'There is no language in the world which is pristine and pure'

Print edition : September 29, 2017

David Shulman. Photo: R. Ravindran

Interview with Professor David Shulman, Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of “Tamil: A Biography”.

PROFESSOR David Shulman was in Chennai recently to deliver The Whabiz Merchant Memorial Lecture in which he explored the importance of dust in south Indian literature. Dust in its myriad forms, be it powder or particles, be it gold or soil, held an immense regenerative quality that captured the imagination of poets. Shulman’s exposition of it had its own poetic rhythm and cadence.

Next day, I was at the home of Cre-A Ramakrishnan, editor and publisher, to meet Professor Shulman for an interview and got a sneak preview of how this wordsmith works on his translations. Ramakrishnan and Shulman are translating selected short stories and plays of Na. Muthuswamy, whom Shulman rates as the finest contemporary writer in Tamil. The translation process did not focus only on the written words but also on the performative nature of the words in Muthuswamy’s deceptively simple yet alluring prose. Shulman and Ramakrishnan were reading out the passages both in the Tamil original and in their English version to tweak the text to reflect the true genius of Muthuswamy (see box). At that moment, I felt that Tamil was lucky to get a biographer of Shulman’s stature.

His Tamil: A Biography (published by Harvard University Press) has an important but rare trait, rare in the documentation of Indian languages: retaining a critical distance despite the writer’s love for the language. The threat of linguistic hegemony posed by the pan-Indian nature of Sanskrit and the role of Tamil in wresting a space for heterogeneity are political realities. The perch from which Shulman looks at Tamil gives him the space to negotiate this minefield with erudition. Probably, at a deeper level, his peace work in Israel, which exposed the injustices perpetrated by Israel by showing the human dimension of the occupation, helps him look at linguistic traditions in an organic manner rather than in political silos generated by colonial and the postcolonial politics.

The Tablet magazine captured well the nature of Shulman’s journey when it wrote: “Scholar David Shulman has made an improbable journey, geographically and academically: from small-town Iowa to Jerusalem, where the Hebrew University professor received the Israel Prize in 2016 for his research on southern India. The rigour in Shulman’s erudition is tempered by a deep pathos and love for his subject.” Shulman is an expert in Hebrew, English, Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit and reads Greek, Russian, French, German, Persian, Arabic and Malayalam, and has an abiding interest in Carnatic music and in the Kutiyattam dance form.

Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline.

I would like to start with your journey from Waterloo in Iowa to Israel. How did it happen? Generally, people go to Harvard or Stanford, but in your case it was in the other direction.

I was accepted at Harvard and various other places and even had what was then called the National Merit Scholarship, so I would have had my tuition paid, but I wanted to go to Israel, not because I was a Zionist (I was never anything really like that) but because I was in love with the Hebrew language. It was my passion as an adolescent, and I wanted to live in this place where people were speaking this fantastic language, so I just wanted to live and speak and breathe and think and feel in that language. So, despite the fact that my parents were adamantly opposed to the idea, I insisted on it and left Iowa and went to Israel.

You see, I had been to Israel briefly in 1962. My parents took me and my younger brother to visit Israel when I was 13. It was very unusual at that time because people in Iowa did not cross the ocean. My father had crossed the ocean as a soldier during the Second World War, but that was a different thing. Normally, to fly to Israel was an extremely exotic experience, but my mother particularly wanted to see Israel and she took us. I fell in love with it and I wanted to learn the language... the feel of the landscape of the Mediterranean, the light, the food. I was thrilled by it. You know everybody has some passionate thing in their adolescence, and this was mine: Hebrew, and I taught myself Hebrew. I developed a kind of method and I was fluent in Hebrew by the time I got to Israel. That’s the short answer (laughs).

From there, you make another interesting journey, towards Persian literature and your immersion in Islamic literature. You have called Persian literature and civilisation the acme of Islamic civilisation. How did that journey happen?

I went to the university not because of any particular interest in the university but because I had to be in some kind of a setting, some kind of a framework, but I was not a very serious student. I was roaming around and falling in love and writing poetry and things like that. But, among the different things that I studied, I loved Persian.

