The Accidental Historian

I don’t renege on promises. Unless the bribe is considerable. And it involves Italian food & a glass of Port. Then, I don’t give a hoot about promises. Every ideal is negotiable & now you know the economics of my avouchments.

This here is a promise I’m keeping though. Last week, I said I’ll write a follow-up post on my unusual hobbies. To my utter consternation, I couldn’t zero in on a particular hobby. Should I write about the time I collected chocolate wrappers? I made it into a sort of neighborhood drive. Even the adults were hooked. Remember the Broken Glass collection? And how we broke perfectly good bangles to add to the collection? Because only shards were legit. How about the time when Raman’s mother chased us with a stick, shrieking “Hooligans!” when she spied us with her glass vase? Or, what was left of it.

Never mind. I’ve had many resplendent habits. But, I decided to write about a hobby that hounds me to this day. I collect old books. The older, the better. And not just any old book. I collect books that offer me more than their presumed content. On my lap is “The Ghost of Blackwood Hall”, a Nancy Drew mystery. On its fly-leaf are the words “To Caroline from Dad – August 9, ’52”. To Caroline, from Dad. Its a poignant & touching phrase. I’m not a fan of Nancy Drew, but I simply couldn’t leave the book forlorn on the Thrift Store shelf.  I’m faintly troubled by the voyeuristic nature of my hobby. But all it takes is another old book to stifle the clamor of my conscience.

I’ve always been addicted to books. I was a sickly child. Typhoid, Measles, Bronchitis – You name it, I got it. I was bed-ridden a lot & I couldn’t play with other kids. Though I have to admit I didn’t miss it at all – I’m bone-lazy, nerdy & aloof. During my convalescence, my companions were books, our German Shepherd Brownie & our Grandpa’s adorable, magnificent no-name ginger cat. I would read my favorite passages to Brownie & Ginger, or show them pictures that caught my fancy. Ginger looked appropriately sagacious & uttered scholarly meows, but I regret to say that I couldn’t interest the dog in books at all. He just stupidly slobbered over the pages & tried to shred them.

I don’t know about other languages, but Tamil has a lot of Weekly Magazines. These magazines have an age-old habit of publishing novels – 1 chapter every week. Every chapter was illustrated by a famous artist – and it depicted a major event in that chapter. “Illustrated Weekly” used to do this too. Since Indians are by nature thrifty, they would cut the pages carefully & bind all the chapters into a book. Et Voila, they had a card-board bound, calico backed novel – a piece of gift-wrapping paper served as the “Cover Art”. I’m particularly attracted to this kind of books. Every book has an elusive fragrance, a character. You can capture the evanescence only if you read it with the original illustrations.

Plus, these books are bona-fide historical records. For along with the story could be that week’s Editorial, Tidbits, World News or Sports Trivia. They give the reader an authentic whiff of that period – Primarily because people left these tracks inadvertently in the magazines, without any intent of creating epochal relics. One can flimflam official records because of the desire to deify oneself. The bound books – let me call them that, for lack of a better name – are a fund of period information. News items on the State of the Union – always leave me wondering whether I should chuckle or grimace. Here is an example from “Kalki”, Circa 1988.

A startling discovery was made in the Indian state of Meghalaya. During a routine Status Review of the Education Department, it was discovered that most of their primary school teachers were illiterate. They affixed their thumb impressions to receive their pay checks, since none of them had mastered the art of signing their names.

Often, magazines dredge up stories from the annals of history. Here is a sample from “Ananda Vikatan”, Circa 1966.

When Edward VII of England visited France, a ball was given in his honor. After dining magnificently, the men started a heated debate – “Who is the most beautiful woman in the world?” Each one had an opinion, naturally. “I’m sure she’ll be Egyptian” said one. “No, Indian” said another. “You fools. Greek women are the prettiest” said a third. His Royal Highness put an end to the debate thus – “Its my wife!” he declared. Nobody had the nerve to challenge him.

For the Sports Trivia buff in all of us, here’s a sampler from Kalki, Circa 1995.

A funny thing happened in a Chess Tournament in 1927. Aron Nimzovich was playing Milan Widmar in New York. Mid-game, Widmar tried to light a cigarette. Nimzovich threw a hissy fit & the organizers begged Widmar not to smoke. Widmar complied immediately. After a few minutes of maintaining peace, Nimzovich kicked up a storm again. The organizers were non-plussed – “My dear Sir, Mr Widmar isn’t smoking!”. “I know” retorted Nimzovich earnestly. “But, he looks like he wants to smoke!”.

