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The New York Review of Books has just reissued The Interior Landscape: Classical Tamil Love Poems, one of the most abidingly beautiful artifacts to come out of Hyde Park in Chicago. Published to quiet but enthusiastic acclaim in 1967, this slender volume of secular poetry from ancient southern India, alternately ironic, melancholy and erotic, inaugurated the singular scholarly career of the translator, A. K. Ramanujan, then an untenured Chicago professor in his thirties with little more than a well-regarded book of English poetry to his name. In the years since, and partly as a result of Ramanujan’s translations, the poems have spawned a cottage industry of annotators and obsessives from across the Tamil-speaking world.

That world today ranges from Southeast Asia at one end to California at the other; it consists of diasporas of Tamils dispersed first by colonialism and then by twentieth-century capitalism, but also a small but ever-growing community of non-Tamil scholars—Japanese, Czech, German and American—smitten with the Tamil literary tradition. At its heart are the cities of Chennai (“Madras,” until 1996) in India’s far south and Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka.

The Tamils have had a long tradition of insisting on the independence of their language and literary tradition from the subcontinent’s linguistic hegemon, Sanskrit, and the major languages of northern India that were its descendants. In modern times, this exceptionalism has gone well beyond a chip on the collective shoulder and erupted into sporadic secessionist violence. The politics of modern Tamil identity have never been simple, but for all its involvement in tensions rooted in religion, caste or ethnicity, that politics shares with other nationalisms a preoccupation with language, and consequently with literature.

A central figure in the literary history of the modern Tamils was the nineteenth-century scholar U. V. Swaminatha Iyer. A (high-caste) Brahmin by birth, he proved a maverick in choosing his mother tongue as the subject of his scholarship, for Tamil-speaking Brahmins have long had an ambivalent relationship with their language. His memoirs narrate, with mock outrage, an encounter with a family friend puzzled by the boy’s eccentric calling: English the old man could see the point of, it being good in this life; Sanskrit he could see the point of, it being good in the next life. But what was Tamil good for?

But he kept at it, studying with the preeminent Tamil scholar of his age the grammars, epic poems, commentaries and eulogies to gods that made up a de facto canon. That canon had never been stable, shifting with the winds of sectarian debates between partisans of this or that philosophical school, between Jains and Buddhists, worshippers of Vishnu and those of Shiva. Palm-leaf manuscripts were hard to come by, and texts disappeared from the canon because no copies were in circulation. But no shift in the canon was more decisive than the one that occurred on October 21st, 1880 when Iyer, then a 25-year-old college lecturer, had an unsettling encounter with a literary-minded civil magistrate whose favor and patronage he sought. The magistrate asked him what texts he had read; Iyer produced what he thought an imposing list. What else, asked the magistrate, unimpressed. Iyer named a few more. The magistrate replied with splendid condescension, “It is good that you have read all these latter-day works. Have you read any of the ancient texts?” The first flush of shame turned immediately into a shiver of excitement.

Iyer spent the rest of his life—he died aged 78—hunting down texts of far greater antiquity than any he had read before, lyric poems and verse epics going all the way back to the early years of the common era. The quest for copies of these texts took him into the storerooms of monasteries and the private attics of once-rich families; his ally in these searches, the redoubtable Sri Lankan editor C. W. Damodaram Pillai, had written in 1877 of the tragicomedy of finding yet another half-forgotten palm-leaf manuscript: “When you untie a knot, the leaf cracks. When you turn a leaf, it breaks in half. … Old manuscripts are crumbling and there is no one to make new copies.”

The editorial efforts of the next decades, with every other year seeing a new ancient text (as it were) in print for the first time to an expectant readership among the educated colonial elite, soon produced a Tamil canon going as far back—if the most enthusiastic champions of Tamil’s antiquity are to be believed—to the first century BCE, and including a quite dazzling corpus of poetry. The earliest texts of all were the Eight Anthologies, the Ten (Long) Poems, and a manual of grammar and poetics. These were the literary texts of the so-called “Sangam” age, or the age of the “academies,” a retrospective coinage referring to the quasi-legendary academies where gods joined sages and kings as poets.

