Archive for October, 2008

We enter the field director’s office. A flock of guide/Gypsy owners swoop down on us as soon as we pull to a stop and alight from the car and accompany us all the way inside. I’m don’t know how they knew we were tourists. I suspect our Delhi number plate and the fact that we drove inside the compound tentatively, looking around uncertainly and asking people if indeed we were at the right place may have had something to do with it.

Inside I walk to the reception and announce dramatically, “We have bookings for Jhirna.” The guy at the reception glances at me and then at the palm of his hand. “Smita Jain?” I peer at him. “Rajesh Bhatt ji?” He nods shyly. I remember that when I was making the bookings on the phone I had several conversations with him. At the time he was curiously reticent about revealing his name. “Why do you want to know?” I was flabbergasted. “So that I can say hello to you once I reach.”

Now I say, “Hello to you Rajesh Bhatt ji. Just like I said.” He blushes furiously. In his book this is just not the way girls talk. Not with our baaraat of tourist guides watching interestedly.

He hastily thrusts a form at me to fill out. I go to the seating area nearby to fill out the form followed by the tourist guides who all want me to fill out their names and their car numbers in the form. You see you cannot enter the jungle in your own car. You have to hire a Maruti gypsy locally whose drivers double up as tourist guides. Or so I was led to believe. Later I learnt that you can take your car in as long as it is a four wheel drive. But it is much more fun in an open gypsy since it affords you a 360⁰ view. Of course it affords tigers the same luxury but more on that later.

Soon a bidding war erupts with tourist guides outdoing each other in cutting prices. So what begins with an initial bid of 3500 for two days comprising three three hour safaris settles at 2500. One clever enterprising guy, Arif, does the unthinkable. He shouts out, “2200.” “Done,” I say and quickly pencil in his car number.

I take the form to Rajesh Bhatt who asks me at what rate the deal was struck. When I tell him, he professes astonishment and turns to his colleague and says, “Can you believe how much they’ve dropped their prices?”

Feeling rather pleased with myself, I exit the office and move to get into my car. Till I realise I’ve left my Mont Blanc at the reception. When I rush inside I see my pen lying on the counter. Rajesh Bhatt is busy with another new arrival and doesn’t see me. I hear him asking them at what price the deal was struck. The new guys tell him 3000. Rajesh Bhatt professes astonishment and turns to his colleague and says, “Can you believe how much they’ve dropped their prices?” I have a feeling they say this to everybody, irrespective of the quoted price, so that no one feels they are being ripped off at their beginning of the holiday. Damn considerate of them actually.

Later on we stop for a quick meal at the KMVN Tourist Rest House (TRH) at Ramnagar. While the meal is prepared we while away time by nattering with the TRH guys who regale us with entertaining stories and give us helpful tips on what to carry with us.

Tip: If you’re staying at Jhina carry torches, snacks, cold drinks and anything else we might need apart from food.

Soon lunch is ready and we stuff ourselves silly on simple dal, sabzi, roti and chawal. When the bill is presented I’m left reeling in disbelief. Our simple meal for four costs 300! Tea costs 10 a cup! Just a couple of years ago, we would have been done in less than half the amount. But I guess inflation has caught up here as well.

We settle the bill and leave for the jungle. The time is 2.00 in the afternoon. The drive to Jhirna Forest Rest House takes about an hour and a half from Ramnagar. If we hurry, we will be just in time to dump our stuff and leave for the afternoon safari.

All said and done, the system at Corbett is chaotic. Most tourist guides really harass tourists. Some even bully them into putting down their names on the form. I agree they are desperate for employment but still, a system can be put in place, can’t it? Can’t they have a queue or something where these guys register in the mornings and as and when tourists arrive their names get ticked off? I suggested it to the Forrest Officer’s and he promised that he would look into it. But till then, if you happen to go, be very firm with the tourist guides. If you display the slightest hesitation you’ve had it. Tip: ask for Puran, Arif or one Sardarji called Abba.

Tip: at the KMVN Tourist Rest House at Ramnagar, do talk to Pandeyji. He is a tall, hefty gentleman and sports thick-lensed glasses. His left side is kinda slow to catch up with the rest of his body. The reason: he was mauled by a tiger who tore up his entire torso.

