At the end of a rainbow

Lucy found her diamond sky

For the love of the earth

Though my ears were still ringing as I got off the patent rickety state transport bus of Maharashtra, it didn’t miss the crackle of dry leaves carpeting the dirt road. I have grown up amidst the crowded lanes of Delhi, and as a result was the typical urban millennial until a series of experiences convinced me that restoring our relationship with the land that sustains us lies at the foundation of healing our abused bodies, minds and the surrounding environment. Nowhere is the interdependency manifested as vividly as in the act of farming, where the reciprocity of food, nourishment, and care goes all the way down to the sweet-smelling soil teeming with micro-organisms. However, there is much that our generation has forgotten. As botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer explains, the restoration depends on re-story-ation. What are the narratives we can rewrite for ourselves and others? The stories we choose to believe and enact have adaptive consequences; perhaps now is the right time to change the dominant narrative. In some small part, I have tried to do so by exploring multiple alternative threads of city life in the form of urban farming. The past few years in Mumbai have been spent in learning the intricacies and miracles of soil, only to realise we don’t know much about it. We can, nevertheless, share an intimate relationship with it by growing plants and watch life take roots.

My journey has also connected me to kindred spirits who like me, share an abiding love and awe for the complex web of natural processes. One such person is the SundayFarmer (SF), whose endearing blog about his experiences at an acre of a farm owned by him caught my eye. Though he calls himself a weekend farmer and generously credits his Man-Friday, Mangal for a lot of the leg-work, it was easy to see that he would prefer to spend much more time ‘far from the madding crowd’ if circumstances allowed. We got in touch and decided that I could visit the farm whenever he went next, except that I didn’t know that my decision was jinxed. A series of unfortunate and unexpected events ensured that I had to wait for almost a year-and-half before I finally made the trip on Christmas Eve. My uncle, a retired forest officer decided to accompany me at the last minute, and as a result, had his first rendezvous with the crowd of Mumbai local trains. I must admit, he was pretty game about the experience though.

So, here I was, trudging on the dirt track after nearly 3 hours of travel, to finally set foot on the SF’s weekend farm. You don’t have to be a nature enthusiast to observe the stark difference between his patch of earth and the nearby plots; the latter forced into artificial rows of identical trees or crops, surrounded by trimmed grass. His one-acre patch on the other hand, blooms with diversity. What may seem like a disorienting sight for anyone accustomed to the uniformity and monotony of industrial culture, is actually a model for resilience. Diversity ensures that a single pest doesn’t damage the entire farm; it ensures that a ‘pest’ doesn’t become one in the first place because there would be a suitable habitat for its predator. ‘Weeds’ don’t become a nightmare because they have their own role to play in the ecosystem as live mulch or nitrogen-fixing properties and co-exist with desired plants. Termites scuttle around in hordes slowly decomposing the abundant leaf litter, creating conducive conditions for plants to grow. Everything thrives and dies, only to be born again. SF introduced us to each plant and tree on the farm as if introducing a relative, with a warmth independent of their ‘productivity’ in terms of bearing fruits. After all, they are family. Over the years, he has experimented with growing a variety of plants, and has had his share of failures. His recent attempt of bee-keeping also ran into a number of issues, though “each time there has been a different problem, so I learnt something new” he commented with a wry grin. Years of decomposed leaf-litter made the ground soft to walk on. So, it was difficult to imagine that the area is actually a very rocky terrain. “I bought this place because it near the river, then I realised that everywhere I dug there are stones to be unearthed!” he chuckled, pointing towards heaps of stones found on the farm. “But it is ok, the plants manage, and we are also learning how to grow different crops in such a terrain”, he continued. We walked through the banana grove, and were generously blessed by its giant leaves trickling cold morning dew on our heads. We stopped to admire the fragrant flowers of gandha-raj, the giant bamboo groves, the abundant papayas, the beautiful flowers of rose-apple tree, the bare branches of a tree that he has nick-named as silver oak, and a kaleidoscope of butterflies among the many others sensuous attributes of the farm. Be quiet enough and one can hear the flow of the stream and walk towards it. I was delighted to dip my finger and watch tiny fishes gathering around it like a curious bunch of school children.

