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Archive for November, 2008

This will be the last entry in the Bangkok chronicles. After all, there’s only so much one can write about shopping. But it’s the writer in me insists on chronicling every little thing, often at my own expense, like a cringe-inducing mishap with the newly acquired bikini swimsuit.

The swimsuit was a regulation two-triangle-held-together-with-a-string variety. Unfortunately, the two triangles aren’t sewn together, the idea being unhindered movement to cover all sizes of endowments. As can happen often in fluid environments with many variables (the economy is a good example), you don’t exactly know which way the subjects will move. Without going into specifics, let me just say that the subjects moved in an undesirable direction. So that’s why all those people were smiling, not because I cut an alluring figure in my new swimsuit, I thought my face burning with humiliation.

Anyway, the swimming pool misadventure out of the way, I wondered what to do with my evening. What I really wanted to do was watch a sex show. And more-beautiful-than-women transvestites up close. I mean, I had seen them during day manning (womanning?) stalls, but that doesn’t count. Apart from to-die-for-eyebrows and maybe a lipstick application, there’s nothing really to tell them apart from men.

The question was where to find all this? And how? I could hardly walk up to the concierge and ask them to direct me to a sex show. I could but I also carried the additional baggage of being Indian. What would they think? Another tharki Indian. So I called a friend who told me to jump into a tuk tuk and ask him to take me to Patpong. Here again, my innate shame about my fellow countrymen prevented me from acting upon this advice. Alas, women shooting darts out of their vaginas was going to remain a legend – only heard about, never seen.

My advice for you, if you go there and want to watch one, is to get over your inhibitions and just ask. Everyone else matter-of-fact about it, even openly soliciting on the roads, so why shouldn’t you be?

The next day was a Saturday. That means time for the Chatuchak weekend market. So I hopped on the MRT subway and a fifteen minute train ride later alighted at the fabled market. It was more of the same, except, for a street market it was air-conditioned. Plus there are more handicrafts there, not only clothes, shoes and other fashion accessories. For that alone it is worth a visit.

That was it. I had time only to hit one of the luxury malls briefly – I splurged on a pair of Nike running shoes, the kinds I had been coveting but they weren’t available in my size back home – and then it was time to hit the Suvarnbhoomi airport for the flight back home.

Once again the haggling with the cabbie started. When I told him to down the meter, he thought for a while and said, “I go by meter but you tip me, okay?” “How much?” I asked suspiciously. “50 Baht.” So I said okay and off we went.

I still had three hours at the airport, tens of duty free shops and a strong determination to finish the remaining 6000 Baht with me. There was no point in paying a two-way commission to Thomas Cook by converting it back into rupees, I told myself. It really did not make economic sense. Best to finish off the currency. Three short hours and an additional debit of about ten thousand rupees on my credit card later I boarded the plane back home.

Another word of advice. While Thailand promises a VAT refund of 7% for purchases over 5000 Baht on a single bill, there really is no point in queuing up for it at the airport if your refund works out to less that 300-400 Baht as they deduct 100 Baht as admin fee.

 

Samudra Mantha scene as depicted at Suvarnabhoomi Airport

Samudra Manthan scene as depicted at Suvarnabhoomi Airport

A Buddha Shrine

A Buddha Shrine

Another shrine in Bangkok

Another shrine in Bangkok

 

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Pratunam Market! I woke up with the refrain of Pratunam Market running through my head like a mantra. The bangle seller of yesterday had mentioned it as well, but he also added that quality was suspect and that I best try MBK first. Well, I had tried MBK. Now it was time to hit the Pratunam Market. Again, Pratunam Market was within walking distance from my hotel (if you can call about 4-5 kms walking distance) and I was there in 30 mins.

The Pratunam Market area comprises a street market and a main shopping building. The main shopping building is nothing much to write home about, although I did pick up a pair of kick ass flats there for 230 Baht, the kind you get in Woodland for upwards of 800 rupees, 2 tees for a total of 150 Baht and a nice shirtdress for 220 Baht.

