Posts Tagged ‘varanasi’

This morning, the sky still opaque with the persistent Varanasi fog, and a damp chill in the air, I set out to release a photo of my dear friend Serena into the Ganges River. I’ve been living on the ghats of Benares (the ancient name of this city) for over one month, each day thinking about and wondering when I would find the perfect moment. The moment came today because I leave here in a few days.

I would have done it yesterday with my friend Seema, who has helped me with translation in interviews, and my friend Nandini, an eleven-year old who is one of the many children who sell candles, except when I reached inside my camera bag for the photo it was not there.

My intention was to buy a candle – which is a small bowl made of dried banana leaves, festooned with flowers, and a candle nestled in the middle – from her and some of the other children, and have a small ceremony with their chatter and playfulness as the music and representation of life celebrated.


The candle-selling children, who range in age from about seven to early teens, tout candles to support their families. Some come from multi-generational silk weavers who’ve lost their businesses to China who undercut Benares’s price of silk by nearly half by using machines versus the traditional hand looming used here.

When I ask the children about school they all assure me that they go but I see them on the ghats at all hours on my near daily strolls. I met a social worker on one of my strolls who confirmed my suspicion; they do not go to school but work all day. The positive side is that some of their time is spent in playing together, talking with and learning to speak English with tourists, (with some of us treating them to chai, biscuits and camaraderie) and perfecting their art of persuasion. Putting a candle into the Ganga ensures ‘good karma’ they tell potential customers.

Instead of a lively celebration for my friend it was a quiet one with only me and a handful of flat-headed black-winged gray birds with bright orange beaks and orange-ringed eyes in attendance. I walked to a secluded spot by the river’s edge where remnants of a straw statue of the Goddess Saraswati lay composting into the river.

There was a four-day celebration in honor of Saraswati last week, a bit of a story in itself. It was a curious affair where, in part, young, inebriated pelvic-thrusting men followed a truck with glaring lights and blaring music through the night streets with a plastic replica of the goddess positioned to watch their devotional carousal. The distortion of their perverted worship lay in ruins on the bank of the Ganga.

Goddess Saraswati embodies the attributes of learning, music and art. Serena had a fond appreciation for her. It seemed the ideal spot to set my banana-leafed marigold candle afloat.

Because Serena had refused to give into death, the only discussion of it between us came in an e-mail that she sent to me when I was in India in 2008. She told me that her doctor said her cancer was not the worst of her problems, it was the staph infection she had developed in her lower abdomen. Her grim words came as a shock; she was told to put her affairs in order. I had seen Serena four months earlier, and while it was evident that she was struggling, she didn’t appear to be close to the threshold of death.

I was able to speak with her twice upon my return home before she slipped into first a confused place and then a comatose one. I felt weak in her presence, not knowing how to converse with her. I was ill at ease to discuss death, assuming that she would not have appreciated my candor given that she continued to believe she was going to heal. So there was no mention of her afterlife wishes, and with the countless hours of time we had previously spent together, I couldn’t recall it ever being a topic of discussion. But a few days before Serena’s passing her father told me that he had talked with her about it. He said he had to use a hypothetical situation – a car accident – since she refused to talk about the possibility of her death. She told him she wanted some of her remains to go to India. At the time he could not recall, but thought she had said she wanted her friend Barbara to take them. A few days after she died, her father e-mailed me saying, “We know Serena loved and still loves you or she would not have chosen you to take her ashes (if you will) to India the next time you go.”

I am not sure what transpired between that e-mail and the one I received from him a few months before leaving for this trip to India in which I asked about taking some of her remains with me. I was told it was not a possibility, that it was now unclear what Serena’s wishes were based on a notebook they found amongst her things that included last wishes that were apparently not in her handwriting.

Serena spent a year traveling in India, but told me that Varanasi was one place she never visited and always wanted to. It was likely where she would have wanted to have some of her remains, since those that choose the Ganga River in Varanasi as their final resting place do so in the belief that they will avoid rebirth. Her belief in eastern philosophies overrode those of her strict Catholic upbringing.

Since I was not able to release her remains into the river, an image seemed like a good substitute. All of my pictures were in storage in anticipation of moving and traveling; the only representation was in the form of a photo magnet. I made a photocopy of it, wanting a picture that would easily disintegrate in a sea of a million bodies.