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I’m back after a fantastic holiday at Corbett and Ramgarh in Uttarakhand. Thank you all for continuing to read my blog and leaving comments. I promise I’ll get back as ASAP. For now, here’s a little bit about my holiday.

It is the 19th and our bookings at the Corbett Tiger Reserve are for two nights starting today.  We are staying at the Forest Rest House (or is it KMVN?) in the Jhirna zone. We dare not be late for they will give our bookings away to someone else. Which by the way suits my sister perfectly well because the Jhirna Forest Rest House (FRH) is supposed to be pretty basic. No electricity save for three hours every evening, no hot water, no fancy food. In fact, whatever you need besides what they provide at the FRH you have to carry with you. Once you are inside you are pretty much stuck for the duration of your stay.

The Corbett Tiger Reserve is divided into four tourist zones – Dhikala, Jhirna, Bijrani and I forget the name of the fourth. Of these Jhirna is the most recent and therefore most rudimentary. Of course there are other private (and luxury resorts) around Corbett but they are all outside the forest and kinda defeat the purpose of being in Corbett.

Coming back to our trip, we all get up at 4.30 in the morning. Our plan is to leave by 5.30. It is a 7 hour journey from Delhi in spite of being just around 240 kms away.

We have a small child with us, my niece, but still we manage to leave kinda on time. No thanks to my sister who wants to pack important stuff like shampoo and conditioner at the last minute. I see through her plan and whisk everybody out by 5.35 a.m.

So far so good.  And then we realize that we forgot to tank up last night and no fuel pump on the way is open. So we take a long detour just to save the odd rupee per litre (fuel is more expensive in UP than in Delhi) and end up running behind schedule.

Still we manage to beat the traffic and stop just short of Moradabad for breakfast. We spot a lovely roadside dhaba and order aloo paranthas with butter for breakfast. Hardly do the paranthas arrive when one trucker, having juts partaken of breakfast pulls out his truck from dhaba onto the main road. For some reason he takes a wider turn than necessary and another truck coming along the road bangs into him. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps the driver of the speeding truck thought there was enough space for him to squeeze past the turning truck and the divider.

It is a loud bang and my heart stops. The cab of the speeding truck is completely smashed in and all I can hear is piteous hoarse howling. When the scene clears somewhat I see that the trucker’s handyman, a mere boy of about fifteen, is wedged inside the squashed cab. I wonder what to do. For a moment I don’t react. I’m paralysed.

A tractor passing by stops and quickly attaches a tug rope onto the smashes cab and pulls out the shattered metal sheet. The boy is pulled out. He has deep gashes on his legs and his bones can be seen but nothing seems broken.

A hefty man scoops up the slight boy in his arms and sets him by the roadside. The boy is more frightened than hurt and I can see his eyes are welling out but he is trying to be brave.

By now my muscles start responding to my reflexes and I jump up and run towards the small crowd. I have to help the boy. It is one of those moments in life when you know you just have to. Not because I’m noble or anything. I just hope that if something like that should ever happen to me, someone would help me too.

Except my arrival creates quite a stir and everyone abandons the poor boy and focuses on me instead. They stare and snigger at my suggestions of taking the boy to the nearest hospital. To add to my discomfort the injured boy is also shooting me black looks. I consider lighting up and making their day. Perhaps once the novelty of the jean clad, cigarette smoking city girl has worn off they’ll concentrate on the boy.

He needs to be taken to the hospital which is about four kilometers away. Somebody from the nearby hamlet comes on his motorbike and boy is whisked away to a hospital in Joya. While the two drivers try and sort out stuff. Soon policemen arrive on the scene like vultures. They figure there are pickings to be had. People say that Indians are resourceful and enterprising. I guess we’ve got to be in the face of official apathy.

Presently we arrive at a fork just outside Moradabad and stop to ask two young men by the roadside which road leads to Kashipur. They obligingly point to one road but they don’t look too sure. So I ask them where the other road leads. They don’t respond. So I ask again. In response they look at us in exasperation and one of them says, “Ye jaanke kya karoge? Aapko toh Kashipur jaana hai.” Why do you want to know? You want to go to Kashipur.

