Sunday 3 September 2023

Amit Chaudhuri on reading Gandhi

About four years ago, Amit Chaudhuri wrote an essay titled 'Reading Gandhi reading' in the LARB. 

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS THAT Gandhi, Nehru, Bose, and Ambedkar are India’s greatest novelists.

Why stop there? Why not say they are India's greatest can-can dancers?  

In using the word “novelist,” I’m referring to a figure who gives our world back to us, a world whose significance we then spend years trying to grasp and measure.

Novelists are meant to entertain us. They may show us there's more to life than we had imagined but they don't give the world back to us unless, obviously, we carelessly mislaid it on the last train home after a night on the tiles.  

I mean someone who has an impact in both serious and popular domains.

I suppose this could be said of Tolstoy or Doestoevsky. But Gandhi didn't read Tolstoy's novels. He did read Dickens' 'tale of two Cities'.  

In that sense, the novelist is partly a figure of the imagination, produced by a mix of canonical judgment and contingent forces.

No. We may imagine things about a novelist but the novelist is real. A canonical judgment is just a judgment made in accordance with relevant canons. All forces are 'contingent'. Amit is babbling nonsense.  

The novelist is also, today, by definition global, and supremely exportable.

Rubbish! Some novelists may have a global audience but the vast majority don't.  

Just as other cultures have thrilled to artists of such disparate gifts as Dostoyevsky and Melville and Haruki Murakami, the educated Indian middle classes — especially the academic elite and the English-language news channels in Delhi — have devoted, in the last two decades, recurring spasms of attention to Gandhi, Nehru, occasionally to Subhas Chandra Bose, and more recently to B. R. Ambedkar.

In the same way as the Brits have 'recurring spasms' towards some of their own leading politicians. But this does not mean they were novelists- unless, like Disraeli, that is what they actually were. 

It’s as if they weren’t just political figures but imaginers of worlds.

This could be said of any charismatic political figure. It can't be said of Amit. He writes novels but I can't imagine a more boring world than the one his characters inhabit.  

No novelist can compare with the flurry of excitement — and, often, controversy — they carry in their wake.

JK Rowling provokes more controversy than Rishi Sunak. She is also smarter and has done more for this country.  

Although, being dead, they can’t attend literary festivals, they visit them more than any living Indian author, in the form of books and discussions.

Shitty books, useless discussions.  

Sometimes you feel that the literary festival — being a microcosm of a free-market global utopia — is their true home.

To their credit, they would rather top themselves than reside in any such place. 

Of course, real novelists (whoever they might be)

Among Bengalis these would be Tagore, Bankim, Sharat, Bibhuti etc 

get no biographies or critical studies in Anglophone India.

Sure they do. There are plenty of academics publishing such works. On the other hand, they tend not to dwell on the seamy side of things but then plenty of Victorians were similar in this regard. 

While one can’t help noticing that the present combination of mythologizing and hermeneutics directed at Gandhi-Nehru-Ambedkar springs from a mutation of the literary imagination,

or sheer, rank, careerism 

it’s a mutation for which the literary is largely redundant.

Because these guys were politicians and barristers not novelists. Nehru, it must be said, wrote quite well but it was for a utilitarian purpose.  

This becomes even more apparent when we realize that the literary achievement of the one writer sometimes added to this pantheon — Rabindranath Tagore — is beside the point to the Anglophone class.

Tagore received a Nobel Prize for literature. No doubt, he had many other achievements to his credit but the fact is no Indian does not love 'Kabuliwallah' or 'the Post Office'.  

Tagore’s biography embodies certain qualities that can be celebrated; his actual writing, with the exception of the national anthem and one anguished patriotic song, stays out of view.

Tagore is an adolescent passion. But 'Kabuliwallah' can be re-read at any age.  

Of the four political figures I’ve mentioned, three — Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar — were writers. (The fourth, Subhas Chandra Bose,

also wrote a book 

who died mysteriously before Independence while trying to make a futile deal with the Axis powers,

he did make the deal. His death was not mysterious. The Japanese had to surrender. They put Bose on a plane to the Soviet Union. It crashed. There was a story that Bose returned to India and lived as a Sadhu.  

is remembered mainly for his militant opposition to British rule,

Nehru wasn't exactly a sycophant of the Brits 

and a life of courage and tragic misdirection.)