I considered setting fire to the photo but decided instead to stand it up alongside the edge between the marigolds and the bowl and only light the candle. The river’s current was slight but enough for the bowl to quickly whirl away from the shore. It went a short distance and then turned back towards where the remains of Saraswati lay, as if to touch the feet of the Goddess. With that it changed course and floated down the river. I watched it for some time as it bobbed up and down in the green waters. After several minutes the paper photo fell onto the candle and burst into flames. I felt the sensation of liberation for a dear friend who had always wanted to come to Varanasi.

One-year anniversary tribute to Serena – Death from Cancer of a Misogynist Mindset

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Clever Cow

from outside a cafe i frequent in varanasi – –

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I adore dogs. Actually I am fond of all animals. But dogs share a special place in my heart. Their social nature, their devotion, their companionship – D-O-G / G-O-D

This dog wanted someone to play with. In his excitement he started rubbing his head in my hair.

One of the most difficult things about being in India is seeing the condition of the dogs, most of whom are feral, street dogs that spend their days scavenging for food and their nights roving in packs. I often hear them fighting amongst themselves in intimidating territorial barks. During the day many of them can be found standing at perfect attention in front of shops or eateries, hoping a benevolent soul will share something with them.

Last night I sat on the ghats feeding a scrawny white dog some chapati. The dog was initially reluctant and leery of me; they are often abused so are naturally reserved. But once she realized I was a friend she ate the bread with a fervor, and was soon joined but what look liked her sibling who wanted to be fed too. Afterwards she sat next to me in appreciation and let me pet her tiny head. Before taking leave she held up her paw and held my hand with perfect grace and camaraderie. A beautiful display of affection. The young guy sitting next to me said the dog could feel the love.

The dog situation is particularly painful in Varanasi where I’ve been told sterilization is not legal because this is a holy city. Therefore, there are puppies everywhere. Everywhere.

This pack of puppies does not look to be doing well. It has been very cold here so they lay near or in the warm embers of a fire pit.

This is one of the puppies from the above pictured pack. I found it strange to see a full crockery of milk sitting untouched next to them. They almost appear to lethargic to imbibe in it. Very sad.

This doting mom of new puppies has her home on a pile of fly-infested garbage. It broke my heart to see them in this state.

I found this large pack of two families sleeping inside the entrance of a temple.

I encounter a number of very pitiful looking dogs; this being one of them. I’ve noticed that the sickest looking dogs hang out around the sweet shops.

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I’m in Varanasi, one my favorite places in India. I’m staying in Assi Ghat where I lived when I was here in 2006. It’s the southern most ghat on the Ganges.

Each section, referred to as a ghat, has steps that lead down to the river.

One of my primary reasons for returning to Varanasi, also known by it’s ancient name Benares, is to photograph each ghat from the shores of the river, up the steps, and through the winding alleyways that lead into the bustle of the city.

A project that could take some time with the multiple ghats, I didn’t get to it during the six weeks I was here last time because the sadhus (holy men) came to town after the Kumbh Mela gathering. Instead I spent time getting to know and photographing them.

Another great way to see the ghats is from a boat. When I switched hotel rooms the morning after my arrival, my luggage was fetched and moved by way of boat. The morning glide offered a perspective of life on the ghats from the eye of the Ganga.

Flying kites is a favorite past-time with the children playing on the ghats. These boys were offering a slightly different variation then I’ve seen before with their knickers hanging low.

The pollution levels in the holy river have reached staggering proportions; it has been declared unfit for human bathing. It is however, a practice that continues unabated; both natives and pilgrims alike partake of its sacred waters. Bathing and laundry soaps have been banned, but that does not stop them from being used. The Ganga washes bodies and clothes, as well as sins, dishes and water buffalo.

One of the most important applications of ‘Ma Ganga’ is the release of the deceased. It is believed that moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth) is attained if the Ganges is one’s final resting place. Unfortunately, bodies are only partially burned when put into the river, adding to the pollution problem.

