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“Proud of being a Woman, an Indian and a Sindhi”

November 05, 2010
PIW is proud to present this previously unpublished interview with renowned Sindhi writer Popati Hiranandani.

The following conversation – which explores questions of language, identity, womanhood and the horrifying trauma of Partition through the gaze of a doughty survivor – took place six years before Hiranandani passed away in 2005. The interview was conducted by Mumbai-based poet Menka Shivdasani (who has, along with Anju Makhija, edited an anthology of Sindhi Partition poetry).There was a time, in pre-Partition Sindh, when Hindus and Muslims lived in relative harmony. In those days, the evening prayer of the rustic Sindhi would invariably be “God’s blessings on Hindus, on Muslims and on the rest”. When Partition occurred, the entire province of Sindh went to Pakistan, and in the communal carnage that followed, thousands of Sindhi Hindus had no choice but to migrate. The “gardens” that the Congress leaders promised them in India turned out to be filthy, overcrowded refugee camps.
Today, the Sindhi community has moved on, through hard work and sheer determination. Members of the community have blended into international cultures. For many who were forced to cope with the trauma, Partition is now no more than a bad memory to be tucked away into the deepest recesses of their hearts and minds in the hope that they can eventually pretend it never happened.

Sindhi writers like Popati Hiranandani, however, have ensured that the world does not forget. More than 50 years after Partition, when this writer spoke to her, her fragile 75-year-old body bristled at the memory of what happened back then; her dimming eyes gleamed with rage; her voice began to crack as she relived the unspeakable indignities that occurred. As senior Sindhi poet Hari Dilgir said once of the feisty author, "Popati has a knack of using her boli (language) as a goli (bullet)."

In November 1999, when she was bed-ridden with more illnesses than she cared to name, Hiranandani released her 57th book at a private ceremony in her home. The book, Sach Tha Mard Chavan (The Tale of Truth), released by her good friend Ram Jethmalani (who was Union minister for Law at that time), was a collection of five essays about the politicians of pre-Partition India, and the mistakes that she believed they committed.

The tragedy is that, like most of her other books, it received little attention, even within the Sindhi community. The world has claimed the contemporary Sindhi; few youngsters speak the language, let alone write it. This is a fact that immensely saddened Hiranandani, who fought for decades to preserve the language and culture against onslaughts that included political indifference and attempts to do away with the script in favour of Devanagari. Hiranandani fought relentlessly to rejuvenate these weakening roots. Among her works is Learn Sindhi within Ten Days, a book that has seen several editions since it was first published in 1977.

Hiranandani’s writing, which spans several genres – fiction, essays, literary criticism, drama, biography and poetry – has been translated into a variety of languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Oriya, Punjabi, Rajasthani and Marathi. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1982 for her autobiography Muhinje Hayati-a-ja-Sona-Rupa-Warq (The Golden and Silver Leaves of My Life, 1980). It was only one of several dozen awards that came her way in the course of her illustrious career.


Menka Shivdasani:  You were born in Hyderabad (Sindh), which is now a part of Pakistan. What was your early childhood like in the pre-Partition days?

Popati Hiranandani: I was born on September 17, 1924. I was the second eldest of seven children, and lost my father at the age of ten. I began working at fourteen, to support the younger children, while continuing my studies simultaneously. But I was deeply interested in music and started my career as a music teacher, and after graduating from Banaras Hindu University with a distinction in Sanskrit, began teaching languages and literature.

My early childhood was a very pleasant one; I grew up in a large family. My father was an important official in the forest department and our home was luxurious. My mother had eleven children, though only seven of us survived. My brother Dharamdas, was the eldest.

When our father was on his death bed – my brother was twelve, I was two years younger – he called us to his room and said, “Promise me you will look after the younger ones”. He made me promise I would not marry; that I would instead educate my brothers and sisters, the youngest of whom was only six months old at the time. My mother, who was thirty-two when he died, would have preferred to get me married, even if she had to sell the house to get enough money to do so.

After my father died, we went to my grandmother's house. It had been bought by her brother, Gopaldas, who was a contractor, supplying fruits on a wholesale basis to hospitals. It was a large house and we lived in a joint family. There were eighteen children, girls and boys and we all used to play together. I played all the games that the boys did, and we believed we were on “Allah jo path” (God’s streets).