I had been doing Arabic. Arabic was the natural thing to do in Israel. It is one of the languages of Israel. And also, during my very first year in Israel, when I was 18, I went to Greece, and Istanbul in the winter with a group of friends, and Istanbul really changed my life. I suddenly felt I had to make a switch in my orientation, study Islam, you know, learn those languages, and so I went into Persian. I had a wonderful group. I very quickly fell in love with Persian poetry; it is one of the great literatures—Hafez and Sadi and Rumi. It was the only thing I really cared about in a personal way in all of those B.A. years.

And then I wanted to see Iran. I could speak some Persian those days, and so my brother and I went. It was in the summer of 1980. We flew to Iran, to Tehran and then travelled around and we went overland to Istanbul. This was something I cared about. So then there was a question—I was at the end of my B.A. then—of what to do [after B.A.]. I had absolutely no idea that I would go and do a higher degree like an M.A. or PhD.

I thought I was going into the army, maybe become an intelligence officer or something like that. This was the Israel of many years ago. It is not the Israel of today. But, you know, it was a really foolish idea. Later, when I was in the army, I discovered what it was like to be in an army.

How did you come to Tamil?

First of all, my Persian teacher came to me one day and suggested I think about studying something about India, that perhaps the university might send me abroad to study and that I might have a job when I came back since there wasn’t anyone in the university who knew anything about India. We had a very strong concentration in Islamic studies and also the beginnings of a strong Chinese/Japanese/Far Eastern department but nothing about India.

Honestly, I didn’t know where India was. All I knew was that it was somewhere beyond Iran. I knew nothing about it and I thought this was an absurd idea and so I said no.

But then two things happened: one, I met the woman who became my wife at that very moment. She intuitively felt that this notion that I would make a life in the army was completely crazy and she kind of liked the idea of going to India. I had a friend called Danny Sperber. He had walked all the way from Istanbul to India. Not once but thrice. During the summer vacation, he would take a boat to Istanbul for 60 dollars or something like that and then he would walk to India. It would take some weeks or months; he learned all the languages on the way; he loved India. When I told him about this offer [to study in India], he thought I was making a big mistake by saying no.

So he began to bring me books about India, which he would leave on the doorstep of my house. I’d come home late at night usually, and there would be some new book about India. I began to read these books. So then, of course, it became interesting to me. In the end, that’s how it happened.

Then there was the question of what to study in India and where to study. I had never heard the word Tamil. I thought I would perhaps work on Indo-Persian literature, and that was the natural thing to do because I knew Persian and there were translations of Mahabharata and Ramayana from Sanskrit to Persian.

I thought I would do that, but then they sent me to talk to somebody. I don’t know if anybody in Chennai remembers this name today, but in the late 1960s, the 1970s really, he was quite a well-known person here. His name was Chaim Rabbin. He was a linguist, a Semitic linguist; he knew maybe 20 languages, and he had studied a little Tamil because he was interested in the Tamil words in the Hebrew bible. Do you know that there are some Tamil words in the Bible?

Yes, you have also mentioned it in the book.

He discovered a few more [Tamil words in the Bible] actually, and so he had come to Madras in 1968 at the time of the 2nd International Tamil Conference, and he became a kind of hero. The DMK had come to power the previous year. At this conference he said Tamil should be made the language of instruction in the University of Madras, pointing out the example of Israel and Hebrew and the revival of the language. He said Tamil would never be a fully living language until it became the language of the university. People took him on elephants in the streets of Madras, you know.

So I went to talk to him. He said: “Well, of course, you have to study Tamil. There is no question about it.” I didn’t know what it was, so I went to the library to look it up. There was really only one book at the National Library and that was A.K. Ramanujan’s The Interior Landscape, his translation of Sangam love poetry. That was enough really [to convince me].

Then there was the question of where to study Tamil because there were very few places in the world.

Is that how the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) happened?

Yes, I went to the SOAS and my teacher was John Marr.

How did your foray into other Indian languages happen, especially Sanskrit and Telugu?

I was trained in Tamil and in Sanskrit. I don’t think you can do Tamil, if you are doing classical Tamil, without Sanskrit. So, at the SOAS it was a given. Afterwards, when I went back and took up a job in the university, I very much wanted to do another south Indian language.