The discovery of the corpus gave Tamil identity an unexpected elevation in status; Tamil was now, like Sanskrit, a “classical” language in both senses of the word: ancient, certainly, but one in which there existed writing of abiding aesthetic worth. Of course, little of this reached the world of the British administrators. In Madras, as in Bombay and Calcutta, the British were sequestered in their cantonments with only the faintest idea of just what the natives were up to, quite unaware of how each city was in its way a crucible of modernity in literature, art and architecture, only looking for inspiration to somewhere other than Europe.

The recanonized poems, while in a language evidently the ancestor of modern Tamil, were by no means easy to read, any more than (say) Beowulf is accessible to the untrained English speaker. Swaminatha Iyer set out to produce, sometimes ex nihilo, the requisite philological apparatus, often finding even his considerable scholarship inadequate to the archaic vocabulary and grammar. “The vistas of the new world depicted in the Sangam books,” he wrote, drawing on the imagery of one of the best loved of the Sangam poems, “appeared as the mountains covered by mist. Though this heavy mist hung over the mountains, its loftiness and magnitude though not fully visible was yet perceptible as bigger than the earth, vaster than the sky and more unfathomable than the deep seas.”

The following decades, heady with nationalistic spirit of both the pan-Indian and Tamil sort, saw the poems incorporated as sources for the new histories of South India written in the early decades of the twentieth century. Indian nationalists had rarely been in any doubt about the antiquity and greatness of Indian civilization, but the Sangam poems revealed the south of India to have been an equal participant in the making of that civilization; its culture was, contrary to the old historiography, neither inferior nor, if the poems were as old as they were thought to be, derivative. The most prolific of these historians, Professor Nilakanta Sastri, wrote in his 1955 classic A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar: “This literature of the Sangam, the earliest stratum of Tamil literature now available, is also in many ways the best.” Aware that his judgment would be thought hyperbolic, he later added: “When read in the original they provide an exquisite aesthetic enjoyment which translations necessarily fail to reflect.” This last remark was made in 1964, when he could not have known of the chain of events he had, quite unwittingly, set in motion on the other side of the earth.

In 1959, Sastri had been a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. He would have been greeted by the small group of American scholars of India’s history and languages who then comprised the Committee on South Asian Studies (COSAS). American universities had by then a quite respectable tradition of academic interest in Indian civilization. Chicago for one had been offering courses in Sanskrit from 1892, the year of its foundation. But the interest in India these appointments embodied was narrow. Sanskrit was believed to be the surviving language closest in structure to “Proto-Indo-European,” the source of nearly every European language; the study of Sanskrit ultimately subserved the study of European identity. No other Indian languages were studied, certainly no modern ones, and there was little scholarship of importance produced at these universities on India all the way up to the years of the Second World War.

From the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor onward, successive American administrations found themselves entangled in the political affairs of Asian countries. The slow dismantling of the British empire and the U.S.S.R.’s increasing engagement with international politics had the first generation of Cold Warriors looking to their universities for “expertise” on countries threatening to go Communist (of which they feared India one), and finding them able to provide none of the anthropologists, geographers or modern linguists specializing in the non-Western world that they needed. Classical philology would not win them the Cold War.

Money was therefore poured into institutes running three-month courses in foreign languages that called to mind the East India Company’s training program for the young men it sent to govern India in the early nineteenth century. In the years after the war, the Ford Foundation stepped in, putting large sums into “area studies.” India might soon be important to American interests, and it was important for Americans to be able to speak and read its languages, and not only the dead ones.

At Chicago, this began auspiciously, with India figuring prominently in the work of the influential anthropologists Robert Redfield and Milton Singer, both convinced that it was “a kind of microcosm of the world’s intercultural relations.” As a newly independent country constitutionally committed to liberal democracy—however much its charismatic Prime Minister Nehru showed what looked to Washington like a worrying fondness for the Soviets—India was ripe for the involvement of American academia, and perhaps its State Department as well. As imperial Britain had discovered a hundred years before, the extent of a would-be hegemon’s power was proportional to the depth of its knowledge.

A Committee on South Asian Studies was constituted in 1955, uniting all the Chicago academics with an interest in India. Several Chicago social scientists visited India to look at its educational system and economic history; even Milton Friedman was briefly involved with the Committee when he travelled to India to express a predictable disapproval of Nehru’s Second Five-Year Plan. It was to such an audience that Sastri’s lectures on the history of South India were delivered.

