Pearls and the pebbles

It is too often that we tend to mistake the chaff for the grain and end up making false assumptions and wrong inferences. In our haste to make conclusions and pass judgements, we deny ourselves the precious insights that a more analytical and discerning observation would have afforded us with.  Opinions thus formed blur the vision and colour the thoughts as we become prisoners to our own prejudices and preconceptions.  Tainted arguments marshalled, facts twisted and plain truths ignored, all aimed only to support a predetermined idea that foreclose any new evidence that might suggest a conclusion that is in divergence to the one already formed.

The shores of the ocean are littered only with pebbles while it’s mostly the messy weeds that float on its surface.  And, based on such a spurious observation, to declare that the vast ocean has only pebbles and weeds to offer would be a gross travesty of the truth. To find precious pearls one need to dive deep into the depths of the ocean and scan many a cave, cavern and coral for they are never found drifting  on the surface or tossed up by the waves. The prized possessions are always only for the diligent and for the one willing to go beyond the superfluous and who is receptive to new dimensions that open up on his life’s voyage.

The sweetest, the precious and the priceless are always encased inside a tough, hard and bitter exterior. While the cool and soft kernel of the coconut is hidden deep inside its rock-like fibre, it’s the bitter rind of the orange fruit that preserves the sweet juice within.  Diamonds are concealed in the rocky veins and the dark and bitter honeycombs are a glorious deception to the nectar that they hold. Just as it would be foolish to pass the uncut diamond as a piece of rock, as absurd as to ignore the honeycomb as a tasteless waste, it is equally insane to vilify thoughts and visionaries only because they do not subscribe to our preconceived notions or directly challenge our existing state of understanding.

While the truth could be very obvious to a few of those who have the needed insight, it would require calmer and deeper enquiry for many others to perceive the same. Though the sculptor already envisions the image of the figure that he is chiselling out of the hard rock, it becomes increasingly obvious to the onlookers only when rough edges give way to the smooth contours of a definite sculpture.  But at the end, everyone sees the same image in all its beauty, irrespective of how they looked at it before. So too the pristine truth stands majestic, unadulterated by the biases and prejudices of many of its critics, for it is its own authority and witness.

This has been the same fate even with the Avataric personalities down the ages. Many of his contemporaries mistake him as just another incidence of a human birth and run him down with calumny, falsehood and a concerted smear campaign. For, they are too timid to make a little effort to know the truth that would have opened up a new awakening and thus a more purposeful existence.  They could only be pitied and sympathised for they know not what they are indulging in. If only they let go their little egos and practice a little sadhana through the three-fold path of Service, Adoration and Illumination, the truth of SAI would become obvious.

 

Yours in SAI

Narayanan

November 20, 2020 at 7:13 am 3 comments

Thank you, America!

Human history is punctuated with periodic events that stand out as defining moments, moments that seek to shackle off the debilitating prejudices of the times, breakaway decisively from the constrictive past and promise to usher in a just order. These could be as symbolic as Gandhiji’s lifting of a fistful of fresh salt proclaiming the defiance of the British hegemony over the Indian subcontinent or as dramatic as the pulling down of the Berlin wall to herald the end of the cold war era.  But the shifts these events bring in to both the course of history and to human enterprise are indeed tectonic and to this category belong the just concluded US elections, for the stakes on the table were the very values of democracy and they are truly defining. 

America is often looked upon as the epitome of free democracy with liberty, equality and justice as its bedrock that guarantees individual freedom and equality of opportunity to all its people. It is the uncompromising adherence to these cardinal principles promising its citizens the freedom to pursue the American dream of striving for individual excellence that drove millions to its shores and achieve success through hard work.  The monumental contributions of Americans in every conceivable pursuit of human endeavour, from science and technology, to fine arts to business can directly be traced to the individual liberties that is endowed upon all as unalienable rights. And it is those very rights that are being challenged, compromised and, at times, even withheld during the current Presidency and make the continence of Donald Trump for yet another term fought with the prospect of causing irreparable damage to the cherished American values. And thus the recent US election is indeed a watershed moment in its otherwise glorious history.

The death of George Floyd on account of the police brutality and the subsequent suppression of the“ Black Lives Matter” demonstrations across the country were a grim reminder of the downward spilling of the civil rights movement in the country and the negation of the civil liberties guaranteed. While the complaisance of the administration in quelling the protests go against the grin of the very fabric of the American ethos, the efforts to forcefully stop the supposedly illegal migrants by erecting a physical wall at astronomical costs betrays a new protectionist tendency that is totally in variance to the idea of America as the ‘land of the immigrants’ and of ‘ infinite opportunities’. And to walk out of the Paris Climate Accord was a comical display of the abjuration of responsibility of a global power in protecting the environment and the unwillingness to be part of the collaborative effort to prevent climate change through affirmative actions.  

And the appalling manner in which the Trump administration handled the Covid outbreak to the utter disregard to human lives are a case study on how not to respond to a pandemic. The meddling with research inputs that mandated strict enforcement of the Covid protocols and public ridiculing of the scientific community for telling the truth, all pointed to a dispensation that are severely at odds with its people. With a quarter of a million deaths due to the pandemic and still counting, the character of the nation that prides itself for its scientific and rationale approach towards solving human problems lay in siege. Under Trump, America seemed to be drifting away from its moral compass and needed to get back its moorings, and with the change in regime, it accomplished just that!

The electoral victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris thus was a historical necessity for the American people as is the message it conveys to the world at large. By defeating a President who is avowedly believed in the supremacy of one class of people over the other minorities, America just took a step back and possibly a U-turn from the path of ultra nationalism and get back to the older ways of accepting a pluralist society and diligently pursue the progress of all sessions of the society. And the rejection of a partisan agenda by the American people will have a sobering effect on all those countries across the continents where toxic majoritarian nationalism seems to rear its ugly head and herein lies the monumental significance of this election! 

God bless America!

