, and societal expectations covered with this constant fear of the worst, a constant feeling of being unsafe, nagging at the back of the mind.

I was not the only one. Almost every girl I know faced this when growing up in the late eighties and nineties in a small growing city.  Nothing was expressly taught, but as we grew, and experienced harassment, we instinctively learned to ignore the stares of the lechers, lewd comments from strangers on streets, and creepy shadows following behind everywhere.

Society and surroundings offered no assurance against these unpleasant experiences. Instead, we (boys and girls) were fed with an image of an ideal girl from good families that we must conform to. Directly and indirectly the signals we got placed blame and responsibility of any unpleasant happenings on the shoulders of the girl instead. For example, a personal experience comes to mind. Seemingly non-controversial, non serious. But needs to be analyzed for the hidden message it gave me, a child, of impressionable age.

We used to walk to school in a group when in high school. A group of friends, chatting and giggling, going about their lives as girls would do. One fine day, we were reprimanded in school by our teachers for this behavior on the road. For the way we move around in groups, the way we talk loudly when walking on the road, the way we laugh and attract attention, and even for wearing our hair short. Because of this behavior, we were being talked about, and stalked.  Some teacher overheard a group of boys talk about us on the road in a ‘not very nice’ way. This is not what girls in good families do. They put their heads down when walking on the road and do not talk back to “eve teasers”. Behave in such a manner that you don’t attract bad attention.

That incident left me shaken at the time. I did not think of asking the teachers if they confronted, stopped, and counseled the boys who were saying bad things about us? It did give a feeling that it was my fault that I was being stalked and harassed. And so as we should, we trained ourselves to put our heads down and not make eye contact, as a defense mechanism.

I did not confide in my parents at first about the stalking, because of peer pressure, and a weird feeling like I was letting them down. Thankfully, eventually I did, and they took care of the unwanted attention, thus, strengthening my confidence. I was fortunate to have grown up in a healthy environment at home that enabled me to bloom and flourish as a person, in spite of being surrounded by bigotry and such poison outside. I wonder how many were as fortunate?

Simple pleasures like going to the movies, or eating joints, or participating in school and college cultural festivals taught us all innumerable lessons in unpleasant ways. Those who managed to block out, filter out this muck from their minds were the ones who managed to enjoy and gain from this exposure. I wonder how many girls were scared to participate? How many thought it was better to remain invisible, unknown, in the safety of their own “decencies”, than to expose themselves to being ogled, commented upon or talked about? Did we lose many a great singers, artists, dancers or dramatists because of this?

How many young and talented minds were suppressed, driven into shell, without an opportunity to freely explore and express, and learn and grow? Isn’t it a shame that there are generations of women who grew up in this environment? I agree there are many stories of success, of triumph, of women I know who grew up with me and have achieved great heights. But this, unfortunately, is the exception. Not the norm.

Through the growing years, we (boys and girls alike) have been subjected to a lot of propaganda on how a girl should be. How should she behave, what she must do, what she must not do, what constitutes her honor and what defines her limit. We have been brainwashed by teachers, by elders, by media, and by cinema.

The unfortunate thing is, in all this frenzy of raising good girls our society neglected the boys. Nobody told us how boys should be. Broadly, the boys could be identified as one of two kinds in our small conservative town. One kind was the good boys, who would never interact or talk to girls, other kind was the troublemakers. There was no recourse or structure in families, schools, institutions and workplaces that will guide the boys into behavior of compassion towards the opposite sex. A behavior of camaraderie that is mutually beneficial and enriching without any sexual innuendos to it. They were only guided by cinema, media, patriarchal pecking order in their homes and law enforcers to believe in the misconceptions of “true masculinity”. A belief, that led them into thinking that a woman is not a person, but either a goddess, or a symbol of honor for the man/men she is associated with, or an object to be possessed. That the only way to woo her is by stalking and harassing. That when she says no, she actually means yes.

As young children, we watched melodramatic movies, where a molested or raped woman had no other go but to end her life, because it was her honor that was robbed. We were convinced that one has to die, if one was raped. What a twisted and sick mentality this is. There was no other way to know that it is just a heinous act of violence, and that the survivor has the opportunity to heal, and aspire to a normal healthy life.

