May 2018

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In a State of Indifference: A Conversation with Amit Chaudhuri

Interviewer: Pavan Kumar Malreddy, Goethe University Frankfurt

Photo by Geoff Pugh

Amit Chaudhuri is the author of seven novels, a poetry collection, a work of non-fiction, a critical study, two books of essays, and numerous edited collections. He is also a composer, singer, and a concert performer of Indian classical music. His musical creations are known for their eclecticism, improvisation, and experimental quality across genres: jazz, blues, and classical Hindustani. Born in Calcutta and and raised in Bombay, Chaudhuri spent his formative years between London, Bombay, and Oxford before choosing Calcutta as his home. Chaudhuri’s artistic oeuvre is at once expansive and elusive. It is hard to pin down his work to a specific genre, tradition, or movement in the catalogue of literary criticism. Modernists, postmodernists, and postcolonial critics have all grappled with his work, and at times, struggled to place him amongst canonical literati. In this interview, which took place at Amangalla Hotel on 25 January 2018 in Galle, Sri Lanka – against the piano tinkles of a guest performer in the lobby, and the distant echo of Tamil vocals from the wall-mounted radio –, Chaudhuri discusses his literary influences, musical inspirations, and more importantly, what it means to produce art in an age of “market activism”.

Pavan Kumar Malreddy (PKM): Let me start with a quote from the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah: “Being away has helped me to write with a clear vision. Distance distills and makes ideas worth pursuing … One needs to extricate oneself from the daily needs and demands of living at home” (1988, 74-75). I am aware of the fact that you are neither a diasporic nor an exile writer but you do spend a considerable amount of time away from home; you hold a professorship in England, and you have a second home in Oxford. But unlike what Farah is saying, i.e. one needs to extricate oneself from the grind of domesticity, you seem to make an art out of domesticity. Much of your fiction is, in my reading, about the aesthetics of domesticity, the slow and slumber lives of the urban Indian middle classes, where nothing moves. How do you look at this rather enabling tension with domesticity in your work?

Amit Chaudhuri (AC): Firstly, I think what Nuruddin Farah says must be true, but for me, my mind fogs over when I hear terms like exile, diaspora, nation, and identity just as my mind fogs over when I see terms like description, character, or setting.

PKM: That’s the reason you once said you don’t like nineteenth century novels?

AC: Right. So, categories like those are very difficult for me to comprehend. My mind wouldn’t get around them. I think, yes, distance can produce a renewal of perception and perspective. It certainly happened to me when I was in London [in the early 1980s] without me being aware of it, because I was in such agony at that time, of homesickness. So being away not only did influence the way I’d look at home, but also the language – in terms of the way I use words, and the way those words change in their resonances in other locations.

PKM: And their effects?

AC: That too. But I also know that it is possible to have that kind of renewal and that sense of movement even if one has not travelled very far, and you might be living in a city whose landmarks you’ve never seen. In fact, we do not visit the landmarks of our own city, or certain places in one’s own city that may be 45 minutes away by car. One might find these places not only strange, but almost unreachable because one hardly registers their existence. I think it is important to understand those experiences as to why a place that is just 45 minutes away is so seldom visited by you. Why, when you go there, you feel a reconstitution of what you know about your city. I think those things are of great interest to me.

PKM: The difference between Farah and you is that you talk about a certain variation and the creation of these affects rather than having a clear vision, or an objective vision. But thinking about movement – at least the way you talk about it – that is, moving without having travelled afar reminds of Yann Martell, who told me that he writes while moving. He has a treadmill in his garage with a writing desk mounted on it, and he writes while strolling on the machine.

AC: That’s fantastic.

PKM: Like I said, I don’t consider you as a diasporic writer who is on the move, but you do move quite a bit between Mumbai, Calcutta, and Oxford.

AC: But I also move between rooms in my house because I don’t have a fixed writing desk or spot. People do ask me about it, especially when they come to photograph me after an interview: “where do you write?” I don’t have one place. I move between bed, sofa, bedroom, and drawing room. And I often write, because I write longhand, in my notebook while walking from one place to another. So, what you’re saying with Yann Martell surprises me because I didn’t realize there were other people like that. But I do write and revise often while walking.

PKM: In movement.

AC: Yes, while walking.