Yours

Narayanan

November 7, 2020 at 8:55 pm 11 comments

The noble king and his royal subjects

The extra large ‘Ela’, the plantain leaf, can scarcely accommodate even the first course of the colourful and aromatic Onam spread lined up in a sequence that is most sacrosanct. The jostling for space begin with serving of the ‘Upperi’, the famous banana chips, as it is placed on the left most tip of the leaf heralding the commencement of the “Sadhya”, the festival feast.  What then follows is an avalanche of delicacies –  hot, sweet, sour, and pungent; each placed along the outer edges forming a grand multi-layered semi-circle. The inner periphery is occupied by a slew of pickles – of lemon, mango and ginger; bananas and of course the Pappadams, that rounded crispy savoury which is to be crushed with every mouthful that is gulped in. The centre part of the leaf is reserved for the “Matta”, the red rice, which when poured with an overdose of “Sambar’ forms a delicate mix of celestial flavour to be relished separately with the each of the dishes marshalled on the leaf. When eaten with the ‘Eliserri’, you are introduced to the light sweet tone of the pumpkin and the grated coconut lavished on it gives a crunchy experience as does the “ Puliserri’ that follows the course. The ‘Puliserri’,as the names suggests, hints a sour taste of seasoned yogurt and with spices all over it, the experience of savouring this preparation is tongue-smacking. And to give a bolder sourish treat the thicker “Kalan” is the next in course that with its rich and abundant gravy does the job splendidly well. With vegetables of all conceivable variety, a lump of “Avial” is indeed a concoction of different textures while the lighter “Olan” is distinct with its singular flavour of coconut milk. The saucy “Pachadi” and the spicy “Kichadi” are only to be attempted once you are done with the fried “Thoran” and the greasy “Kuttu Curry’ and the list of this gourmet’s delight just got started. And the grand finale of the royal banquet is the “ Adda Pradaman” a supremely sweet serving of milk with rice flakes that stays in the mouth to cud much after the dish is drained down. Such is the grandeur of this once a year feast that to forgo it is an injustice to the taste buds. 

Just as colourful as the Onam Sadhya is the floral decoration that is laid out in every courtyard called the “ Pookalam”.  In hues of green, lavander, crimson and marigold, the floral display lends expression to a thousand artistic ideas and carpet the entire countryside with a visual treat, the most magnificent. The beauty of the “ Pookalam” is only matched by the charm and elegance of the giggling young girls who come together to put up the floral designs and the revelry and merriment around them through music and dance enhance the joy of the occasion. Onam celebration is thus, at once about cultural extravaganza as it is of food and feasting. 

Historically, Onam is the occasion when the natives of Kerala welcome the annual visit of the mythological king, Mahabali, who once ruled the land. In his kingdom, prosperity was in abundance and righteousness a way of life with falsehood and deception alien to the people. He was just and a benevolent emperor and treated his subjects as equals and people, in turn, revered and respected him. The reign of Mahabali affords us with a glimpse of the existence of an egalitarian society, aeons before the concept was even understood, much less practiced in the western world and therein lies the significance of Onam, a reminder of the modern concepts of equality and social justice. 

But in a monarchial set up, the absolute power rests with the emperor and however magnanimous he may be, the people are always only subjects, incapable of deciding for themselves and thus need constant care and nurturing from the ruled. The ruler is a loving and tendering guardian and care and security is always the benevolence of the king and never a right of the people. It is this idea of governance that is in variance with the modern concept of citizenship which guarantees equality and justice as irrevocable fundamental rights. The power of the state flows from the will of the people and the state exists to further their welfare thus placing the citizen at the centre of the scheme of governance. It is this transition from the idea of subjects to the concept of citizenship that is still to be achieved and is a work in progress! 

The Malayalis are all decked up to receive Mahabali and this time around, along with kasavu sarees and silk kurtas, many are also wearing designer masks! 

Wishing you all a Happy Onam!

Yours

Narayanan 

August 30, 2020 at 12:19 pm 29 comments

Vidya drops out of school

The Rs. 8000/- her father brought home every month loading confectionery boxes on to the trucks was supplemented by another Rs. 6000 that her mother earned by cleaning the vessels and mopping the floors in the nearby middle class homes. The combined family income and the food her mother carried home from her workplace ensured that Vidya and her two elder brothers were sufficiently fed and reasonably housed and were also kept in the nearby school. The school they went to had classrooms with large cracks and little furniture and the blackboards did not sufficiently reflect the occasional scribbling of the indifferent teacher, done with the white chalk. Yet, it provided the three siblings a place to go to every morning, interact and play with other children from similar and lesser backgrounds and also allowed them to pick up rudimentary lessons in language and numeracy. The children shared their books and pencils, squatted on the same torn mats and dipped into each others lunch boxes that inadvertently taught them the all crucial social and life skills. They were happy to be in the company of their friends and then the pandemic set in.

The lockdown ensured that there is little demand for chocolates or the biscuits and thus no more boxes for Vidya’s father to cart on to the trucks. His income halved in the first month of the pandemic before it became nil in the second and subsequent ones. Her mother was disallowed entry to the homes she cleaned and thus was denied of her wages and more importantly, the daily food. With little resources to bank on, the family relied on the government for the rationed food grains and the occasional handouts from voluntary organisations, both meagre to stop  compromising on their daily intakes. With schools shut indefinitely and learning stopped completely, the children with their parents stayed at home for months on end, with uncertainty writ large on their faces. 

When the children from elite private schools have access to laptops and mobile phones and are taught online, the lockdown on education is total in the state government school that Vidya attended. There are no teachers available to contact, no books to look into and no Zoom or Google meet to transact learning. For Vidya, there are no lesson plans or learning outcomes, neither online activities nor offline assignments that are now a routine for an upper-class school girl and to expect any teaching support from the semi-literate father or the illiterate mother would be like hoping to quench the thirst from a painted waterfall. With nowhere to go and nothing else to do, Vidya helps her mother in the kitchen to cook whatever little food the family can conjure up while her two brothers loiter in the squalid lanes of the slum they dwell.

While the impact of the pandemic on the economy are well publicised, the ravage that it has caused to the school education of the underprivileged is hardly discussed, much less flagged or documented. When millions of migrant workers were ejected out of their jobs, they left the cities with the families and children were hurriedly pulled out of the formal schools, both from the private and the government run. With no income even for bare subsistence, the eduction of the children is way below the priority list of these impoverished workers who have returned to their villages to escape abject poverty. And even if they desire to continue their ward’s education once the pandemic is over, there aren’t many schools in the hinterlands of the country worth the title and a huge number of certain dropouts from the education system seems inevitable. Whenever the workers decide to return to the city slums, many of the private schools that their children went to earlier would have already pulled down the shutters for want of children and the revenue to run them. While there are grandiose plans for the total overhaul of the education system and make the products coming out of it globally competitive by 2040, there isn’t yet a thinking on how to retain the millions of children who are on the verge of bidding adieu to formal learning. It’s now a double whammy for the India’s poor, an economically wreaking situation of the present and a very bleak future for their children!