I am 20-25 years removed from that time today. And I, and many others like me, live in a safe private bubble. A bubble, which we have worked hard to create, a place where we can feel free, liberated and empowered. We survived, and flourished in spite of this environment, by growing up, moving out, and by surrounding ourselves with likeminded people. I wonder how many managed to do that? And how strong is this private bubble which shields us from the reality?

One generation later, things are no different, but uglier. One generation later, it took the sacrifice of a young unnamed woman to stir a delusional society into introspection. Into questioning the ugly reality that has been hounding 50% of its population, through many generations.

I say shame on all of us, young and old, men and women, who at different points engaged in loose talk, tongue wagging and gossip, in blaming and victimizing even further any girl or woman who may have faced physical or emotional abuse. Because of the dress she wore, company she kept or any unfortunate incidents she had to face. Shame on us, who witnessed girls and women being harassed in public spaces, and did nothing about it – other than discussing and finding absurd reasons why she was targeted – like her dress, or her looks, her “free” behavior, or simply the fact that she is out in a public space at a particular time.

Shame on our collective thought process, that first questions what the woman was wearing when she was molested, what was her “reputation”, what was she doing out at that hour, or who was she with, whether she is aware of her “Maryada”, instead of questioning the perpetrator, who made the conscious decision to violate another human being and took the action to actually hurt that person.

Shame on movie makers, entertainers, stars, politicians, law enforcers, and any other public figures who in various ways endorse and encourage misogyny, and mislead the younger generation. Shame on us all who shy away from discussing and addressing this issue in our own public or private lives.

And a hope that things will change for the better, mindsets will change, not just in pockets of private bubbles, but far reaching. Transcending through class and caste, through cities and villages, in India.

Hope this becomes a better country for its women, and hence its men.

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The day of the girl

A flower in the urban wild
A girl? No, it’s just a child,
Dusty, dry, disheveled hair
Practiced expression of despair
Infant cradled in her arms
Grubby palm taps the clean glass
Eyes, defiant, sharp and bright
Almost contradicting her plight
And instinctively,
I avoid her gaze
And move on as usual
Through the traffic maze
It’s the day of the girl, I recall.
As I adjust the AC
And roll up the window
And shut my mind with it.

When I open the news page
Eyes, fierce but thoughtful
Stare back at me
Through screaming headlines
She was shot, they say
For speaking her mind
A brave bud, barely blooming,
Yearning for a humane life
Crushed by delusional zealots
To protect a religion
Or a perverse tradition
A helpless mind, saddens
Then brushes it aside
It’s the day of the girl, I recall.
And close the page.

Then another page opens
And, now I almost laugh
Delusion is an epidemic
Cannot believe it’s not a farce
Marry her off, they say
Marry off the child
She will only then be protected from the wild.
Like a counter argument,
Countless pages open
All over the place
I cannot keep up
With the stories of disgrace
Mobbed, stripped, raped and beaten
Talked and retold, but soon forgotten
Forgotten by the clicks
On videos gone viral
Drowned by the shallow
Statements of officials

My tired mind,
Decides to move on
Searches for signs of a new dawn
And yes, there they are
Like a promise of change
Some stories of medals
And honors in games
Some Inspiring tales of wonder
Sporadic, but definite
With sanity and reason
Some voices do resonate
So I tell myself
I need not despair
Someone else out there
Will act and repair
It’s the day of the girl, after all
And I close the browser pages.
And return to my life
Indifferent, Shielded, Normal.

— Written on (11-Oct-2012) UN: The International Day of the Girl Child

Today, October 11th is declared by United Nations as The International  Day of the Girl Child. Ironically, today the news headlines comprise of the Khaps and politicians advocating marriage at the age of 16 in Haryana, and 14 year old Malala Yousafzai shot by the Taliban.  The mind got thinking. And hence the Poem.