It’s the street market that’s buzzing. Very much like the flea markets of Goa and the street markets of Colaba, Fashion street and Linking Road, you can get fakes of practically every brand – Calvin Klein/Hugo Boss/Diesel chaddis for men, Diesel/Rolex watches, Ferrari jackets, Fendi sunglasses, you get the picture. And in all price ranges too, depending on the craftsmanship. Plus tailored dresses (Bangkok is huge tailoring market). All in all a shopping paradise for goras. And to some extent for Indians too since there is a larger selection of western outfits. I picked up a bikini top, boy shorts swimsuit there for 300 Baht.

It was time to do some sightseeing. Not that I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing Buddhist temples – I mean I like them but I’ve seen enough and then some in Sikkim, Himachal and Ladakh India – but because by now I had started feeling guilty. I mean come on, I’d been in Bangkok for two days and all I’d done was shop!

Thailand has a variety of public transport – the sky train, the underground, tuk-tuks, AC and non AC cabs. The tuk tuks and cabs are reasonable if you can get the buggers to go by meter (luckily, unlike India, meters are not tampered!). I hailed an AC cab and asked him to take me to the Grand Palace. “By meter,” I said firmly. “Ah!” he said, all enthusiasm dissipating, “you want to go by meter?” “Yes.” He thought for a while and said, “Okay, I take you but we make a stop on the way? Thai Expo?”

I had read about this. Most of these people are paid by shop owners to bring in tourists. “No,” I said firmly, also a little indignantly. What was he thinking trying to scam Indians? We invented scams! “I don’t want to shop.” “No, no, no shop. Only look,” he insisted. “No,” I said. “Then I don’t go.” Whatever the shopowners pay the tuk tuk walas and cabbies must be huge indeed because he was willing to let go of a lucrative fare in the hope of catching some other unsuspecting tourist.

Anyway, I managed to find my way to the Grand Palace only to find it shut for mourning! The King’s sister had passed away and the State Funeral was in progress. Which was just as well ’cos I wasn’t about to pay 300 Baht entry fee. I’ve learnt my lesson well in Europe where for the piddliest of monuments/places of tourist interest the entry fee is upwards of 8 Euros. You pay the fee and end up feeling cheated. Perhaps that’s an Indian thing ’cos we’ve been spoiled by truly awe inspiring monuments back home.

But now what? I’d come all the way to a distant corner of city and it would be silly to go back without seeing anything. I asked around and was told of the presence of another Buddhist temple in the vicinity – Wat Pho. So I took a stroll there, paid a modest entry fee of 50 Baht and entered. One of the big attractions there is Buddha in repose. Even if you’ve seen lavish Buddhist temples, it is certainly an awesome sight. I mean the statue is 50 feet long! And golden! Which is another thing you’ll notice in Bangkok. Lots of gold everywhere.

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Wat Pho is also the temple where one of the kings consecrated many statues of Buddha, picked up from deserted temples from all over Tahiland. It is quite a sight – numerous big, golden Buddha statues in glass cases lining the walls of the Wat.

After Wat Pho, a tourist guide, with a practiced eye for spotting lost tourists, nabbed me and advised me to visit the Black Buddha, the Golden Mount and the White Buddha, I think, in that order. It doesn’t matter because I didn’t go. He told me entry was free in all those places and helpfully charted out a circuit on the map as well. He then gently propelled me towards a tuk tuk saying, “He’ll take you all three places and drop you Rama VIII bridge. Only 20 Baht. You catch boat to Taksin Bridge from where you take sky train back to Sukhumvit.”

Like any good Indian, always on the lookout for scams, I smelt a fish. 20 Baht for a distance of over ten kms, plus waiting, was too good to be true. It was. That infernal Thai Expo reared its ugly head again. I found that if I didn’t go to the Thai Expo on the way, “no buy, only look,” I didn’t go at all. Anywhere. Period.

Plus there was additional confusion of which of these monuments were free and which were paid. One policeman, or so he claimed (actually I’m being uncharitable. He probably was a policeman) flashing an ID card at me asked me where I wanted to go. I told him. He then got very angry and said all those monuments had paid entry. “Who tell you to go there?” he demanded angrily. Like I knew all the touts’ names.