PKM: Yes, that’s one of the arguments made in performance arts, that artists think better when they’re on the move. On that note, I wanted to ask you about another kind of movement, that is, movement between different kinds of thinking or, say, imaginary worlds. You are one of those rare people who have a foot both in fiction and academia. In the academic world, there is this idea of dialogue and public engagement. But in fiction, there is a romantic notion that the writers do everything in private; they are under no obligation to reveal their notes or sources of inspiration or imagination. How does this tension play out with you as a fiction writer? Do you collect some sort of ethnographic notes, and is there any kind of dialogue in your fiction in the process of its making?

AC: Of course, yes, but firstly, I don’t see myself really as part of academia. I see myself, throughout my life, having used academia to further my interests as a writer. I make use of certain fringe spaces in academia to have discussions which involve not only academics, but also artists, publishers, and thinkers. I want a space which is unlike an academic conference or a literary festival. I feel it’s important to have that space. And to get back to your question: yes, writers are always in a state of argument. Writing itself is a form of argumentation. When you write something, you reject a whole range of things as part of a dialogue with yourself and your traditions. On some level, it would have been easier to go in a direction which is familiar; the direction that the time or age is going in. And yet, there are writers who step out of their time and reject that direction. So, there is always a process of dialogue and argumentation in the moment writers take a decision about the direction of his or her work. But it’s not even a decision; it’s not even a choice to do something that their innocence compelled them to do because it would be much easier to go with the flow. Once you go against the current, you’re in a more difficult position. But you do this because you have to do it. And in that, you’re engaging in an argument. Your writing is an argument.

PKM: So there is a dialogue, an internal dialogue.

AC: Yes, there’s a dialogue not just internal, but with existing structures, conventions, your past, your inheritance and more importantly, with what you are supposed to be as a writer, and what is expected of you as a writer; as an Indian writer, or as a writer of novels – all the things that are expected of you, you are in dialogue with that.

PKM: This is very avant-gardist, in my view, though I am not sure if that is a term used to describe your work, as it is typically associated with European art. Your response reminds me of G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr (1948), and now I think of it, there are parallels between Desani’s classic and your Odysseus Abroad (2014). It also reminds me of Borges’ famous quote on Kafka that “every writer creates his own precursors” (1964, 177), in the sense that a writer’s work sheds a renewed perspective on other (established) writers. Odysseus Abroad does exactly the same: it casts a new angle on Joyce, Homer, or G.V. Desani. I know this is a question that should be reserved for critics, but I wonder if you’ve ever thought about your work in this way.

AC: You know, this is very interesting you should say this and I hesitate to make this reference because it’s a reference that both touched me and also one, as you said, others should be talking about. The other person who said this, oddly enough, was the novelist Will Self. When introducing me at a particular event, he made the same comparison, invoking Borges’ essay on Kafka. I feel very embarrassed because I don’t deserve…

PKM: But I have a specific example in mind that prompted this comparison, from your novel The Immortals. The protagonist Shyamji says: “you cannot practice art on an empty stomach”. Now, in his famous story “The Hunger Artist”, Kafka turns this empty stomach into a form of art. But my question is more general: why is it that in the Indian literary tradition, writing against set conventions, or bourgeoisie conventions of art, or doing “art for art’s sake” has not been very fashionable?

AC: If you look at Indian vernacular literatures in the past, they have an astonishing avant-garde traditions some of which have also been translated into other domains such as cinema and art. We only know of a few of these great avant-garde figures like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mani Kaul.

PKM: Adoor Gopalakrishnan, O.V. Vijayan…

AC: U.R. Ananthamurthy, and Urdu writers like Saadat Hasan Manto, where you often see not just a testing of extreme experience but also a sense of drift, and a sense of pausing over inconsequential things with an absurd amount of attention to them as well. You see these avant-garde preoccupations by which I mean, slightly irresponsible traditions, very robustly forming in Indian vernacular writings. I wouldn’t even call this “art for art’s sake” avant-garde tradition, but a particular kind of exploration of consciousness.

