Environment has been intrinsic to our oral traditions much before we developed writing. But it is only in the past decade or two that environmental literature has become mainstream
We are our stories
Stories, storytelling and environmental attitudes
Oral tradition is the oldest form of passing down human experiences from one generation to another. Traditionally, it has been at the core of all societies. There is not one culture in the world where oral literature has not preceded written literature. Stories and storytelling have been at the forefront of every evolving society providing new generations with an ever-increasing pool of experiential knowledge tried and perfected by preceding generations of community members, shamans and medicine people. They transmit social values and spiritual philosophies, inform about history, describe complex scientific wisdom and environmental knowledge, and further conservation ethics. The ways in which traditional stories are linked with us and the world around us are, perhaps, unfathomably deep.
Stories open up vast areas of re-evaluating our attitude towards the natural world. Very often, they provide clues to address challenges related to complex environment and sustainability issues. Tribal folklore has much to offer in this respect, with much of the belief system of indigenous groups around the world still rooted in shamanism and nature worship. Take the case of people in the Eastern Himalayas who speak the Kiranti group of languages—a family of Tibeto-Burman languages. Oral narratives influence attitudes towards the environment and their conservation ethics. While much of the traditional narratives of the Kirantis are now lost, their tradition of storytelling, especially the sacred lore, Mundums and rituals associated with it, continue to instil practical ideas of living in balance with nature. Mundums are recited lyrically by shamans of each Kiranti tribe at events associated with nature or during a socially important ritual.
During Ubhauli (also called Sakela or Sakewa), celebrated for around 15 days in April-May, members of Kiranti-speaking communities do not fish because their sacred narratives forbid them from doing so. Ubh-auli indicates the beginning of farming season and coincides with the northward migration of birds. It is interesting that fish swim upstream to lay eggs at this time. During Ubhauli, shamans recite the sacred Mundums which describe the origin of Kirantis, the story of their ancestors and their spiritual place in the natural world. Prayers are offered to rivers, mountains, rainbows, land and animals.
One sacred narrative in the Mundum of the small Koinch tribe (belonging to the Kiranti group) lays down that a member of the tribe can cut a tree to build a house provided he plants 10 trees as a token of gratitude to Mother Earth. Their belief that higher knowledge enters various plant species as transcendental energy (thung in their language) after leaving the body of a shaman (poibo in their language) prohibits them from mindlessly cutting certain varieties of fern (which have medicinal properties), bamboo and cane. This is yet another example of how oral narratives influence the cultural attitude of a community towards environment.
Other stories in the Koinch Mundum describe ethical concerns pertaining to hunting: killing pregnant animals is forbidden and the Koinch pray for forgiveness to animals wounded in a hunt. People of the tribe regard the porcupine as their foster mother—in one story, she breastfeeds a Koinch chief. For this reason porcupines are seldom hunted by the people of the tribe.
The Paniyar tribe of Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, one of the oldest tribes of India, was once nature worshipper. Amalee, the tribe’s last surviving shaman, describes how his people never harm tigers. According to Paniyar legends, tigers were once guardians of forests. Paniyar tribesmen often take remains of animal hunted by the tiger as a sign of respect for the animal. Amalee also says the pepper tree is at the heart of the Paniyar’s nature worship tradition. People of the community do not walk into a grove of pepper trees lest the tree appears in their dreams and asks them what brought them to the grove. If a Paniyar tribesman does walk into the sacred territory, he or she must offer something and seek forgiveness.
The environmental content and narrative forms of traditional stories can vary from culture to culture. But the values garnered after listening to each story are something no modern system of education can provide.
The storytelling tradition of the Lepcha tribe is unique in educational content and worth highlighting. Every aspect of the natural world is expressed as a human form in Lepcha stories. Perhaps the only tribe to worship the legendary mountain half-human, the Yeti, Lepcha’s traditional stories are replete with environmental knowledge. Even complex social issues are addressed using elements from nature. In some stories the flea and lice are described as husband and wife. Some lyrical narratives portray the beginning of the entire Himalayas. For example, some stories begin with a soft song that says, “This story is of a time when Konchen Chu (Mt Kanchenzonga) was as small as a musk deer’s tooth.”
