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Editorial

Triumph of the Human Spirit

On August 8th 2021, the chief of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, pointed out during the closing ceremony that these games were “unprecedented” and brought messages of “hope, solidarity and peace” into a world torn with the desolation generated by the pandemic. It was a victory of the human spirit again, a precursor of what is to come. That the Japanese could get over their pandemic wrought hurdles, just as they did post the nuclear disasters wrought by the Second World War and by the 2011 earthquake-tsunami at Fukushimaya, to host something as spectacular and inspiring as these international games reflects, as the commentators contended, a spirit of ‘harmony and humility’. The last song performed by many youngsters seemed to dwell on stars in the sky — not only were the athletes and organisers the stars but this also reminded of unexplored frontiers that beckon mankind, the space.What a wonderful thing it was to see people give their best and unite under the banner of sports to bring messages of survival and glimpses of a future we can all share as human beings! Our way of doing things might have to evolve but we will always move forward as a species to thrive and expand beyond the known frontiers.

One such explorer of yet unknown frontiers who mingles the historic with the contemporary, Goutam Ghose, an award-winning filmmaker and writer, has honoured our pages with an extensive interview showing us how art and harmony can weave lores that can help mankind survive. This is reinforced by the other interview with Singaporean academic, Dr Kirpal Singh, whose poetry reflects his convictions of a better world. With our intelligence, we can redefine processes that hold us back and grind our spirits to dust — be it the conventional ‘isms’ or norms that restrict our movement forward – just as Tagore says in the poem, we have translated this time, ‘Deliverance’.

…On this auspicious dawn,
Let us hold our heads high in the infinite sky 
Amidst the light of bounteousness and the heady breeze of freedom.

As the Kobiguru mentioned earlier in the poem, the factors that oppress could be societal, political, or economic. Could they perhaps even be the fetters put on us by the prescribed preconceived definition of manmade concepts like ‘freedom’ itself? Freedom can be interpreted differently by multiple voices.

This month, on our pages, ‘freedom’ has found multiple interpretations in myriad of ways — each voice visualising a different dream; each dream adding value to the idea of human progress. We have discussions and stories on freedom from Nigeria, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia and more. Strangely enough, August holds multiple independence/ national days that are always for some reason seen as days of being ‘freed’ by many — at least from oppression. But is that true?

From Malaysia, Julian Matthews and Malachi Edwin Vethamani cry out against societal, religious and political bindings – quite a powerful outcry at that with a story and poems. Akbar Barakzai continues his quest with three poems around ideas of freedom translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch. Jaydeep Sarangi and Joan Mcnerny pick up these reverberations of freedom, each defining it in different ways through poetry.

Jared Carter takes us back to his childhood with nostalgic verses. Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Michael Lee Johnson, Vandana Sharma and many more sing to us with their lines. Rhys Hughes has of course humour in verse that makes us smile as does Jay Nicholls who continues with her story-poems on Pirate Blacktarn – fabulous pieces all of them. The sport of hummingbirds and cats among jacaranda trees is caught in words and photographs by Penny Wilkes in her Nature’s Musings. A poetic tribute to Danish Siddiqui by young Sutputra Radheye rings with admiration for the Pulitzer prize-winning photographer who met his untimely end last month on 16th while at work in Afghanistan, covering a skirmish between Taliban and Afghanistan security forces. John Linwood Grant takes up interesting issues in his poetry which brings me back to ‘freedom’ from colonial regimes, perhaps one of the most popular themes for writers.

Indo-Pak independence, celebrated now on 14th (Pakistan) and 15th August (India), reflects not only the violence of the Partition which dislocated and killed millions historically but also the trauma caused by the event. Capturing this trauma is a short story based on memories of Partition by Nadir Ali, translated from Punjabi by his daughter, Amna Ali. Ratnottama Sengupta translates from the diary of Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), a woman’s voice from the past that empathises with the subjugated who were subdued yet again after an upsurge of violence during the Quit India Movement (1942) against the colonials. Sinha contends that though the movement frittered away, the colonials were left with an after-taste of people hankering for self-rule. A thought-provoking short story by Sunil Sharma explores the results of self-rule in independent India.

