Category Archives: Poetry

The Beginnings of Hindi-Urdu Literature (Part II: From Delhi to the Deccan)

Nizamuddin

Early Hindi-Urdu poetry emerged around the 14th century. During this time, Hindustan (Northern India) was ruled by the Delhi Sultanate. With Persian as the language of the court and classical poetry at the time, Hindi-Urdu developed as an oral art and as a popular poetry of Delhi.

Written in the Khari Boli (the dialect of Delhi), Hindi-Urdu poetry was rooted in the metaphors and imagery of Hindustan  – the rivers and meadows of the countryside, the rainy season, the water pots and bangles of girls about the village. It was recited as riddles and proverbs and sung as women’s folk songs at weddings and as qawallis at the shrines of Sufi saints like Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325):

By making me drink the wine of love-potion,
You’ve intoxicated me by just a glance;
My fair, delicate wrists with green bangles in them,
Have been held tightly by you with just a glance.
I give my life to you, Oh my cloth-dyer,
You’ve dyed me in yourself, by just a glance.
I give my whole life to you Oh, Nijam,
You’ve made me your bride, by just a glance.

Hindi-Urdu would not remain confined to Delhi. Beginning in the 14th century, it began expanding with the Delhi Sultanate to different parts of India. In 1297, the Delhi Sultanate annexed Gujarat bringing Hindi-Urdu speakers from Delhi into Western India. The invasion and sack of Delhi by Tamerlane (1336-1405) likewise saw an exodus of Hindi-Urdu speakers out of Delhi into Gujarat.

By the fifteenth century, Gujarat had a substantial community of Hindi-Urdu speakers. It was from the descendants of these migrants from Delhi that Hindi-Urdu produced its first historical poet, Sheikh Baha Ud-Din Bajan (1388-1506).

Born in Ahmedabad, Sheikh Bajan was a prominent Gujarati Sufi poet. He wrote and compiled Sufi poetry in his anthology, Khaza’in-e Rahmatullah (‘Treasures of Divine Mercy’). Written in Indic and Persian metres, Khaza’in appealed to the common man in the style of the Bhakti and Sufi poetry of the day:

There’s a frenzied one,
Openly so; another wanders
The desert, mad, unknown.
One, drunk with love,
Raves and yells,
And another falls
Unconscious.
A wandered, with long and
Matted hair, and black
And dark as night;
Another madman gets the
Shivers, shaves his head
And says only Your name.

Other prominent Sufi poets in Gujarat writing in Hindi-Urdu included Shaikh Mahmud Darya’i (1419-1534) and Shaik ‘Ali Muhammad Jiv Gamdhani (d. 1565). Their Hindi-Urdu eventually became known with “Gujari,” a Hindi-Urdu inflected with Gujarati words, phrases and idioms.


Hindi/Urdu Literature in South India (‘Deccani’)

daulatabad (hilltop-fortress)

The Daulatabad Fortress

Hindi-Urdu was becoming a cosmopolitan language, transplanting itself in and assimilating itself to the soil of lands far from Delhi. “Gujri” was one such example. Another, was “Deccani,” that Hindi-Urdu of the Deccan which maintained its Khari Boli roots while absorbing words and phrases from languages like Telugu and Marathi.

Like Gujri, Deccani came about through the expansion and conquests of the Delhi Sultanate. In 1327, the Sultan Muhammad Bin Tughluq (r. 1325-51) conquered the Deccan Peninusla and shifted the capital city from Delhi to Daulatabad (present day Maharashtra). In stream upon stream, Delhi’s royal families, armies, traders, administrators and religious preachers flowed into the Deccan.

Crucial to the development of Hindi-Urdu literature in the Deccan was its association with the court. In Delhi, Hindi-Urdu poetry had essentially been the poetry of Sufi shrines and the bazaar. In the Deccan, however, Deccani was patronized as a language of the court alongside Persian. In the process, it absorbed the Persian script, vocabulary and verse forms (like the ghazal and the masnavi).