Many researchers (from anthropologists to environmentalists) look at traditional wisdom, folklore and conservational tools within oral traditions, but very few have turned to them for understanding environmental history. Oral tradition embodied in traditional stories is also a repository of environmental history. They describe the changes and calamities in the natural world. Lepcha folklore describes how the world was once flooded and how Tendong Hill (bordering Darjeeling and Sikkim) saved the tribe by offering refuge. Till date, the tribe celebrates the Tendong Rum Faat in August to mark their great escape.
While it makes tremendous sense to revitalise such traditions and build crossovers with the modern psyche, we may have begun too late. Today, most traditional cultures are facing the risk of getting lost. This would mean complete extinction of their vast wealth of insights and experiences. The loss is even more acute if we consider the fact that many cultures have not been documented. Another critical area that poses a significant challenge is the loss of ethnic languages in which traditional narratives are told. With researchers pointing out that every hour two languages die, the task at hand is huge and, perhaps, a battle already lost.
In 2011, Sangdup Taso, the last Lepcha shaman to conduct an 800-year-old ritual, died of heart attack leaving behind a mere 48-minute recording. His demise ended an invaluable piece of cultural history. Amalee, the last shaman of the Paniyar, says, “If we do not have our stories, what do we have? How will we know that the tiger is our great guardian? How will my grandchildren know that these Blue Mountains are our homeland? How will we know who we were?”
Much time has been wasted in making the scientific journey from considering such traditions superstitious and narratives insignificant pieces of primitive cultures to scientifically relevant. The only question now is: do we have enough time left to learn and pass on the knowledge embodied in these traditions to our children?”
The emotional connect
How children's literature instils love for the environment
If we want future generations to preserve nature, they need to love the world as their own. Interestingly, researches have shown that environmental knowledge (the theoretical aspect of ecological problems with loads of figures and logic) is not enough for inculcating a sense of respect and responsibility towards the environment. Love and empathy are more important than facts when it comes to preserving the environment. People don’t need to know more, they need to feel more.
If we want children to develop love and concern for the environment, we need to invigorate environmental studies with emotions. Children’s literature is one of the best means for this purpose.
Many stories have been written from the point of view of environmentalists who use the vehicle of a good story to impart an explicit conservation message or teach ecological concepts. Some of these stories describe humankind’s careless destruction of the environment. Many such stories are about saving water, endangered animals and the rainforests. Some of these books tend to have a strong ideological message and come as handy tools for environmental studies teachers. But they might not be children’s favourites. However, some authors have found narrative strategies to create an emotional connect with children. Richard Platt’s Vanishing Rainforests is a personal favourite. This story strikes an immediate chord because it is seen through the eyes of a child, Remaema, who describes how the Yanomami tribe is battling against potential developers. Can a solution be found that will protect the forest and allow the tribe to continue living as it always has, while benefiting from limited development? The author’s dramatic approach complemented by masterly illustrations by Rupert van Wyk’s masterly draws the reader into a controversial and topical subject.
Apart from storybooks with explicit environmental message are folktales from indigenous people around the world. They invite children to explore new cultural horizons and learn about traditional people’s beliefs, values and ways of life that have evolved from living close to nature. Very fascinating are creation stories that offer metaphysical explanations of the natural world. They tell us about the origin of the sun, the moon, the universe and provide insights into the relationship between humans and earth. They explain the how and why of life. Many beautiful creation stories are from Native American and African cultures. India, too, has a vast repository of such stories.
A few years ago, I started reading a series, Ecological Tales from India. It was written from the point of view of the environmental anthropologist who uses stories to document India’s fascinating ecological traditions developed by people over thousands of years of intimate interaction with the natural world. The most appreciated title of the series was The Desert Contest that introduces children to water harvesting. My favourite is Poomulli and Temple Elephant, the story of a child who wants to become Aanavaidyam or traditional elephant healer. It introduces children to the time-tested traditional knowledge about elephants.
Another personal favourite is Kali and the Rat Snake by Zai Whitaker. It is the story of an Irula boy, Kali. His schoolmates find him strange. But one day a large rat snake creates havoc and Kali becomes everyone’s best friend, thanks to the snake-catching knowledge he has learnt from his father.
Today, India is the last largest repository of traditional ecological knowledge. Our children are the custodians of knowledge inherited from 8,000 years of ecological history. They need storybooks that contribute to the preservation of its rich ecological heritage.