He told me go to some fourth place saying, “You believe me or not is up to you. But I tell you, go there, in this tuk tuk. Government tuk tuk,” he said pointing to a row of tuk tuks in front of us. “They take you there. No pay more than 40 baht.” I started to get elated. And then he added, “Only stop at Thai Expo on the way.” Sigh.

I decided to have a coffee at a nearby café run by Royal Thai Navy wives Association and generally asked them about buses to Rama VIII bridge. They told me that if wanted to catch a boat all I had to do was stroll down the adjoining lane for two minutes. Sure enough, two minutes later I arrived at the jetty (I forget the name) where another scam played itself out. Or at least tried to. Apparently they, taking advantage of tourists’ confusion, hustle them into tourist boats which cost many times more than the regular public transport express boat. Plus there an additional landing fee of 20 baht pax for tourist boats. Plus there is no information bureau. So you have to be very careful not to get hustled. I didn’t and a twenty minute boat ride later (14 Baht) landed at Taksin Bridge from where I took a sky train back to my Hotel.

Lest you’ll think Bangkok is a dangerous place, let me add, yes they do have scams but they are nothing on the scale of scams back home. Plus the public transport is really good. So you should be okay.

 

 

View from the Jetty

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I’ve been away, travelling again. This time to Bangkok. I had read so much about people going beserk shopping in Bangkok – buying everything from luxury brands to discounted export surpluses and cheap knockoffs of the same – that I was very clear that I was going there to shop. And time permitting, do a bit of sightseeing (A sex show was definitely on the cards).

So I packed three tees and a spare bag in a huge suitcase and took off. I flew Thai and the service was nice. What’s more, the flight was at the decent time and took off on time. I arrived in Bangkok at 5 a.m., local time and was whisked off to my hotel (Windsor Suites, Sukhumvit, a very nice hotel, reasonably priced as long as you don’t use their facilities), where, upon checking in, I crashed out for a full four hours.

At around 11 a.m. I decided to begin my day by taking a stroll down the Sukumvit area.

Bramha Temple near Sukhumvit

Bramha Temple near Sukhumvit

 

 

A little distance from the hotel in the general direction of the MBK centre I came upon two McDonalds and three Starbucks and many malls selling designer wear (Prada, Gucci, Armani, you name it and they’re all there). And yippee, a Haagen Daaz! Without further ado, I made my way to the ice cream parlour and ordered a double scoop, a good decision as it turned out.

After the ice cream I resume my stroll and came upon Soi 16, which I was told is the shopping area. I don’t know what I expected but a Thai variety of Janpath and Linking Road it wasn’t. But that’s exactly what I got – roadside stalls selling tees, underwear, belts, shorts, dresses.  The women were all slight and smartly dressed. Looking at them, I, in my jeans and a half-sleeved tee felt over dressed and dowdy. But not as much as I did in Europe.

I was also gripped with a fierce determination to never eat again. Which worked out well, because being a vegetarian, I wasn’t about to risk eating anything remotely Thai. Good thing too I had already had the Haagen Daaz.

I came upon a stall where a women was selling a nice, designer type evening dress for 1090 Baht. As soon as I put it against me to see whether it would fit, she snatched it from my hands saying, “This small. No good for you.”

“But I wear small,” I argued.

She nodded sagely. “Yes, it fit at waist but not here,” she said, patting herself on the ass. “Too fat. I give you medium.”

Too fat! Affronted as I was, I wanted the dress more. So I swallowed my pride and asked her, “How much?”

“1090 Baht. I give you for 1000.” At 1500 rupees the dress was a steal.

“1000 too much. I pay you 800,” I said pushing my luck.

“No, no, nice dress. Maybe 3000 Baht in a store. I give you for 1000.”

Anyway, the deal wasn’t struck and I moved on, figuring that if I didn’t get anything cheaper and better I could always come back.

Lunch. I walked into a food court kinda thing and ordered a plate of stir fried veggies, “But no fish sauce or oyster sauce.” At which the waitress looked uncertain so I changed my order to a Singha (local beer, very good) and packet of Lays.