You know there was a fashion; it is no longer the case, but in those days, we are talking about 40 years ago or more, it was quite usual for people interested in south India to learn only one language and usually it was Tamil. The whole business was very Tamil-centric, you know, and I thought that was wrong. There is nothing wrong with Tamil. It is, as you know, a deep love of mine.

For instance, the Romance languages includes French, Spanish and Italian. Nobody would think that you could do Romance languages and learn only Italian or only Spanish. It would be a crazy thing, and it should be like that here too. I was keen on doing at least one other south Indian language. I made an attempt to learn a little Kannada. I spent a little time in Mysore, but I didn’t get very far with it—but I still want to learn Kannada.

It was 1980, I was in Mysore for a conference, and I met A.K. Ramanujan at that conference and we became friends. I also met Velcheru Narayana Rao, who became my close friend. When he heard that I wanted to learn another south Indian language, he asked me to come to Wisconsin and learn Telugu as they had a very strong Telugu department. I went to Wisconsin, and it changed my life. The truth is that you need to learn Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Sanskrit at a minimum, really, if you want to do serious work.

So the last 10 years I have been going to Kerala and I have learnt a bit of Malayalam. I want to perfect my Malayalam.

I can tell you one thing; I don’t like going to places if I can’t speak at least some of the languages spoken there. I don’t like having to communicate in English. I feel uneasy you know. I learnt a little Hindi (laughing). I am not so good at it, at learning languages. There are some people who are good at learning languages very quickly and fully. That’s not the case with me.

Oh! Really.... How did you hit upon Saivite poetry as your initial entry point for Tamil?

I became interested in sthalapuranams and, you are quite right, the Saiva ones somehow. I suppose there are more of these Saiva ones for one thing, and they are dominant in the landscape if you are interested in temples. The great authors of sthalapuranams, such as Paranjothi Munivar, Sivagnana Munivar, Kachiappa Munivar, are all Saivas, so I naturally drifted toward Saivism. It wasn’t a very conscious decision. But I do feel a strong sense of affinity with the Tamil Saiva work I do.

What aspect of the sthalapuranams? Was it the spatial aspect or the way the story is told or the way sthalapuranams have been conceived?

First of all, let me say I became interested in this whole literature. There is a list that someone compiled. There are at least 2,000 Tamil sthalapuranams. Probably more than in any other part of the country. You know, every piece of India has its sthalapuranams, but I don’t think the density is as great as it is in Tamil.

In the Tamil country, we also have sthalapuranams in Telugu and in Sanskrit. I thought my job was to read as many of these as I could and to try to highlight what was unusual about this regional tradition—to think of it as regional literature which has features of its own which are distinctive and different from the puranas. Then we came to live in Madras and I went to see all of these places and I spent months moving around from temple to temple, talking to people, taking notes, interviewing people, seeing if they had copies of the sthalapuranams, and reading the materials. That’s where the spatial element comes in. I am a very concrete and tangible kind of person. I am not given to abstraction and am not really an intellectual at all. I need to see the place, to see how the space is set up, what the landscape looks like, the taste and smell of it and all that. I can’t do it any other way.

You have entered a language, a society, a civilisation through poetry. Why is poetry your focus?

I used to write poetry. I have published a book of poems in Hebrew. For many years I wrote books in Hebrew. A book won a prize and so on. I have always felt that poetry was the closest you could get to telling the truth. It was the closest to truth, you know. There is another aspect here, an intimate confession, as to why I keep needing to learn new languages all the time. I think I have inside of me a very profound ambivalence about language itself, about verbal language.

I don’t know if you will believe this, but I have a memory, which must be a very early memory, of what it felt like to learn English, my native language, and it was a very oppressive feeling. I can remember very clearly this sense that it was like entering a tunnel and everything was narrowing itself down, and the world before language was very multidimensional, expansive, open. With language it had all got shrunken and slowed down. But, on the other hand, it was not something I could resist. There was no way I could resist it. So, I think I have had this ambivalence about language my whole life and it’s as if I am continually searching for some language where the words would speak the truth, you know.

(Laughs) Something like that. And poetry comes the closest to it. Much closer.

Therefore, from tunnelling experience, this language experience becomes a kind of funnelling one…

Yeah, yeah…

Is it truth or experience?