History to me is beyond what the kings did. It doesn’t stop & end with the castles, the aristocrats & their numerous battles. Prominent people bore me – We have a superfluous glut of information about them as it is. I want to know about the commoners. I’m simply devoured by curiosity about their habits. And I want to feel their culture in my bones. What were their cherished beliefs? What were their quirks? What were their pre-occupations & passions? I think if I know what they ate, the clothes they wore, the jokes that made them laugh & the stories that enthralled them – I’ll “get” the sub-text. That is, their culture.

Old advertisements really give me a kick. I particularly like the Ads from the 1940s & 1950s. Margarine (Vanaspathi) was touted as a “Healthy Alternative to Oil”. People were urged to use “Sunlight Soap” – unless you used soap, your clothes might get torn. And my personal favorite – An Ad for the very Indian “Panama” cigarettes. From “Ananda Vikatan”, Circa 1966. The company praises stores that stock their cigarettes for their patriotism 🙂

I’m intrigued by what people of a by-gone era coveted. What was the i-phone of that period? And more interestingly – How much did it cost? Here’s an Ad from “Kalki”, Circa 1967. For Rs 323, you could buy a 5-Valve, 3 Band Radio. If you wanted 6 Valves, it would set you back by Rs 415. For a pirate’s ransom of Rs 668, you could get 6 Valves, 5 Bands & a Ferrite (whatever it means) aerial. And wonder of wonders – 2 speakers.

“So, how did you get interested in old books?” my husband asked. “Did some First Edition catch your fancy?”. I threw up in disgust. I’m not a “First Edition” snob. I collect books for the pleasure of reading them. The brag value of owning a book is for the snooty at heart – it is lost on me. “Then, what started this – your – love affair with old books?” he persisted.

My uncle once loaned me an old, dog-eared copy of World Proverbs. The book had ink stains, it looked naked without its covers & a colony of bookworms was feasting on the pages. But, it had this profound Arabic apothegm that I can’t get out of my skull:

He who knows not, but knows not that he knows not – He is a fool; shun him.
He who knows not and knows that he knows not – He is simple; teach him.
He who knows, but knows not that he knows – He is asleep; wake him.
He who knows and knows that he knows – He is wise; follow him.

He looked unconvinced. “You know, that incident sounds too good to be true”. “Wee-llll, now – I was trying to satisfy you” I said. “We have a dire need for everything to have a discrete beginning. Things have to start somewhere & end unambiguously in an apocalyptic BANG!”. “Maybe you just love nostalgia” he suggested. I shrugged. “Or maybe I don’t have a damn clue. You have to admit that quoting the proverb was a neat touch”.


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    You have surpassed yourself Priya. Fantastic post. I loved the iphone of 1965 – the one that comes with 2 speakers.

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    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Perhaps I should post the picture of the 6 valve, 5 band radio – I forgot the “ferrite” aerial. It looks like a microwave 🙂 The design sure is snazzy & maybe big was in then.

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    //This here is a promise I’m keeping though.

    I am guessing , nobody bought you italian food and a glass of port? 😛

    //Ginger looked appropriately sagacious & uttered scholarly meows, but I regret to say that I couldn’t interest the dog in books at all.


    Lovely post priya! Glad that you did keep your promise. Lets buy you two glasses of port ! [hoping you don’t want vintage stuff :P]

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    Jass – Thanks for your comment.

    Actually, someone did buy me some pasta. In Chennai. Tasted like Sambar. There are some decent Italian joints in Chennai. This wasn’t one of them. That anguished me no end, that I had to write.

    Yeah, cats can be totally cool – trouble is, they have such contempt for the human race. Once we manage to get past that, cats are awesome.

    My love for Port. Someone told me that its Payasam (Kheer) by proxy for Indians. Maybe my taste-buds haven’t evolved beyond Payasam 😛

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    Very good post priya.

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    Wow! Your penmanship is just keeping me at the end of chair till i finish reading it. Once again a lovely post.

    Yep, Reading old books especially the ones collected from magazines are the best. Every Summer we would visit grandma’s house, my favourite part of it is visiting my mom’s uncle’s house who was a retired librarian and he would have every anandha vikatan story and kalki story bounded from the magazine. Loved to read it just to read the side news and tidbits. I would get distracted a lot so i would first read the entire pages for the side notes and tidbits and then go to the main story. I also loved the special Deepavali Malar – publsihed by Anantha Vikatan. I envy you for having those collection which can never be replaced by the new hardcover books.