As we parted, he gifted me some seeds, a raw papaya, and some banana stems. Kimmerer writes, “The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity.” How rich would we be to enjoy more of such relationships rather than empty transactions of plastic money signifying nothing except the symbolic power of greed. My uncle, though appreciative of the place, later whispered into my ear, “Wouldn’t it be better to build a room in some corner and open this up for tourists to spend some time etc., they can see the farm, enjoy the river and he would earn a lot!” I whispered back, “Yes, but that’s not love.”

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Reanimating the world

“Ah! there you are!” I exclaimed to a flat bean and plucked it gently while looking for more. The colour of the beans blends ever so perfectly with the leaves, that they seem to be playing an eternal hide-and-seek with anyone interested in harvesting them. I often lose time when hanging around plants, and trees. In retrospect though, it seems I just temporarily refuse to chase those ticking hands, a mirage of desires that snatch the present reality. Or, more aptly, plants sometimes allow me a peek of their world, where time no longer calls the shots. When I read Sumana Roy’s lament about post-colonial civilization as robbing us of living in tree-time, I could instinctively feel what she meant. Growing up in a typical urban space where movement is the order of the day, a pause is just that – a break from the animation, not a legitimate space of its own. I stare at the earth I dug up to plant a sapling. A few months back, it was a mix of decomposing organic matter. Now, the sweet smell of black humus envelops my senses, and a few moments later I see the heap of soil literally crawl with life. Who said it was “dust to dust”? Seems to me, it is life to life. Perhaps, just not the kind we usually acknowledge. Tiny tendrils quiver in the wind, looking for support that would help the plant climb. Roots search for water beneath the surface. The plant grows, as does the life around it. So much happens, yet we make children classify plants as “non-moving”.

As I walk down a street lined with trees, I inevitably slow down to admire them. The act of slowing down allows me to see some tiny red insects. One, two, many, and then many more. I see their dead bodies strewn across the pavement and feel as if I am walking through some place that was bombarded by violence. That violence being that of indifferent walking. Today, we walk through dead insects, tomorrow it would be axed trees, and then perhaps other suffering beings, all reduced to a fuzzy background one couldn’t care more about. This “psychic numbing” as Arne Johan Vetlesen puts it, seems even more dangerous than active aggression, for the latter still indicates a frenzy of passion which could be rectified. How do you rectify something that isn’t there – the inert vacuum of empathy?

Animism – the idea of attributing life to all things in the environment has been conventionally viewed as backward or childish. Our neat categories and increasingly compartmentalised lives extend the Cartesian duality of mind and matter all the way into our being, till we literally become ‘the ghost in the shell’. But then, we are not. Observe any child’s innocent wonder at a frog hopping by, or their sorrow for having lost a feather ‘gifted’ by a bird, or delight in the wooden rhythm of bamboos knocking each other in the wind, and the world seems more alive again.

I dig the soil, the warmth of its life breathing heavily in my hands. KN, a 13-year-old boy, is digging along with me. A few months back, he didn’t want to touch anything ‘dirty’. Well, how can you admire the flowers without nourishing its roots? So, began his weekly stint at gardening, and when seeds sown by him began to sprout, there was no looking back, only looking in. A few moments later, he unearths a sweet potato, and his face lights up with joy. My thoughts light up with hope.

hands flowers


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A strange silence

It is not the screams that keep me awake at night,

Nor the haggard faces in a queue.

Animals being killed numb me not,

Nor the bruised bodies nursing broken minds.

The apathy, however, sickens my being,

It numbs my senses to know

That there won’t a helping hand for those who fall,

Nor a sigh of grief for those gone.

No anger for justice long lost.

Not even a pause to see if we are at fault.

Only a strange silence echoes in the dark.

A quiet horror of a blinkered life,

till it blinds the soul out of us.