I began teaching at the age of fourteen to support my siblings. I took on a job as a music teacher, and used to help my mother with stitching at night.

MS: You began writing poetry at an early age . . .

PH: Music was my first love. My mother and grandmother sang folk songs, while my father used to sing bhajans at a temple. I sang bhajans and folk songs, and after Partition, Ustad Aslam Khan taught me how to sing ghazals. Even today, listening to the ghazals of Begum Akhthar or the thumri of Shobha Gurtu can send me into raptures. [In the course of the interview, Hiranandani breaks into song every now and then even though she is ill and is finding it difficult even to speak.]

The house that we lived in those days shared one wall with the great saint, Sadhu Vaswani. In summer, we used to sleep on the terrace at night. Sadhu Vaswani used to get up at 3.00 a.m. and compose his poems. It was like the flow of a river issuing from his mouth in the moonlight. I used to write poetry too — I was twelve then.

MS: What was the educational status of women at that time? Your own foundations seem to be quite strong.

PH: I belong to the Amil community of Hyderabad. All the key posts were given to them because they were educated. Amils have always had a long tradition of education and if their daughters are keen on studying, they have always been allowed to go to college and receive higher education.

In school, we used to learn Persian. In fact, it was a compulsory subject for us and I learnt it up to my matriculation. All poems were strictly taught to us in metre, and Hindu teachers would take sticks and teach us Persian. We also used to sing Sindhi and English poems. [Hiranandani illustrates this with a sprightly rendition of ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’!] My father had always expressed a wish that I learn Sanskrit, so I joined St. Mira’s College, which was affiliated to the Banaras Hindu University. Sadhu Vaswani of Hyderabad and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya of Banaras were good friends, and so the girls of St. Mira’s College were allowed to appear for examinations held in Banaras. When I went to Banaras to appear for my intermediate examination, I met Pandit Sitaram Chaturvedi, who encouraged me to study the Hindu scriptures. I studied the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Puranas under his guidance.

Earlier, when I was twelve, I had been fortunate enough to hear Sadhu Vaswani speak, in Sanskrit and English, on the old Hindu scriptures. His lectures began at 5.00 a.m. and I used to go there regularly. He also spoke to us about the lives of great men like Swami Vivekananda, Tulsidas and Shivaji. He also had special classes on the Bhagvad Gita, and I was his favourite. We were eighty girls in the beginning; then on the second day, there were forty; on the third, there were twenty; and eventually I was the only person left!

MS: Did the fact that you were a girl in any way hamper your writing or other creative activities in pre-Partition Sindh?

PH: Sindh was predominantly a Muslim province and there were many restrictions on women. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, I asked my mother if I could learn metre, rhythm and the rules of composing a ghazal or nazm from Lekhraj Aziz, a famous poet who was related to her. She scolded me and forbade me from approaching any other poet. If this was my plight, when Amils were so advanced in their social outlook, and Hyderabadi girls were among the first to be educated, how could other girls become poets in those days? In those days, Sindhi poetry was composed according to the norms of Persian prosody and in order to do this, we had to learn such things as vazan, bahar, kafiya, radeef etc. But Hindu girls could not sit with males, and that is why you will rarely find a Sindhi woman poet. I had to satisfy myself with writing poetic prose, which did not require any technique.

Women writers in those days were not even allowed to use the word ishq (love), but I wrote a poem ‘Dun Hetahan Dabli’, which means ‘The small box beneath the navel’. Wooden dablis were a speciality of the town of Halan in Sindh and they were beautifully painted works of art. The dabli was a box within a box within a box, whose innermost compartment usually housed valuable jewels. The poem caused a furore when it first appeared because it spoke of the central role of the uterus or womb. An English version of this was published later in Penguin’s Anthology of Contemporary Indian Women Poets, In Their Own Voice, edited by Arlene Zide:

Your eyes glide down below the navel,
Ah! Is it a glowing treasure house?
Or a deep mysterious cave
Where the stream of creation flows?