Alluding to Jinnah’s vision for women, Aysha Baqir muses emotionally about the goals that remain yet to be fulfilled 74 years after independence. Moazzam Sheikh’s story of immigrants explores dementia, giving us a glimpse of the lives of Asian immigrants in America, immigrants who had to find a new home despite independence. Was this the freedom they dreamt of — all those who fought against various oppressive regimes or colonialism?

Tagore’s lyrics might procure a few ideas on freedom, especially in the song that India calls its National Anthem. Anasuya Bhar assays around the history that surrounds the National Anthem of India, composed by Tagore in Bengali and translated to English by the poet himself and more recently, only by Aruna Chakravarti. We also carry Dr Chakravarti’s translation of the National Anthem in the essay. Reflecting on the politics of Partition and romance is a lighter piece by Devraj Singh Kalsi which says much. ‘Dinos in France’ by Rhys Hughes and Neil Reddick’s ‘The Coupon’ have tongue-in-cheek humour from two sides of the Atlantic.

A coming-of-age story has been translated from Nepali by Mahesh Paudyal – a story by a popular author, Dev Kumari Thapa – our first Nepali prose piece.  We start a four-part travelogue by John Herlihy, a travel writer, on Myanmar, a country which has recently been much in the news with its fight for surviving with democracy taking ascendency over the pandemic and leaving the people bereft of what we take for granted.

Candice Louisa Daquin discusses a life well-lived in a thought provoking essay, in which she draws lessons from her mother as do Korean poet, Ihlwha Choi, and Argentinian writer, Marcelo Medone. Maybe, mothers and freedom draw similar emotions, of blind love and adulation. They seem to be connected in some strange way with terms like motherland and mother tongue used in common parlance.

We have two book excerpts this time: one from Beyond the Himalayas by the multi-faceted, feted and awarded filmmaker we have interviewed, Goutam Ghose, reflecting on how much effort went in to make a trip beyond boundaries drawn by what Tagore called “narrow domestic walls”. We carry a second book excerpt this time, from Jessica Muddit’s Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon. Keith Lyons has reviewed this book too. If you are interested in freedom and democracy, this sounds like a must read.

Maithreyi Karnoor’s Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends, is a fiction that seems to redefine norms by what Rakhi Dalal suggests in her review. Bhaskar Parichha has picked a book that many of us have been curious about, Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves. Parichha is of the opinion,Elevated or chastised, exonerated or condemned, the perturbation unworldly women in India face is that they have never been treated as equal to men as spiritual leaders. This lack of equality finds its roots not only in sociological and cultural systems, but more particularly at the levels of consciousness upon which spirituality and attitudes are finally based.”One wonders if this is conclusive for all ‘unworldly women’ in India only or is it a worldwide phenomenon or is it true only for those who are tied to a particular ethos within the geographical concept of India? The book reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra,  Somdatta Mandal’s The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, dwells on the fierce independence of the early twentieth century women caregivers of the maestro from Bengal. These women did not look for approval or acceptance but made their own rules as did Jnadanandini, Tagore’s sister-in-law. Bhaskar Parichha has also added to our Tagore lore with his essay on Tagore in Odisha.

As usual, we have given you a peek into some of our content. There is more, which we leave for our wonderful readers to uncover. We thank all the readers, our fantastic contributors and the outstanding Borderless team that helps the journal thrive drawing in the best of writers.

I wish you all a happy August as many of the countries try to move towards a new normal.