Deccani began to flourish after the Delhi Sultanate’s withdrawal from the Deccan in 1347. The  Bahmani Sultanate (1347-1527) produced some of the first major works in Deccani. For instance, Kadam Rao Padam Rao was written by Fakhruddin Nizami during the reign of Ahmed Shah Wali Bahmani (1422-1436). Written as a masnavi, Kadam Rao Padam Rao is a Sufi-style magical romance on the journey of a king’s soul to salavation.

India-Deccan_Map-Dalrymple-062515

One of the great poets of Deccani was Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (r. 1580-1611), a sultan of the Golconda Sultanate.  Qutb Shah wrote ghazals on love, nature, music, and the common people. This marked a turn in Hindi-Urdu toward secular poetry in contrast to its largely spiritual and mystical tone hitherto. Quli Qutb Shah continued the tradition of adapting Persian poetry into Deccani, and is credited with writing the first deewan in Hindi-Urdu on the Persian model.

In fact, Quli Qutb Shah may be considered the first major poet in the classical Hindi-Urdu tradition. His more secular style of Hindi-Urdu poetry was adapted and polished by Wali Deccani (1667-1707), setting the standard for classical Hindi-Urdu poetry.

Further Reading:

Early Urdu Literary Culture and History (S.R. Faruqi): http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00fwp/srf/earlyurdu/srf_earlyurdu.html

Early Hindi-Urdu Poetry: http://www.angelfire.com/sd/urdumedia/lyrics.html
Quli Qutb Shah (Poems): https://rekhta.org/poets/quli-qutub-shah/ghazals

 

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Filed under Hindi, India, Literature, Poetry, Uncategorized, Urdu

The Gay Faqir

shah hussain2

Shah Hussain was a gay Punjabi poet of the 16th century. He loved a young man, Madho Lal. The two are buried next to one another at Shah Hussain’s shrine in Lahore. They are known to eternity as “Madho Lal Hussain.”

As a gay Punjabi-Canadian man, reading Shah Hussain‘s poetry gave me a sense of pride and belonging to a culture I’d long grown alienated from. I was then (not so) surprised to see Naveed Alam trying to deny Shah Hussain’s sexuality in Alam’s introduction to his translation of Shah Hussain’s verse.

According to Alam, Shah Hussain couldn’t have been gay, because:

  1. Shah Hussain’s poems make no overt references to homosexuality;
  2. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal was platonic;
  3. Shah Hussain wrote in the feminine voice in keeping with Sufi tradition (where God’s devotee refers to himself in feminine terms).

Alam’s first point makes no sense. He claims that a poet like Shah Hussain cannot be gay unless he overtly expresses his homosexuality in his poetry. By this logic, a poet cannot be heterosexual either unless his heterosexuality is overtly expressed in his poetry.

In any case, Shah Hussain probably didn’t express his sexuality overtly in his poetry for good reasons.

According to the platonic love theory, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal were master and disciple respectively and their love should be seen in that context.

The problem is that there is no proof that Madho Lal (a Hindu Brahmin) was even a follower of Shah Hussain or that he was part of a Sufi order. In fact, had Madho Lal been a disciple, then it would’ve been he who was expected to write poems in praise of his master, not the other way around.

Shah Hussain wrote otherwise:

My lover grabbed my arm
Why would I ask him to let go?
Dark night drizzling, painful
The approaching hour of departure
You’ll know what love’s all about
Once it seeps into your bones…
(trans. N. Alam)

Hagiographic accounts also tell us about Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal:

When he looked at Madho, he signed painfully and said: ‘Friends, take heed. This boy has set my heart out of control. With one look he has made my heart restless. With one look he has taken away my heart. Taken the life out of my heart, and the soul out of my body. What should I do, friends? What should I do to make him fall in love? Friends, I’ve become a prisoner of his love. I shall not find peace till I see him” (Haqiqat al-Fuqra (‘Truth of the Saints’), c. 1660).

In another account, one of Shah Hussain’s followers spies on Madho Lal Hussain:

You [Hussein] are taking a glass of wine from Madho and kissing Madho on the forehead and the Madho is also kissing Hussein’s forehead … Madho again gives a full glass to Shah Hussein, stands and greets him respectfully. Hussein also gets up and greets Madho respectfully. The two friends remained busy in this matter, and kept kissing each other like milk and sugar … and then the two friends become one.