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Gaps, holes and windows

“So, there seems to be a gap from the year 2005 to 2006?” The interviewer looked at him reproachfully; a look he was rather tired of getting every time he applied for a job. He cleared his throat and said, “Yes, but I did not have any arrears, I just took a drop to prepare for engineering entrance exams.” “Ah okay” replied the interviewer satisfied with the explanation, as if preparing for engineering entrance exams is the only honorable rites of passage for any Indian teenager, and sacrificing a year in that pursuit could be forgiven. The conversation carried on, but for the umpteenth time he wished that he could just sit back and say, “Well, I initially wanted to prepare for exams just like all my peers but I found many other interesting things to do, and so spent a year learning tabla, reading classic novels, and heck! even tried penning a small novel about my insipid life. Honestly, it was quite enjoyable till I had to get back on track and enroll for an engineering degree…”

This is an all too familiar story, but it is incomplete and deserves a better ending. The word “curriculum” is derived from the Latin word curricle which refers to carriage horses on a race course. No surprises that only being on “track” is seen as a virtue, and stepping off it as useless or even dangerous meandering. For the growing Indian middle class, formal education is seen as the authorization for a monthly pay-check, and duh, isn’t that supposed to be the “good life”? However, that certainly doesn’t seem the case when you work to pay bills to stay in a place from where you can work. Roundabout, right? Not just that, it is a downright vicious cycle, and yet we cling onto its empty promises of freedom dutifully shackled by expectations of the society.

By the time one realizes this quagmire of a dream, inertia of a certain lifestyle keeps dragging on. So, there is really no other way to reflect unless one consciously steps off this conveyor belt of an education system and tries to figure alternative directions for oneself. Interestingly, in the west, this is termed as a “gap-year”, and is meant to give an individual time to think, travel, learn or earn according to one’s agency rather than follow dictates of any institution. It is widely accepted as a logical space and time required to get a grasp of the direction one would like to take in life. However, in the Indian context, it is seen as some inconceivable wastage of time that would lead one to start work later than others and they would supposedly always lag “behind”. I have met many people proud of the fact that they finished college a year or two earlier than they are supposed to, and got placed in the usual monotone jobs immediately. I have also met people defying this push into glorified labor and instead choose to travel, write, dream, draw, paint and work freely towards a world they imagine to be better than one they live in right now.

Education, for what its worth should open these windows of possibilities, and gaps need to be seen as crucial to one’s development as a person capable of reflection. Then maybe, instead of being the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, who keeps singing I’m late / I’m late / For a very important date. / No time to say “Hello, Goodbye”. / I’m late, I’m late, I’m late, We can be real protagonists of wonderland waiting to be created.







I speak fluent Emoji?

Call it the priggishness of convent education or more sympathetically, some love for words that have always left me uncomfortable around the SMS lingua franca. They say language is as much a living organism like anything else; growing, evolving, aging and dying. However, I mostly imagine natural deaths unlike the violent strangulation that words undergo when people find most vowels unnecessary and random exclamation marks sufficient to communicate entire sentences. No wonder divorce is so common nowadays, or more simply I am just growing old and grumpy (Both are true). I am not sure about you, but when kids write, “2b or nt 2b…”, I can only imagine the ghosts of Victorian poets tearing their ghostly white wigs in alarm and despair.

True, this is not the Victorian era, but why should writing increasingly resemble the transcript of a kid trying to talk with its mouth full of bananas? We may be getting smarter, but we seemed to have kicked eloquence right outside the window. Of course, eloquence never helped save any time; time is money; money is a way to buy more time? Things are complicated around that corner. Coming back to violent deaths of language, there is another trend that makes even the scarce typing of words unnecessary. Welcome to the age of Emoji, now so essential that messages sent without one is considered impolite or downright hostile. Indeed, some of you may even find it odd to imagine phone conversations without the range of Emoji available today, but this epiphany is as recent as 1998, and was first developed in Japan (trust the weirdest fads to come from there). It soon became so popular, that serious research went into documenting and drawing expressions that could be culturally universal. That’s perhaps the simple yet profound realization; a smile is same in any language.

As usual, I hadn’t really gotten used to the Emoji affair till my messages were construed as unhappy/curt/unclear unless there was an appropriate cartoon face appended to it. It is interesting to note the widespread use even in official mails, the apparent stronghold of formal language. It has seemingly functioned to ease the tone of official conversations, though left to me “Please report to my desk tomorrow at 9:00 am :)” looks plain creepy with that face in the end. Well, that’s just me of course.