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal, August 2021

Categories
Musings

Gliding down the Silk Road

By Ratnottama Sengupta

These contemplations have come out of Ruhaniyat-e-Aam, an online festival of migrating music. Hosted by Indus Band, its focal theme was ‘Reconstructing the Silk Route’.  A webinar was the finale of the concept that was put into practice long before ‘COVID’ entered the Oxford dictionary – in 2018 when Somali Panda, founding head of the Kolkata-based Band came up with the novel concept of connecting online with performers in Greece. They played their music, we joined them with my reading, Tamal Goswami’s painting, and Somali’s songs.

Subsequently, during the pandemic, “when the world was compelled to stay indoors, the importance of connecting with the rest of humanity forcefully struck us,” says Somali. She then went on to host this series of interactions with musicians, artists, filmmakers and academicians from Greece, Czech Republic, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan and India — all participating in a celebration of the Human Migration that established bonding amongst nations, cultures, civilizations, and created a global community long before the term had come into existence.

The prime purpose of reconstructing the Silk Route — philosophically, ideologically, conceptually – was to forge a measure of friendship. Friends they became – Labros Kantos, singer from Greece; Saimir Bajo from the Czech Republic; Mesbah Kamal, academician from Dhaka; Sharofat Ara Bova, filmmaker from Tajikistan; Arqavaneh Folklore Ensemble from Isfahan, Iran; Mohamed Abu Zid from Cairo, Egypt; Sarower Reza Jimi, playwright from Lisbon, Portugal… Because music connects people most readily since it overrides the barrier of language, “and it gives inner peace and solace,” Somali adds.

 By the time it ended, Ruhaniyat-e-Aam had traced the cultural exchange from the time of Alexander and helped to understand how Hellenic Culture became Hellenistic through synthesis. Most of us know that after Alexander conquered the Persians, he established the city of Alexandria (339 BC). A little more detail: this was in the Fergana Valley of Neb – around modern-day Tajikistan. Leaving the wounded warriors behind Alexander moved on, and in time the Macedonians intermarried with the indigenous populace creating the Greco Bactrian culture that flourished in the Seleucid Empire after his death.

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This festival of Migrant Music set me on a virtual journey down the Silk Road, the 6,400 km caravan tract that was actually an ancient network of trade routes. Formally established during the Han Dynasty of China, it linked in commerce the regions from China to Mesopotamia – should I say modern day Iran? – through India, Asia Minor, Egypt, the African continent, Greece, Rome and Britain too — between 130 BC and 1453 AD. Originating in Xian – now famed for its Terracotta Army – it followed the Great Wall of China to its northwest, bypassed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs, crossed Afghanistan, went on to the Levant region from where merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea.

What many of us don’t realize is that the Silk Route was not one single road. There were some that were longer and safer; some were shorter and more difficult. Some had been journeyed on much longer and thereby had witnessed more exchange than some of the shorter, more precarious roads and pockets like, say, Bhutan. And few travelled the entire length of the road: goods were handled in a staggered progression by middlemen.

The greatest value of the road lies in the exchange of culture it effected. Art, religion, technology, language, science, architecture — indeed, every other element of civilization was exchanged on these roads, along with the commercial goods that merchants traded from country to country

Marco Polo: Creative Copmmons

With the loss of Roman superiority and rise of Arabian power, the Silk Road became more and more unsafe. However, during the rule of the Mongols/ Mughals, Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) travelled right up to China along the road that is now supposed to have been the main artery along which travelled the bubonic plague bacteria responsible for the pandemic of Black Death that decimated the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.

The network was used regularly till about 1453 when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with the west and closed the routes. By this time Europeans had become used to goods from the east, and so merchants set out to find new trade routes – over the oceans. That, as we know, led to the discovery of the New World and of new civilizations and forging of new cultures. In sum, we may say that laid the groundwork for the modern world.

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What many of us don’t know: Part of the Silk Road still exists as a paved highway connecting Pakistan and the Uygur, an autonomous region of Xinjiang in China. It had given UN the impetus to plan a trans-Asian highway, and a railway counterpart of the road too had been proposed. The road had inspired cellist Yo-Yo Ma to found the Silk Road Project in 1999 in order to explore cultural traditions along its route and beyond, as a means for connecting arts worldwide, across cultures.