As a child, I also loved to dance, but in Sindh, no girl was allowed to dance on stage. So, because of this unfulfilled desire, when I became a schoolteacher, I wrote skits and plays for my students and composed songs for them. In 1960, when I joined National College, Prof. Vasant Bapat helped me to produce and present ballets – Sindhi Shaadi, Teejri, and stories based on Sindhi folk tales like ‘Moomal Rano’ and ‘Sorath-Rai Diyach’.

MS: How did life change for you and for the community after Partition? It’s been said that with Partition, you embarked on your writing career – that when Partition occurred, you stopped writing romantic poems and instead wrote to keep alive the Sindhi culture.

PH: Congressmen made a mistake – a great mistake, a blunder in creating the Partition of India. It is a blunder because it was done on the grounds of religion. Even our national leaders, our Sindhi leaders, made mistakes – they were hankering after power.

In the days of the Englishmen, there were presidencies; they divided India according to the facility of administration. Sindh was a part of the Bombay Presidency. It was such a close part that we had our matriculation exam in Bombay; papers used to come from Bombay and they were sent back to Bombay from Sindh to be corrected. It was because of the Sindhi Congress leaders that Sindh was separated from Bombay. Hindus were in a minority in Sindh, therefore the whole of Sindh went to Pakistan. The shock was so great that it was like death. We had to leave everything that was dear to us – the house, the garden, my writing table!

Partition was like a yagna (sacrifice) and we Sindhis were the victims. The Partition affected Sindhis on both sides of the border; the Sindhi Muslim found himself a refugee in his own country when the province of Sindh was merged with West Pakistan, while Sindhi Hindus were forced to leave their homes. For years, I hoped that one day we would be able to return to Hyderabad, Sindh, where I was born.

Partition influenced my writing in so many ways. In pre-Partition India, I used to write about things like freedom from British rule. After Partition, I switched subjects completely. My first essay was called ‘Papih ji pukar’; it was about a bird that waits for the monsoon for a drink of water. I wrote in that about how we had been separated from our land.

It is said that when Sindhi Hindus asked for a part of Sindh, the leaders promised us gardens in India instead . . . When Hindus organised meetings to demand a ‘Hindu-Sindh’, the Congress leaders said, “What will you do with the desert-land of Sindh? Let us migrate to India where they will offer gardens.” The politicians made no attempt to organise the process of migration, nor did they plan any rehabilitation schemes. Instead, they hurriedly flew to Delhi in order to gain political favours!

Sindhis were forced to live in refugee camps, sometimes in buildings that were not even designed for human habitation – they were stables for horses! People were just dumped in the camps, where families stitched curtains of gunny bags for privacy. They were constantly being shifted from Akbar camp to Ulhasnagar camp and from Bhavnagar camp to Adipur ashram. Rich landlords suddenly found themselves having to stand in queues for more than ten hours to get rations; young women, who had never travelled unescorted before, had to prepare papads and pickles and sell them from door to door. Children sold sweets in local trains instead of going to school. But the Sindhis did not beg. Educated people went from one city to another looking for jobs and shopkeepers went looking for places where they could start their businesses.

MS: And how did the local people react to the Sindhis?

PH: Local people did not welcome us. Sindhis who went to the Kalyan camp, for instance, were beaten up in local trains. Sindhis were ridiculed when they narrated tales of their easy and luxurious life in Sindh; they were labelled as smugglers and black-marketeers. Claims officers also behaved very rudely, belittling the immovable properties that Sindhis had left behind in Pakistan and making them come again and again from far-off camps to city offices and wait for hours together for a simple signature.

I remember two incidents – in 1944, the principal of Kundanmal Girls’ High School, Anandi Khemchand, hosted the All India Women’s Conference in Hyderabad, Sindh, and all the prominent ladies who came from India were offered all kinds of comforts. After Partition, when she just wanted to visit some of them, one woman gave the excuse that she would not be home and another did not even smile at her just in case Miss Khemchand be encouraged to ask her for lodging in her bungalow in Bombay!

I also remember in May 1949, we went to see the Karla caves in Lonavala, and were thirsty on our way back, after walking a few miles. We knocked at the door of a bungalow and when we asked the lady who opened it if she could give us some water, she asked, “Are you Sindhis? Why don’t you find a hotel and drink water there?”

MS: How would you define the Sindhi way of life both before and after Partition?