After some persuasion the boys relent and inform us that the road leads into a colony. “Oh, we don’t want to go onto that one,” I blurt before I can stop myself. And hurriedly put the car into gear before they can respond with a suitably cutting retort.

We continue the journey along bumpy UP roads and Mayawati’s face beaming down at us from large hoardings keeps us company throughout. Which makes me think Behenji hasn’t had much occasion to travel on these roads.

Anyway, the rest of our journey goes by without incident and we arrive at Ramnagar at the Forest Director’s office at 12.30.

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I’ve been in Delhi for four days now and so far the stay had been uneventful. Barring a stray incident where I walked into a lamppost and then walked around Connaught Place with a bloody nose.

The rest of the time, I’ve just been gorging on chaat and chhole bhature and some uncharitable souls have already started commenting that I’ve put on weight. Put on weight?! It’s been four frigging days! Delhi is an air pump or what?

I’ve also been answering some fan mail most of which is from people I knew at various educational institutions. This is not to drive home the fact that I’m famous…well, maybe just a tiny bit.  

To get back to the fan mail, some of the comments made me laugh out loud. “Our teachers said you were one of the boldest girls they’d known.” Last I’d known the word that was being bandied about was notorious. Makes you realize what a little success can do for your reputation.

Just to apprise you of the facts, I have been expelled from every hostel I’ve ever been to. The reasons ranged from wearing a too short skirt to smuggling in bhang during Holi to bunking and going off to a disco at night to being a groupie of rock bands to generally being too individualistic.

India, as most of us know, approves of acquiescent behavior. It is unforgiving of originality and independent thought, especially in women.

Enough cynicism. I’m off to the Corbett Tiger Reserve tomorrow and onto Rishikesh from there for a spot of river rafting. Terrible planning I know but what to do. Time is short and there’s a lot I want to do.

I especially want to see a tiger before tigers are extinct. I’m crazy about tigers and have been to Ranthambore and Sariska (this was before I was informed that there are no tigers left in those two anymore!) and all I saw after two whole days of eating dust were pug marks (which in hindsight are suspect as well).

Maybe I’ll be lucky the third time around. I did ask rather pointed questions of the KMVN and the Forest Service officials and have been assured that there are indeed tigers to be found at Corbett.

Otherwise, next stop, Bandhavgarh.

Ciao until later.

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I’m in Delhi for a well deserved Diwali break. But that’s the awesome part. Not the main awesome part at any rate. The fun and frankly eye popping was the journey.

I travelled by train. The Rajdhani Express. You see, I’m a great believer in planning ahead and in view of the worldwide recession, have decided to cut back on luxuries. Like food. So I figured (reluctantly and resistant to the last) that air travel logically belonged in that club.

But once the decision was made I was a bit squeamish about the prospect of rail travel after a long time. So I prepared myself for 16 hours of ennui, bad food and qualms about personal safety.

But I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Indian railways totally rock! First off, as soon as I walked into Mumbai Central Station there were metal detectors and security personnel who actually looked alert. Then, as soon as everyone was settled in the train, policemen came with sniffer dogs! Sniffer dogs in trains!    

I have never seen sniffer dogs in reality. Only on TV and it was all very intriguing. The dog, handsome bugger that he was, was quite disappointing though. Blame it on movies but I expected him to dart about energetically under the seats and ferret out all kinds of stuff. But he just went about his business lackadaisically and resisted all stimuli to play the hero.

Except when it came to my crotch. Maybe because I was pre-menstrual, he figured I was a bitch in heat and went at it much to the amusement of his handlers. God, I died of embarrassment and even after more than two hours had lapsed, steadfastly refused eye contact with my fellow passengers.

Things eased a bit after the train started zipping through the Mumbai suburbs and tea was served. There were the most scrumptious cheese sandwiches and samosas I have eaten. Ever. So while airlines are slashing costs by cutting back on already indifferent service and food, the Indian Railways have been quietly improving theirs. All in all a very pleasant journey. Long live Laloo Prasad Yadav and the Indian Railways.