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Rebecca. This was one of the must read books that I had missed reading during my late teens. For a good reason, I think. I can almost see myself not finishing the book at that time. That was the time when one seeks fast moving plots of mystery, and dreamy tales of romance. I also lacked patience to read through long winding paragraphs of meticulously constructed details of surroundings. But now, in my mid thirties, I relished this book like dark chocolate.

“They are not brave, the days when we are twenty one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word. To-day, wrapped in the complacent armour of approaching middle age, the infinitesimal pricks of day by day, brush one, but lightly and are soon forgotten…”

For those who like to read for the love of language, this is like a piece of art. Written in a language so powerful and lucid, that it weaves a four dimensional picture in your mind, and one can almost live the experience. In beautifully crafted visuals of the mystical Manderlay, every little detail captured is almost poetry. Powerful, beautiful, dark and melancholic. It is a masterpiece.

This is a book which one shouldn’t read for the suspense in the plot though. It was written in 1938. Since then, we are used to reading too many extremes of suspense, and watching a lot of creepy stuff for story-lines in movies and TV. So, one must not read it with the expectation of getting shocked or thrilled. Although what I found was that even after the turn of the century, the story captures the same human emotions, same insecurities and fears, same quest of the human mind, and we can very easily relate to it, even today.

The author builds the characters well. The unnamed narrator is young, inexperienced and insecure in her own ways, getting overshadowed and feeling dwarfed by the haunting memory of the magnificent Rebecca. Rebecca – a strong, dark and bold character, gets built in her mind, from bits of information and her own imagination. And all the other characters, and places, create a picture of a bygone era and a different world.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It has all the attributes of a typical classic, and this can become one of those books which is discussed with others and each one can interpret it in their own ways. I had never seen the movie adaptations, both in English and Hindi – (The oldie “Kohra” starring Waheeda Rehman was based on this plot, but I havent seen it.) So for those who have seen them, the experience may become diluted.

And yes, what I found amusing was, that the privileged estate owners of early twentieth century England, had a lot of nothing to do, other than to walk the dog, write letters, and have tea under the chestnut tree!

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The Alchemist

The Alchemist

The Alchemist

Very eagerly, I picked up this book, of which I had heard a lot. It was supposed to be the book to read to give you an insight into how to follow your heart and realize your dreams. It is supposed to take you on a journey into a spiritual dimension. This book inspired  many readers, and has been a bestseller, and one of the fashionable books to discuss!

What I liked – The simple lucid language. It is a well written narrative. The spiritual words of wisdom, a lot of abstract made easy (arguably) for common people in the format of a tale/fable. If I had picked up this book years ago when it came out new, I probably wouldn’t have finished it. I would have dismissed it as one of those self-help humbugs. Maybe, the years that I have put on, experiences encountered, and the change in phases of my life, I could relate to it a little bit.  The fact that as you grow you lose the capability to dream and will to pursue non-traditional ways rings a bell. Most of us try to fit into the framework of the “run-of-the-mill” way to live our lives, and end up becoming the “well settled bakers” even if our heart tells us to be the “shepherds who like to travel.”

Now the part that didn’t quite make the cut – It gets harder and harder to make any real sense out of it as you progress, and you are always trying to struggle and think of “the true hidden meaning” of the abstract that is written. It tired me.

Plus, I will take the philosophy with a pinch of salt. When living in a collective society, there needs to be a balance between it being all about me, my dreams, my heart etc. and the greater good. An individual’s life intersects with many people, and the actions and choices one makes has an impact on the lives, dreams and expectations of the people around. He says that come what may, always listen to your heart. Even when in doubt. Well, the fact is, life will present you with more complex questions, and times when you must not listen to “your heart” but do what is right. When in doubt, one needs to step back, have an open mind to evaluate all sides, and be ready for course correction, even if it means some decisions that may not be what you want. It may not be too bad to be the baker. Not everyone can afford the quest of the treasure. Destiny is a big word, and who knows what it really means. People are driven and inspired by the everyday small things they hear, think and do in the present. Very few people are aware of a specific tangible “treasure” they want to seek, or “Master Work” they want to achieve.