    My father in law is a collector of tamil historic Novels published in Magazine, he has every story of Kalki and Sandilyan. He treasures them more than anything and would carry them wherever he went ,he can’t spend a day without reading them.

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    Appa – Thanks for your comment. Its totally cool to see a comment from you.

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    Sujatha – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Your comment has given me an idea. Why should I simply be a consumer? I can take my hobby to the next level & create these bound books – lurid gift wrapping paper cover & all. “Kalai Magal” has the best Diwali Malar – I get to read it too.

    Following the works of a few authors is good too. Then, you can focus on a certain genre, a theme for your collection. Me, I like all kinds of authors.

    I sometimes just take “Parisukku Po” (literally, “Go to Paris”) by the inimitable Jayakanthan – and I just touch the pages, if I don’t have the time to re-read it for the zillionth time.

    My all time favorite is “Samskara” – it was published in the “Illustrated Weekly”. I’d love to get a copy now. I’ll keep looking.

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    Cool Idea, Don’t forget to include me in your list of recipients.

    You can find a lot of books in the old Moore Market(i wonder if the new moore market have them now) and Triplicane street book shops which has those old books. Also, the old lending library where they circulate older books would be a haven to visit.

    I bumped on the this website of Eswari Lending library where you can browse through their collection of books.

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    Sujatha – Thanks. We are members of Easwari & we get many books there. I’ll check out Triplicane – thanks for letting me know. I used to buy books near the Central Station, but I don’t go there anymore. Some of my best books – I got them near K.K.Nagar in Chennai.

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    Priya…cool post. I did not follow many parts of the posts being a gultu. But I could relate to the bound books of weekly serials in Swathi, Andhra Bhoomi etc that some folks used to bind and read later. It is indeed an interesting hobby and money saver too. (Thank god there is no DRM equivalent those days for the serials content).

    I liked the Arabic poem. Also the trivia – Vanaspathi healthier than oil 🙂 Sounds like red wine healthy for heart ‘research paper’.

    BTW I must really applaud your family..your FIL also blogs.. I know what I should do when my parents visit here to US tomorrow. I should teach them how to blog and social network. It should really open a new world for them.

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    Vamsi – Thanks for your comment.

    I tried to make the post language neutral. Is there any part of the post that you couldn’t follow? Please let me know – it will be a useful feedback for me.

    Good to know that bound books unite Indians in across states 🙂 I regret that I don’t understand Telugu – if I could, I would read the novels from Andhra Bhoomi too.

    Some of these bound books can be expensive – if the shop-keepers know about books, they price them steeply. And sometimes, they are not for sale. I’m hankering after a book published in 1948 & the shop-keeper has flat-out refused to sell it. I’m yet to get anything from the 1930s or 1920s. I’ll keep trying.

    Some Ads are too funny. I saw an Ad from the Tea Board, trying to convert Tamilians to tea drinkers. This is a very old Ad. Sadly, its in 1 of the books that are not for sale.

    Yes, we are glad that my father-in-law has started blogging. And it was cool to see a comment from him on this post 🙂

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    A post by Priya and that too on books!!! ooooh!! it doesnt get better. it really doesnt!!! 🙂
    I love collecting books too. and like u say the older the better.
    by the way if you really want authentic naphthalene ball smelling, moth eaten books with yellowing pages (ah!! the very thought gets m pulse racing) you really ought to go to moore market at central. they have the oldest and nicest smelling books.
    i remember when we used to come Madras for summer hols we would get down at central, mom and dad would buy my sister and me a lot of enid blytons and nancy drews to last us the whole summer. whoaa!!!! how i loved those days. i still have those books and hope to pass it on to my sister’s children some day!! 🙂
    My grandmother still collects “samaiyal kurippu” from 1970 onwards from some Tamil magazine (the name eludes me. was it aval or kalki? beats me) to make everything from sakarrai pongal to chinese noodles. 🙂

    Lovely post with the typical Priya stamp (read cynical and ) on it!!
    and is this the end of the hobbies series??? 🙁
    do write more.
    or for the 198658728262 th time: WRITE A BOOK on hobbies!! 🙂

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    //I would read my favorite passages to Brownie & Ginger, or show them pictures that caught my fancy. Ginger looked appropriately sagacious & uttered scholarly meows, but I regret to say that I couldn’t interest the dog in books at all. He just stupidly slobbered over the pages & tried to shred them.