PH: Through the ages, Sindh was invaded by people from the northwest and all the diverse races and religions were somehow absorbed and fused with the ancient heritage of Mohenjo-daro. The Sufism of the Sindhis, for example, is a blend of the finest values of both Vedantic and Islamic cultures. The Sindhi follows the most secular philosophy of humanism and is cosmopolitan in his outlook. After being in a foreign country for just a year, he will try all kinds of dishes, and will still remain a Sindhi in his own peculiar way, abusing in his favourite Sindhi words, enjoying typical Sindhi dishes of khichri and sayee bhaji, curry chawar . . .

Sindhis are mainly divided into Amils, Bhaibands, Hyderabadi Bhaibands (Sindhuvarkis), Shikarpuris, Bhagnarees etc. The word ‘Amil’ is connected with the word ‘Amal’, which means to “act upon or follow”, and the person who took to education was called ‘Amil’. The Amils did administrative work under Muslim rulers and got land grants in return. Sindhuvarkis used to carry on trade in various parts of the world while their families stayed behind in Sindh. Shikarpurees were bankers who carried on their business through Hundies in Middle Eastern countries . . . Collector U.M. Mirchandani used to say “Akul-Amilan-jo, Paiso Bhaibandan jo” (“The brains of Amils, the money of Bhaibands”) – that’s how Sindh was built.

After Partition everything changed. Amils were reduced to mere clerks; most Sindhuvarkis settled in the foreign lands they had already adopted for trade. The government of India decided to enact the Regulation of Foreign Exchange Act in order to control the exchange of cash amounts between India and the newly formed Pakistan. The Act hit the Shikarpuri bankers hard. Partition caused an exodus of Sindhi Hindus.

MS: What effect has Partition and its aftermath had on Sindhi culture and identity?

PH: The Sindhi community is trapped in a strange situation born of the mistakes of the political leaders. For no fault of ours, our birthplace was snatched away. If we had one state, even a small one, every generation would have a link with their homeland. You cannot blame the younger generation for not knowing Sindhi because land and language always go together. The Congress Party divided India into states on the basis of languages. After the Partition of the country, every regional language got patronage from its own state government, and could thus develop and progress. Sindhi, being a stateless language, received a major setback in India. These days, because so few people speak and write Sindhi, writers like me have a very limited audience. We don’t find readers, and even if we do, the books are not sold. Young people don't read Sindhi and the older ones have gone to heaven.

Thanks to Partition, the whole community was scattered across the subcontinent. Their distinct identity, both literary and cultural, was not allowed to be preserved; their merit and talent was not recognised, and the right to have political representation was denied. The social disintegration also raised many other problems. The stronghold of bradari – community – was also loosened.

Unlike Punjabis and Bengalis who got half of their own province where they could settle among their own people who shared the same language, literature and culture, Sindhi Hindus became the biggest scapegoats of Partition. The people who have migrated from Sindh suffer from a deep sense of insecurity. They amass wealth and own flats but they still feel the loss of their birthplace. Everyone in India has a village, town or city. But a Sindhi cannot boast of his roots.

MS: With so few people reading and writing Sindhi today, very little is known about the script itself.

PH: The Sindhi script has been nourished by Sanskrit, Arabic and Urdu, but it is not any of these in themselves. It is a combination; that is why the Sindhi script has fifty-two letters, while Urdu has twenty-six and Arabic twenty-two. Ours is a pure Sindhi script and we can proudly say that.

In the early days in Sindh, there were twelve or thirteen scripts. Then, when the British conquered Sindh and decided to make Sindhi the official language of the Province of Sindh, Sir Bartle Frere, the first Chief Commissioner of Sindh, issued an order in 1851, which required all officials and civil servants to pass an examination in colloquial Sindhi. A definite, distinct and standard script was needed. A committee of eight scholars – four Hindus and four Muslims – discussed the script for Sindhi and after long deliberations, the present script of fifty-two letters was formed in 1853. It was the developed form of the already prevalent script known as Chaliha-Akhari. This full-fledged script incorporates four sounds peculiar to Sindhi, thirteen sounds of Arabic and Persian, thirty-three sounds of Sanskrit, and a letter peculiar to Arabic, which is formed with the combination of ‘aa’ and ‘la’. The script has twenty-three letters more than the Arabic script.