It is in that spirit that I write for children.
From activist to writer
Author of The Last Wave, a novel set in the Andamans, on why he chose fiction over research and journalistic writing
I began writing The Last Wave in 2005 in the midst of visits to and from the islands where we were looking at the post-tsunami situation. I was reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide around this time and there is a kind of debt I owe to The Hungry Tide. It is a beautifully written book and gives a very different perspective on the Sunderbans, about its mangroves and its people.
After I finished reading The Hungry Tide, I realised that maybe I, too, have a story to tell about the Andamans. I have been involved with the Andamans as a researcher and an activist for close to 20 years. But I felt activism and research had their limitation. In spite of writing for the media, accessing the policy space and going to courts, there is only so much one can achieve. Fiction can bring the place and its people in a manner that research and journalistic writing cannot.
The 2004 tsunami also played a role. The Andamans were much less impacted as compared to the Nicobars. The Jarawas are essentially a forest-dwelling community and they were not affected by the tsunami. But in a way, the Jarawas are representatives of many communities in India and elsewhere that are vulnerable to a different kind of tsunami, one that is slow and insidious. They are vulnerable to disease. Measles, for example, features in the novel.
There was also an individual creative aspiration: can I tell a larger story? Can I frame a 60,000-word narrative—instead of the 1,000- or 5,000-word pieces I had been used to as a researcher and writer.
Having said that, the book is strongly embedded in the history, geography and culture of the Andamans. The researcher and the activist are part of the story. But there has been a lot of effort on my part to make the narrative more rounded as a story: not to sound like the activist or the campaigner. I did not set out to write an ecological story. The ecology is there, as is the history or the geography. At the same time, the advantages of knowing the place, having a sense of the area and its history bring in nuances that might otherwise be difficult.
My work in the past 20 years or so has involved looking at the history of the islands and that of the tribal communities. The place is extremely fascinating but what we know of the islands is rather limited—either the Cellular Jail, tourism or more recently, the controversies surrounding the Jarawa community. The indigenous communities might have been here for thousands of years. Then there is the association of the Andamans with the colonial times, also with World War II. So the history of the place is a rich resource for the writer. The challenge, of course, was that I was writing a novel, not a journalistic story or research piece. The challenge was to use the non-fiction in a way that it does not overpower the narrative: to use it to tell the details and to describe the beauty of the place.
The Andamans do get associated with stereotypes. But I don’t think I consciously set out to challenge stereotypes. In fact, I feel a novelist can put stereotypes to good use. In The Last Wave, certain elements and certain characters have been depicted in a stereotypical manner because stereotypes say something. Stereotypes become stereotypes for certain reasons. Having said that, I have tried to go beyond the stereotypes. The Jarawa individual, for example, is the naked dweller of the forest. But I have added dimensions to his character. I have done the same for settlers, researchers, police and scientists. I have tried to show them in multiple dimensions. So stereotypes can be productive as a starting point if we are ready to go beyond them.
Gazelles, rhinos and sea-elephants
Kashmir's poets used metaphors both known and alien to people in the area
“Whatever exists in whatever Mandala of the earth, exists in its quintessence in Kashmira, Whatever exists in Kashmira Mandala, exists within the waters of the Vitasta.” —Nilmatapurana, Story of Nila Naga, 6th-9th century AD
The story of Kashmir usually begins with its birth in water: Gods and Supermen emptying a primordial lake to let humans inhabit it and granting them rights to the land and its riches. The story was retold in various ways in Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic eras of Kashmir’s history. Though the story gradually changed with each retelling, the belief that life came out of water remained. Dwellers of the valley saw Kashmir’s water bodies, the rivers and the springs as the source of life. The change of seasons and the dramatic impact it had on environment were all too obvious to the valley’s dwellers. They marveled that their valley brimmed with beautiful life in the harsh Himalayan environment. Out of this awe of nature and its transformational powers came their first metaphors.
When the dwellers of the valley chose to tell their history, poetry was the medium and river the metaphor. So, the 12th century poet Kalhana titled his work Rajatarangini or ‘The River of Kings’. We read about formation of new cities after humankind’s triumph over unruly rivers, giving order to chaos. It tells us “that during the reign of Avantivarman (855 AD-883 AD), one Surya engineered alterations in course of rivers to control frequent floods” and “made the streams of Indus and Jhelum flow according to his will, like a snake-charmer his snakes.” River was a divine serpent that man had finally managed to master. Or, so he thought.