Studies show that emoticons such as smiley and sad faces are changing the way our brain works by triggering parts of the brain usually reserved for looking at real faces. i.e we have different areas in brain to process words and faces. Before the advent of emoticons there was no reason to process a colon followed by closing parenthesis 🙂 as a facial expression but now it does because we have learnt to represent this as a face. So, while the heydays of literature had words evoking a variety of emotions, now we have Emojis standing in for a number of words. The Oxford Dictionary named 😂 (Face With Tears of Joy) its 2015 Word of the year. Welcome to the era of Emoji Dick (yes it exists; the emoji version of Moby Dick). Now, is that good, bad, ugly? Well, in all truthfulness and brevity, it just is. Love it or hate it, it will be around till the Japanese come up with the next global fad. 😉

Emoticons have become massively popular, being used in text message and online conversations, along with art projects such as this Banksy Exhibit

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O laugh, will you?

Humour, it would seem is most difficult to describe, and anything serious written to explain it would definitely lack the topic of discourse itself, unless of course it is meant to be seriously funny. Hungarian writer and satirist László Feleki writes, “The term ‘humor’ itself means fluid or moisture, indicating that already the ancient Greeks must have known both moisture and humor. Humor as a fluid probably served to dilute the hard facts of life making it possible to swallow and digest them.” So, it would seem that humans have evolved an ingenious defense mechanism to counter the hard-blows of life, by quite simply laughing at it. But that can’t be the entire story because you could end up in an aslyum for considering a funeral real fun. Rather, scientists explain that humour probably stems from a “benign violation of the way the world ought to be.” So, harmless incongruous things put together in way that challenge our notions of ‘normal’ are prone to get our lips twitching. It is the subjectivity of ‘benign’ that makes the matter trickier. I have been often chastised by my partner for finding rather serious situations funny and thus hurting someone’s feelings (he being the hurt person in most cases). It has led me to reflect if in reality a few of my brain circuits are cross-wired such that my first reaction to mishaps ranges from a grin to uncontrollable laughter. Now, I am not talking of funerals (I am yet to attend one), but there are enough disasters and tragedies in daily life too. The other day, the door to our one and only bedroom got stuck with both of us stranded in the living room. My partner, who had to rush to office found himself in a formal shirt and boxers, the pants lying in the bedroom. Somehow he managed to find a towel to wrap himself up with while we called the carpenter to fix the door. He was fuming at this unexpected event, but he only had to look in the mirror to realise how hilarious he looked. My chuckles quite predictably incited him further though I unsuccessfully tried to explain the absurdity of the situation. I could see the truth in the chinese proverb, ‘there is no pleasure so great as watching a good friend fall off the roof’. This doesn’t translate into a malicious intention, but rather an outcome of our paradoxical nature that encompasses empathy, sorrow, relief, happiness, wickedness and much more that translates into the inscrutable emotion of humour. After all, in the madness of it all, the least one can do is have a good laugh; Let’s hope the jokes keep coming in!