Vidya’s parents are now contemplating of putting their two sons in a private school some distance away and for that they would need additional resources. As the lockdown is being lifted, Vidya is accompanying her mother to the homes she is working as maid. And with two additional hands, her mother has taken up two more homes for cleaning and mopping so that there is extra income in the family to pay the school fees of her two brothers. Vidya, all of fourteen, has said goodbye to her school!    

Yours

Narayanan

( 1USD= Rs.75 approx)

Foto:Alamy

August 23, 2020 at 6:58 pm 20 comments

Kamala Harris and her Chennai connect

The celebrated Tamil poet Bharati described the modern women thus “With graceful strides and head held high and looking straight into the eyes with ideals that are not afraid of anyone in the world…  the woman does not falter as she has the possession of wisdom.” These aspirational hallmarks of the new-age women seeped so deeply into the Tamil psyche that it produced an unprecedented stream of emancipated and enlightened women in the capital city of Chennai since the hundred years the poet scripted the mesmerising lines. From music, art and theatre to medicine and politics, the female folks of the metropolis has made an indelible mark in diverse walks of life and their imprints are now seen across the county and abroad. And Kamala Harris is an offshoot of such a phenomenon.

The trigger to this enthusiastic transformation is the varied socio-cultural and political factors that played out during the early twentieth century in the then city of Madras that was later rechristened as Chennai. It was in Madras the Theosophical Society, that propounded an inclusive approach to spiritualism, took firm roots and soon became its international headquarters. Annie Besant, the society’s President for many years, was a women’s rights crusader and through her innumerable writings and lectures, extolled them to take up education in all earnestness. A firm advocate of universal suffrage, then a revolutionary idea, she could encourage many women to take active participation in politics and later, as the President of the Indian National Congress, enrolled many of them to the freedom movement. In Annie Besant, many young Tamil women found a role model worthy of emulation and one such was Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, a revolutionary in her own right and the first woman to be a member of a legislature anywhere in India. Also the first woman medical graduate in the country, she was again the sole female to study in a men’s college and the one instrumental in setting up the Adyar Cancer Institute in the city, the one of its kind in cancer research till date.The Cancer Institute, produced another outstanding women, Dr. V. Shanta, an internationally renowned Oncologist surgeon. When specialised cancer care is hugely commercialised, she renders her services almost free to thousands of patients in the institute and her contributions are recognised with many prestigious global awards. Her saga of selfless care continues as hundreds of young doctors in the city are getting trained by her. And the first women to fight the British by joining the Indian National Army, Dr. Lakshmi Segal, was again from Chennai.

When the city produced women of eminence in letters and in the academic professions, it is the deluge of female talent that the city unleashed in the art and cultural sphere that took the world by storm. The Kalakshetra, an international centre for dance, music and other visual arts, set up by another theosophist, Rukmani Devi, is a world class cultural centre that attract students across the world. Breaking from the traditional shackles that are associated with performing arts, the institute has produced many eminent women practitioners of the vivid art forms enriching the cultural tapestry of a whole nation. In Music, at a time when women performing on stage were a taboo, the city produced towering female musicians like the revered M.S. Subbulakshmi, whose singing captivated many generations of classical music lovers, across many continents. She was the first female singer to receive the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of the nation and the one of the very few to sing in the United Nations. This illustrious lineage of Chennai lady musicians includes such stalwarts as D K Pattammal, M L Vasanthakumari and the oscar nominee, Jayashree Ramnath and the list goes on.

It is from such a women empowered background that Shyamala Gopalan, the mother of Kamala Harris, emerged and she carried in her the ideas of equality of gender and of race to the shores of America. These progressive streaks were on ample display as she participated in the racial protests in Oakland during the sixties and later, passed them on to her two daughters. “When my mother, Shyamala stepped off the plane in California as 19 years old, she didn’t have much in the way of belongings. But she carried with her lessons from back home, including ones she learned from her parents, my grandmother Rajam, and her father, my grandfather P V Gopalan. They taught her that when you see injustice in the world, you have an obligation to do something about it,” said Harris in a recent talk. Emphasising her indebtedness to the city, Harris added “In Madras (Chennai) I would go on long walks with my grandfather, who at that point was retired. We would take morning walks where I’d hold his hand and he would tell me about the heroes who are responsible for the birth of the world’s biggest democracy. He would explain that it’s on us to pick up where they left off. Those lessons are a big reason why I am who I am today”.  Now you know what Chennai has delivered to the United States and it is pure deliverance!

By the way, I Googled for the most prominent man from Chennai and the first name that popped up was Sunder Pichai!

Yours 

Narayanan

The full verse of Bharati’s poem in Tamil goes thus:

“Nimirndha nan nadai naer konda paarvaiyum

Nilathil yaarkkum anjaatha nerigalum

Thimirndha gnana cherukkum iruppadhaal 

Semmai maadhar thirambuvadhu illaiyaam”

August 16, 2020 at 11:02 pm 16 comments

Up by the stairs, down by escalator

“By saving as little as Rs.3000/- a month, you would amass a sum of Rs. 25.00 lacs by the end of the 15th year” was the tantalising assurance that tricked me to get into a unit-linked Systematic Investment Plan, SIP. The sales guy of the financial company was so convincing that a back of the envelope calculation of the interest on the accrued money was exactly half the monthly amount I would need, post-retirement. And I joyfully signed a Rs.6000/- per month investment scheme. “Retire at 45” was still too utopian to be true but a decent extra income after 50 was definitely entrancing that would allow one to do better things in life, than just sweat out to make a living. The two score and a ten lac of rupees to be credited to my account at the end of the fifteenth year was irresistible and I religiously paid my SIP month after month, even when I was defaulting on my utility payments. Skipping an outing or replacing the split air-conditioner with a desert cooler were too small a price to secure the future…or at least so I thought!