Literature produced in Kashmir, till then, was mostly in Sanskrit. But there is evidence to suggest that people in the Valley were multilingual. It was an ideal environment for a new language to emerge. In Rajatarangini, we hear the first echo of this new language. The line ‘Rang’assa Helu dinna’ (village Helu be given to Ranga) by a Domba singer named Ranga, around 10th century, is the first written record of spoken Kashmiri language.
The story of the birth of modern Kashmiri literature begins much later with the arrival of mystic poet Lal Ded (Granny Lalla) in early14th century just as Islam made its first appearance in Kashmir. However, Lal Ded’s life story was first written as late as 16th century and that too in Persian chronicles. In the intermediate two centuries, Kashmiri language was born out of oral traditions of ‘sayings’. Lal Ded narrated in a format that came to be known as vakhs, literally “spoken words”. In her words too, the story of Kashmir goes back to water (and would probably end in water?).
trayi nengi sarah sar’e saras
aki nengi sars arshes jay
haramokha Kausara akh sum saras
sati nengi saras shunakar
(Three times do I remember a lake overflowing. Once do I remember seeing in the firmament the only existing place. Once do I remember seeing a bridge from Haramukh to Kausar. Seven times do I remember seeing the whole world a void.) This collection of her vakhs was translated to English by Nilla Cram Cook, an American linguist and a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and published in The way of the Swan.
In her vakhs, Lal Ded was reimagining the Valley. She was weaving metaphysical ideas with objects in physical world, a literary exercise that had fascinated the Kashmiri Trika poet-philosophers of yore. Lal Ded’s words were often cryptic and yet the common folk followed them. Take for example the lines:
It is a lake so tiny that in it a mustard seed finds no room.
Yet from that lake everyone drinks water.
And into it do gazelles, jackals, rhinoceroses, and sea-elephants
Keep falling, falling, almost before they have time to become born
Lal Ded seems to be describing a karmic play in which all beings on earth come from the same source, a source that is inconsequential and infinite at the same time. She holds the attention of Kashmiris by mentioning familiar objects like gazelles and jackals and sets their imagination afire by mentioning the unfamiliar: rhinoceroses and sea-elephants. But why does she mention rhinoceros, an animal most of her listeners must have never seen? What are sea-elephants and what do people nestled in the Himalayas know of them? The lines, in fact, are a riddle from Lal Ded whose simple answer is: mother’s teats.
Kashmiri, for centuries, was an oral language and Lal Ded’s saying survived in popular parlance because her vakhs were passed on from generation to generation, as riddles for children. Though Lal Ded presented her personal experiences and thoughts in cryptic manner, her advice to people was always lucid:
Don but such apparel as will cause the cold to flee.
Eat but so much food as will cause hunger to cease.
O Mind! devote thyself to discernment of the Self and of the Supreme,
And recognise thy body is but food for forest crows.
This idea of a moderate life was extended and built upon by her spiritual and literary inheritor, Nund Rishi. Born in Kaimuh village of Kashmir in 1375(/7) AD to a weaver family, Nund Rishi’s sayings uttered in a format called Shruk, were to become the moist soil on which the Kashmiri language later bloomed. Love of nature, trees and animals was going to be one of the main teachings of this mystic poet and of the rishis that followed him. These teachings still form the core of environmental concerns of a common Kashmiri.
It is not uncommon to still hear some Kashmiri utter Nund Rishi’s words of advice: Ann Poshi Teli Yeli Van Poshan (Food shall last till forests last) This saying, in fact, is the first instance of a Kashmiri uttering environmental concerns. While most of Nund Rishi’s literary predecessors described Kashmir as a land of abundant natural beauty with ever-flowing rivers and great garden retreats, Nund Rishi’s environmentalism seems all too sudden and dramatic. To understand it, we have to understand the era in which his sayings gained eager ears.