Roadside Eatery

Roadside Eatery

 

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I was savouring my lunch when who should accost me? A fellow countrymen from the North selling bangles! He desperately tried to hawk them to me and I kept fobbing him off. But he was insistent and only let up when I told him that I lived in Hyderabad, the bangle city. “Why don’t you sell to goras?” I suggested. “How come I never thought of that?” he said sarcastically. “But the goras are in such bad shape, they aren’t buying anything these days.”

But we struck up a conversation and I asked him where I could find good quality branded stuff at cheap rates and he directed me to MBK, suggesting that I could either walk it or take the sky train. I decided to walk it.

MBK centre is the buzzing area. Not the main MBK building, which is also happening, but the area around it. That’s where the teens hang out. There were bright lights, loud music, lots of people and places to eat and shop. And lots of hair and beauty salons. A haircut in one of these costs between 250 and 350 Baht, colouring between 1000 and 1500 Baht and Botox also for a very reasonable price (I forget the exact rates). This was definitely on the cards – the hair cut and colour, not Botox.

The main MBK Centre building had it all. Branded stuff, as well as cheap non branded variety. And while everything branded was on sale, it was still too expensive. But I struck gold at one of the lower floors where a lot of shoes were on sale. 199 Baht. 100 Baht. I quickly bought three pairs, even though today’s trip was just a reconnaissance trip.

Later, when I came back to the hotel, I decided to hit the swimming pool on the 14th floor. My feet were killing me but it was hot (not as much as Bombay, but hot nevertheless) and the free form pool looked so inviting.

I hit the pool where, once again, I felt over dressed. For God’s sake, I was in a two piece swim suit. Agreed, it was modest swimsuit comprising a sports bra and boy shorts, but a two piece still! In my petulance, I hit out by swimming twenty lengths non-stop and wearing myself out beyond belief. After which I went back to my room and crashed out, wet swimsuit and all.

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Not only do I disagree with you, I deny you the right to your opinion

My creative director called me yesterday to discuss a special episode for Gandhi Jayanti.  “Okay, how about something along the lines of Munnabhai and our protagonists discovering the importance of Mahatma Gandhi?” You can’t go wrong with that, I thought cocking a secret snook at S&P (Standards and Procedures is the censor board equivalent for television).

“Rediscovering. We don’t want it to appear that college kids don’t know who Mahatma Gandhi is,” she interjected in alarm. I know her rather well so I could figure out what was going on in her head. In her mind she was already seeing S&P yanking her top rated show off air, on account of a careless slip by a writer. Not to mention hundreds of khadi-clad protesters picketing and destroying her newly refurbished set.  

Which brings me to the subject of this column. Freedom of expression…er, lack of it actually. Everywhere (mostly everywhere) in the world now there are large clauses in constitutions that assure us of our right to free speech. And now, more than ever, we are on tenterhooks about what we say. We are so paranoid that we accept the risk of incoherent communication just so we can be sure that we don’t offend anyone.

It started with the substitution of man with person as a suffix, e.g., chairperson instead of chairman. No one disputed that. The list then went on to include terms like challenged to connotate disability or disadvantage of any kind, viz., vertically challenged instead of short. That was a stretch but we still went ahead with it.

But the latest list released by the British Sociological Association is just too much. According to the directive issued by them, students are banned from using terms like old masters and seminal on the grounds that they are sexist. Instead, the suggested term when referring to, well, masters is ‘classic artists’. Also making it to the illustrious list are words like immigrants, developing nations and black on account of being racist!

By failing to stick to the list you run the risk of being sued. But that’s for other countries. We, in India have our own way of dealing with subject matter we don’t like. Mob violence. Or should I say collective active demonstration of disagreement to be politically correct. See what I mean about incoherence? Don’t like Amitabh Bachchan’s views? No problem. Vandalise the theatre showing his latest film. That’ll show him. Decided that the scarves covering the faces of the blasts accused are decidedly Palestinian? Never mind. Make a noise, create some brouhaha in the media and maybe, just maybe, torch a police station or two? It is an effective deterrent. We were steering clear of anything even remotely disrespectful to Mahatma Gandhi, weren’t we?

As I mulled such and other deep thoughts, my creative director broke into my thoughts. “Are you available for a brainstorming session this weekend?”