The University in these years was well placed to take advantage of a fortunate concatenation of circumstances. The United States government was owed interest on the large wheat loans to India made in 1951 under the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act (or “Public Law 480”), and the Indian government had hinted that it would prefer to pay off the interest on the loan in goods. American South Asianists leapt at the prospect of acquiring large numbers of Indian books, and 1961 saw many thousands of Indian books and periodicals wending their way to libraries at American universities. Chicago, with its growing strength in Indian studies, was well prepared for the approaching shiploads of uncatalogued books in a terrifying array of languages. One set belonged to Nilakanta Sastri, and it included an autographed copy of Swaminatha Iyer’s edition of the Kuruntokai, one of the Eight Anthologies of classical Tamil love poetry.

News of the acquisition of Sastri’s books reached the ears of a young linguist and former Fulbright Scholar who had just been hired to the University of Chicago, A. K. Ramanujan. Ramanujan belonged to the first significant generation of Indian academics at American universities, hired out of a desire to have foreign languages taught by native speakers. Ramanujan’s childhood in the Kannada-speaking princely state of Mysore in a Tamil-speaking family much invested in English education had left him roughly trilingual. His graduate work in modern linguistics and his previous background as a lecturer in English literature made him the ideal language teacher. But with his parallel life as a published poet, Ramanujan would soon prove far too talented to spend his life drilling future American diplomats in Tamil conjugations.

Shortly after his appointment, Ramanujan was asked to offer a course in Tamil. He demurred at first—Tamil was his mother tongue and he spoke it fluently, but his academic work had been on Kannada and his knowledge of Tamil literature did not go far beyond some twentieth-century novels, a few popular anthologies and the pietistic medieval literature he had imbibed from the orthodox Brahmin milieu of his childhood. He was ignorant of classical Tamil, and knew next to nothing of the Sangam corpus. Having spent his twenties immersing himself in the poetry of Yeats and Pound and his years in America discovering Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, his literary influences up to that point had mostly been Anglophone. Learning of the Harper Library’s recent acquisition of Sastri’s books, he descended into its basement stacks on one of his first Saturdays in Chicago, hoping for a school grammar of Old Tamil among the “uncatalogued, … undusted books.”

As I searched, … I came upon an early anthology of classical Tamil poems, edited in 1937 by [Swaminatha Iyer]. … I sat down on the floor between the stacks and began to browse. … As I began to read on, I was enthralled by the beauty and subtlety of what I could read. Here was a world, a part of my language and culture, to which I had been an ignorant heir.

The edition he had chanced upon was Iyer’s last major editorial project, the Kuruntokai, a set of short love lyrics, often dramatic quasi-monologues, calling on the reader to infer who is saying what in whose earshot. It was to the third poem in this anthology that Iyer had alluded in his remarks about the challenges of reading the Sangam poems. In Ramanujan’s translation, this reads:

What She Said
Bigger than earth, certainly,
higher than the sky,
more unfathomable than the waters
is this love for this man
of the mountain slopes
where bees make rich honey
from the flowers of the kuriñci
that has such black stalks.

This poem, attributed to a certain “Tevakulattar” (“The Poet of the Temple” – virtually nothing is known about him apart from this epithet), opens The Interior Landscape, Ramanujan’s selection of poems from the Kuruntokai. The Interior Landscape has been so many readers’ first glimpse of Sangam poetry that it can be hard to distinguish what is in the Tamil (itself a matter on which objective judgment is difficult) from features of Ramanujan’s distinctive style of translation. For one thing, the elements of the poem—a single, long sentence—emerge in a slightly different order in Tamil, which allows for considerable freedom in the ordering of sentence parts. The Tamil moves from the earth, sky and water through the slopes, bees and flowers of the mountain country, and only at the end to the human feeling, “love.” There is no easy way to put “love” at the end of an idiomatic English rendering, although translators happier with pushing at the bounds of acceptable English usage have since tried. But for Ramanujan, the English word order reflected a deeper truth about the poems’ “structure” or “inner form.” The poem, wrote Ramanujan in a thoughtful but opinionated later commentary, “opens with large abstractions about her [i.e. the narrator’s] love: her love is bigger than earth and higher than the sky. But it moves towards the black-stalked kuriñci, acting out by analogue the virgin’s progress from abstraction to experience.”