And I should thank my stars for having withstood the shock when the mobile SMS alert informed me of the amount credited at the end of the fifteenth year. Instead of assured five million rupees, what I got was less than a fifth of the promised money. Maybe I thought it was the regular mistake that bankers make in placing the decimal at the wrong place while crediting the amount, but on further investigation it was clear that it indeed was the amount that I am eligible for. I frantically called the person who lured me into the scheme and started yelling at him at the monumental loss that I have incurred. The guy gave a very patient hearing to my outpourings that was interspersed with the choicest expletives and waited for me to empty my anger laced frustration. With a voice and a tone that I thought he would have borrowed from some spiritual sooth sayer, he began: 

“ Sir, I understand your disappointment but you missed the bus….” .

 “ I haven’t tried to travel in one for decades” I resorted demanding an explanation for the steep fall in the final value of my investment. 

“ Sir, your investment was indeed worth the amount I promised but that was three months back… before the pandemic…. and you should have exited the scheme then… you missed it!” 

“ But no one informed me that the pandemic is coming….” I played the ignorant card.

“ Nor did anyone to me sir…. But you should have kept tab of your investment and exit at the right time…Investments are like tending the garden…you should know when to pluck the flower” he continued.

“ But I can still wait for some more time… the vaccine is getting ready and pandemic would definitely go away and the market would bounce back…” 

“ But sir your investment has attained maturity and the money is credited… nothing can be done now” 

 “Do not call me ever again” were my final words as I disconnected the phone rather discourteously to express my deep annoyance.

It then dawn upon me to look at my current financial status and if there is anything that I could do about it now. While excessive eating and under working has ensured that the physical weight has almost doubled during the lockdown, my net worth has nearly halved in the same period. The body weight can be shed by rigorous exercises, but there isn’t any easy mechanism to gain the loss accrued to the asset built almost over a career span of hard work. Not just the investments that are linked to the market trends have taken the battering, the value of almost all the moveable and immovable assets have moved southwards. Property prices, for instance, are down by 40% while the automobile are selling at 50% of the market value, that is, if there is a buyer. Your house may not be worth half the mortgage amount that you would have paid over the years while the car won’t fetch the money to clear the last year of its loan. Such is the impact of the Corona pandemic on our economy that it has set the clock back by a few decades and the downward spiral has not really ended. 

Added to this diminution of net value, for many it the loss of income that is proving to be the most damaging. When jobs are lost and salaries are cut, many dip into their savings and spend them on subsistence needs and thus compromise on their future financial security. The problem is of such mammoth proportion that the statistics show a multifold increase in withdrawals from retirement funds during the last few months and the phenomenon is only getting acute as the days pass! With shrinking assets, depleting savings and reduced incomes, it’s the triple financial combo that is many times more frightening than the dreaded virus!

Meanwhile, the financial sales guy had the guts to call me again and is now requesting to invest in another SIP, this time Rs.10,000/- a month. With a ‘ V’ shaped recovery anticipated once the pandemic is over, he is assuring a sum of Rs.10 million at the end of the tenth year! I am tempted to sign-in…what do you suggest?

Yours 

Narayanan  

(1USD=75 Rupees approx)

August 9, 2020 at 10:43 pm 6 comments

When everyone enjoyed a good cough

In one of the annual college musical competitions, I dared to try out a popular film number of those times that had a long stretch of higher notes peaking towards the end.  A proficient singer would invariably rapt the listeners in delight when those higher octaves, in cascading rhythms, were delivered with ease and would clinch him a standing ovation for the musical prowess displayed. I too fancied to be a recipient of such a veneration as I stretched my vocal cords to its limits and then, it buckled. Instead of presenting the song in ascending notes and in shriller decibels, what came out of my mouth was a jarring screech that one would only let out on seeing a cobra hissing in the living room. Becoming aware of the disaster, I soon gathered my wits and managed to throw a couple of quick coughs to let the audience know that I really had a bad throat that didn’t allow me to offer them an exhilarating musical experience. As I coughed my way out, the crowd sympathised with me and the judges on stage wished me a quick recovery and a better luck next year!

“As I am suffering from cough and fever, I will not be able to attend the office today” is the standard email line that is copied and pasted by a lazy employee to take a day’s unscheduled off from work. The boss would immediately sanction the absence as he himself has used the line many a times to stay at home on a week day. Cough, cold and fever have always been to our rescue to buck a difficult situation and were equally handy to avoid the bad ones and they have delivered, every time.  Used with perfection and with great effectiveness, these little ailments are a panacea for our mundane difficulties that otherwise would have turned life boring and monotonous. When a tough maths unit test is scheduled for the day, an unprepared pupil just has to feign a bad cough or cold to avoid the school and thus the paper. A maid would marshal the cough and fever excuse that her child is suffering from and then stay at her home to escape the extra load of dishwashing when you organise a weekend party at your place. And many of the invited guests would drop out also siting the same reason only to be out to watch the Friday release, the very first show. When you don’t want to say a direct no, the cough and fever alternative is the time tested weapon that serves the purpose and also keep relations intact. 

An intermittent cough is also deployed as a pause by many accomplished speakers to gather their train of thoughts and deliver them with added punch. When about to reveal the central message of the talk, seasoned orators let out a mild cough that puts the audience to a state of heightened alertness so that the intended communication is hammered well and is fully delivered. A boss walks into the meeting room coughing so that the atmosphere turns business-like and when his presence is still not noticed, a bolder cough or a two would draw the attention of all and acknowledge him with exchange of pleasantries. A cough could be a pause, a siren or a prelude and it all depends on who you would want to position it .

But cough and fever as an aliment was never taken seriously and the treatment meted out were casual and meagre. When we have experts and specialists to diagnose and treat more serious illnesses, it is just a general prescription or even an over-the-counter drug that often is the line of treatment and many a time the concocted kitchen remedy would do the trick. Consulting a doctor for cough and fever was indeed a luxury but not anymore!

In these days of the Corona pandemic, the slightest suggestion of cough creates much anxiety and if there is fever to accompany it, then all hell breaks loose. From immediate home quarantine to swab test, the cough has come to symbolise the dreaded Covid infection and is to be kept at bay at all costs. From twice a day warm water gargle to an overdose of lemon and pepper in daily diet, humanity these days would do whatever it takes to not let out a cough.

But now I am coughing non-stop as the masala fumes emanating from the kitchen is irritating my delicate throat…. It signals a delicious dinner in the making and I am just loving the bout! 