    Oooh!! i can so understand this. i remember when we were in college, during exam times we would make the hostel dog called Ganguly (named in anger after ganguly performed abysmally at a match) read thermodynamics and artifical intelligence and semi conductor physics and opto electronics because we thought it was only fair that being inside the premises of an engineering college Ganguly should leave the place with some knowledge of engineering (the fact that we left the place with nothing but a bunch of great friends is not the point!! :P) but Ganguly only slobbered all over our books or pawed at it and rudely refused to study along with us!! 🙁

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    Revs – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    I really must check out the Central Station area again. Thanks for your recommendation. I used to go there 15 years back, but I stick to South Chennai these days. Time to revert to old habits, I guess.

    “Aval” is not old enough. Perhaps your grandma read “Kalki” or “Kalai Magal”. Trying those recipes can be a terrifying gastronomic experience. For recipes, I rely on the internet. Particularly, the “Food TV” website. I also have my time-tested books – “The Palghat Cookbook” by Parvathi Ramanathan & “The Saraswat Cookbook”, originally written by Ambabai Samsi. Both are not easy to come by, though. Anyone with even a few stray genes from the Malabar/Konkan coast that doesn’t own these books – is a traitor of the 1st order.

    My life is my hobby. I’ll surely write more about it 😉 Thanks for your interest.

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    Revs – You named a dog “Ganguly”?? ROFL! ROFL! I heard that Nagma named her dog “Ganguly” too, but for totally different reasons. Actually, she didn’t. But, its a good idea & I hope she doesn’t waste it.

    How thoughtful of you guys – you wanted Ganguly to have “some” knowledge of engineering. So, s/he could get a job & stand on her/his own 4 legs? My question is, wasn’t the dog already standing on its 4 legs?

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    As usual funny and nostalgic as well. Deepavali malar brings back a lot of good memories. I have been meaning to read Kalki’s novels and hopefully this post would be once more incentive to push me over the edge. By the way, I hear English translation of these novels are now available. Perhaps an incent for folks who cannot read Tamil to pick it up.

    I believe Quaid-e-Millet college near Anna Salai has a book fair once a year. During that time, you would find tons of street vendors peddling old (and sometimes new) book on the side walk. If you are lucky and patient, you can find some gems in this heap and extremely cheap too – perhaps not too legal either. They run the whole gamut – from Resnick and Halliday to Dan Brown.

    Keep writing!!


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    You are so lucky to be chennai and shop around for old books, i just felt a little jealous today. The only place i get to read Kalki’s and other old historic novels is at this site :

    But it doesn’t beat the fun of reading from the real old books with sidenotes, snippets etc. Really miss those days. Thanks for bringing those memories back.

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    It is nothing with the post. I am not familiar with magazines like Kalki, Ananda Vikatan etc. But thank you for an opportunity to learn about them.

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    Great post. One day I and my mom try to clean up our old attic, we found our grandfather’s collection of 1915s to 1930s old newspaper cuttings ( i couldn’t recall the newspaper name, it was like “sudeshi…” something), which is related to world war I and Indian independence news. wow…those are really great to read after 50-60 years. I think we are always want to collect something, that is part of our culture.


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    Ganesh – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Yes, English translations of “Ponniyin Selvan” are widely available now. For people who want to read Kalki’s works, but don’t have the time to read 500+ pages, there’s always his short stories. They are equally amazing.

    The Annual Book Fair in Chennai is amazing. We go there every year. Sukumar comes with an open mind & I go there to find Fiction Anthologies. There are so many stalls & we usually get dazed after covering 25% of them.

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    Sujatha – Do let me know when you come to Chennai next. I’ll take you around shopping for old books. Here’s to a lot of sneezing over deliciously dusty old books!

    Or, perhaps I’ll send some over thru Anbu when he visits India. Please let me know if you’re interested.

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    Vamsi – Thanks for the clarification. As a rule, I try to make the posts easy for people who speak other languages or nationalities. But one never knows. So, I thought I’ll ask.

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    Subba – Thanks for your comment.

    Was it “Sudesa Mitran”, by any chance? What did you do with the clippings? Please tell me you still have them. Perhaps you can take a pic of the choicest clippings & post them, along with an English translation of its contents. That would be wonderful.