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One thing is for sure. Whatever regrets I had about giving up my career in investment banking, I don’t any more. I have to admit that I did feel twinges of doubt when the markets were soaring and all my colleagues were taking home upwards of a crore (10 mil) while I was struggling to eke out a tenth of that.

I’ve been through such a bear phase before, in the year 2000. And living through two such phases is just too much for any one person to bear. Okay, poor choice of words there. I should have said endure. I personally know at least two people from the industry who’ve suffered fatal heart attacks in their early thirties. All right, perhaps it wasn’t the pressure alone that did them in. Their almost completely non-vegetarian diet and incessant smoking and drinking probably also had something to do with it.

We are in for a rough time here in India as well. It is a global pandemic and in these integrated times global flows of liquidity decide what course a country’s development will take. Domestic liquidity was stemmed in earlier to fight inflation and now companies are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to borrow abroad. So how do they carry on their operations?

We are in for lower GDP growth, job, cuts, lower savings, lower investment and, therefore, lower growth. What was once a virtuous cycle of positives on all the above counts is fast turning into a vicious cycle. How long it could take to sort itself out – 12 months, 18 months, 24 months or more, is anybody’s guess.

What all this means for a writer is of course, new story ideas to reflect newer realities. For example, many thriller writers almost went out of business after the end of the cold war between the USA and USSR. Till they found terror. Perhaps it is time to think the same economically?

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Yesterday, there were no interruptions. No society watchman with some inane message, no presswala, no couriers, no chores to do. Hell, even my maid decided to take the day off. So there was nothing but yawning emptiness ahead of me. That’s good, right? Eight-ten hours of interrupted writing…sheer heaven, right?

Wrong. It was one of the days when I wanted interruptions.

It’s been a difficult past few days. I’ve finished about twelve chapters, or about 54,000 words on a non-fiction project that I’ve taken on. But it’s been full stop after that. The thirteenth chapter refuses to flow out. The beginning, the content, the flow, everything seems stilted. I have been grappling with this for the past one week but there’s been no breakthrough yet. I know it will eventually come but that doesn’t make the present frustration any less sufferable.

Meanwhile, I sat with my comp and tried. And tried. I’ve got to maintain a semblance of working. But it just made everything worse, reminding me of yet another wasted day. Every five minutes or so (although it seemed much monger) I looked longingly at the doorbell and cocked an ear at the telephone, willing either to ring. They are legit excuses to bugger off from the workstation. But neither obliged. Was I suddenly credit unworthy? Why didn’t anyone call me peddling a personal loan or a credit card?

I cursed my maid for taking the day off. Usually when she’s around I don’t get a moment’s peace for the two and a half hours or so she’s around because of her incessant chattering about my neighbours (of whom she knows much more than I do, in spite of not working for them) and her neighbours. When the gossip threatens to run out and her two and a half hours are not up yet, her prattle expands to include the general (abysmal) state of Mumbai and its politicians. So yesterday I had to do without knowing what the local MNS leader Manish Dhuri and the Shiv Sena leader Vishnu Korgaonkar, a.k.a., Maharaj were up to.

I tuned into CNBC on the telly and found the precarious state of the global economy suddenly very gripping. But after a while, all the red on the screen and the doomsday scenarios being predicted by eminent economists started to make me feel queasy. But, at least, that explained why no one called me tele-selling something.

Cake! I thought brightly. My maid had been telling me that the malai was piling up and we had to do something (read, make a cake or ghee). I mean malai is perishable and if I didn’t do anything about it ASAP (read right now), it would soon start growing yellowish-greenish mould. Usually these jobs are cringeworthy but yesterday I welcomed them. I would bake a cake. Much more fun than making ghee any day.

Cut to 30 minutes later. The cake was done.  And the rest of the day stretched ahead emptily.

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It’s been an action packed few days. Unfortunately it’s all not all the kind of action one would like. I’m not talking about that, all you perverts out there. I’m talking about writing.

First there’s the endless round of parties. When it gets a bit much and you just want to spend one evening at home, just one quiet evening, your excuses are met with reproving silences. Even the static on the wire seems reproaching. You feel like everyone in the world is accusing you of becoming old. Of turning into one of those dull, stodgy people who must hit the sack by ten or they become crabby. In short, of becoming everything you vowed you’d never become (ah, the recklessness of youth). There’s too much pressure to be happening.