Equally, the indented block of text set off from the main body of the poem was to Ramanujan’s mind not “arbitrary or eccentric but … a way of indicating the design of the original poems.”  The “inset,” as he termed it, “enacts” what the poem does not explicitly mention: the lovers’ union. The lover is both the man from the mountains and the mountain itself. The kuriñci plant, famously rich in honey, flowers around twelve years after it is planted, a fact that identifies it with the virgin heroine who is the speaker of this poem and comes to puberty at that age. All of this is done without any explicit markers of comparison. The device is neither a simile nor a metaphor; it is, rather, a “metonymy,” “where the signifier and the signified belong to the same universe, share the same ‘landscape.’”

The “interior landscape” of Ramanujan’s title was a reference to the complex, but not esoteric, conventions that governed the poems, conventions relating the landscapes of the Tamil country to the symbolism of Tamil poetry: the mountains with the union of lovers (as in the poem above), the wasteland with separation, the forests with patient waiting, the seashore with anxious waiting, and the agricultural lowlands and cities with infidelity. “Thus,” says Ramanujan, “is the real world always kept in sight and included in the symbolic. These poets would have made a … Marianne Moore … happy: they are ‘literalists of the imagination,’ presenting for inspection in poem after poem ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’”

The quotation from Moore’s “On Poetry” (with an embedded quotation from Ramanujan’s old favorite Yeats) suggests one source of his reaction to the Tamil poems. A year before his dramatic encounter with them in the library basement, Chicago’s well-respected Poetry magazine had published a poem of Ramanujan’s (“The Striders”) that we can see in retrospect as a poetic manifesto not unlike Moore’s:

Put away, put away this dream
And search
for certain thin-
stemmed, bubble-eyed water bugs.
See them perch
on dry capillary legs
weightless
on the ripple skin
of a stream.
No, not only prophets
walk on water. This bug sits
on a landslide of lights
and drowns eye-
deep
into its tiny strip
of sky.

“The Striders” shows its origins in the austere poetics of Ezra Pound (“eye-deep” is a phrase from Pound’s H. S. Mauberley), but the New England water insect in it is, like William Carlos Williams’s celebrated “red wheelbarrow,” the lowly mascot for a new poetics: in Williams’s rousing slogan, “Say it, no ideas but in things,” in Pound’s, “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.” Where Pound had looked to faraway China for an example with which to purge English poetry of Victorian verbosity, Ramanujan found his wellspring in the backyard he had so long ignored. The shock of the Sangam poems was a shock of recognition, of finding fellow modernists—after a fashion—in a place and time he had not thought to seek them.

Ramanujan’s elegant afterword to The Interior Landscape ends with an emphatic, mischievous judgment of the corpus’s worth: “These poems are not just the earliest evidence of Tamil genius. The Tamils, in their 2,000 years of literary effort, wrote nothing better.” The provocation here is muted but real, the subtle polemic in the second sentence concealed in the celebratory, almost chauvinistic, tone of the first. It is not immediately obvious just how radical a conclusion he had reached. If he was right, then not all the hymns to Shiva and Vishnu, nor the epics, nor the entirety of modern Tamil literature, could match up to the Sangam poems.

Convinced as he was of the need to locate the center of gravity of the Tamil tradition in its secular rather than religious literature, Ramanujan found himself in partial agreement with the Tamil nationalism to which he otherwise paid little attention. He shared the marked antipathy to traditional religion and the professed humanism of the movement’s leaders. In Ramanujan, the secularism looked not to science but to art, and his humanism was not a philosopher’s doctrine but a poet’s manifesto that had found the rallying cry of a William Carlos Williams to have been the basis for a poetic corpus a world away.

In this light, it is not insignificant that Kuruntokai 3 in Ramanujan’s translation is a poem in which the most important thing is not “love.” No, it is the thin black stalks of the kuriñci that is in focus in the translation, like the “thin-/stemmed … water bugs” in “The Striders.”