PKM: On that note, it is also quite refreshing to see your work not being labelled as ‘postcolonial literature’, though it’s not a term you completely disassociate with, and you do use it very carefully and selectively, especially in your essay collection Clearing a Space (2008) where you make a case for “lowbrow” modernities. But you do not talk about middlebrow modernities as such, although most of your stories are about urban middle classes who, in your own way, fall under the subaltern category. I find this curious because much of the postcolonial discourse takes middle classes for granted, as though they do not deserve the same kind of security or attention as the rural or peasant subalterns.

AC: I don’t like the middlebrow as a category because the middlebrow is a mainstream category where the parameters have to do with conventional realism, all of the things I don’t like. I’m very interested in, as you’ve said, the avant-garde and modernist element. But the history of the middle class does interest me and it’s a very rich history in India. We are all products of that history. So to suppress the ways in which we are products of that history is to suppress our own everyday. Indian Anglophone writing and thinking is often about suppressing ourselves and inhabiting some kind of transcendental, neutral tone. Even the postcolonialists do not speak as themselves, but within a kind of neutral tone of an objective academic discourse…

PKM: Speaking for others?

AC: …and speaking in a way where somehow they are not enmeshed directly, the persons who have seen those things or are writing those things are not enmeshed directly with what they’re saying. This reproduces a sort of enlightened objectivity of speaking from above, where the self’s existence in the world and its memory don’t come into play. All those things are suppressed.

PKM: It’s very interesting you say this because in your piece in Literary Activism (2017), you invoke this very intimacy and memory you say is missing in the postcolonial Anglophone discourse. You start with a peculiar encounter in a car park and suddenly drift into involuntary memory, delving into insignificant yet intimate details. This is quite formulaic of your literary essays, most of which begin with your own personal encounters. Even when you are addressing serious discursive themes such as modernity, intertextuality, or deconstruction, you tend to refrain from an overtly scholarly or value-neutral tone.

AC: Because these things, in my case, are always emerging from a life encounter. It’s an encounter in life that produces the thought process. So the encounter with life has to be a part, in my essays, of the thought process.

PKM: I find this approach all the more remarkable in your book on D.H. Lawrence’s poetry, in which you propose a major theoretical intervention between canonical and communal poetry. But I have always wondered why you were so drawn to the poetry of Lawrence? I mean he has enough prose to inspire, or was your book DH Lawrence and Difference (2003) completely an academic exercise?

AC: I was transformed by my reading of Sons and Lovers (1913). As I’ve said many times before, Sons and Lovers, to me, was the first text I read that was contemporaneous with the modernists, which seemed to reject the metaphysical, by which I mean an extraneous source of value – whether that source of value is religion or heaven, or whether it’s a lost religion, or a lost civilization – as was the case with a certain kind of modernism. That civilisation once existed and it had been fragmented, and, it was those fragments that animated a kind of sense of value that was receding. With Lawrence, there is no sense of civilizational crisis in Sons and Lovers. There’s a rejection of that idea and a kind of affirmation of being in the present, the incandescence of living in the here and now. And he was saying something in Sons and Lovers, without using so many words – and I’ve said this before – which he would say again closer to the time of his death in a book called Apocalypse (1931): “whatever the dead and unborn might know, they cannot know the marvel of being alive in the flesh”. This seemed to me a rejection of metaphysics on behalf of the fact of existence. I realized when reading Sons and Lovers that this was very important to me – the affirmation of the fact of existence. So that directed me in the ways I was to think about writing.

PKM: Your fiction writing?

AC: And that transformed into my fiction writing, beginning with A Strange and Sublime Address (1991) which I wanted to be a narrative about the present moment: what it means to inhabit the present moment. I could have made it a narrative about childhood or the past because I was basing it on precisely those things, or my visits to Calcutta from Bombay. But I decided in some subconscious kind of capacity that I would make it about living in the here and now, and thereby reject this narrative to be grounded in the past, of what has occurred. Roland Barthes says the ‘unreal time of novels, cosmogonies, and histories’ depends on the simple past tense. And it begins with, in the case of the novel, a sentence in the simple past tense like “The marchioness went out at five o’clock.” So, I wanted to reject that sense of time, where the narrative represents something that’s over and perfect and available for reproduction in a novel. I wanted to reject all of that. It’s not that I didn’t write in the past tense. But you can use that tense to somehow still give a sense of the present moment.