So Santiago meets with many interesting characters on his journey that are pursuing their dreams in different ways. The crystal shop owner, the Englishman wanting to become the alchemist, the Alchemist himself, the tribal chiefs and many more. The influence of these characters on Santiago stem from their own actions for the pursuit of their own dreams. Unfortunately the female character Fatima has no other bearing on the tale other than being the object of Santiago’s affection/obsession. Her only role is to be the “woman of the desert who waits for the man”.  The tale has no references to her dream or completely ignores any of her struggles or pursuits. That kind of gives one a feeling that a woman’s perspective was left out of the whole quest.

Towards the end, everything ties back to belief and faith. And that part strongly aligns itself to religion and belief in god rather than agnosticism. At least that is what I felt, and for a book advocating philosophy which is more humanist, this subscription I thought wasn’t necessary.

Although, the idea that his destiny in-fact brings him right back to where it all began, is interesting. (Not stating specifics because it may spoil it for the new readers). But the interpretation can be both ways. One, it is the journey, not the end goal itself that matters. Or two – there is no point for the quest, and you will find what you want right around you. No need to go in search of it. So this was a bit confusing.

Also, the idea of paying heed to “the omens” everywhere, and that the omens will guide you is too vague and hard to digest.

I, frankly, was a bit underwhelmed. It could be because of the initial hype that heightened my expectations. Who knows, maybe I will feel different If read it again in a decade or so.

For now, I must go find myself a good thriller fiction.

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Raising daughters, raising sons

Dottie came back from school all grim and thoughtful yesterday. She read a lesson in her brand new fourth grade English textbook about a girl Meera, and her younger brother Raju, called “Dividing a Mango”.

The lesson is about Meera facing gender discrimination in her family. She is given less food (and share of a mango) than her brother and made to work more. Why? She asks. Don’t you know boys should be given more food? It has always been this way. Boys need more food, because they go out and work. Her granny answers.

Only after she swaps her work routine with her brother for a day, the family realizes that Meera’s work in fact is much harder to do, and that she needs equal nourishment to work and to grow.

Dottie gave the book to me earnestly and insisted that I read it. The story had visibly disturbed her. She did not like the unfair treatment meted out to the girl by her own family. Reading through the lesson, I was impressed with the educators who included this lesson in the national CBSE school syllabus. Good work, people. Catch them young, educate them, and we have hope of raising a whole new generation of thinking men and women who are aware and sensitized towards the traditional cultural gender bias.

I realized that both my children were until now unaware of the existence of gender discrimination. They were oblivious to the fact that things are different for boys and girls, and if we tell them the reasons, they do not make sense to their simple, yet logical way of thinking.

Nowadays, boys and girls are largely treated the same in most urban affluent families. And I am not talking about girls getting more pink stuff and boys getting blue.  I am also not talking about preferences in toys and play, like girls playing house and boys playing cars. I am talking about the ‘girls help in the kitchen, while boys go out and play’ difference. Or ‘girls learn to cook and get married, and study on the side’ – and ‘boys study, and study, and must earn a living’ difference.

I think my generation grew up on the cusp of a change. There was a new found importance and focus on education in the growing urban middle class. More and more traditional families slowly started encouraging the girls in the house to pursue a career and become self reliant, than before.  Although the seeds were sown in the earlier generation, the concept was more widely accepted and practiced as we grew up. The economic liberalization of 1991, also, opened more opportunities and that too in part brought good days to the women in our country.

But nevertheless, when we grew up, women from the earlier generation, whether working or not (!), still cooked, did housework, served (the best portions) to the men folk, ate leftovers after everyone was finished, and cleaned up thereafter while the rest took off for their afternoon nap.

An eternal servitude, endurance and sacrifice were “virtues in a woman” that were approved, glorified, expected and also taken for granted in cultured families. One seldom witnessed a grown man in the family cook (gasp!), or pick up a domestic chore, like folding his own clothes, finding his own socks, making his own breakfast and washing his own cup after drinking tea.  Any simple household task was considered below dignity and “unmanly” (and I still can’t comprehend what that means).