Love in Ramanujan’s translations is a richly ambiguous thing, sometimes even more so than in the original. Another of the most celebrated of the translations in The Interior Landscape is of Kuruntokai 25:

What She Said
Only the thief was there, no one else.
And if he should lie, what can I do?
There was only
a thin-legged heron standing
on legs yellow as millet stems
and looking
for lampreys
in the running water
when he took me.

There are a couple of unhappy choices in Ramanujan—scholars agree now that the legs of the heron should be “greenish” rather than yellow (millet stalks can be either color at different times of the growing season, but the legs of the Indian grey heron (Ardea cinerea), that ubiquitous solitary wader of the Tamil countryside, are a dull green). The eel-like “aaral” fish (Macrognathus pancalus) in the original are “spiney-eels” not lampreys, which do not occur in Tamil country. But “lampreys,” bisyllabic with an “r” in the middle like “aaral,” and the fortuitous fact of its second syllable being “prey,” is a nifty choice in its way. In Ramanujan’s words, “searching in one language for forms and tones that will mimic and relive those of another, [the translator] may fashion now and then a third that will look like the one and speak like (or for) the other.” Ramanujan’s lampreys are there to speak for the spiney-eels of the Tamil country.

Not everyone has been won over by this sort of argument. Scholarship on the Sangam poems since Ramanujan has had an awkward relationship with his work. No one has suggested that his translations are anything but beautiful, and his afterword remains the starting point for much critical discussion. Still, it is evident now that Ramanujan, working with an evolving but still rudimentary philological apparatus and was over-dependent on the traditional commentaries in resolving the meanings of difficult phrases. There were often straightforward mistakes in construal, and his interpretations could be idiosyncratic. Faced with these charges, even his champions have found themselves on the back foot, and some go so far as to say—to quote from the back cover of this year’s NYRB reissue—that Ramanujan had merely “drawn on a celebrated anthology of classical Tamil poetry to compose an unforgettable sequence of love poems.”

This concedes too much ground to the critics while begging several questions about the nature of translation. More instructive is a comparison also to be found in the promotional material for this reissue, which, echoing T. S. Eliot’s remark on Pound’s translations from the Chinese, deems Ramanujan “the inventor of Tamil poetry for our times.” Now this is a double-edged accolade if ever there was one. Pound famously knew little if any Chinese and worked sometimes from earlier translations and “trots,” and sometimes disregarded the Chinese entirely. In contrast, there is no question that Ramanujan knew his Old Tamil, though there have always been those who knew it a good deal better, and to call him “inventor” is not to charge him with fraudulence. Rather, it is a way of acknowledging that his marked poetic personality was in tension with a more modest vision of a translator’s station and its duties.

The scholar Eliot Weinberger argues that “translation is dependent on the dissolution of the translator’s ego: an absolute humility toward the text.” Ramanujan appears to have thought this a futile aspiration: “A translation has to be true to the translator no less than to the originals. He cannot jump off his own shadow. Translation is choice, interpretation, an assertion of taste, a betrayal of what answers to one’s needs, one’s envies.” The remark suggests that the publisher’s blurb might have hit on something after all. It is not so much that Ramanujan puts in anything not there in the Tamil, or leaves out something that is. Yet he could only translate the poem he saw, and what he saw says a great deal about him.[1] About him, and also about his historical moment, a point to which T. S. Eliot is acutely sensitive in his remarks about the Chinese translations (such as they are) in Pound’s Cathay:

I suspect that every age has had, and will have, the same illusion concerning translations … The Elizabethans must have thought that they got Homer through Chapman … Not being Elizabethans, we have not that illusion; we see that Chapman is more Chapman than Homer … The same fate impends upon Pound. … we think we are closer to the Chinese than when we read, for instance, [19th-century translator James] Legge. I doubt this: I predict that in three hundred years Pound’s Cathay will be a ‘Windsor Translation’ as Chapman and North are now ‘Tudor Translations:’ it will be called (and justly) a “magnificent specimen of XXth Century poetry” rather than a “translation.” Each generation must translate for itself.