There is also industrial waste, urban waste water, and raw sewage contributing to the contaminated waters. The Ganga, the most populous river basin in the world, has become the breeding ground for 1.5 billion litres of sewage a day, from the 692 villages, towns, and cities that deposit into it. Dr. Sudhirender Sharma, in his paper The Ganga, says ‘The river – an ancient symbol of purity and cleansing has become a great open sewer along much of it’s length.’

Yet, with all the pollution and impurity the Ganga has swirling in her waters, to be near the river creates a tranquility, a sense of timelessness. But Sharma and others campaigning to save the Ganga, wonder for how much longer.

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The street was unusually litter-filled this morning. Everywhere were piles with scraps of paper, empty snack bags and candy wrappers, bits of plastic, newspaper, and in one pile, a dead dog. I didn’t immediately recognize that the dog was dead until I saw people pausing as they walked by. The dog’s head was cocked to one side, it’s paws swung ‘round to the other. No twitching, no movement. Motionless it lay. To the right of the dog sat a person – I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman – swathed in a shawl that matched the color of the dog, a dirtied tawny.

A boy of about ten stood and looked at the dog long and hard, circumambulated it, and then moved on.

A foreign couple approached – the woman, pasty-skinned with bright red lips – stopped, shook her head, and put her hand to her mouth, waiting until a large truck went by before passing to allow ample distance between herself and the deceased carcass.

Three smartly dressed boys of perhaps 12, walked to where the dog lay and stood in discussion, arms flying about as they spoke. Soon, they too walked on.

A fruit vendor stopped his cart just short of the dog and began cutting into a papaya. Perhaps he did not initially realize the dog was dead, moving on quickly a few moments later.

A white dog with tan spots trotting down the street, stopped, sniffed the dog, sniffed the shawled person, and then scampered away.

Was the dog run over by a zooming motorcyclist or a clumsy rickshaw driver, I wondered? Maybe killed by other dogs for trespassing into their territory. I’ve seen the way ferocious bared-teeth dogs chase away would-be intruders. Before living on this street, I wouldn’t have guessed that the street dogs of Paharganj have their territory carved out. But they certainly do, wickedly erupting from sleep when an errant dog approaches.

From where I stood, several feet up and away on my balcony, I could not see if there were injuries to the dog’s body, but through the lens of my telescopic camera, I could see that there was a rope loosely strung around the dogs neck.

How long had the dog been lying there? How long had the person been sitting next to it, and why? How long before someone disposes of the dead dog’s body? Does anyone care? It was a street dog that was born in, lived in, and died on the street. Did it have a name? Did anyone feed it? Or pet the dog, scratch it behind it’s ears? Or was it just another piece of litter on the street?

Where would the dog’s body be taken to, I pondered, as I recalled the dead dog I saw being thrown into the Ganges in Varanasi last year. (see story below)

Not all dogs in India are feral. Jasper, a large white dog who just turned a year old, is the beloved pet of Hotel Arjun. He can usually be found sleeping behind the front desk when he’s not rolling on his back for a belly rub. Or giving willing patrons sloppy kisses.

It’s ten o’clock. Time for shops to open for business. Front stoops to be swept clean, incense to be lit, deities to be prayed to, ensuring for a prosperous day.

It must be bad luck for a dead dog to be lying near your shop. As the rolling metal door was being opened, the person sitting on the stoop near the dog was shooed away. Jumping to their bare feet and tightening their shawl, they disappeared into the day. When the owner of the shop arrived – an elderly man dressed in tan slacks, a matching vest and a crisp white shirt – he spoke to a group of men, nervously motioning towards the dog. But the dog was nearer the shop next to theirs, so as soon as the door was unlocked they all vanished inside.

When the man arrived to the Ayurvedic shop, he slowly dismounted his bicycle while eyeing the animal. He walked slightly towards the dog while rubbing his forehead. After going into his shop he emerged a moment later with a white bag that he threw on top of the dog. But a gust of wind came, blew the bag off, and exposed the dog’s body once again. There is no hiding death.

A young man wearing camouflaged pants came out from the adjacent shop with a cardboard box, three corners torn loose, and threw it onto the dog before spitting on it. Paws and tail still exposed, the dead body was still not camouflaged from the stares of passerbys who put their hand over their mouth or to their chest upon seeing death in the street.