As for the feminine voice, Shah Hussain uses it even when not speaking to God. Shah Hussain refers to himself in feminine terms when sitting at the spinning wheel, taking part in women’s folk dances and sharing secrets with his girlfriends. This feminine voice is Shah Hussain’s soul speaking as a gay man.

In Shah Hussain, Punjabi and Pakistani gay men can hear their own voice, songs and verses singing back to them. The light and passion in his poems is smothered by people foisting their own culturally acceptable interpretations onto it. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal comes alive when we embrace it fully for what it is.

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The Poetry of Chinese Characters

Chinese-calligraphy

There’s a saying in Chinese: a painting is like a poem and a poem is like a painting. In Chinese characters, the worlds of poetry and painting come together in a written language.

Aesthetic Qualities: Chinese characters represents words through pictures and ideas. These pictures and ideas tell us lots about how the Chinese thought and how they still think about humanity, culture, society and political philosophy.

The word for “male” (男), for example, is depicted pictographically by a rice paddy field at the top and by a strong arm at the bottom. The word for “east” (東) was originally the picture of the sun rising from behind a tree. The word for “king” (王) is represented by three horizontal strokes for heaven, earth and humanity and a line connecting them.

These graphic qualities endow Chinese characters with layers of meanings and subtle undertones much like the strokes in a painting.

Concision: Classical Chinese is incredibly compact and concise. When reading Chinese characters, there is a visible and tangible silence and emptiness both in the spaces between the characters and in the absence of any regular grammar. In reading the Chinese poem, one sees a picture brought to life by one’s own imagination.

Classical Chinese poetry is, thus, especially terse and vivid:

床 前 明 月 光
Bed Before Bright Moon Ray

疑 是 地 上 霜
As if Is Ground Above Frost

举 头 望 明 月
Raise Head Gaze Bright Moon

低 头 思 故 乡
Lower Head Think Old Home

Before my bed the bright moon shines
So that it seems like frost on the ground
Raising my head, I gaze at the moon
Lowering my head, I think of my home

Metaphor and Allusion: Chinese characters are also etymological. Chinese characters instantly remind their reader of something from Chinese history, politics and from Chinese conceptions of geography. This makes Chinese characters especially adept at allusion and in making metaphors immediately visible.

Parallelism: Classical Chinese is monosyllabic. Each character represents one word and meaning, creating a word for word parallelism in poetry. For example:

Ancient wood without man track
Deep mountain what place bell

Visual Appeal: Chinese characters truly are an art form. The experience of writing Chinese characters is like the act of painting as seen most poignantly by Chinese calligraphy. In this way, Chinese poetry is both literature and fine art.

Thank you to Jan Walls for being my teacher and mentor.

Sources

Fairbank, John K. and Edwin O. Reischauer, China: Tradition and Transformation (1989).

Hinton, David (Trans.), The Selected Poems of Wang Wei (2006).

Cooper, Arthur (Trans)., Li Po and Tu Fu (Penguin: 1973).

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No Ordinary Sufi

shah hussain

“If you want your life, die before your death” (Shah Hussain).

This is my summary of Fauzia Rafique’s presentation on the life and poetry of Shah Hussain. The presentation was part of the Dead Poets Reading Series which took place at the Vancouver Public Library (Central) on May 6, 2018.

Shah Hussain (1538-1599) was a Punjabi poet from Lahore. He wrote 163 poems in Punjabi and introduced the kafi genre into the language.[1] His collected works remain among the top selling books of all time in Punjabi.

When he was thirty-six years old, Shah Hussain had a dispute with his religious teacher over the interpretation of the following verse:

“duniya khel tamasha hai” (‘the world’s a play and spectacle’).”

For the teacher, the verse meant the renunciation of the fleeting material world. For Shah Hussain, it meant that life is to be enjoyed. With that, he laughed, donned himself in a red cotton robe and became a dancing mendicant in the streets of Lahore.