Shivara’s Third Rajatarangini suggests that 13th-14th century was a period of not just political and religious unrest but also a period of intense growth in terms of urban population and economy. New cities and towns cropped up in Kashmir. Most of these were at the spots where modern towns and cities of Kashmir are still expanding. This urbanisation probably started during Lal Ded’s time. In one of her vakhs she tells us:
“My wooden bow shoots
only arrows of grass
This metropolis finds
only an inept carpenter”
Lal Ded compares the helpless imperfectness of human body to an ugly metropolis (Razdan’e) designed by a greedy human mind.
By the time of Nund Rishi, this urbanisation had intensified. Houses, bridges, shrines, all were made of wood. Even Kashmir’s crafts depended on wood and animals. All this could only mean an additional strain on Kashmir’s ecology. It was during this era that Nund Rishi, also known as of Sheikh Noor-ud-din, preached the need for preserving nature to rural agrarian people who could easily relate to the metaphors he employed.
During this turbulent era, Nund Rishi gave Kashmiris an ominous vision of future:
listen to the words of Guru
The crown of hog shall bear
a crest of peacock
River Vyeth shall run dry
sewage drains overflow
Then you shall see
the chaotic Simians rule.
Heeding the poets and authors
New theoretical connections between nature and human beings
C D Narasimhaiah, a doyen of Commonwealth literary studies, used to be very contemptuous of “those old-world professors” who would teach William Wordsworth’s Daffodils in English literature classes as if it were a sacred text. “Did Mr Wordsworth wandering as a cloud actually count the number of daffodils he could see down below? Ten Thousand! Why not ten thousand and one?” For him and other senior academics like him trained under the hawk eyes of F R Leavis and the New Critics, anything that was Romantic and Victorian was deplorable on account of over-dramatisation of emotions and feelings. Imagination and fancy were suspect. Poetry and literature had to be answerable and amenable to reason. Literature had to be precise and transparent.
Eventually this shadow of New Criticism— itself an offshoot of Russian Formalism—with its distrust of emotion was to dominate the academic scene in Indian universities. For most, techniques of close-reading continue to hold sway in classrooms across our country even today. We speak a great deal about postcolonial theories and raise our voices against neocolonialism(s) and the politics of globalisation, but our perceptions still suffer from the colonial hangover. It is either a blind adulation of the West or a neo-rational dismissive attitude.
This probably was the state of mind which made many of the later Indian academics turn a blind eye to the momentous impact of theory and counter theories which hit our classrooms with the force of a million tsunamis. While many valiantly resisted theory and clung on to conventional modes of literary readings, several others virtually allowed themselves to be enslaved by the theories of the postmodern that Ashis Nandy had termed the third wave of colonialisation!
The linguistic turn in the history of ideas washed away conventional ways of looking at literature and revealed the socio-cultural fabric that was language. It revealed how language actually made everything complex, and how meaning itself was contingent and relative. Reading literature called for a certain familiarity with the vagaries of the methodologies of social sciences. This was the fate of the literary studies when ecocriticism entered the scene.
British academic Jonathan Bate’s re-reading of William Wordsworth went a long way to recall attention to English Romantics and revealed the scope of new readings of the works of the poets and writers who pleaded for a change in our perspectives towards human and non-human nature. Rather than turn a dismissive eye to visionary poets who sang the virtues of the countryside—or raise the status of the poet to that of a seer—what was required was a newer sensibility that could appreciate nature. Although ecology itself was a nascent science, an ecologically sensitive reading of literature helped to understand hitherto unperceived dimensions of human-nature relationship in literature.
The study of literature in our part of the world had for centuries meant simply British Literature. Eventually American and Commonwealth Literature also were allowed into our curriculum. Literary Criticism and critical theories followed suit. With the incorporation of postcolonial narratives and translation theories into our syllabi, our classroom perception of the world at large also underwent suitable change; writings from languages from different regions of India too found a place.
Ecocriticism is a new entrant. This new avatar of criticism does not mean a mere reading of nature in literature or the celebration of romantic evocations of nature. Its purpose definitely is not merely to reintegrate the earlier Romantic visionary writings but to read them with a different eye and ear. It is an endeavour to understand the human-nature nexus; a simple addition of nature to literature as a sort of spicing is not what is desired by ecocriticism.
Although literature has always been sensitive to nature, and there have been innumerable studies on the human-nature nexus in several parts of the world, this self-reflexive study of nature in literature has evolved recently. It began as a movement in the US, albeit sporadically at the beginning. As ecocriticism’s pioneer Cheryll Glotfelty writes, “Literature does not float above the material world in some aesthetic ether, but, rather, plays a part in an immensely, complex system in which energy, matter, and ideas interact in a perpetual dance”.