But why look back on the Road that has little to do with how it existed 2000 years ago? Forget the zeros – it is probably not like it was even two and half years ago! So what is its importance?

To my mind, the importance lies in the layers of history lining it. Glancing backward we realize that we stand on the shoulder of giants. Every visit into the past unearths stories of human civilization. And whenever I have done that – as I did in Kazakhstan as part of an ICCR effort in 2009 – I have got answers to questions like:

 A) Where was the Road going and why?

B) Why was it such a life transforming journey?

C) The road traversed through remote parts of the world, especially a huge part was ice covered desert. Then, why did the horse become such an important part of the journey on this road?

D) Horse was only one of the animals that were traded on the route. So, who named it Silk Road and why?

Arabian Nights

 It was so named by Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 CE because silk was a treasured part of the trade – indeed it was the primary attraction that started off the trade but few travellers walked the entire length of the road. They came to different posts on the route, exchanged goods, food, plants, and ideas along with spices and tea. Stories of The Arabian Nights give us an idea about the exchanges that were taking place in city like Baghdad. And we realise that the flying carpet was not a mere figment of imagination, it became a metaphor for journeying from one world to another.

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Enough of history? Well then, let’s take note of the cultural exchanges closer to our life and times. Since Ruhaniyat-e-Aam was about Migrating Music, what we naturally traced was the commonality of instruments like sarod, santoor and violin… How come the last named string instrument most associated with Western Classical music gained such acceptance and became inseparable part of music in Iran and in South India’s Carnatic music? Was rabab, the folk accompaniment most widely associated with Afghanistan, the precursor of India’s sarod, internationalized by Ustads such as Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan? Indeed, it was from them that I learnt there have been several versions of the rustic musical instrument that was honed, refined, perfected and sophisticated until it became the sonorous voice of Indian classical music.

Again, our santoor has a close affinity with instruments in China, Persia, Greece, and so many other places. I remember my visit to China for the Festival of India under the aegis of the Ministry of Human Resources, then headed by Arjun Singh. As part of that government-to-government initiative, I visited some music schools and was amazed to see how much our santoor — once called shatatantri or hundred stringed veena — had in common with the Chinese hammered dulcimer, yangqin. There have been many versions of it – in Iran, Iraq, Greece, Armenia. I noticed that the music played on the Chinese instruments were a bit more staccato; in India I learnt from maestros closely identified with santoor — primarily Shiv Kumar Sharma and Bhajan Sopori – that strings have been added to get the murchhana or greater resonance so that the notes linger on…

If we go on to visual arts, the first name that comes to my mind is of Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). The Russian lawyer-painter-archaeologist-philosopher born in St Petersberg had developed an abiding interest in Eastern religions, in Theosophy and Buddhism as much as Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, Tagore, Vedanta and Bhagavad Gita. His spiritual leanings took him across the Himalayas and make his home in the Himachal town of Naggar where he breathed his last.

Of greater consequence to Ruhaniyat-e-Aam was the fact that in mid-1920s the Roerichs together with their son and six friends went on a five-year-long Asian Expedition that started – in Roerich’s words – “from Sikkim and went through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladah, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qarashar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, Oyrot regions of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam and Tibet…” A decade later he was to return to Mongolia and Manchuria to collect seeds of plants that prevent soil erosion.

In plainer words, because of these travels Roerich intimately knew not only the Himalayan range but a lot more of the Silk Road. This armed him with a scintillating palette of colours that painted mesmerizing mountains that are bold yet lyrical, rather mystical, even spiritual. I was absorbed by the tranquility that imbues the hypnotic series of 36 immersive images of the Himalayas preserved in the Roerich Gallery at the Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore.

Roerich’s journeys along the Road had also prompted him to talk of preventing the destruction of art and architecture and work toward preserving the cultural wealth of the world. This had led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929.