Shah Hussain was a “malamti” Sufi, one who took pride in the “malamat” or “shaming” he was subjected to. He stood against the the political and religious establishment in support the common people. He identified himself with the julaha (weaver), the chuhra (sweeper) and the faqir. He associated with rebels like Dulla Bhatti who stirred peasant rebellions against the Emperor Akbar. His poetry reflected the folk rhythms and idiom of everyday Punjabi.

Shah Hussain was a rebel in another way. Unlike the male poets of his day who used the feminine voice (rekhti) to express the “feminine” emotions of grief and anguish, Shah Hussain wrote in the feminine voice to acknowledge and express his own self as a gay man.

If Shah Hussain’s love was transcendent, it was in the earthly sense of overcoming distinctions of class, gender, creed and sexual orientation. He belonged to no sect or lineage other than humanity’s.

Kafi 131

Swaying in ecstasy play on in the inner yard, all is near to those meditating
Rivers flow in this yard, thousands of millions of boats
Some are seen drowning, others have reached the shore
This yard has nine doors, the tenth is locked shut
No one needs to know, from where my lover comes and goes
This yard has a pretty curve, a hollow in the curve
I spread my bed in the hollow to love my lover at night!
A wild elephant in this yard, is struggling with the chain
Says Hussain the Beggar of His Beloved, (the elephant) is teasing the awake

(Trans. Fauzia Rafique)

Jhume jhum khaid lai munjh vehRay, japdeyaN nooN hur naiRay
Vehray de vich nadiyaN vagan, baiRay lakh hazar
kaiti iss vich Dubdi vekhi, kaiti langhi paar
iss vehRay de nauN darvazay, dusswaiN qulf chuRhai
tiss darvazay de mehram nahiN, jit shauh aaway jai
vehRay de vich aala soohay, aalay de vich taaqi
taaqi de vich sej vichaawaN, apnay pia sung raati
iss vehRay vich makna haathi, sangal naal khahaiRay
kahe Hussain Faqir SaeeN da, jagdeyaN kooN chehRay

 

 

[1] A kafi is a lyric poem of four to ten lines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Politics and the Poet

allama-iqbal

My relationship with Iqbal has been an ever evolving one. When I began reading Iqbal, I found his verse to be a welcome release from the dismal, dreary air of classical Urdu poetry. Iqbal brought Urdu out from its assemblies into the mountains and tulip fields. His verse married Longfellow and Wordsworth to Rumi and Hafiz. He also refashioned Urdu’s classical metaphors of the moth, rose and nightingale, giving them a salience in modern times.

Many of my Pakistani friends thought differently about Iqbal. They had grown up in a Pakistan where Iqbal’s poems were shoved down their throats since primary school. I had been allowed to relate to Iqbal’s poetry as an adult born outside of Pakistan: I didn’t think of him in nationalist terms as Pakistan’s “spiritual founder.”

First, Iqbal died in 1938, nine years before Pakistan came into existence. In fact, he died before the Lahore Resolution of 1940 which many Pakistani nationalists consider as the historic declaration of a separate state for the Muslims of India.

Second, Iqbal’s pronouncement of an autonomous state of Muslim-majority provinces in the north-West of India was not the spiritual birth of Pakistan. Indeed, he disavowed any association with the Pakistan movement in his letter written to Edward Thompson on March 4, 1934:

“You call me protagonist of the scheme called ‘Pakistan.’ Now Pakistan is not my scheme. The one that I suggested in my address is the creation of a Muslim Province, i.e. a province having an overwhelming population of Muslims – in the north-west of India. This new province will be according to my scheme, a part of the proposed Indian Federation.”

Third, the interpretation of Iqbal’s poetry by Pakistan’s nationalists in largely Islamic terms fails to consider the poet’s context. His pan-Islamic sentiments arose when the Muslim world was in decline. For instance, Shikwa was written upon the defeat of Ottoman Turkey by Italy in Tripoli in 1912. Tulu-e-Islam was written after World War I when the Caliphate was abolished, and the Ottoman Empire dismembered.