“That’s offensive to people with epilepsy. The politically correct term is ideate,” I replied absently. Help!

You can read the article in the current (Nov) issue of Grazia.

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Whenever stuck for ideas, the news is your best source. It certainly is my best source. Just recently I was stuck for an idea for a character whose public profile was impeachable but who had a sinister private profile. And then Lt. Col Shrikant Purohit came along.

When the news first came out, it left most of us reeling with shock. A member of the Indian Army, the one institution that still commands respect, engaged in terrorist activities, why the idea was outrageous. Or was it?

Look at it from his point of view.

(Disclaimer: This is pure speculation and is not based on any facts)

He was probably a loyal member of this stellar organization, serving his country without question in inhospitable and downright hostile areas. He was probably engaged in counter insurgency ops in J&K. He was probably freezing his butt off patrolling at Siachen in knee deep snow.

For what?  To protect an openly ungrateful people and a government that doesn’t care. Through unjustified brickbats and unfair pay commissions he remained stoic and his patriotism was unshakable.

They caught several terrorists who were later let off for political or other reasons (prisoners for hostages kinda exchange). And (behold the mother of all ironies) one of these very rascals later went on to become a prominent political figure whom Purohit was forced to salute! It is just too much. And the straw that broke the camel’s back. Is it any wonder that the Mumbai Police openly refused to salute Gawli (or was it protect, or both)?

Of course this is only a general outline. Many people snap under unrelenting stress, and in a variety of ways, not necessarily anarchical. To explain his leanings towards militant Hinduism, you’d have to first concede that he was an Alpha male type personality, and then go back and reconstruct his childhood. To begin with, you’d have to consider that he was probably raised in a middle class Hindu household with allegiance to the Sangh, which was not a terrorist organization.

Even at this stage, to him, religion was private and had no place in his professional life at all. But gradually, he saw the rise of Islamic terrorism and, what seemed to him, a persecution of Hindus. This rhetoric was, no doubt, inculcated by a newly radicalised Sangh. He knew that the Government would not do anything about it, only pander to minorities. And that he had to do something if he had to arrest the inevitable downward slide of his beloved country into chaos. Here he probably saw Israel, with their prompt and retaliatory bombing, as an example. And a religious vigilante was born.

If you undertake this speculative exercise, bam, you’ve got a character. Hell, you’ve got a story.

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Day before yesterday, I had a group of friends over for dinner. It was small gathering comprising friends from media and finance. Over drinks, the conversation veered off towards politics, economics and the general condition of the Indian state. And the party, which began on a cheery note, soon turned solemn.

It was alarming to hear such depression in their voices when just eight months ago we were clinking our glasses in good cheer with celebratory cries of, “Here’s to us being a trillion dollar economy.”

One in particular (let’s call him A), a banker, had had depressing meetings with his clients. The fortunate ones among them were revising their targets downwards and the unfortunate ones were being forced to take more drastic measures. Like temporarily shutting down their plants. “I think we should all prepare to lose our jobs,” he said, gulping is drink in one straight draught and gazing longingly out of my sixth floor window. I hastened to shut the window. He had imbibed half a bottle of my finest single malt.

Soon others of his ilk joined him by the window and indulge in the gloom talk. “And we’re not even talking about the BPO sector. Just imagine what happens when they lose their jobs.” “Real Estate is the worst hit. I think some developers are going to hang themselves next year – not the big guys, the smaller ones.” How comforting. “And retail, the marquee name for the India story, most supermarkets and malls have huge outstandings. Their vendors have stopped supplying them.”

The party was starting to resemble a wake. Soon everyone was singing drunken dirges of commodities, equities, inflation, currency and interest rates. The window had been reopened (it had gotten awfully hot with everybody there) and they all joined A in looking speculatively out of the window.

“Media!” I chipped in, desperate for some good cheer. “Media is fine, isn’t it, F? Everyone knows media is depression proof. Karan Johar said so in the papers today.”

The traitorous F, a TV producer, shakes her head. “No man. Most TV channels are in bad shape. They’ve all cut down on hours of original programming and filling in the rest of the slots with repeats and reruns.”