PKM: But besides Lawrence, one also sees the influences of the likes of Joyce and Borges in your work. These are canonical writers now, but were avant-garde figures in their own times. Writers likes Borges are also fabulists, and fabulists, as William Golding argues, are moralists who “cannot make a story without a human lesson tucked away in it” (1989, 77). So do all your influences – be they modernist, avant-gardist, or fabulist – reject metaphysis in the way you just described, or do they also inculcate moral lessons? Or do they have their own kind of politics?

AC: I think they comprise their own kind of politics, and their own kind of argumentation. I don’t like moralism, again moralism depends so much on the suppression of the self and its encounter with life. And I don’t like that.

PKM: But coming to the music part of your work, there is a lot of improvisation which is again a sign of being in the present, or performing in the moment. Is there some sort of interaction between your writing and your music? I remember you telling us in Chemnitz that you were practising your vocals in the hotel minutes before you came down to deliver a lecture on art and literature.

AC: I neither think of them as existing separately, nor do I think of them as separate selves co-existing with an overseer looking upon them, where that overseer is somebody who exists in my brain. They are discontinuous but related.

PKM: They feed off each other?

AC: They must do so, because of their existing neighbourliness. But they’re not aware of existing in relation to each other any more than when you’re sitting in the lane, you’re aware of what is going on in the next one. There must be some kind of give and take going on between that lane and this one.

PKM: But you don’t do it consciously.

AC: Yes, you don’t do it consciously.

PKM: But it’s very interesting though because in your music, you work within traditions, there is no rejection of sorts?

AC: But I also experimented, with the jazz and the blues.

PKM: That’s right, your own beginnings were a bit unorthodox; you wanted to become a Canadian singer-songwriter? Could you tell a bit more about how you became interested in Hindustani classical music?

AC: As I was growing up in Bombay, my creative life, like my musical life, had been very fitful, and I arrived at places without expecting to arrive or wanting to arrive. I never knew I would be a prose writer when I wanted to write poetry. But that’s what happened. Similarly I never knew that I would become a Hindustani classical singer. Once I became a Hindustani classical singer, I completely rejected other kinds of music, like my earlier background in western popular music. So for years, I never listened to western music, especially after I started practicing Hindustani music when I was in England. Only after 16 years did I go back to listening to western music again. That eventually led to the experiment I mentioned earlier. One morning, I thought I heard the riff to ‘Layla’ (by Derek and the Dominos) as I was practicing raag todi. So I decided to do something with the notes I was singing in compositional terms. But if you told me in 1985, when I was in the midst of training myself as an Indian classical singer, that one day I would be listening to Derek and the Dominos again, or that I would be incorporating something that they had written into a composition involving raag todi, I wouldn’t have believed that person. If somebody had told me at the age of 14 when I was listening to The Who and playing the guitar that one day I would be a classical singer, I wouldn’t have believed them either. At each place, I’ve arrived by chance.

PKM: It’s your own odyssey in that sense.

AC: Perhaps, yes.

PKM: Talking about experimentation again, my thoughts drift in the direction of your latest novel Friend of My Youth (2017), which is, in my reading, a prime example of experimental avant-garde. Fiction, non-fiction, or auto-fiction, however you want to call it. Usually works involving autobiographical elements arrive at the end of one’s career. I’d like to think that there is a lot of writing left in you. I’m just curious why, at this stage of your writing career, you decided to write a semi-autobiographical work. Is it something you had to do now?

AC: My writing has always been trying to unshackle itself from the pretence of fictionality. I’ve been trying to free myself of this dichotomy between fictionality and fact, between fictionality and life, creative writing and non-fiction. I’m only interested in creativity. All the rest of the terms are not relevant to me. And I’ve been writing from the beginning in a way that ignores those kind of set parameters according to which you represent reality within a novel. I tried to do that in A Strange and the Sublime Address – to throw those dichotomies out of the window. In Friend of My Youth, I address head-on the question as to whether there is a difference between living and writing, or whether writing is also in some ways continuous with living. I don’t want to say it is continuous with life, because that’s a noun, but writing is both a noun and a gerund; something in the process of happening.

PKM: The presence again.

AC: Yeah.