Iqbal’s pan-Islamic tenor reached its crescendo in Bal-e-Jabreel. It slowly diminished thereafter in Zarb-e-Kaleem and Armaghan-e-Hijaz, which became more critical of materialism, European politics and imperialism. These later poems figure less prominently in the nationalists’ discussions on Iqbal’s career.

Unlike the idea of Pakistan moreover, Iqbal’s Islam was a cosmopolitan one. His verses carry the dust of Samarkand, the mountains of the Himalayas and the rose gardens of Persia. His poetry is a memoir of this cosmopolitanism whether gazing along the banks of the Neckar in Heidelberg or navigating the alleys of Cordoba.

If Iqbal’s poetry is to be understood, it must be read as the poet’s very own. If Nietzsche can be appreciated with disregard for his later appropriation by the Nazis, then so too can Iqbal be enjoyed without reading in to his poetry the politics of the land of the pure.

– For my brother, H. Nizamani, for our discussions over the years.

 

 

 

 

 

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Punjabi Poetry: Ustad Daman

daman

Written by Randeep Purewall

Ustad Daman (né Chiragh Din) was born in Lahore in 1911. As a boy, he worked at his father’s tailoring shop while also attending school. Daman learned classical Punjabi poetry at home and was educated in Urdu. He also learned Persian and English including Shakespeare, Keats and Hardy.

Having participated in school poetry recitals, Daman began attending musha’ara in the parks, fairs and bazaars of Lahore as a teenager during the 1920s. The movement for India’s independence had already begun. In 1929, the Indian National Congress made its Declaration of Independence from Lahore. The city was also home to Marxist groups like the Kirti Kisan and anti-colonial and revolutionary groups like the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.

858340751-indian-national-congress-independence-movement-lahore-independence-concept

Daman recited his own revolutionary and anti-colonial poetry at the musha’ara. While attending one such gathering, Jawaharlal Nehru referred to Daman as the “Poet of Freedom.”

‘In China the Chinese are grand,
In Russia they do as they have planned.
In Japan its people rule over its strand.
The British rule the land of England,
The French hold the land of France,
In Tehran the Persians make their stand.
The Afghans hold on to their highland,
Turkmenistan’s freedom bears the Turkmen’s brand,
How very strange is indeed this fact,
That freedom in India is a contraband’
(Trans. F. Sharma).

Daman remained in Lahore upon the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The riots of the Partition had consumed his shop and library and he lost his wife and son to illness. His first act of political defiance came in 1958 when he made fun of Pakistan’s first military coup under Ayub Khan. Daman’s arrest however did little to temper his criticism of Pakistan’s military dictatorships and the corruption of its civilian governments in his poetry.

Daman wrote in Punjabi and the form, rhythm and metaphor of his poetry bears the influence of the classical and folk Punjabi tradition. If he could be sober and thoughtful in writing on the Partition, he could also adopt a more comic and satirical note in criticizing General Zia. He maintained a friendship with poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, but lived unassumingly in an old apartment in the precinct of the Badshahi Mosque.

Daman died in 1984. His poetry was published after his death by his friends and followers. The room he lived in near the Badshahi Mosque has since become an academy in his name.

Selected Poems (Trans. F. Sharma)

We may not say it but know it well
You lost your way. We too.
Partition has destroyed us friends.
You too, and us.
The wakeful have quite plundered us.
You slept the while, and we.
Into the jaws of death alive
You were flung. We too.
Life still may stir in us again:
You are stunned yet, and we.
The redness of the eyes betrays
You too have wept, and we.

What a house, this Pakistan!
Above live saints, down thieves have their run
A new order has come into force
Up above twenty families, below the hundred million.
Other people conquered mountains,
We live under the divisions heavy ton.
Other people may have conquered the moon.
But in a yawning precipice a place we’ve won.
I ran and ran and was aching all over,
I looked back and saw the donkey resting under the banyan.