When it came to contributing to the mundane chores, it was the girls who mothers called out to, when they needed assistance of any kind. Like chopping vegetables, boiling milk, setting and clearing the table.  She must learn how to manage the house. Otherwise it will be difficult when she gets married and has to do that in her new home. Ironically, boys never got any similar kind of training which prepared them for a life of matrimony. This was normal. This is still largely considered normal.

As my generation went global to pursue opportunities, changing lifestyles and influence of other countries and cultures caused a significant shift in this rigid family hierarchy.  Imagine the delight (in some rare cases, horror) of many mothers and aunties who visited their children in the US and discovered a new breed of sons and son-in-laws. These Indian men, to their pleasant surprise would not sit around reading news paper or flipping TV channels while their women slogged in the kitchen, or did housework. They were doing their share, washing dishes, chopping vegetables, changing diapers and vacuuming the house, and that too without much ado! They were picking up housework as a normal way of life, as a responsibility “shoulder to shoulder” with the woman. I remember an aunt, visiting us in the US, appreciating this phenomenon fondly while I and my hubby worked in the kitchen. “We must send all our men to live in the US for some time at least!” She said. I have heard stories from friends when the visiting older generation was either mortified or horrified to see the son-in-law (in former case) or son (in latter) doing the dishes!

In this new age, we always talk about the need to make girls self sufficient and independent. But wait. What about the boys? Are they self reliant too? If there is a whole generation of independent, free thinking, aware and self reliant girls growing up, are our boys growing to be equally independent to complement that? I think the need of the hour is to make our boys self reliant too. As smart, healthy, thinking adults, they should not need to rely on their women to cook and feed them, take care of them and to find their socks.

At a family gathering, we fondly joked about how my then 6 year old son cannot have a meal without a poli (term for roti in Marathi). What will you do if your wife doesn’t make a poli? Someone teased. He promptly replied, why? I will make my poli! The best part is he did not “get” the joke, and his reaction was genuine, puzzled and devoid of any pretenses.

Now, I see a whole generation of boys and girls growing up much more aware than what we were, in general. They do not hesitate to question a regressive custom, and will usually not take “because that’s how it’s always been” as an answer. They need better reasoning than that. The women of future generation will not only demand but also expect equal partnership in a family setup from their spouses. Men will highly benefit from this shift too. They will not have to bear the pressure of being the sole breadwinner. They will have the freedom to choose to do things that they like, without worrying about putting a financially dependent family’s future at stake. If housework is shared, they will be able to spend much more quality time with their spouses. They will enjoy a more fulfilling relationship with their partner, largely based on mutual respect and love, free from the stress of day to day tasks.

So change is coming. It is almost here. It is inevitable; it may take time to trickle down to all strata of society. Those still holding on to the old ways and concepts of rigid gender roles need to let go of their insistence and accept this change. Yes, your son will want to work in the kitchen with his wife. Yes, he would want to eat with her, chatting about life or politics. No, your daughter-in-law may refuse serve at the table, standing, watching the plates, filling them without people having to ask for more. And yes, she will take offense if you selectively ask only the men for a second serving of that special dish.

Here is to happy, equal relationships of the future.

P.S: Meanwhile, Dottie, with her new found enlightenment related to gender bias, is watchful as I serve her Mango Ras in a bowl. She and her brother carefully compare volumes of the bowls, filled to the brim, with precision, ensure that it is exactly equal, and smile! 🙂

P.P.S: I pause and think of a few men who I have had the good fortune of knowing, and interacting with, who have defied these “manly” stereotypes, and embraced fairness and reason, way ahead of their times. And I smile.

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Closing eyes
Reminiscing visions
Of journey, long

Calmness, unperturbed
Settled on face
Of wrinkled wisdom

Lips, curved
Smile of knowledge
Of vanity in being

Joy, sorrow
Failure, triumph
Forgotten, almost.

Existence, encompassed
By the moment, definite
Finally, peace.

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Eyes, tight shut,
Forehead wrinkles
In disapproval

Fingers curl,
Tightened fists
Gather strength

Resistance, inevitable
The change, perplexing,
Now unbearable

Then finally,
A bellow of protest.
Life begins.

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