The Sindhi language itself goes back centuries. One of our greatest poets, Shah Adul Latif, goes back more than four hundred years before the British. In fact, there is a true story about how an Englishman's daughter was ill and only recovered when a fakir sang Latif’s poems to her. Latif’s poems were translated by H.T. Sorley who once said that Latif was the best poet in the whole world.

MS: There has been a great deal of controversy over the Sindhi script, with some leaders arguing that it should be converted into Devanagari . . .

PH: When the Constitution of India was being drafted and all the modern Indian languages were being listed in the Eighth Schedule, our leaders made no effort to get the Sindhi language included. This omission caused Sindhis innumerable hardships till the Constitution was ultimately amended in 1968 by the Twenty-first Amendment.

People who want the Sindhi script converted to Devanagari have no understanding of the subject. Those who say the Sindhi script should be changed into Devanagari do not know Devanagari themselves. That’s why they do not know the difference. Again, they fall into the trap of religion; they say if we write the Sindhi script in the way it actually exists, people will think they are Muslims.

In any case, whether you use Devanagari or not, you still have to know the Sindhi language, to begin with. If you don’t know Bengali, you will not understand it even if it is written in Devanagari. There was a professor of Hindi who once challenged me. He told me to write a page of Sindhi in Devanagari and said he’d tell me the next day what it said. Every day after that he asked for more time, but six months later, he had still not translated what I had written, because he did not know Sindhi!

There are peculiar Sindhi pronunciations – where we exhale or release our breath, for instance – and there is a great deal of difference between the two scripts. In Sindhi, for instance, the nouns end in ‘u’, which is not how Devanagari has it. If the script is converted to Devanagari, it will destroy the ethos of the language; all the peculiar shades and nuances will disappear.

Many people, particularly the younger ones, believe that Sindhi is a very difficult language to read and write. It is not. If you learn just one letter, you can learn eight or ten others, because then the difference is only in the number of dots that is added to the basic letter.

[In her book,
Sindhis: The Scattered Treasure, Popati Hiranandani enumerates the justifications that were made to convert the script to Devanagari. One of the pro-Devanagari arguments was that the original and ancient script of Sindhi was Devanagari, or a variant; another was that the Arabic script had been imposed on unwilling Sindhi Hindus by the British to please the predominantly Muslim majority. Hiranandani also talks about how the pro-Devanagari group believed that with the loss of the whole of Sindh to Pakistan, Sindhi Hindus could no longer remain a distinct and separate community and that the adoption of the Devanagari script would help their absorption into the local populations of various states of India. – MS]

MS: In your book, The Coward, you have said, “I am proud of being a woman, an Indian and a Sindhi”. Your writing reveals a very strong feminist outlook. What does being a woman – a Sindhi woman – mean to you?

PH: When I was a young girl growing up in Sindh, it was thrilling to read about Draupadi, who asked questions about the rights of a wife. I read that Valmiki did not approve of Sita’s banishment from the palace. I read about Sita who conveyed through Laxman, “You are a king and I am one of your subjects. You want to win fame as a good king by banishing your wife, but I am sure your white swan-like fame will be tarnished by treating a pregnant woman-subject of yours in this manner.”

The more I thought about the place of a woman in society, the more confused I was. I told myself that a woman was made to suffer not on account of any vice in her character but because of her virtues. It is her attachment to the family, her maternal instincts and her ability to manage her house that lead to her exploitation, so that she is virtually made a slave of man!

MS: You chose to remain single despite strong pressure on you to get married . . .

PH: It is degrading for a girl to have to keep presenting herself before a boy in the hope that he will agree to marriage. I told my mother that I was not a goat to be examined, or an Arabian mare to be decorated with a golden saddle! But my mother used to goad me to get married, and finally, when I was twenty-one, she got me engaged to a civil engineer. In those days, the custom was to give Rs. 15,000 cash as dowry and an equal amount in clothes and jewellery. My mother agreed to give Rs. 20,000, plus ornaments worth the same amount, along with clothes and other gifts. When I met the boy I told him I had heard his pay was Rs. 300. I told him I was earning much more and that he should give me dowry instead! That same evening, all the things that had been sent to them as a token of the engagement – fruits, the tea set etc. – were returned from them!