PKM: Thinking presence. Your take on creativity is very interesting. I mean the way I look at it, you create things by consciously or unconsciously wanting to move away from set traditions. But when I look at your work more closely, particularly non-fiction, I get the feeling that you don’t want to walk away from traditions altogether, in the sense that you do engage with your influences, your precursors and so on. This brings me to the question, could creativity be cultivated in a vacuum? Or is it something that cannot fully escape the grasp of traditions? Even in your case, there has to be some grounded thing that is the source of your creativity.

AC: It’s not that, I think, we cannot ignore our literary history, but we cannot take it as a given, either. Our history is not just out there; prefabricated with everything in place for us either to reject or to accept. Our rejection and our acceptance of a history, of a literary history, is something that we need to work out at any given point of life. It’s not that the solutions have not already been given to us as to “this is unacceptable, that is acceptable”, but that at any point of time one has to work these things out because they are not the answers readily available.

PKM: If I read it correctly, you take a similar position in your collection of essays Literary Activism (2017). Is there a price a writer pays for taking such an unconventional approach?

AC: [chuckles] What do you have in mind?

PKM: Oh I have what you call “market activism” in mind, which you discuss in relation to the aggressive mainstreaming and marketing of literature that creates overnight classics and the multitude of “bestseller” rankings while simultaneously burying the old ones. But my sense is that you didn’t care about any such rankings or recognitions. I wonder what your advise would be for younger generations of writers who would want to think that way – defying traditions and market forces [I, for one, struggle with this anxiety about writing fiction and not being able to defy the tradition or expectation of an Indian or migrant writer]. What is the price one would have to pay and what would one gain from that?

AC: Look, Pavan, I don’t have a clear answer, and, unfortunately, I don’t have a clear answer for any of your questions but I’m ready to think it through. I think I would say that many of us possibly reach this stage in our lives just about everywhere, so I’m not speaking about you. I’ve seen people who reach this stage of their lives when they’re quite young when they open themselves up, and then arrive at a kind of intellectual and creative independence. As we go through our childhoods, we are still absorbing things. When we are adolescents, we become very puritanical and close-minded. And a certain point might come in our lives where we suddenly unshackle ourselves and don’t care at that moment what dominant hegemony or our teachers and peers are telling us to do: “how can you not be doing this, we should all be doing that”. We might arrive at our own indifference toward the expectants. That indifference is very important. And we open ourselves up then, to our own indifference.

PKM: And be at peace with that?

AC: Yes, be at peace with that at that time. When I see people, young people who arrive at that moment, I feel hopeful that a kind of change is coming about in terms of freedom from – to use a specific example, in India – a kind of social science moralism, and all prefabricated ideas of what is important and what is not.

PKM: What is political?

AC: Yes, what can be discussed and what can’t be discussed. What happens, however, is that as people get into new jobs and new roles, they begin to suppress that part of themselves, and start speaking the language that their predecessors have spoken. All I would say is that it is important to not do that. If one has arrived at some kind of opening-up at a certain point in one’s life, one should find ways of allowing that to continue and survive. Even if one has to make certain compromises, in fitting in with the existing structure of things, one must still find a way of allowing that kind of unshacklement, which informs what one does in the future. In that way, the disciplines can be taken to new places. But what I see unfortunately is people often being forced to set aside that moment of freedom and speak in the too familiar voice, that of the predecessors.

PKM: And one is constantly being imposed, like you said, of the standards set by the then “greatest writers” or “bestselling writers” as if they’re set in stone, but they keep changing. I really enjoyed your sharp critique of the Booker in Literary Activism.

AC: All right, yes.

PKM: Let me return to the question of diaspora, which is often defined in relation to the separation or distance – be it physical, cultural, or imaginary – from one’s nation or home. In your work, there is always a distancing within the nation, and then, gradually, a distancing away from the nation; from Bombay to Calcutta, and to the UK. I wonder if there is a gradual move towards diaspora – both away from home and within home – in your work?

AC: Not quite. Friend of My Youth is about Bombay. But I don’t think just about being in Bombay but also about the idea of return and…

PKM: Of course, your work has always this element of being grounded in Calcutta or Bombay and characters coming in and out of the diaspora. Have you been conscious of having your own footing in two different worlds?