A woman dressed in bright shades of red came with a broom, swiftly sweeping around the dog, moving whatever clutter she could away from it before pushing the pile down the street.

When I next went to my balcony the dog’s body was gone. The area where he had lain was being briskly scrubbed clean. Washed down with buckets of water.

No longer did the dog have to run the streets in a panic looking for food or chasing away would-be competition for the food. No more need to protect it’s territory. No rickshaws, or swift kicks to the gut to dodge. The dog is free now. Nothing more to fret about. I can see it now, wagging it’s tail. Grinning from ear-to-ear. And readying for it’s next life where it will be sleeping behind the front desk of a hotel; the recipient of daily belly rubs and passing out sloppy kisses to anyone who will have them. Count me in!

Final Resting Spot – Ganges

From the rooftop of my hotel in Varanasi, I saw a dog lying in the street. Sleeping dogs litter the streets, but there was something different about this one. I stood and watched the dog for a long time to try and detect movement, even a twitch. But I could see none, at least not from the fourth floor of where I was standing. It looked lifeless. I wanted to get a closer looks so went to my room to get my camera, attaching a telephoto lens. I took a couple of shots of the dog and then zoomed in to have a closer look on the lcd screen of my camera. I could see that the dogs eyes were open, its body covered in mange. It was dead.

A few seconds later a bearded man bent down and picked the dog up, the paws of two legs in each hand. I watched him walk away, towards the river. Upon reaching the bank, he swung the dog back and up and then flung it forward, into the river. Though the dog was rather small, he didn’t throw it far which I hoped meant that his body was resting on a bed of silt, much more comfortable than the concrete streets in the gutter where they invariably get their paws run over by vendors wheeling their carts past them.

The dead dog was lying in front of a small shop, an eatery. He was probably parked there, begging for food, or hoping that someone would offer him something or drop a few crumbs, his slender body nearly emaciated. Dogs can generally be seen creeping around wherever there is food. When spotted, they often get kicked, shouted at, things thrown at them. The stress of that can be seen in their patches of furless skin with sores that they chew and lick at.

The man walked back over to the shop and held his hand out to the shopkeeper who dropped a couple of rupees into it. I recognized him now. He was one of the regulars who has his home set up alongside the walkway, a few paces from my hotel. Always smiling and seemingly carefree, when I saw him, he was often sleeping soundly on the blanket that he has spread out and surrounded by his belongings. Sometimes he has a couple of companions by his side, adorable caramel colored puppies of a mutt variety. In his countenance, surrender is evident, in his home in the street where all day people pass by him. His begging bowl is there too, not far from where he lays his head, but I prefer to give him food. Today, he earned money by disposing of a dead dog.

When he got the money he looked down at it – it was only a couple of coins – and started gleefully singing while walking through the wet, rainy streets. It was if he had just won a lottery. I watched him until he walked out of sight, imaging that he was going to buy himself something, although it couldn’t have been much

I sobbed as I photographed and watched the story unfold. I did not cry because the dog was dead, but because of the life that dog had lived, the way that it been treated. Cried because this city does not allow the sterilization of dogs, instead commits them to a life of suffering. I cried for the stupidity of such a system, for the misery and suffering that could end right now. But it won’t. It won’t end.

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It was love at first sight, the kind of (friendship) love that renews your faith in human-kind. I met Mintu through my friend Til, who had helped changed his bandages at the clinic where she was volunteering her time. We were on our way to a nearby restaurant when he spotted Til. He reached out and took both of her hands into his, greeting her with the wagging enthusiasm of a young puppy. He then came to me and shook my hands, a red toothed smile (from paan, a slightly narcotic substance that some Indians chew) that reached inside of my heart. He spoke, but not understanding Hindi, I nodded, smiled and climbed aboard his cycle rickshaw when he insisted (by rapidly patting his hand on the seat of it) that he take us to our destination, a thirty second ride away.


After that, whenever I saw him on the street, standing next to his cycle, he would come running towards me, face lit up like the sun, excited to see me, to shake my hands with his. He had a way of making me feel extraordinarily special; seeing him would warm me for hours afterwards.