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    Abdul Fakhri said September 8, 2008, 3:05 am:


    Great Post! One of my favourite pastimes has been rummaging through second-hand bookshops for old books and magazines.
    One would be surprised to see what one finds there. Initially this is the kind of thing that people used to do ages ago for school text books. However, when you pass that period of your life and your interests turn to other things then it can be amazing what you find. I have had this experience in good old Chennai, in Shanthiniketan in Bengal, outside the Brahadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur, in Delhi’s Darya Ganj and several other places.

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    Abdul – Thanks for your comment.

    I didn’t know you could buy old books near the temple in Thanjavur. I have to try that – thanks for the recommendation. Yes, Delhi is great. Never been to Shanthiniketan yet – its on our “To Do” list.

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    Ramesh Ramaswamy said September 8, 2008, 9:02 am:

    Great post priya. I am joining this group to say for 198658728263 th time – please write a book.

    /* Anyone with even a few stray genes from the Malabar/Konkan coast that doesn’t own these books – is a traitor of the 1st order. */

    BTW, I don’t own those books…so you called me a traitor second time…first for stop collecting Steffi’s picture 🙂

    Yes…nice to see Sukumar’s dad blogging.


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    Ramesh – Thanks for your comment.

    I can’t believe you don’t have Parvathi Ramanathan’s book – yet, you call yourself a Mallu (You also call yourself a Tamil, in case the Keralites object). I’ve never seen a more precise cook-book – her level of expertise is amazing. She doesn’t say “1 tsp of black pepper” – rather, “5 black peppers” 😀

    You are a traitor. I double doggy dare you to disprove me. Whoa, my mature side is showing 🙂

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    yes…thats sudesa mitran, the clipping were badly damaged so we had to throw some and i think we saved some, i will get some snaps of it when i go home on vacation next time.

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    Subba – Thanks. I’d love to read the surviving clips from Sudesa Mitran.

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    Priya, that was simply superb. I came into the blog to know what weird hobbies you might be posting here as suggested in your previous blogs and here I am getting to know so many things. Boy, you know a lot, though I have known this for a decade now, reading it on the post kind of re confirmed my belief //He who knows and knows that he knows – He is wise; follow him.// I guess I have always been a good follower.

    I agree with you, isn’t it interesting to know how a civilization lived instead of just knowing about the ruler. The radio example was just too good. When reading this, I remembered the ‘Carousel of life’ ride in Epcot where they show life at a U.S family in the early 19th century all the way to 21st century and everytime the man of the house says ‘ The world can’t get any better’ . Comparing the 6 valve radios to Ipods was indeed very creative.

    Certain things just become habits or interests without our knowledge. The pleasure of doing something becomes so intense that we forget how it all started. As they say in tamil “Rishi mulam and Nadhi mulam lam theda mudiyadhu” . Guess, we can certainly know Nadhi mulam, that is not my point here. Certain things are best to just let go and experience through the sheer joy of doing.

    BTW, how do you auto subscribe to the blog.

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    Shoba – Thanks for your comment.

    I neither know a lot nor am I wise. You are too kind. Though some people have told me that I’m a wise-ass 😀

    Yes, I love that Epcot ride. I wish there would be some mechanism to see into the future. That would be even more interesting than seeing the past. Wonder what gadget people of the future would crave, though. A Personal Robot, maybe.

    You are right. Its sometimes hard to know why we love certain things. But its certainly interesting to speculate on how it all began.

    Regarding your question on subscription: Try the “Entries RSS” link.

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    Thanks Priya, guess I have subscribed to the blog.

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    Nimmy (subscribed) said October 10, 2008, 3:32 am:

    Priya, Brilliant! 🙂 Love your language and sense of humor. Needless to say, I am hooked! (I am a book addict too. I sometimes even dream of dying amidst a pile of them).

    Ok…Bow Wow for now! Reminds me… the post on Brownie….did his bark go Brow Wow instead of Bow Wow? Poorest of my PJs, I must admit! 😛

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    subha sivakumar (subscribed) said December 19, 2013, 3:14 pm:

    Ms. Priya,

    I cam upon your blog when I was searching for 1940-50’s Deepawali Malar editions of Kalki, Ananda Vikatan etc. My father told me only today that my grandfather once posed for Asoka Seeval/Pakku Advertisement in those editions. I am searching for 40 to 50’s editions of those.

    If you come across any of those, can you please scan that copy of ad and mail me at or call me @ 93400 05476?

    Thanks in advance

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