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Of grubs and gourmets

Michael Pollan wrote in his book, Cooked, “ in almost every dish, you can find, besides the culinary ingredients, the ingredients of a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end.” And what more a fascinating tale can be, than that of the human culture taking birth thousands of years ago around a humble fire- an event that fundamentally altered the course of human history. Thousands of years hence, the act of cooking in many ways has turned into mass food production, destroying in the process the creativity and ingenuity responsible for the birth of myriad cuisines, and more pertinently, devouring the culture that was once a quintessential part of any culinary endeavour. Meals aren’t shared, talked about and appreciated anymore. Instead, one is greeted with vacant stares and stuffed mouths eating out of ‘ready-to-eat’ food packs, as though they resemble anything palatable. Thankfully, this still seems to be a western disease and while urban India seems to be inching towards the disastrous lifestyle, there is still hope that the likes of KFC and McDonald’s pale before the vastness of Indian cuisines (if there is term like that!). Far outnumbering the linguistic diversity of the country, India is home to gazzilion variety of dishes that many a time may have the same ingredients and yet taste different due to cooking styles. There are spices, techniques, and traditions of cooking that are often zealously guarded as family trade secrets and faithfully transmitted to the next generation. Even amongst the Indian cuisines, it is perhaps the Bengali dishes that set a benchmark in sophistication and culinary design. Given the rather fertile plains and temperate climate that Bengal grew upon, the bounty of raw food would have provided ample to experiment and cook with. As a result, there are mind-boggling varieties and ways to cook a particular dish. The unintended by-product of this phenomenon are the usually picky, fussy and finnicky Bangla lot, who it would seem are born with innate abilities to comment on food. Even the poorest household would not suffer the indignity of a three course meal, so let’s not start with the typical middle-class. Hybrids like me, who have vague ideas about their ‘roots’, while having grown up in distant locations are bound to find the Bengali fetish funny, especially when you are supposed to be one of ‘them’. There have been endless nights when me and my brother have happily gobbled bread and soup, our favourite as kids while dad would glumly look at his plate, mumbling something about posto and rice. Rajma and Chhole was on our good-food list too except that dad would scoff at the idea of making a dish out “stuff meant for horses”. Obviously, nothing could match the eloquent, subtle taste of Sukto, a unique milky stew of vegetables or the pungent yet mouth-watering taste of Bhapa Ilish (steamed fish), but dad was always on the lookout for something new to tingle his taste buds. Thus, he would inevitably find himself drawn towards the weirdest sounding dish on any menu and promptly place an order while the rest of us preferred treating our stomachs to known palettes. However, we also knew that as a family, we would have to share the treat irrespective of whether it was a delicacy or a disaster. Thus, each one of us begged on behalf of our alimentary canals for our father’s choice to be bearable. Now, the only way to explain human miseries is the fact that someone or something ‘up there’ is a sadist. So, ‘fisherman’s catch’ would turn out to be an exquisitely carved but inedible piece of pineapple, ‘green chilly idlis’ would be served as a pseudo-Chinese abomination that might have been invented when a south-Indian cook went raving mad in China, and many other oddballs. Dearest father, in such moments of peril would try and eat what he could with a straight face, making the  best out of the trauma by iterating how bad restaurants are and why one should stick to home food. His efforts haven’t been in vain for I inherited his interest in food with the addition of actually knowing what to do in a kitchen, and in the insatiable attraction towards culinary exploits, this time in my own kitchen rather than restaurants. Well, what to say–“Coquo, ergo sum”!


An eulogy for a life well lived

“I may be alone but I am never lonely.” This simple yet profound statement by U. aptly described her life. Her warm smile and ever so compassionate heart could reach out to melt the coldest of beings. Yet, her spirit radiated not from bounty of fortunes but had been forged in the harshest of tribulations that life could offer. To a passer-by, U. might have come across as as an ordinary teacher who lost her husband and only daughter earlier than she should have; She might look like another life that snuffed out too suddenly, but that would just be the partial truth. Dr. Ikeda compares death of individuals to the cosmic drama in the universe, explaining that by sharing the same fundamental particles that stars are made of, we too die like them. However, it is for us to choose what kind of star we would like to be. People grow old, immersed in their petty achievements and worries till death comes knocking at their door and drags them silently to their grave, a shriveling dwarf star that the universe would have no memory of. There are others like U. who could embrace death with open arms since she had no regrets about life. Such a death is like that of a brilliant supernova, a death that becomes a cradle for new life of other stars. U. spent her days encouraging those around, and in her death she continues to inspire people who knew her. Her life is a story of living by giving, a poem of beauty through love and a light that kindled the flames of hope in so many hearts. In her simple, profound manner she showed that death can be a celebration of life. They say that one’s entire life flashes like a movie before one’s eyes at the time of death. She made her’s a movie worth watching. Death, after all isn’t an event that one encounters when everything is over, it is the culmination of moments, choices and thoughts that are a part of us since the day we are born. I am grateful for a beautiful reminder to live more fully, freely and joyfully by realizing my unique existence in this world; by being part of a most colourful fabric called humanity. “Day by day I am renewed, today I am born again.”


Survey Shiksha Abhiyaan?