It had been a few days since I’d last seen Mintu, or Pappu, as his friends affectionately refer to him, when a young friend of his rushed towards me on the street. He led me to a large slab bench where a few people were sitting. He pointed to a man with a red patterned scarf wrapped around his head. It took me a few seconds to comprehend that the face peering out from beneath the slight opening in the scarf was my friend, Mintu.

His face swollen and wounded, I asked his friend what had happened. He had fallen, he told me, into an open fire while cooking. My body went numb as I looked at Mintu, his infectious broken tooth smile hidden behind distended blistered lips. Half of his face was an inflamed red mass, the other half was where I could recognize him, his one open eye peering out at me.

I tried to convey my compassion, realizing that even if we spoke the same language, no words could express how badly I felt about his accident. I gently rubbed his arm, while listening to a group of people excitedly trying to fill me in on what happened, most of them speaking in Hindi.

“Did he go to the hospital?” I asked. Mintu produced a blister pack of medication along with a doctor’s prescription for what he advised him to take. “Has he gotten any of the medications?” I wanted to know.

People from the street, wanting to see what was happening, started gathered around us. Young boys stood and looked at Mintu, looks of horror spreading across their faces.

None of us recognized him, his silly, sweet smile had been swallowed up, his normally hyperactive stance lay in an indolent, near comatose state. I longed for that contagious smile, for his reaching hands. But he was expressionless; his hands lay limp, lifeless.

I sat for a few moments, trying to figure out what to do. I hadn’t seen my friend Til since breakfast, but when I last saw her she was at the cyber-café. She was a nurse; she would know what to do.

I assured the group of people surrounding Mintu that I would return at once, explaining that I was going to try and find my friend, with the extra reassurance that she was a nurse.

I was relieved to see that she was still at the cyber café. When I saw her, I tapped her on the shoulder, but my words stuck in my throat. I was barely audible, but I managed to express the urgency of the situation to her.

We ran back to where Mintu lay. At once Til, in the manner of an unemotional nurse, climbed onto the slab bench where Mintu was now sitting up, and pulled the scarf away from his burned face. She asked the same questions that I had asked, and then at once sent a man who spoke English to go with me to get the prescribed medications. She handed the man, who had orangish-red hennaed hair that matched the color of his shirt, a 500-rupee note and told him to take me to the closest pharmacy.

We returned in 15-20 minutes time, but I was not comfortable simply dropping the medication off and wishing Mintu well. The extent of his injuries seemed more serious than that. One of his friends suggested that we try and find a good hospital to take him too. It seems that, as more of the story emerged, Mintu had only went to a clinic, not a hospital. He clearly needed more medical attention than he had received, so I suggested that we call Dutch Priest Father Frances, director of the clinic for the “dalits” or low-castes, as they’re called, to get his advice. I wondered if he would answer his phone since he was taking leave for three days during the Holi festival, to work on writing his fundraising newsletter.

Relieved to hear his voice in the receiver, I handed the phone to Til, so that she, especially as a nurse, could (better) explain the situation to him. And I knew that the words were still stuck in my throat. This was no time for crying.

Upon being apprised of the situation, Father Frances told Til that Mintu’s face is his future, that we must seek emergency care for the burns and do whatever is needed. He advised us to go the University Hospital, a facility that Til was familiar with, having visited it once while working at the clinic. She forewarned me that it would defy my experience of a western hospital, to prepare myself.

Til and I sat on either side of Mintu, holding onto and trying to comfort him while the auto rickshaw that took us to the hospital, bumped along on potholed and rocky roads. The journey was brutal; I heard it in Mintu’s moans that followed each jolt of the narrow seat that the three of us sat on. I wanted to shout out to the driver to be more cautious, less reckless, but it’s the nature of rickshaw drivers. Drive fast, follow close, and pass and squeeze by others at every given opportunity. Or make an opportunity where none exists. Often, there is only a scrape of space between vehicles on India’s roadways. Everyone is rushing towards their finish line with no consideration of others on the road. It’s like being on a speedway with no rules. Horns honk incessantly, some of them so loud it feels as if my eardrums will burst.

Moments after we arrived the hospital we were cocooned in a gathering of curious Indians who wondered what two white women were doing with an injured Indian man.