Deb Mukharji, a retired member of India’s Foreign Services, has also travelled through its hardy folds – and extensively photographed the Abode of Snow. The keen photographer who has authored Kailash and Mansarovar and exhibited Tall Tales of the Himalayas — among many others — is concerned about the ecosystem of the rugged and culturally rich Himalayas. “It is threatened by the highways that are being built through the mountains, either to promote religious tourism or for other purposes, he says after treks that took him from Garhwal to Nepal and Kailash to Manas.”

Cinematographer-director Goutam Ghose has journeyed through the Silk Route to make the ten-part documentary, Beyond the Himalayas. His project had started in 1994 and initially he had travelled with only 5-6 members who drove in a jeep and through the countries. “Our purpose was to look back from here and now in order to connect all the yesterdays that have transformed life and made us what we are today,” the celebrated filmmaker had said to me then.

So many stories of the exchanges enrich our literature too. Saradindu Bandopadhyay, author of many Bengali classics, had penned a story titled Maru O Sangha – The Monastery in the Desert. This was turned into a film, Trishagni/ Sandstorm (1989) by Nabendu Ghosh, another celebrated Bengali writer who became a legend as screenwriter of Hindi films. His film revolved around a monastery in Central Asia, somewhere on the Silk Route.  It showed traders who came to the monastery with a ration of food, clothes and other essentials. Those were days when people could not fly in in a helicopter and drop supplies… it took months for these traders travelling in groups to reach from one stupa to another. There was a focus on the lifestyle of the times. Buddhism was the first organized religion, and monastery being the centre of Buddhism was thus the centre of such exchanges 2000 and more years ago. These monasteries subsequently became the prototype for Islamic Madrasas and before that, of Christian universities: they were built along the lines of the monasteries which dotted Central Asia. And it is believed that the Stupa also gave the concept of the gumbad, the round top of so many masjids and forts too.

Another important exchange that was happening came to light when Trishagni was screened in many international film festivals outside India – in Tehran, Cairo, Thailand… One of the questions that cropped up was this: “You are talking about Buddhism but why are the men (and women) dressed like they dress in Islamic countries? Islam wasn’t there then!” It had to be pointed out that philosophy – and religion is a part of that – and ideas travel but Geography moulds what we wear. Because of the weather, when there was no air conditioner or even fans around, people in some parts of Africa wore no garments and in some parts of the Asian desert men wore long robes to cover the body from head to toe from the hot flying sand particles. They started covering their heads and ears and part of the face, and that wisdom became a convention and then a tradition.

Thus, geographical reality moulded why people in certain parts of the world dress in certain ways. And with the journey of religion, these dress codes also journeyed. The Romans did not wear silk because they admired the style in which the Chinese wore it but because of the inherent quality of silk. Cotton was also much in demand on this route since it was hot in the desert. So was indigo – native to India, primarily, and sought in Mediterranean countries as pigment for dyeing, medicinal and cosmetic use.

These exchanges which are now history happened largely because of geography. Why? I got the answer in the course of a seminar where artistes and academics had come from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkey. I started realizing that people were travelling from China down to Northern tip of Africa or the Mediterranean country, certain lifestyle changes were taking place. These landlocked pockets that had no access to the sea, had little green and only animals to live off. Naturally, many turned their attention to what was going on the Silk Road. Two very interesting things happened:

1) Many became bandits who would rob these caravans.

2) Many did the opposite: they offered themselves as guards to protect the goods in the caravans from bandits.

So, the same problem generated two different approaches to life, two different lifestyles. Those who became guards would travel with the caravans and they became warriors. They became warriors because they were living in very tough terrains, and they became skilled warriors because they were fighting off bandits to protect the caravans. Before long these men turned aggressive. Wars between tribes became endemic – and many of the lands strived to find stability and prosperity for their people by going into the lands of other people. (Once again, geography and history came together to define lifestyle and culture.)