Yours 

Narayanan

July 27, 2020 at 6:48 pm 3 comments

Blend it like a Thali

Every late evening, before retiring for the day, my mother would boil a litre of milk, allow it to cool under the fan that is set to rotate at the highest speed and then do an obnoxious act of pouring a scoopful of butter milk on to it. The mix is then closed with a lid and kept aside overnight. The scene of adulterating a pot of pure, creamy and soul nourishing cow’s milk that I could, in those days, drain down in one single gulp, with a highly pungent, sour and almost spoilt liquid was, for a ten year old, insensible and intriguing as it was equally revolting. It could be, I thought then, a sort of a ritual to ward off the malignant affects of an evil eye rather than a procedure to manufacture the daily supply of dairy products for the family. The pot would have invariably vanished the next morning by the time I woke up only to re-appear with a fresh litre of boiling milk in the night!

The realisation that fermenting the milk is an essential process in making the curd had to wait till the chemistry teacher dealt the topic at the high school, but the lesson learnt was much deeper than about the chemical process involved. It let me realise that anything that is pure and intrinsic in nature is by itself of limited value and only when it is blended with other lesser substances, often with opposite characteristics, that it assumes higher significance and purpose. The curd and thereafter the butter and the ghee would have been impossible without the milk blending itself and allowing it to merge with the inferior butter milk just as the finest ornaments could be crafted only on the gold that is mixed with copper. The pristine white paper turned priceless only when the dark ink is smeared over it to create the finest literature that a million readers would behold and treasure. Without the paper let go its fairness, it would still continue to be pure and without blemish, and also blank and empty. Many a fine textile are created by blending different fabric, each supplementing the other to make a composite whole that give expression to many delicate attires.

And when it comes to the blending of different flavours, the Indian platter, the Thali, is the richest example that caters to the demands of every taste bud and yet nutritionally complete and wholesome. The six tastes of sweet, hot, bitter, sour, salt and pungent are lavishly experienced  separately through specific dishes while the whole meal is delicately balanced by the sequence in which they are savoured. And when the last morsel is finished, the feeling one derives is of complete fullness and satisfaction, a gourmet’s delight! In nature too, the most beautiful scenes are reserved during dawn and dusk, when the day’s light blends with the darkness of the night, to spread a panorama of visual splendour. Just when the first rays of the impending sunrise splash on the sky, a celestial display of a thousand birds fluttering jubilantly on the coloured landscape is a sight to behold. And with the first brush of darkness, the vast aerial canvas draped in myriad hues turn serene, filling the hearts with peace and tranquility. 

And during these days of the pandemic, it is the capacity to blend new skills with traditional wisdom that would help one survive and emerge stronger in every department of life. While discharging office responsibilities, the tactic is to seamlessly integrate the conventional method of work with the online interactive meetings that would ensure continuity at job. And at the personal level, it is the blending of household chores, recreational activities and creative endeavours that would keep us in fine fettle. The teachers are blending their delivery with online learning tools to supplement the chalk and talk method and the brick and mortar businesses are seamlessly integrating with e-commerce model. Religious services are delivered on Goggle Meet for the rituals that are conducted physically and payments received via bank transfers!. That’s blending of the most innovative kind!    

The age of blending has indeed arrived and is here to stay…and the future is of those who embrace it willingly!

Yours

Narayanan

July 20, 2020 at 11:46 pm 17 comments

Guru Dakshina

Ambuja Iyer, an octogenarian, logs to her computer every morning to conduct classes to hundreds of her students, online. She has mastered the technique to teach complex mathematical ideas on the digital medium so that her children do not miss out the lessons when the schools are closed during the lockdown and beyond. When many, half her age, are grappling to understand the fundamentals of various online platforms and to effectively transform them for the ‘Work From Home’ culture, here is a passionate teacher juggling the digital tools with such ease that her online classes are billed as vibrant, interactive and trend-setting. Her virtual classes today are a rage among the students and their numbers are only growing!

Moumita, a Pune-based Chemistry teacher, was at her innovative best when it came to creating a lively classroom environment for her online sessions. She used a cloth hanger tied with strings to an armchair and to the ceiling to keep the camera of her mobile phone focused on the board as she explained the complex chemical reactions and derived the equations on it. The students, sitting in the comforts of their homes, could easily understand the concepts explained as effectively as they would have in a physical classroom. And what’s more, many even recorded her sessions to recapitulate the lessons at their convenience.   

And in Kochi, Elizabeth Fernandez and her teacher colleagues of the St. John Bosco school tread miles every working day during lockdown to teach children of migrant workers living under a bridge in the city. The teachers download the content for the online classes to a laptop and play it to the children who mill around them as they explain the lesson, with masks on. The under-the-bridge classes can only be conducted after eleven, when the day has really turned hot, to facilitate children accompany their parents every morning to go for fishing, which is their livelihood. 

Ambuja Iyer, Moumita, Elizabeth and thousands of other teachers across the country struggle day in and day out to prepare lessons, conduct online classes and design offline activities so that our children remain focussed and engaged with their studies through out the pandemic period. They leave no stone unturned to understand the workings of online teaching methods, that were quite alien to them till the other day, and stretch themselves to gain expertise on various digital platforms so that student interest is sustained, classes remain effective and learning objectives, accomplished. These teachers spend hours on end recording video lessons and audio files, designing worksheets and assessment tools, and uploading feedbacks with comments…and all these are in addition to the regular job of conducting online classes. Webinars, teacher training programs and online parent meetings… and the job of a teacher during lockdown is nothing short than being herculean.

But sadly, as the physical schools are not functioning, many parents are not willing to pay up the regular school fees even when their incomes are not impacted and their children fully engaged with the online classes. As the revenue of the schools drop drastically, the schools, in turn, have resorted to cutting down the salaries of teachers and, in many cases, even stopped paying them completely resulting in desperation among the teaching fraternity. And to give vent to their anger and to bring their plight to the notice of the public, teachers, in many places, have taken to the streets, with slogans and placards.  And it was indeed a pathetic sight that, those who are entrusted with the task of shaping the destiny of our children are made to shout and plead for their basic rights, the salaries, in city squares!

The Indian ethos have always accorded a venerated position to the Guru, the Preceptor and it firmly proclaims that it is only with the blessings of the teacher, that one attains glory and fulfilment in life. And paying up for the knowledge received, the Guru Dakshina, is the binding duty so that the knowledge bears fruition.

An Ekalavya paid the Guru Dakshina by cutting his thumb for the imagined instruction received from his Guru… And we, belonging to that lineage, should show no reluctance to pay our teachers their due… without they asking for it.   