AC: I think I must have been placed in Calcutta with genuine ties to England as well. But I also think of myself as being a reluctant traveller when going to various places. I would rather not go to any of them, but going to them educates me in some way. So, in a way, I’m a product of these kinds of reluctant travels, so even being here has educated me in some way. I didn’t particularly want to come here, you know, to Galle, but now that I’ve come here yes, obviously, it educates me about modernity, the history of modernity, which is the thing that most interests me when I encounter cities, their architecture, and ways of life.

PKM: Colonial history?

AC: What remains of those ways of life…

PKM: That’s exactly my reading of Calcutta: Two Years in the City (2013), which is not hung up with colonialism in a deterministic way as much of postcolonial writing does. I myself grew up in Hyderabad which was never under direct colonial rule, but there is still this pan-colonial aura and you are being constantly reminded that “hey, you were colonized, you should know that”. When you come to places such as Galle, do you also look for the remains of colonialism?

AC: No, I see remains of modernity which I want to distinguish from colonialism.

PKM: Very interesting. Would you then say colonial heritage had both an enabling and disabling impact on our current traditions?

AC: I don’t know. Every tradition has an enabling and disabling impact. Colonial traditions definitely had a disabling impact but modernity of which colonial tradition is a peripheral part, had an extraordinary efflorescence in our country, as it did in other parts of the world. We don’t understand it very well because we often confuse it with colonialism.

PKM: So it has its own life detached from the sort of modernity you describe?

AC: I don’t think Calcutta would be an interesting city if there were no cultural modernity. If it was only a centre for British colonialism, it would be a marginal city, it would be of very little historical significance. The reason it is of great significance is because of Bengali modernity. You know, of what happened in the period.

PKM: Bhadralok [Bengali educated middle class]?

AC: Yeah, of what happened in the period. The Bhadralok and the movements against the Bhadralok. So over there the colonial institutions are of only a particular kind of interest, but they do not turn Calcutta into the astonishingly compelling city of imagination. So, on the other hand, if you don’t want to see that reality of modernity, I don’t know what you’re looking at when you see those cities.

PKM: It’s interesting you say that this is the kind of conclusion many postcolonial theorists arrive at nowadays.

AC: It is not that I don’t have sharply critical views of the colonial project as in when it impinges upon us. I’ve made these views clear most recently in the long essay I wrote about in support of ‘The Rhodes Must Fall’ movement in the Guardian, and in other kinds of shorter essays about the British and their pride about the railways in India. But I write about those things when they impinge on our lives today; for me it’s not a professionalised kind of activity.

PKM: So this history is not like a threat that continually impinges upon on our lives. The railways contribute to the history of the past, but also become the histories of the present…

AC: It may be a threat but also the elites within our own countries are quite stifling and feel entitled [to such pasts].

PKM: There’s an argument Ashis Nandy made in The Intimate Enemy (1983) in which, as the title suggests, our elites are bound to replicate these models of hegemony.

AC: And on top of that we have our own consciousness to deal with in terms of its mastering over us. And finally there’s the market. Now we live in the hegemony of the market.

PKM: Market, yes, and you mentioned this aspect of local hegemonies. I do not expect you to have an opinion about everything that happens in India, but you did spend a better part of your life in Calcutta…

AC: And Bombay…

PKM: Could we also make a case, say, for diaspora within the country because, as you say, there are unfamiliar zones within the nation? I return to this question because it is a question that we grapple with at SADIRN.

AC: Yeah, I mean, as I said, not only unfamiliarity within the nation, but unfamiliarity within one’s own city, but also familiarity with cities with which one has no seeming historical connection, to find certain neighbourhoods in Geneva seem familiar to me. How does that happen? Berlin seems familiar, Atlanta City doesn’t. Dubai doesn’t. Why is that? I think I spoke about these things at Chemnitz.

PKM: It was Dubai you spoke about in Chemnitz.

AC: Right, culturally, we may be closer to Dubai. But I feel alienated there as I do in Atlanta. Berlin I feel as if I’ve seen it before. So, all of that are signals towards the fact that we cannot take who we are or our inheritance as a given, that this question has been sorted out for us already. The question needs to be re-addressed all the time, as to how we interact with the world, and in what ways, and on what terms, do our senses of alienation and homecoming play out? They do not play out in any predictable way.

PKM: Amit, thank you very much for your time.



[*] This publication is supported by a grant from the German Research Foundation (DFG): MA 7119/1-1.




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