I straightened my eye-glasses, which were frequently slipping down my nose-ridge due all the sweat trickling down my face, uncomfortably down my chest and back. But the guard wouldn’t budge. “ Madam, jab tak woh hume nahi bolti, hum aapko andar nahi aane denge.” I was flabbergasted. This wasn’t an attempt to barge into the PM’s office, I was just trying to talk to a school-coordinator! The guard initially insisted that I explain to him the reason for wanting to meet the principal. I duly agreed and explained the purpose of visit which basically involved a short survey to be conducted in a classroom for academic purposes. I don’t believe in brands, but seeing his expression turn from being disinterested to mildly suspicious, I flashed my ID card to indicate the ‘prestigious’ institution I belong to, but to no avail– the word “survey” had done all the damage possible. He coldly passed me the telecom to first talk to the Principal’s PA who initially slammed the phone while I was completing a sentence. Believing this to be an honest mistake I tried again only to be told that I should write an email to which they might respond. All this without me being able to enter the gates of what now seemed a fortress (and we talk about schools that should inviting to children!). Dejected, but not bitter enough, I tried a couple of other schools but the response was amazingly uniform. In the best scenario, I was escorted till the Vice Principal’s room, who then told me in person that they don’t allow “surveys” as if the word left a distinctly bad taste in her mouth. My attempts to prod for reasons were as futile as my attempts to conduct the survey itself. No amount of assurances or evidences about my credibility or the questionnaire worked. This was turning out to be an embarrassing exercise to say the least and I felt my sympathies for those wandering sales people increased manifold for I felt no better! Here I was, naively expecting schools to be open about gaining new insights about their students as surveys can potentially lead to, but quite on the contrary I was facing resistance as if unearthing some great conspiracy. What is one to understand in the light of such matters? Are these sporadic incidences or do they reflect the general tendency people have towards filling questionnaires, the feeling growing exponentially with size of the institution? In any case, it is surely a sad affair if independent researchers get stuck at the initial level of data collection and seems to signify a need for practicing educators to understand and appreciate the relevance of data-collecting tools. I write this with hope that others don’t have to resort to going from door-to-door to get a few sheets filled up!

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A place under the Sun

My time in the day is mostly spent trying to make it the next. I don’t remember my mother very well except that she disappeared from my life pretty early. There were some of “them” who would give me food when I was younger but then they moved away too. I was all alone again. Well, not alone; they were many like me hanging around the places where there was some chance of getting food and shelter but as usual there have been too many of us for too little of what we wanted. So, the bigger and stronger of us would normally get most of the share while the puny ones like me scrape whatever is left. I often see some of us living in nice houses with them and can’t help feel jealous. I don’t see how we are different. So, why do they love only some of us and not all? I tried being friendly with one of them once, but was hit so badly that I couldn’t get up for days. The older of us, who looks closest to my mother took care of me and asked me to stay away from them as much as possible. She said there are few creatures as treacherous as them. She wears an old collar but has never told me where she got it from. I think I know but don’t ask her about it. Nowadays food is getting scarce and they mix all kinds of things in it. Most of us get very sick after eating all that but it feels scarier to die of hunger. Still, I feel I am lucky to be the one who does not have babies because I saw one of us crying in pain when it had to give birth. The babies were so tiny and the mother was so weak but we couldn’t do anything except get some food. Then one day a monster-on-4-wheels came and they took away the babies. The mother tried to run after the monster-on-4-wheels but it just went away too fast. I haven’t seen her much after that. This winter has been hard for most of us. Even the strongest of us lie huddled in a corner and don’t bully me if I come too close. Despite all this, I have my moment of happiness when the sun comes out and I lie down on my favourite spot. It is a nice corner where they don’t disturb me. Today, it was a lovely morning and I felt happy just for that. But it seems, I am just not meant feel joy. Just as I was about to fall asleep, a monster-on-4-wheels came from nowhere began parking close to me. I got up in fright, and went a little ahead to curl up again but was shooed away by some of the little-them who take special pleasure in hitting us with sticks. I am now forced to take refuge in a dark, cold corner but I guess it’s not as cold as their heart. I had only longed for a place under the sun and now even that seems like a distant dream. They say that dogs can’t think much; well, I don’t see how far they have gone with all their thinking. I don’t know if i’ll be alive on the day when all of us, I mean ALL creatures will have an equal space under the sun, but I hope the day will come.

My life

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