Once inside the hospital, Mintu was instructed to lie down on a table in an administrative room where he was given a quick look over. We were then asked to take him to a common room where there were eight beds, most of them occupied. He lay there for a long while, motionless, not one sound from him, suffering with his injuries in silence. Flashes of his smile kept coming to me when I looked at him; it was the only former impression that I had of him.

As Til had warned, the hospital bore little resemblance to the hospitals of the western world. The dirtied walls held years of previous patient’s injuries and illnesses. A thick coating of dust covered the electrical receptacles behind the bed that Mintu lay in. There were no blankets provided the patients, and when it came time to administer medicines to Mintu, they had to be purchased by us next door.

After being examined by a number of different doctors, some of them interns, we were informed that there were no beds available on the sixth floor, in the burn ward. We would have to take him elsewhere. They allowed him to occupy the bed through two bottles of IV drips however, before we had to take him to another hospital. This was likely only because a friend of Father Frances’s had come to the clinic; giving a bit of clout to the situation. Or maybe it was a compassionate stance since Mintu was in serious shape, and in need of fluids.

One of the doctors, after learning where Mintu lived (in the slums of Varanasi), asked me if he was my servant. “No”, I casually replied. “He is my friend”. His right eyebrow lilted in surprise as he tried to grasp why I had befriended an “untouchable”.

From the looks that we received from most everyone in the hospital – the patients, their families, and the staff – it appeared that everyone was wondering the same thing. Their wild-eyed curiosity grew when they witnessed Til and I comforting our friend by gently touching his arm or rubbing his back, and more so when I cradled Mintu’s head in my hand. At one point, when three male orderlies brought a patient into the ward, Til said that they had more eyes for me than for the patients.

The patient that they brought in, an elderly man accompanied by his adult son, moaned loudly as a tube was forcibly being pushed into his nose, a procedure that took several minutes longer than it should have. He kept fighting it, his body writhing in pain, as the orderlies forcefully kept pushing on his legs.

His moaning spread to the patient in the bed to the left of his, a woman in a lime-green sari, whose face was completely charred. She sat in a squatting position on the bed, and when she moved, I could see that her neck and chest were also burnt. I imagined that she may be a victim of bride burning, and by the gurgling sound emanating from her lungs in between her labored breathing, it was likely that she would succumb to her injuries.

Two women, their head scarves pulled close to shield their faces, sat next to her bed, but there was no feeling of concern from either of them. If the woman was indeed set on fire, they may well have been the ones who lit the match, since mother or sister in laws are often the perpetrators of such crimes. And their presence in the hospital would be one for show, and especially to make sure that the victim told no one what *really* happened. It would be deemed a “kitchen accident”, where seldom does anyone get prosecuted.

The wailing coming from the two of them, the burnt woman and the man with the tube in his nose, became nightmarish. It felt as I was watching a film; that I was an observer. But when I looked over at my friend Mintu, and saw him looking back at me with a sort of childlike panic, I knew this was no film, and that our friend’s injuries were serious and in need of more attention than we were getting.

To be continued… Part II

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It’s hard to say what made Benares, said to be the oldest of all cities, feel so otherworldly. But I imagine it had something to do with the Ganges River, and the Sadhus who were there after the Kumbh Mela celebration had ended in the neighboring city of Allahabad.

Benares, also called Varanasi, is referred to as the ‘city of death’. Some migrate to the banks of the Ganges as they approach old age so their ashes will become part of the river, hoping to avoid rebirth. It is purported that to have the Ganges as one’s final resting place removes them from the cycle of earthly incarnation. Old, withered widows line the narrow streets of the Ghats, arms outstretched shaking their metal bowl, begging for alms.

As I sat on the bank of the Ganges in a world that I was sure must have been a figment of my elaborate imagination, or perhaps a dream, I wondered, what is this life about. Why are we here? Why was I in this place? The only answer that came, each time that I’d ask, was that I allow myself to fully see and feel the suffering, open my heart to it, and endeavor to help alleviate it, in whatever small way that I can. And though small it may seem, it is important to remember that each of our deeds is like a drop in the Ganges that makes up a mighty river that carries souls to heaven/nirvana.

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