We find versions of this later when people set out from Europe and landed up in America, and a new culture and civilizational evolved. Another such change took place when people were forced to travel from the Queen’s England to Australia. All these migrations and journeys have influenced the arts, ideas, religion, food habit… Why is it that in India’s Northwest – Afghanistan, to be specific — people cook meat and roti in tandoor ovens while in Bengal well-being is synonymous with ‘maachh-bhaat’ – fish curry and rice? Once again the answer lies in the history of geography – that is, geography moulding tradition and shaping history.

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In 1892 Rabindranath Tagore wrote Kabuliwala, a story that touches the heart of humans everywhere in the world even today. It pivots on a peddler from Kabul who comes to Calcutta each year to sell dry fruits, and befriends a child, Mini. Circumstances force him to go to prison on charges of stabbing a debtor. On his release he goes to meet Mini and finds she is getting married. Rahman realizes that his daughter, now grown up, will also not have any recollection of her father – and he starts on his return journey, towards home.

This story has been filmed in India in Bengali by Tapan Sinha (1957), in Hindi by Hemen Gupta (1961), by Kazi Hayat of Bangladesh (2006), by Anurag Basu for a television channel (2015), by Deb Medhekar in 2018. It has been reimagined in totally different contexts.  Bioscopewala, set in 1990s, had Minnie going to Afghanistan where her father has died in a plane crash. In another script French Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi sets the story after the destruction of the Balmiyan Buddhas. This man from Kabul spells another exchange of ideas: he comes because this part of the world believes in reincarnation — and he is seeking his little girl who died during the destruction of the Buddhas!

Taking her cue from this same story, Sharofat Imam Arabova of Tajikistan made a lilting film where an Indian vendor selling things in that land strikes a friendship with a little girl. Desirous of paying a tribute to the author, the FTII-trained director approached Somali Panda to incorporate Tagore’s music in the script. “And when we did that using a santoor, it was so strikingly in sync!” says the music-maker from Kolkata who extensively used Raag Bhairavi. “That is the power of music – and also the bonding of migrant music,” she adds. And even as she spoke, I was reminded of Mrinal Sen’s Neel Akasher Neechey/ Under the Blue Sky (1959) wherein a Chinese hawker, Wang Lu, sold silk on the streets of Calcutta of 1930s, when India was under British rule. His life changed forever when he met Basanti, a housewife who gets arrested for her involvement in politics.

So what’s common between these stories? What connects the diverse players? Human situation where a man has travelled for work and struck friendship, an equation with a child – the most basic, most innocent form of humanity.

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This is the importance of revisiting the Silk Route and renewing acquaintance with migrant music: that human beings everywhere in the world have been migrating. Individually too we have migrated. My grandfather migrated from East Bengal – Dhaka – to Patna, then a part of Bengal Presidency. Now Dhaka is a different country, and Patna is part of Bihar, a different state from West Bengal. My father ‘migrated’ from Patna to Calcutta to Bombay Presidency which became two states – Maharashtra and Gujarat. I was born in Bombay, which has become Mumbai, lived in Delhi which was earlier a Union Territory and now has become a state. At present, I live in West Bengal. My brother who was born in Patna studied in Pune, graduated in Medicine from Calcutta, lived in UK and worked in Germany, Brunei, Cyprus, Bosnia… So many migrations!

Today technology has opened new highways, new vistas of connecting with the world. And even as we speak (or read, as in this case) we are crossing boundaries almost every minute of our day. Within families to, a child goes out to study in London or New York, makes Singapore or Sidney his workplace, his family perhaps lives in Delhi, and he travels to Johannesburg to  Rio, Texas to Tokyo, Moscow to Hong Kong, Sweden to Israel. So many outposts of civilization – just as people on the Silk Road once did, for their trade.

The crux of it? Stories that tell us about human lives and human emotions highlight one simple thing: Humans are the same everywhere. They are all born of their soil – geography. And geography moulds our history. Because we are creatures of these two forces, periodically we need to look back and trace our commonalities in order to transcend the schisms in society.

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Ratnottama Senguptaformerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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