All languages have their own nature and their own truth. But there are certain languages that somehow seem closer to my heart, closer to my truth, because I have a strong personal relation to them. Hebrew was the first like that. Hebrew is still the language of my heart, but then Tamil and Telugu, I feel both of them in a very powerful way. There is something about south Indian languages, there is something about the sensual quality of the language, the musical nature of the language. Both Tamil and Telugu, they are very close, a kind of music. Music is close to truth, I think. Music is a way, I guess. I look for languages that are musical by nature. Both Tamil and Telugu are very much like that. English, not very much. I don’t think English is a very musical language.

Coming to “Tamil: A Biography”. Why did you want to write it as a biography and not as a history or a linguistic story or a semantic history?

First of all, I had no intention of writing this book. I will tell you in a minute how it happened. But this is not a book of historical linguistics. I could have written a book like that. It is not a history of the language. It is more like a cultural biography, cultural history of Tamil as a kind of world in its own right. I call it biography because I think of Tamil as a living being. Like some goddess. Like a person in a way. It has a history. So it seemed to me that [I should] write a history that will be close to the topics related to the language—how, over the centuries, the Tamil people thought about the language and what they said about it, all of that is very important. It is central to it. But it is also about the great ideas that are in Tamil and the great cultural themes and how these somehow grew up together. That is why I call it a biography, really. It is not a history of the language. People teach courses like that in universities here.

I had no intention of writing this book. It all happened because my editor at Harvard University Press (HUP) persuaded me to write it. I had published a book with them called More than Real. It is a history of the imagination in South India and HUP published that. And my editor there, a very fine editor, Sharmila Sen, a Bengali-American, had this idea that HUP should publish a series of books about what she called world languages, that is to say, really major languages. And she was very clear that Tamil was truly one of the world’s greatest languages, like Greek or Chinese or Arabic or Hebrew.

She told me she thought I was the right person. I didn’t think I knew enough to write a book like this and I still think I don’t know enough to write a book like this. I didn’t know how I would even begin to do it. Another issue is that so much about Tamil in particular is controversial and in dispute, and very fierce dispute. There are many things that we don’t know, very basic things that we don’t know. We don’t know when Sangam poetry was written. We have ideas and theories, but we don’t actually know. There is no firm, solid evidence. You put together bits and pieces of evidence, mostly circumstantial evidence, and there is a big debate about it also. I thought, “Gosh, to write a book about Tamil when firstly I don’t know enough, secondly nobody knows enough and there are these tremendous fierce debates seemed to be a far-fetched idea.” But she is a very persuasive person, Sharmila, and she eventually persuaded me to do it.

I agreed to do it and I struggled with it and after a while I came to enjoy it a lot because it was an opportunity to read everything that has been written about Tamil, and to read in Tamil, to read things, read new things and it was a great opportunity in that sense. The more I got into it, the happier I was.

The fascinating aspect of the book is the way you have dealt with the origin of Tamil. You have spelt out most of the origin stories without value judgement. Later, especially when you move on to Agam poetry, there are certain evaluatory elements that you bring in. But the origin part is free of such tools…

I can say something about it. Look, like everyone else, I have a feeling that there are historical truths, there are facts. I don’t, in any sense, ignore them. One should tell a true story as far as one can know. But, at the same time, I respect what the tradition itself has to say. The story of origin that Tamil traditions tell is not a historical story. It is an ahistorical story. It is something that the tradition has evolved to say, to make certain thematic statements. That’s a perspective, an internalised perspective, which is valuable in its own right. Nobody is going to say that the story of the three Sangams and Agastya is hard historical fact. But the very fact that this story exists is a historical fact. The story also developed and evolved. So I respect that story. I thought it was good in a way to juxtapose these two things. To say what we think we know about the early beginnings and all of that in a historical/scientific mode, and to juxtapose that with the way the tradition sees itself, it has its own understanding of itself.

That’s important because that understanding tells you all kinds of things about culture and the great cultural themes. That’s why I thought it was a good thing to do it. I could say that this is what we know but, at the same time, it is important to say: “Look, the tradition exists and it’s a very rich, expressive and vital tradition and one can only respect it.”

You raise interesting questions about Mudal Nool (The First Book). Is it a real book? Has anyone seen it? Was it really written by Agasthiar? Was Agasthiar himself real? Was the whole exercise an imaginary one in this civilisation and this society’s long flow of time?