Yours

Narayanan

Post script: A Kochi teacher is using Augmented Reality (AR) to teach primary class children that gives a 3D effect.

https://m.timesofindia.com/videos/city/kochi/kochi-school-teacher-uses-augmented-reality-technology-for-conducting-lower-primary-online-classes/videoshow/76958894.cms

July 12, 2020 at 6:57 pm 18 comments

The Brew Beckons

The alarm that is set to wake me up every morning does not ring a bell. It, instead, lets out an invigorating aroma that wafts through the entire house which would even jumpstart a person in deep anaesthesia. That’s the magic of the brew my wife concocts in our kitchen every dawn that’s seductive to inhale and heavenly to sip! Filter coffee is instantaneously refreshing and therapeutically stimulating that it has, for ages, mesmerised both the connoisseur and the commoner alike and also everyone in between!

Cultivated to the level of a fine art, it is the filter that is central to the entire process of preparing this brand of coffee. A two layered vertical container with a top lid, the base of the upper compartment  of the coffee filter is minutely and evenly perforated and sit atop the lower one which is meant to collect the black liquor as it filters down. Copious spoonfuls of finely granulated coffee powder, which are at times freshly ground and dried, is packed on the upper part and steaming hot water is poured over it till the brim. The covered container is put aside till the hot water, penetrating through  the thick layer of the coffee powder, drips down, absorbing the essence of the coffee and its fragrance and collects as decoction in the lower portion. The decoction, a dark and highly viscous liquid, is the sum and substratum of the filter coffee business that sets its apart from other variants of the beverage.

And concocting a memorial cup of coffee is akin to creating a symphony, à la Beethoven, where the decoction is the central theme and other ingredients merge in to complete the perfect orchestra. And what makes the drink a classic, just as the symphony, is the right proportion and the sequence of these ingredients that compliment each other and present a wholesome experience of taste and texture. A little more of sugar and the alluring bitterness of coffee is lost and a little less of milk and the creaminess of the brew is compromised, the first one leaves a jarring sweet note and the other spoils the rhyme of the drink.  And as you finish the cup of a perfect filter coffee to the last froth, an ethereal taste lingers on your mouth for hours on end, just as the musical notes that plays on in your head much after the concert is over!

And the tradition of filter coffee has many a local variations, each having its own distinctiveness and of course, its own ardent followers. While in some regions, sugar has given way to jaggery while in others milk is totally done away and substituted with other creamy thickeners. Whatever be the different avatars, the filter coffee retains its pride of place just because the decoction remains a common denominator to all these versions.

But this art of brewing the filter coffee is fast losing its hold as we switch over to more lazy way of fixing the drink, with instant coffee powders and whiteners. It might just be so easy to make a cup of coffee, anywhere and anytime of the day but that’s not what the connoisseurs of the drink would ever bargain for, conveniences be what it is.  

There is only drink that can surpass the taste of a cup of filter coffee and that is a jar of filter coffee!  

Yours 

Narayanan

July 5, 2020 at 4:29 pm 18 comments

Image and Imagery

An alley of rows of young men and women, clad in cool attires and sitting in ergonomic chairs, are glued to their laptops.  Their trendy glassed office overlook a vast expanse of swanky business towers that dot the skyline. Sipping endless cups of coffee and working extended hours, they always are in a hurry to beat the excruciating client deadlines to complete the project in hand and move over to the next. These smart, tech savvy and highly paid bunch of youngsters are the Indian IT professionals tasked to develop top notch software products for companies worldwide..and millions of such techies work in cities across the country fulfilling an ever increasing global demand for IT services.  They were the poster boys and ambassadors of the new nation,  a confident and aspirant India taking rapid strides in frontier technologies … and the world lapped up this image, until the events that followed the lockdown altered it completely. 

The nation came to a screeching halt when the lockdown was announced on the night of March 24 to contain the Covid spread with factories shut, offices closed and all construction activities suspended immediately.  And with that, the millions who manned the factories, guarded the offices and the workers who laid the roads and erected the homes lost their jobs and the livelihoods.  Unable to pay the paltry rent, they were evicted out of their shanty dwellings and soon, in every mega city of the country, millions spilled over to the streets, hungry, helpless and turned destitute, all in a matter of just few days. With trains out of the tracks and other conceivable mode of transport in the docks, they despaired to be in the comforts of their dear ones in distant villages and soon braced themselves to a ridiculously torturous journey back home, by foot! As the pictures of millions, trudging along for thousands of kilometres in scorching heat with luggages on their heads and babies on their arms flashed across the international media, the image of a nation, as confident and resilient, turned to its head to become a grim visual of a sea of desperate and uncared humanity on the move, overnight!

The migrant workers are the ones who move the wheels of the Indian economy silently, without being noticed, much less acknowledged in every formal and informal sectors. While they built malls and housing complexes, ran every small and medium industries in hazardous settings, did the cleaning and washing chores in almost all middle class households and kept the cities liveable and functioning, the denizens comprehensively failed to integrate them into the city they choose to serve and in the process left them vulnerable to abject poverty. They lived in sub-human conditions, ducked in the underbelly of every metropolis with no social security to rely on or fall back to, in times of distress. It is this callousness on the part of the ruled and the better-off of the society that led to the very tragic exodus of millions and seriously dented the image of a nation, known for its democratic and equitable principles. 

The advent of information and other allied technologies indeed have provided the educated youths with opportunities for lucrative employment which, in turn, has led to the creation of a gentry of neo-rich people. But while creating such a privileged class, it has also widened the gulf of inequality in the society to unacceptable levels. Though Capitalism, by its very nature, breeds inequality, it is the binding duty of a welfare state to mitigate its malignant affects through affirmative actions. Failure to adopt such an interventionist approach would, as history has repeatedly shown us, make societies extremely unstable, as events subsequent to the lockdown has shown.

As much in politics, it is the perception that carries weight and swings opinion in international arena.  And perhaps this sordid imagery of hapless immigrants under lockdown could have been avoided if only we had taken care of our less fortunate brethren a little better. 

Yours

Narayanan

June 28, 2020 at 5:29 pm 5 comments

Guest post by my daughter

I think Appa started Chapter18 in 2010 or 2011. I was all of ten years old and frankly, too worried about my middle-school friendships to care or even attempt to understand what he wrote. The most distinct memory I have which reminded me of the existence of this blog on a daily was the sound of Appa switching off the lights in the living room at 2 am or 3 am and coming to bed happy and content with what he wrote. How I know he was content? He wouldn’t sleep if he was not.