“Oh?” I said, momentarily forgetting my Santa Claus duty. After all this affected me directly.

“Most big ticket movies have stalled or have drastically scaled down their budgets,” P chipped in cheerfully.

Great. And we hadn’t even touched upon politics yet.

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The next morning, as discussed the previous evening (it is a bit of a stretch to call 9.30 p.m. night), the alarm goes off at 5.30 a.m. I groan and turn over, willing it to stop and for everyone to miraculously forget about this morning’s safari. I haven’t slept well at all, what with the tiger’s incessant growling and the elephants’ voluble and unceasing rampage throughout the night.

But no one forgets. Prompt as the evening news, Arif knocks on the door on the dot of 5.45. “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” I say grouchily, jumping out of bed and pulling on my jeans. “Don’t forget to put on something warm,” he says. Was he serious? It is just the end of October in North India, and even after accounting for the extreme exteriority of the jungle, just cold can it be? I disregard his suggestion and fling open the TRH door. And almost die as a blast of cold, I mean COLD, air hits me. With a yelp I scuttle back inside and grab my jacket. “I told you,” Arif says reproachfully.

As I am about to get into the Gypsy, Rampal, the caretaker, cheerily calls out from the kitchen. “Here, have a cup of tea. It’s ready.”

But Arif doesn’t even let me have my tea. “We can always have tea later,” he says amiably. “I’ve just heard a ‘call.’” I look at him mutinously and silently avow to kill him the next time he mentions the word ‘call.’ But I comply, contenting myself with a longing look at the steaming cup.

It turns out to be a good decision. Following a female’s pug marks (they are more elongated than a male’s which are completely round), Arif drives on to a spot called Waterhole number 3. He turns off the ignition and we settle down to wait. There’s dense jungle on one side of the narrow trail and a vast field full of tall elephant grass on the other.

There’s complete silence. A breeze whips up and gently whooshes through the vegetation on either side. Normally this would not even be heard, but in the early morning calm, this sounds loud and ominous. We snap our necks fearfully every time we hear a rustle. Arif pretends to be one Rambo but I can see him look over his shoulder warily every now and then.

And then after about half an hour, our patience is rewarded. I see the deer suddenly up and tense and I spring to attention. I peer hard, scanning the grass field. I can feel it in my bones. I know I’m going to see her. And I do.

I see the tigress get from the waterhole and walk languidly across the field, back into the jungle. I see her for a whole twenty seconds. She spots us as well and stares at us disinterestedly as she walks. It is an awesome sight, a holy moment. I have a camera in my hands but my fingers are suddenly nerveless. By the time I spring into action, she is almost out of sight. I snap a picture but it is an ordinary camera with an ordinary zoom. All I get is a blur.

When we come back to the TRH, Rampal, takes one look at me and says, “You’ve seen one. I can tell. People who spot a tiger have a special swagger when they come back.” No kidding. Arif is grinning too but for a different reason. He knows that a hefty tip is in the offing. People who spot a tiger are generous with tips.

The rest of the day goes by, doing nothing at all. Venturing beyond the electric fencing is not permitted except on Gypsies and there are only so many bone rattling drives you can take, especially when you know chances of sighting are remote (tigers are notoriously lazy, preferring to relax in the shade during the hottest part of the day).

In the evening, we venture out again. We meet Abba, another sardarji tourist guide, and he informs us of the location of a tiger, tigress pair. Arif drives us there and we again settle down to wait. Our patience is once again rewarded. After about forty-five minutes, suddenly, I see a tiger spring up and lunge at a deer. All this happens in a jiffy and it is all over before I can shut my jaw which has hung open.

Omigod! I can’t believe it. It’s like a totally National Geographic moment. Arif and I both look at each other in disbelief. Did it really happen? Was that really a tiger? We couldn’t be sure, but who else would spring at a deer like that?

I come back from Corbett, awed and convinced more than ever before that these magnificent creatures must be protected at all costs. I also vow to come back with a better camera, one with a zoom like a canon (the piece of heavy artillery, not necessarily the brand), like the one professional photographers have.

My love affair with Corbett has just begun. I’m already planning to go back in March-April which is the best time for spotting tigers.

 

 

 

 

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