Two gods hold my country in their sway
Martial law and La Illaha have here their heyday.
That one rules there over in the heavens
Down here this one’s writ runs.
His name is Allah Esquire.
This one is called Zia, the light of truth in full array.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Ecstacy does my land surround
All around the Army is to be found.
Hundreds of thousands were surrendered as POWs.
Half of the land was bartered away in the fray.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

On TV you give recitations from Quran
With fables and traditions you go on and on.
Here we are engulfed in a brouhaha
While up there you are still there, my Allah
A pretender has staked his claim today
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Thankful are some if they can chop wood
The others, on them, their orders bestow.
Why have the people lost their mind?
For every one the Almighty has a loving glow.
People are the real masters of this world
Orders do not from the handle of a sword flow.
The ones, Daman, who have forsaken God,
Those Nimruds are laid low at the very first blow.

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Urdu Poetry: Mir Taqi Mir

13026

Written by Randeep Purewall

Mir (né Muhammad Taqi Mir) was born in Agra in 1722. His father died when Mir was eleven years old, leaving the boy to seek an education and patronage in Delhi. He was educated in Delhi by the poet and scholar Khan-e-Arzu and supported by a nobleman, but left the city upon Nadir Shah’s invasion in 1739

It was years later after returning to Delhi, that Mir became a prominent poet, winning high-ranking patrons and competing with the poets Dard and Sauda in musha’ara (poetic symposiums). Delhi was being repeatedly invaded during this period, however, by Afghans, Jat and Marathas. For Mir, the times marked not only the decline of the city, but the setting of a civilization.

This age is not like that which went before it
The times have changed, the earth and sky have changed

In 1782, Mir left Delhi for Lucknow as had other poets like Sauda before him. He found patronage in Lucknow at the court of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula where he received a pension and continued to write poetry. He died in 1810.

mir

Mir’s verses express the impermanence of life and the grief at the loss of love, beauty and spring. At the same time, his poems underline the transcendent experience and journey of love through the colours of the garden, the movement of the stars and heart of man.

How long is the life of a rose?
The bud just smiles

Mir’s themes of love and beauty and pain and separation established the conventions of classical Urdu poetry and his style inspired later poets like Ghalib (1797-1869). He also helped establish Urdu as a literary language. Mir reviewed and refined the use of Urdu in the musha’ara of Delhi and naturalized its use of Persian expressions. He wrote, moreover,  in the everyday language of the city, making the language of Delhi, the language of poetry.

(Trans. Russell, Islam; Sadiq; Ali)

Every leaf and every plant my state do know
The rose knows not what the garden knows

The world is full of illusions
We behold here what we imagine

The streets of Delhi were not mere streets
They were like the album of a painter
Every figure I saw there
Was a model of perfection

The spring has come, the flowers bloom cheek by cheek
Would you and I might stand thus in the garden!

The greatest sinner, Mir
Was he who adopted love as his religion

The moments of happiness
Within this world were few
Now weep for the smiling dawn
Of the garden like the dew

I never saw the stars so bright before
It was her eyes that taught them how to shine

To keep my eyes on you, and you alone
My one and only heart’s desire is this
To open them only if you are there
The height to which I can aspire is this

Mir, quit the company of Shaikh and Brahmin
And mosque and temple too – leave them behind.
Lay one stone on another in the desert
Worship your Love at your own humble shrine

I grant you sir, the preacher is an angel
To be a man, now – that’s more difficult

Go to the mosque; stand knocking at the door
Live all your days with drunkards in their den
Do anything you want to do, my friend,
But do not seek to harm your fellowmen

What days those were!
When I would drink and climb up to the tavern roof
And fall asleep, the white sheet of the moonlight over me

Man was first made of clay
And if the song you sing be good
This world of clay for years to come
Will listen to your voice

Sources:

Ahmed Ali, The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry (Columbia University Press, New York, 1973).

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Mir and Ghalib: Comparisons (trans by F.W. Pritchett), 1997.
http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00garden/about/txt_srf_mir_ghalib.html

Khurshidul Islam and Ralph Russell, Three Mughal Poets (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1991)

Muhammad Sadiq, A History of Urdu Literature (Oxford University Press, London: 1964)

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