The fascinating aspect is that all of the south Indian cultures actually have this. In major cultures, there seems to have been a need to have an original work of grammar and it takes different forms.

And why should grammar precede language? The way this has been structured in your book, it looks like, at least with Tamil, that there is a desire among Tamils to have their grammar precede their literature, their poetry, their culture…

There are several things that come together in this. There is a desire to believe that there was an original grammarian who promulgated the language. Almost created the language. That changes later, in the later medieval period, so that Agasthiar is not that Agasthiar who invented Tamil and gave Tamil to the Tamils. He says he is being sent south by Siva where people spoke some odd language. He is a Vedic Sanskrit speaker. “I need a grammar, give me grammar,” he asks Siva, and he gets it. But the language was already there.

Not only that. With the later grammarians, the whole idea of what grammar is for has shifted. If you read Sivagnana Munivar, mid 18th century, he has this beautiful commentary. I was studying it with E. Annamalai. He has this Tolkappiya Cuttira Virutti. That is a work of commentary on Tolkappiyam.

Sivagnana Munivar says a very interesting thing. He says Tamil has its own natural nature. He calls it “eayarkai”. It has some inner logic or inner spirit. It’s a natural thing built into it. And that nature also has a kind of logic built into it. And the task of the grammarian is to uncover and reveal that nature.

That’s different from inventing it. The language already exists and it comes equipped with a natural logic built into it. But the grammarian, in order to uncover it, needs the Mudal Nool. Not only that, the Mudal Nool is basically infallible. Even though he already has a very strong notion, which is already present in Tolkappiyam, that language naturally changes. You know, language is not a static thing; no grammarian thinks that language is fixed and static, so there is a notion that there are all kinds of deviations from the norm and there are dialectical things and usages. There is a basic distinction already present in the Paiyiram to the Tolkappiyam, between Senthamizh, this notion that is some kind of atemporal grammar that will last forever, and the spoken Tamil, which everybody knows, is different. This is there in all Indian languages.

So, if we go back to Sivagnana Munivar for a second, he knows this, he knows that language changes, he knows that there are deviations, but he believes in Mudal Nool, somehow defined in a permanent way, in an infallible way, something about the inner process of the language thinking about itself. That’s a very remarkable insight.

Then he has this Vazhi Nool, that is to say the secondary books, somehow derived from Mudal Nool. One interesting thing about Mudal Nool is that, as you said a moment ago, it may not exist; we don’t know if it ever existed, this book called the agastyam, and which they ascribe to Agastya; we don’t have this book. We only have around 25 verses which are are ascribed to it in medieval commentaries. We have a situation somewhat similar in Telugu.

There is another interesting thing. In all of these languages including Tamil, there is a notion that grammar, that is linguistics, grammar and its various branches, needs to exist. And that reason is poetry. South Indian languages exist in order to serve poets. It is very explicitly stated like that. In Telugu, one of the medieval grammarians, Appa Kavi, tells you that the only point of grammar is that poets write good poetry. Even in Tamil, it is an implicit idea. So that is something different from the Sanskrit, or the pan-Indian, grammatical tradition. In Sanskrit, grammar developed out of Vedic science, out of the need to preserve the text of the Vedas and so on. That became an autonomous discipline. In Sanskrit, grammar and poetry are quite different. But in south Indian languages, including Tamil, these are parts of the same thing, the same process. The point of having a grammar is that poets will need it. That is the specific feature. But you are quite right. There is a strange paradox in all of this: the Mudal Nool whose existence is absolutely necessary, you can’t think of grammar without the presupposition that there is a Mudal Nool, may not exist actually.

Another fascinating story of Tamil is the idea of Cangappalakai, the mythical board that served as an instrument to weigh and measure actual, infinite poetic wisdom. You have argued that early songs indicated a desire to have a tool that “can serve as an empirical, objective standard”. Cangappalakai seems to provide a cognitive coherence, or what we may even call congruence of ideas, to the Tamil origin story. Can you elaborate on this?