And then there are all the movies you have to see. I let myself be lax and missed out on Wall-e, Wanted and Rock On. Now I suppose Wall-e can be caught on DVD, but Wanted? It’s a sad, irreplaceable loss my friends. So, hung over, you drag yourself to the theatres in the morning. After all the partying you have to save money somewhere. And you craving high carb, exorbitantly priced food to get over your hangover doesn’t help.

While on the subject of movies, I must mention Drona here. I haven’t seen the movie but if all the bitching about it is justified, then I am mystified. Because, you see, Goldie Behl is a friend of mine. So is Joydeep Sarkar. I have worked with them extensively over three shows – Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (Zee), Remix (Star One) and India Calling – and have the highest regard for their storytelling abilities. So I am a little baffled by their failure. I am baffled by the nature of the failure. The only reason I can think of is that the interminable delays the film suffered drained the people of their creativity and enthusiasm.

While also on the subject of movies, I did see Hellboy-II. Of all the releases this week, this seems most worth it. CG, kickass; action, great; the narrative and pace okay, although a little slow in parts.  Not quite the Dark Knight, but entertaining nonetheless.

And now I’ve gotta go. Another party beckons. At this point I can only hope that it gets over at a reasonable time, like, say 1 a.m.?

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I had the most awesome Thursday. Ever. Or so I thought at first. First a senior correspondent from a leading women’s magazine called me and asked me if I’d be open to lunch with her that day. She said she wanted to interview me for the forthcoming issue. “And prepare to be shot,” she added ominously. I had a fleeting but perfectly ridiculous image of myself running gracefully, in slow mo, alongside deers at Masai Mara while some heartless hunters took potshots at me. Till she clarified she meant photographed.

And then Ashok Banker called me. Yes, the one of Ramayana fame. And he told me to keep at it and that I was on the right track with my career. And that very soon I would be able to make more money from writing books than I ever would by writing for TV. Now that was music to my ears and rekindled my dreams of a beach side property and snow clad mountain tops and virgin beaches.

I have arrived I thought with satisfaction. Surely if journalists were calling me for interviews and I was chitchatting with elite writers, I was a bona fide writer in my own right?

Pleasurable as it was, I had to cut my reverie short. Time was of essence. I had a lunch date in two hours and I still didn’t know what I was going to wear. And then there was make-up to think about. And I had no idea how to go about, I thought fingering an unopened two year old bottle of foundation. So I called my sister. She advised me to take a blob in my palm, mix it with a blob of moisturizer and apply it like cream, all over my face and neck.

So I opened the bottle and tipped it onto my palm. Shit! Too much. But then, she did say blob right? It looked like a blob.  If she wanted me to take out less, surely she would have said dash or tad? So I did as told and had to rub it in for hours! At the end of all that effort I looked like Dracula’s victim.

So I washed off my face and called my best friend instead. She suggested I take a little bit onto a wet sponge and spread it evenly all over my face and then pat it down with a compact. “Do you have a sponge?” she asked.

“Of course I do!” I retorted. In the kitchen! But I didn’t say that. A sponge is a sponge and she didn’t need to know everything.

So I fetched the sponge and tipped some foundation on it. And applied it all over my face in an outward motion, as advised. Next, compact. I didn’t have one but surely talcum powder, used sparingly of course, would do just as well? Then I stood back and surveyed the result in my dingy bedroom. Hmmm, it didn’t look too bad, I thought exultantly.

Now, I’m anal about being on time. Which, in some cultures is taken as a sign of good manners. Here it just means you’ve got nothing better to do. So I forced myself to be ten minutes late. Which turned out to be far too early anyway.

As I entered, everyone stared at me. At last, I’m being recognized. I preened inwardly but outwardly maintained a benign smile like it was all very routine. And I wondered if I should invest in a pair of sunglasses like celebs do.

But something was wrong. They were…sniggering. And then I had an anxiety attack. Maybe my make-up had all come off. It was hot.