Eliot’s remark suggests that there is no need to suppose that Ramanujan had found a permanent solution to the problem of how to translate Tamil poetry. His achievement was to have found a way, true to his sensibilities and responsive to the limits and poetic possibilities of both Tamil and English. It is neither here nor there to say he cast a long shadow over the originals. In totting up the final score, we need to ask what in the Tamil his translations obscure and what they help us to see. If his translation of Kuruntokai 3 may be taken to be emblematic, then what his translations help us to see is the natural object—the thin black stalks of the kuriñci, the slender legs of the heron—and what they cast into shadow is the human feeling, love.

Certainly it is clearer now just how much this demotion of love speaks of the life and times not of the ancient Tamil poets but of their translator in the 1960s, his sensibility, his insecurities, his neuroses, most conspicuously the anxieties about sex that were his but also those of his generation. Ramanujan was insulated in Chicago from his country’s politics. Unlike the writers in Tamil, Kannada and English fashioning a modern literature in their languages while living in India, his work was freed, perhaps forced, to take an inward direction. The problems sexuality posed for him were not social but personal. Ramanujan was in 1967 a Hindu living in Chicago whose religion was a matter of culture and aesthetics rather than doctrine, married against his family’s wishes to a fellow academic, a Syriac Christian from Kerala, watching the campus go through the throes of the “sexual revolution” while unmoored from the taboos of his ancestors.

In fact, it might very well be that The Interior Landscape is better read alongside not the tradition of translations from Old Tamil, but the six volumes of Ramanujan’s own poetry in English and Kannada. The Brahmin narrator of his poem “Still Another View of Grace” (from his 1966 collection The Striders) “shudders to the bone at hungers that roam the street / beyond the constable’s beat.” That poem ends on an image of violent, transgressive carnality:

Commandments crumbled
as in my father’s past. Her tumbled hair suddenly known
as silk in my angry hand, I shook a little …
and took her, behind the laws of my land.

It is not merely coincidental that the verb he chooses to describe the sex act in the last line of this poem is the verb he uses to translate the last line of Kuruntokai 25: “when he took me,” “I … took her.” Other translations have tended to see the lovemaking as tender and consensual, and at least one scholar has argued that the phrase should be rendered “touched my shoulder,” taken by convention to imply an offer of marriage. But where others saw love, Ramanujan saw menace.

Is the lamprey-eating heron of Kuruntokai 25 an image of lifelong union, of which consumption is often symbolic in the Tamil tradition? Or is it the remorseless predator of Ramanujan’s perceptions? In his brief words of criticism on Kuruntokai 25, he wrote, following an ancient commentator, that

the predatory nature of the heron is what is in focus. The bird looking for fish in the running waters is like the lover taking his woman. … [T]he loneliness of the place, the singular heron who is not attending to anything but his own prey, the lack of witnesses, are part of the suggestion. And the woman remembers the heron vividly because it crystallizes her fears regarding her lover’s possible treachery. … [T]he vivid moment of love-making (with which the poem climaxes) and the focused image of the predatory heron, representing that moment, that stays in the woman’s mind, contains past experience, present doubts, and future fears.

So Ramanujan wrote in the 1980s, reflecting on a translation he had published in 1967, the year of the “summer of love,” thinking of the long-dead poet who knew love as well as he knew betrayal, and who saw both in a woman imagining herself an eel in the mouth of a lone wading heron.

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. As it happens, the most significant differences between translators come out not in how they render this or that Tamil phrase but in what they “see” as integral to the Tamil poem and, therefore, strive to carry across into English, to the inevitable exclusion of other elements also present in the Tamil. For those curious about the ways in which others have “seen” the poems, the translations of the American scholar George Hart with the poet Hank Heifetz will offer the reader a different sense of the crowded Tamil sentences of the original poems; those of the Indian scholar M. L. Thangappa aspire to a fidelity directed at preserving the integrity of each poetic line; those of Martha Ann Selby aim at a more sensuous, and less ironic, lyricism than Ramanujan’s. The boldest readers may even attempt the annotated and stridently prosaic scholarly renderings of Eva Wilden, all brackets, slashes and ellipses. But it is far from self-evident that what these translations bring to the poem is greater fidelity as such, for there are so many things in the poems to be faithful to, and the translator, with his multiple loyalties, is doomed to betray.
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  • Jere

    Enjoyed every bit of your article post. Really Cool.

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