I have been taught by both my parents to put 100% effort into whatever I do. I have never quite seen Appa put that into practice until this blog came along (sorry, dad :P). He would read books, articles and have conversations with people only so that his writing is rooted in reality and resonates with the people reading. However, like all good things come to an end, this did too. In 2012 when our family hit absolute rock-bottom so did Appa’s will to write. He no longer had the insatiable desire to tell stories to the world and no one in his corner would push him or motivate him to. In retrospect, I wish someone did.

The road to start writing again took a very long 5 years. It took perseverance and determination. By me. To convince him. He would usually retort with “What should I write about? Onnume illai (there’s nothing)”. I thought that was a bit rich coming from someone who dedicated an entire blogpost to the saree (you can read that: https://chapter18.wordpress.com/2010/07/17/the-great-indian-stitch-less-garment/). After months of bickering he finally started writing consistently in January of 2019. And thanks to the God he keeps asking me to pray to, there hasn’t been a dry spell since.

The Narayanan of 2020 is a much more relaxed man than the Narayanan of 2010. He no longer has a teenage daughter to worry about, no dog to take to the vet (you can read about Viju: https://chapter18.wordpress.com/2019/08/11/an-eulogy-for-viju-our-pet/) and he has always had an independent and self-sufficient wife. He spends more time learning, reading and cooking than ever before. And he does it so that he can write about it. So that he can share stories from his childhood and his household with everyone.

Chapter18 hit 100 subscriptions on 26 June 2020. Appa very proudly shows his statistics to Amma and I. “I have people reading my blog from Italy, Pragya!!!!” This blog has been a constant source of inspiration and joy for me. I often read out my Appa’s blogposts to my friends and feel an irreplaceable sense of pride. So, thank you to all of you. For reading and learning with Appa. We now know that if 2012 were to have a re-run we will have 100 others in Appa’s corner motivating him to write.

Yours,

Pragya

June 26, 2020 at 6:22 pm 10 comments

Taming the Dragon

The gruesome killing of twenty of our soldiers by a bunch of Chinese army men, nay butchers, in a pre-planned, diabolical attack has rightly caused immense outrage, not just within the country but among all right thinking citizens of the world. What is so sinister about this onslaught is that, it was carried out just as the negotiated de-escalating process was in progress! And, as if to make a mockery of all established conventions, the bodies of the martyred soldiers were mutilated and flung into the raging Galwan river causing revulsion at the audacity of the act. While the nation mourns at the loss of its valiant sons along with the bereaved families, it also steels the resolve of a race, long acclaimed for its forbearance, to avenge the inflicted wrong and decisively tame and rein-in the dragon that, of late, has gone amok.

When the entire humanity is fighting the corona pandemic that originated from the Chinese soil and struggling to come to terms with the incalculable misery it has unleashed, the Red Army, as a diversionary tactic, is in an expansionist mood. When serious doubts are raised world-wide on the theory that the virus originated naturally and as evidence mount on the possibility of it being artificially manufactured, a rattled establishment is on an all out spree to change the narrative through a maze of geopolitical misadventures.  And to aid it in this agenda is a well crafted web of media blitzkrieg aimed to misguide, misinform and misdirect the public opinion and thus push the subcontinent towards a dangerous confrontation. The game becomes all the more cataclysmic when friendly neighbours are wooed to turn hostile and are induced to act against India. And the nation is well within its rights to bring in an immediate correction and secure its borders.

To neutralise the Chinese forces and push them back from the LAC is of immediate import but a long term strategy to counter the Chinese aggression, both military and economic, calls for a deeper and unbiased understanding of the enemy’s strength. When the stated policy is to “hide the strength and bid for the right time” it becomes all the more imperative to unravel those strengths and how they were acquired in a short span of two to three decades.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc. recently made a telling commentary as to why they manufacture their iPhones in China and it is not the cost factor. “ The number one reason why we like to be in China is the people. China has extraordinary skills. And the part that’s the most unknown is there’s almost two million application developers in China that write apps for the iOS App Store. These are some of the most innovative mobile apps in the world…” says Tim. And this extraordinarily high level of technical skills spans across all the manufacturing sectors making it not just the preferred location, but almost an inevitable one. And that is not all… what the Chinese have achieved is that they have seamlessly integrated high level of craftsmanship with the latest robotics technology that makes the products rolled out of their factories technically world class and aesthetically superior, a lethal combine for any nation to beat. This level of competency among its working class is built by assiduously strengthening their school and technical education systems that has one-point focus on quality. It is no surprise that many of the top class universities in the world today are in China!

And the only hope for India to catch up with the Chinese and acquire a matching technical expertise across sectors is to totally revamp our school education system which today, is largely in shambles. There has to be a re-focus towards skills development right from the middle school as against the present day rote learning and there is an urgent need to jettison the outdated syllabus and align the technical education to the demands of the modern industry. Our engineers passing out of colleges should not be doing coding jobs in IT companies or attending calls at BPO centres but rather be designing a variety of innovative products at innumerable R&D centres. Only with such a shift in priorities would we ever be able to make India a manufacturing hub of comparable quality and effectively neutralise the challenges thrown to us as a nation. 

The taming of the dragon is now no more a choice but a compelling need. 

Yours

Narayanan

June 19, 2020 at 6:30 pm 12 comments

Gandhiji’s Talisman

The grandfather clock in our house was an ancestral property and my father’s was the third generation to inherit it. It was a mammoth time machine with many a needles, dials, wheels and a huge pendulum, all encased in an exquisitely crafted wooden box. The pendulum was kept in perfect oscillation by a network of wheels rotating at varying speeds, the cogs of the bigger ones pushing that of the smaller wheels. The margin of error of the time it displayed was 1/100th of a second, a precision standard that could be the envy of the most modern atomic clock. While it struck a single bell for half-an-hour, the number of the bells it let out every hour matched the hour count it displayed, the peaks being the noons and the midnights. The machine needed regular oiling and servicing and once in a week winding of the keys, an exercise that my father undertook with clockwork precision. It also served as cocoon to sparrows that seamlessly flew into the drawing room from the courtyard and built their nest on the broad upper curvature of the clock to lay the seasonal eggs. The machine served well for generations and kept a close watch and a benevolent glance on all of us siblings during our growing up years. 