I got up to go to the loo to check on it when in breezed my lunch date with a photographer in tow.

“Hi,” she said breathlessly. And stared. And stared. Meanwhile, I was dying of mortification.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said finally. “If you don’t mind we’ll finish the photographs first? Rakesh has to go.”

“Okay, can I just go to the loo first?”

“This won’t take time,” Rakesh said fiddling with his camera.


“Aishwarya Rai is waiting for me,” he snapped impatiently.

Only then did he deign to look at me. His lips twitched. “Perhaps you’d like to wash your face first?” he suggested.

It was the worst Thursday ever.

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I’ve had it with TV. It is stupid, mind-numbing, stupid. I can’t bear the thought of doing this for the rest of my life. For a moment I fantasize about sitting on a beach with a laptop, working on my novel leisurely and sipping umbrella drinks. Although, it does get very hot on the beach. So I visualize an unobstructed view of snow-clad mountains, a laptop and umbrella drinks. I get so carried away that it actually seems doable.

I come out of my reverie, fully charged. Okay, I figure, before I can throw in the towel, I need adequate cash to:

 a) travel b) keep me in booze c) buy food d) medical emergency

Although in the case of a terminal disease like cancer the money goes to a, b, and c in the ratio of 40:30:30. Although, if I’m ill I can’t eat too much, right? And medical emergency has already happened . So I revise the allocation to 50:50 between travel and booze. Crap! I forgot about rent. 30, 30, 40. And what if my illness drags on for years and years? I junk my calculations and sit back and think.

It would be better to have a house in Bombay so I don’t have to worry about rent (I’m realistic enough to realize that beach/mountain periodic retreats to recharge my batteries). So I figure I ought to make some calls.

Some years ago I used to routinely make rounds of available real estate every weekend. That was when I was attacked by similar doubts and the housing rates still gave the illusion of being affordable. They weren’t. Still…

Then the prices shot through the roof and I stopped altogether.

It was time to revive the routine. I mean there’s a crisis worldwide. So prices of real estate should have come down, right?

I call Sajid. He’s a friend, an erstwhile advertising guy who’s gone the religious way.

“What’s the plan, Noor Jehan?” his voice booms over the wire. He may have gone the cleric way but he retains his penchant for stupid rhymes. He once greeted me with “What’s the scene James Dean?” ( He didn’t know it was me) I wonder what he’ll greet me with next? “What’s the plot, you harlot?” I think with a giggle.

I tell him what I want.

He asks me where I wanted to live. I’m about to say Andheri when I stop. I mean Andheri makes sense when I’m in the TV industry, but if I’m not writing for TV then I’m free to live anywhere, right?

“Town,” I say, surprising myself. And then I think, why not? I’ve always wanted to live in town. The roads are better, the drains are better, plus it has Chetana and Golden Star Thali (what to do? Veggie and all that.)


“What’s your budget, you…?” he asks with a claustrophobic quality to his voice. I guess he wanted to add midget or something but stopped himself. After all, it won’t do to joke when you want to censure.

I tell him.

You know how I had this entire logic of a worldwide housing crisis? Apparently not so in Bombay where the housing crisis outstrips the real estate one.

“With that you can get a one room shanty at the end of the Backbay slum. Interested?” he asks frostily.

“Okay,” I say reconsidering, “in that case, maybe…Bandra or…Andheri?

“That’s better,” he says approvingly. “Now the rates are 4500000 lakhs (4.5 mil) for a one BHK, 60-70 for a 2 BHK and anywhere upwards of a crore (10 mil) for a 3 BHK”

I learn that with mu budget I can get a poky 1 BHK in Andheri or a poky 3 BHK in New Bombay. Neither of the scenarios meets with my fantasy. Of course, I do realize that a sea facing bungalow with manicured lawns and liveried servants is a little far-fetched. Even SRK had to hawk himself at weddings to pay for his bungalow. And it doesn’t even have a pool I’m told. But still, a plush 3,000 sq foot sea facing flat with marble flooring, controlled lighting, masterpieces on walls, and a landscaped terrace shouldn’t be so hard.

I call up my creative director. “So when do you want the next batch of screenplays?”

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