This recognition of the interrelationship of the aesthetic and the real world heralded a sort of paradigm shift, from language-centred textual analysis to the relationship between the human and the biotic world. This shift was accompanied by another movement: from the exclusively human (anthropocentric) to the biocentric. This was a movement towards a humanism informed by an awareness that was more than human. In many ways, ecocriticism pleads for placing a sense of the spiritual at the heart of everything. It is influenced by the teachings of Arne Naess, the pioneer of Deep Ecology. According to him all life forms have an intrinsic value which means they are neither derivative nor subservient to anything else.
So the human domination of nature is unethical. Deep Ecology calls for a sharp paradigm shift from that of the anthropocentric to the biocentric where all life forms are venerated. Darwin does not hold much water here. The teachings of Mahavira and the Buddha correlate with the evocations of Deep Ecologists.
The emergence and the increasing sophistication of environmental awareness in literary and cultural studies over the past two decades—perhaps a little more—could be seen as a call towards recognition of the importance of the old-fashioned ideas of aesthetic sensibility, intrinsic value and poetic imagination. Insights of feminist theories also impinge on ecocriticism: the fate of woman has been linked to the fate of the planet. In the game of power sanctioned by the patriarchal world view, man has dominated both non-human nature and the woman. It is significant, therefore, that ecologically conscientious criticism and theory have created a platform for a dialogue between diverse points of view.
So is ecocriticism a response to increasing environmental crisis? Or is it a “natural” reaction to the over-theorisation of contemporary critical studies that led to a prison house where humans were cordoned away from non-human nature? Or is ecocriticism a reaction to a globalisation syndrome of Eurocentric ideologies that conveniently marginalised non-Euro-American cultures, women, and nature? Perhaps, it is a result of all these factors. What is significant, however, is that ecocriticism has ushered in new forms of thinking.
Initially dismissed as sentimental nature writing, ecocriticism has grown into a full-fledged method of critical practice creating its own aesthetic, ethical,social and political spaces. At the turn of this century, American academic Patrick Murphy drew attention to the various shades of writing that could be grouped under the rubric of nature writing, and pointed out that “environmental literature often begins with some of the same features as nature literature but departs from it in terms of authorial self-consciousness about environmental issues and problems.”
Though ecological criticism as a discipline was born in the US—and has found a foothold in British academies—its consistent growth and spread owe to the fact that it recognises difference and diversity, and is not a globalising theory. There is enormous scope of using ecocriticism to study Indian literature. Parallels have already been drawn with Hindu religious systems and the evocation of nature as a sacred space with the key perceptions of Deep Ecology. Ecocriticism has been used to understand how the ancient Sangam poets viewed the Tamil country. In my book, Nature and Human Nature: Literature, Ecology, Meaning, I pointed out some of the ways ecocritical theories guide our academic curriculum. Let me list some:
- Rediscover our ties with nature
- Incorporate scientific temper into English studies
- Reorient our critical and conceptual tools
- Explore the historical roots of ecocriticism
- Take up intensive studies of our tribal and folk culture and reconnect with our indigenous roots
- Extensive study of environmental movements in other parts of the world
- Theoretically incorporate nature as a conceptual term alongside race, class, gender
- Explore global along with regional and local
In the eyes of an ecocritic, literature is not something that happens in empty space, nor is it merely a linguistic experiment created by a human being trapped in the prison house of language. Ecocriticism makes a strong plea for reinstating values at the heart of imaginative creations. We learn not to mock and deride but to listen and learn through sympathy and understanding. The old-world professors—mere academic imitators for the likes of Professor Narasimhaiah—might have unintentionally reiterated the lines of the insightful romantics, but if we can re-gather some values from those visionaries, it could aid us to see and hear better. So ultimately our hearts will leap up when we behold a rainbow in the sky once again. We need not dream of daffodils or pansies but we can see the tiny white flower near our own feet for what it is worth. We have nearly destroyed our planet Earth. Poets and writers the world over have warned us time and again of this. If only we had eyes to see and ears to hear. Once we learn to see and sense again, our Earth will once again be our home.
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