I remember once I was invited to deliver a lecture on Kalidasa and his works. After I had finished my lecture, a man approached me and asked why I had not married. I asked him whether his question was provoked by my lecture or personal curiosity. He looked unnerved and said, “But you have talked about the shastras (scriptures), and in the shastras it is written that a girl must marry”. I told him, “I am sure you have not set eyes on even one of the shastras, let alone studied them.” He had no answer to that!

[This question, and other equally foolish ones, would continue to plague her for decades. Once, when she was sixty-seven, and being felicitated by the Sahitya Akademi at a function in Mumbai which this writer attended, she was asked in a q-and-a session after her two-hour speech, “Since you insist you are not a man-hater, which of the men in this room do you like!” – MS]

MS: Mohan Kalpana, the short-story writer, once said: “Popati is our Phuleli – the ever flowing and strong stream of Sindh”. Your writing has always been characterised by bold themes and characters who refuse to bow down to society's dictates.

PH: My class teacher at Kundanmal Girls’ High School in Hyderabad, Dadi Vari, often used to say, “Society has never been just to a woman. She seldom gets justice from man. Even Sita, a queen, had to undergo terrible trials on account of her husband, Rama.” It was because of the influence of my mother and teacher on me that I began to think as I grew up about the place of woman in our society. It was my mother who impressed upon us that male members of the family were not privileged people and that both brothers and sisters had to work and share household chores. As a result, my brothers used to help us even in the kitchen.

In some ways, my mother was very liberal; she told me to write whatever I wanted. Other people, however, would often point fingers at me, saying I was not a “good girl”. But I did not listen to anyone. Male writers used to treat women as their subordinates; they used to say that we should write as they wanted us to write. I refused to listen to them. They did not want me to write about women’s emancipation; if I did so, it should be in a limited way. I did not accept these limits, because I wanted women to understand their rights. Why should women be only followers? And who knows better what is right for us – men or women themselves? If men try to guide us, they will only end up being wrong, because they will not understand!

I want to make one more thing clear. Just because I know about the rights of women, I have not stopped being a woman. A woman is a woman and a man is a man. The woman is one half and the man is the other half; each one has his or her own place, and there is no reason for either to interfere in the other’s lives, and no reason for men to try and dominate women.

MS: Your women characters are very strong. Could you tell us a little about the kind of situations you have tried to portray in your work?

PH: Actually, only twenty of my two hundred stories deal with injustices inflicted on women. My first stories hit out against men who twisted the scriptures. Even Manu, whom we keep quoting as having propagated injustice towards women, did not say they should be treated badly. When he said that a woman should be looked after by her father, brother and husband, he was talking about protecting her honour. But men have twisted this to mean she should be considered inferior. I'm not against men, but I want to make women more aware of themselves.

My short story, ‘Kanta’, published in 1962, is a story of a woman who conceives out of wedlock. An older man falls in love with Kanta, but suggests that the illegitimate child be sent to a home for orphans. Kanta refuses. “Even among the animals, the mother doesn’t desert her offspring,” she tells him. “And how dare we call a child an orphan when its mother is alive? And why should a child be called illegitimate? It is the parents who have done something illegal. Then why should my daughter be punished for a crime which I have committed?” I have also written stories about “fallen women” – for instance, ‘Brahma-ji-Bhula’ (The Creator's Blunder), in which such a woman aspires for her own small home with a husband and child, but society ridicules her.

In the preface to The Coward, I wrote that I do not want to entertain or amuse my readers; I want to restore to the Indian woman her lost sense of dignity. My women characters don't follow codes of behaviour; they rise in revolt against these codes.

I have also written several stories about Partition – ‘Longing Hearts’, the story of Sindhis on both sides of the border and ‘My Granny’, the story of an old woman attached to her surroundings in Sindh . . .

[“I am searching for the dust of my native land. You must never lose it,” says Hiranandani’s grandmother to her in ‘My Granny’, as a group of young unmarried girls (including the author) prepare to leave for India in 1947.

“I have not forgotten those words,” writes Hiranandani in the story. “At that time I could not understand her agony. But now in the evening of my life, I can understand her feelings, for I feel the loss of my birthplace, my native land, which was my own, my very own land”.

It is a loss from which she never fully recovered. – MS]
© Menka Shivdasani
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