The essence is the yearning for standards, objective standards. What do poets really have? They have categories of good taste. That’s all we have. The Russian poet Mandelstam once said it is not faith but taste that moves mountains. These poets realised that they were part of a great tradition and they wanted exacting standards. That is the role of Cangappalakai. If a great poet sits on it, it expands to create space and if it is a bad poet, it dumps him into the golden lotus pond. Same thing about the text. If you place a good text, it is accepted but a bad text is thrown into the water. What does this story really reflect? It is about the strange quality of the Sangam poets. All of them shared the same language; you cannot really make any distinction in terms of personal style, divergences in the usage of thinai. Whether it was Kapilar or Paranar or Nakkirar, you can’t make a distinction. They spoke in the same voice. Then, how do you distinguish good from bad? You needed an objective scale. There is an old version of Cangappalakai. Older in the sense that it is older than Thiruvilayadal Puranam. It is in Sanskrit and it is called Halasya Mahatmya (Story of Madurai and its Gods). The story is that Sangam poets were throwing their poems into a room. It was a chaotic mess. There was a felt need to bring order to this mass of poems and also to sift the good poems from the bad ones. Then God, Sundareswarar himself, appears and composes poems that are supposed to be the ultimate poetical form. But, Nakkirar, the head of the academy that is the Sangam, does not like them. In this version, it was a voice, a sort of earliest Akasavani, that declares that the poems of Sundareswarar are the true poems, and resolves the evaluatory crisis. It is not so much the uniform nature of a shared, convention-bound poetic universe that is at issue as the inherent difficulty in evaluating degrees of beauty, of developing standards of taste. It is an attempt to set the bar high for what is to become the foundational knowledge of the language.

In his review of your book, Venkatachalapathy asks a question which I am sure would have occurred to many in Tamil Nadu: “Shulman asserts that a pure, autonomous Tamil never existed. If this was the case, why, even in his own analysis, at every moment in its long history, is Tamil continually resisting and wrestling with Sanskrit to maintain its distinction—a cross no other Dravidian/Indian language wants to bear?”

First, I want to say that Venkatachalapathy has written a very kind and generous review, and I am very grateful to him for it. His argument is that the attempt to negotiate with Sanskrit is a proof of autonomous existence. My position is that the history of this constant negotiation between these two languages is proof of an inextricable link, an inter-wovenness, right from the beginning. Early Sangam poems have Sanskrit words in them. If you look even earlier, now that we have early Brahmi scripts, dating back to second century BC. They are in Tamil but they are also saturated with Sanskrit and Prakrit words. There is no language in the world in human history which is pristine and pure.

The perception that Tamil is unique is true for sure. But, that is true of all languages. You can say the same about Bengali or Kashmiri or French. That does not mean Tamil had a closed, pure past. It was always a part of a multilingual set-up, and it remains in a multilingual set-up.

It was fascinating to watch you and Ramakrishnan translate Na. Muthuswamy. How did your journey to contemporary writing in Tamil happen?

My first engagement with a contemporary literature happened with G. Nagarajan’s Nalai Matrumoru Naale. A student of mine, A. Ziffren, was an avid Tamil reader and a fan of Nagarajan. She died rather young of cancer. She, along with A. Jullie, who is from Madurai, did a draft translation of the novel. As she was dying, she sent the manuscript of the translation to me and asked to do whatever I thought was right. It became a sacred trust for me. I spoke to Ramakrishnan and we agreed to work together on it. The manuscript needed a complete revision. I think it took a couple of years for Ramakrishnan and me to come with a version that was eventually published as Tomorrow is One More Day. The title was not “tomorrow is another day”; one more day brings out the sheer repetitiveness, the dreariness.

Though I am a classical literature man, I have read a lot of contemporary Tamil. I did the same with Telugu. But I am not an expert in this. Literature that is written when I am alive holds something for me, and it is important for me to read it. I must say that of all things I have read in Tamil, Na. Muthuswamy is of a different order. He is a great prose writer. There are other great prose writers in Tamil and I am not saying anything that is prejudicial to their accomplishments. Muthuswamy stands above others: the kind of Tamil he writes is different. I am taking about his short stories. There is a particular quality to them: dense, thick, creamy, complex, organic and earthy. You should know how to read him. You have to read him slowly. You cannot read him fast. It is like reading kavya. Then you see the wonder of his prose, the complex way he uses verbal modes, the way he renders the prose fluid, the expressive power. They are all rooted in his village punjai [Thanjavur district].

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