But one noon there was no more ticking of the seconds hand nor was there the tolling of the bells at the appointed hour. The grandfather clock had ceased to work completely with all the needles looking upwards as if to convey that the life of it has moved to the heavenly direction. No amount of cajoling the pendulum and winding of the keys could bring it back to life as it stood motionless, up on the walls. Slowly we stopped expecting the hourly strokes and the habit of looking up to check the time also soon left us. But the clock remained on the wall for many more years because it continued to be the home for the tiny birds to nestle its babies as my mother resisted all attempts to disturb their habitat with the zeal of an activist. The sparrows flew in and out of the drawing room umpteen times everyday, dirtying the floors with every flight with its droppings and mother would endlessly clean them without a murmur, only to ensure that the birds happily raised their families in our house. This went on for years until the sparrows themselves became a rare species owing to the unending constructions all over, leaving them with little space to whiz around and thrive. But the grandfather clock continued to hang on the wall, waiting for the sparrows to come and build their nest on it. The clock episode taught us all the cardinal lesson of putting the interests of the less privileged above our little inconveniences and that it is the binding duty of the fortunate ones to take care of those who are dependent on us, even if that means taking upon ourselves the extra burden. 

This sensitisation to put the interests of others above that of oneself stood me in good stead when faced with many a moral dilemmas later in life.  Be it the question of cutting down staff to increase profitability, or finding newer ways and methods to spruce up sales, the interest of the less vocal and more disadvantaged were always protected, even when it meant slower growth, increased expenses or compromised efficiency. The hand woven cloth was preferred to machine made synthetic fibre, purchase from the local stores superseded the temptation to relieve the hi-tech shopping experience of the malls while the services of maids, washermen and the like were continued to be availed even when surrounded with modern gadgets meant to replace these manual work.  

As  advances in web technology, artificial intelligence, big data analytics and the like are making forays into our everyday life  and adversely impacting the lives and livelihoods of millions, the need for a human compass based on compassion is most acutely felt now than ever before. And it is here the talisman given by Gandhi, would serve as guiding post to resolve the moral dilemmas of the present age and help us arrive at the right choices, be it the individual decisions or the policies at the government level. Gandhi exhorts us to recall the face of the poorest man and benchmark whether the decisions we contemplate to take be of any help to him and if the inner voice is in the affirmative, then we should follow that course of action with abandon. This way, a simplest and the most effective tool is granted to us by one of the greatest human beings ever to walk on the face of this earth, that could make the most complex decisions easy and morally upright.

Yet, sadly, it is this very fundamental yardstick that we fail to gauge our decisions with that result in colossal damage to society and the nation at large. If only we remind ourselves of the poorest man and place his welfare as the centre of our actions, we would invariably arrive at the right choices always and would be spared the agony of causing distress to the ones whom we are meant to serve.

Yours 

Narayanan

June 10, 2020 at 12:05 am 15 comments

The Domestic Treaty

The bilateral treaty that I and my wife entered into during this lockdown period covers areas of responsibility in discharging the household chores and it has no clause for unilateral exit. The agreement is binding on both the parties as long as the other maintain all the conventions and does not indulge in acts of omissions, tantamount to breach of contract. The broad contours of the treaty are so framed that there is equitable distribution of work with scope for minimal infringement into each other’s territory. When all matters relating to the external affairs are purely under my realm, the operational jurisdiction of my wife’s work encompass kitchen and laundry, both critical departments that demand seasoned expertise and deep domain knowledge. And I have the responsibility to do the ground work that would facilitate seamless preparation (meaning cutting the vegetables) of sustenance food by my wife. With additional charge to ensure that the living spaces are secured for human habitation (sweeping and mopping the floor) and to oversee that all essential equipment are made ‘Mission Ready’ for the next day’s operations (in other words, cleaning the dirty utensils before going to bed), I have my KRAs clearly spelt out.  By a special provision in the agreement, I am exempted from liability that could be incurred by any act of a persona non grata, the entry of anyone into the house uninvited, and that is a big concession in these days of the Covid spread!

The cutting of the vegetables for many could be a cultivated art but for me it is nothing short than a commando planning before a surgical strike. When chopping a bunch of beans, for example, each of the pods need to be stripped off the external fibre, levelled them to uniform size and cut into pieces of equal micro length, an exercise that demands operational precision and clinical execution. When it comes to dealing with the unruly leafy vegetables, it could be an absolute nightmare with many strains intruding into the operational area while a whole stacked bunch jumps off and escape the chopping knife. Thanks to the many youtube videos, I could, at last, gain a semblance of working knowledge on the subject, after doing a few dry-runs on paper napkins.  Such is the level of the challenges that are thrown at me during this lockdown period that twenty-five years of work experience and a twenty years of education preceding it,  is hardy of any relevance today. 

 The sweeping and mopping the floor, I thought would be much simpler, like clearing the trash box of the laptop….press Ctrl+Alt+Del and all the junk is gone! But after every sweeping assignment, I need to embark upon the task of cajoling my jarred hip muscle with a lavish dose of self-massage. And when mopping becomes an essential follow-up activity, the limbs, the elbows and the calf muscles all join the chorus for an extended period of physiotherapeutic appeasement. If the going gets little harder, they all request for a moratorium from work, at least for two consecutive days, without any penalty, a demand that is in contravention to the terms of the treaty!

 The external agencies that I am to contend with are the milk supplier, the grocery store owner and the vegetable vendor. Interacting with them demand skill sets in negotiation, in supply chain management along with sorting and assorting techniques. Purchase of the vegetables, for instance, has to precede a reconnaissance mission to all the nearby vendors with the objective to make a fair assessment of the price band of each of the veggies. Armed with such a scientifically collated data, I would be in an extolled position to extract the best deal. And in these days of serious monetary constraints, when alacrity needs to take precedence over callousness, such analytics help withstand the pressure of lobbying by the vendors. 

Even after such intense planning, there were instances when I could not fully comply with the finer points of the agreement seriously jeopardising its operation. But with the help of the interlocutor, my daughter, we managed to thrash out the issues and bring truce with my wife and salvage it for another day. 

With the third extension of the lockdown announced with many relaxations, the period of the treaty too is now extended, without any relaxation!!!

Ho, it’s just about time for the next activity and a sink full of vessels is staring at me!

Regards

Narayanan

May 4, 2020 at 4:36 pm 20 comments

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