Indians felt he had done the right thing. The Brits got the message loud and clear. The supposedly 'loyalist' Punjabi soldier- even if Muslim- would accept the leadership of a Bengali intellectual.  

Nehru, because of his prose style, is identified with sonority.

Nothing wrong with that. Urdu is sonorous as is Bengali.  

His principal works as an author include

his Autobiography and 'Discovery of India' both of which were very useful to the INC. The latter shaped American opinion in favour of independence for India because Nehru signalled that he wanted to replace second rate British companies- like Imperial Chemicals- with first rate American Companies like Dow Chemicals.  

the speech he made in 1947 (“when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom,” a beautifully expressed thought whose meaning remains vague), which Rushdie and Elizabeth West included in their 1997 anthology of largely Anglophone fiction, Mirrorwork;

because including a Bengali text in a book published in English would be silly 

and there is the account he wrote in prison of his nation’s uniqueness, The Discovery of India (published in 1946).

That is not what the book is about. Nehru explains that the INC had helped the Tatas when they needed money to expand their ironworks. His government would borrow from Wall Street and bring in big American firms to build the giant factories the new Nation would need. Nehru also showed an impressive knowledge of KMT China. He would be a valuable ally. Incidentally, the Americans planned to hand Hong Kong over to the KMT if they liberated it before the Brits did.  

Ambedkar, the perspicacious leader of the “untouchables,” whose legacy has had an academic resurgence in the last decade, was the chief drafter of what for Anglophone Indians is a literary/moral text about whose significance they’re all in consensus — the Indian constitution, a work they invoke almost daily, and which very few of them have read.

Ambedkar dismissed his contribution as 'hack work'. Burma got a more Socialist constitution a couple of years before India.  

Gandhi differs from these two in that he wrote originally in Gujarati, which might be why his works possess a certain unpredictability and idiosyncrasy,

This is also true of stuff he wrote in English.  

the second being a quality that’s almost entirely absent from a fundamentally homogeneous, high-minded Indian Anglophone discourse.

Nonsense! Ambedkar wrote in a lively, if irascible, fashion. Bose was boring and stupid because he was dashing off a book of no fundamental importance. Nehru had a fondness for Pateresque purple patches- as did Bertrand Russell. Nothing wrong with that at all.  

Still, all three, in the eyes of the Indian intelligentsia, are engaged in the production

were engaged. They are all dead.  

of an overarching work that has had more value than any other for a quarter of a century now: India.

Sheer poppycock! Nehru's vision for India was adopted by the INC by 1930 though the Constitution owes a lot to the 1935 Act and Da Valera's Irish Constitution. But Nehru's plan for India ran out of steam around 1958 which was when he wanted to retire.  

What novelist can compete with those who have authored a text of such overwhelming importance?

Mussolini. He was a novelist and held more power than Nehru or Gandhi. But Disraeli remains the novelist who had the biggest and most lasting political influence. His 'One Nation' Toryism has given Britain a Punjabi Prime Minister.  

The consequence of being transfixed by this work, “India,” is that several books on Gandhi come out every year.

No. Gandhi only became important during the Civil Rights movement. Attenborough's film was another inflexion point.  

The reading of the Anglophone Indian middle class today consists

of JK Rowling and Dan Brown and other such authors.  

at first of textbooks and guides to exam success; then, as its members approach maturity, of self-help books, newspapers, and (if they’re of an academic bent) lots of stuff on Gandhi and some of the others on the Indian Mount Rushmore I’ve already named.

Nonsense! The middle-class is into IT and Mathsy stuff.  

One of the positive offshoots of this ongoing trend, however, has been the recent publication of a “critical edition” of Gandhi’s An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, in the original, excellent translation by Mahadev Desai, with a new introduction and notes by Tridip Suhrud.

There is nothing new or interesting in it.  

The annotations provide alternative, more literal translations of Gandhi’s prose, where Desai may have changed the character of a sentence without necessarily wishing to alter its meaning. These sporadic interventions are good to have; occasionally, one wishes the original Gujarati word had been provided when a concept is being discussed passionately — for instance, the word “sacrifice,” to which Suhrud suggests “renunciation” as an alternative. (One wonders if tyag is the word Gandhi used.)

To sacrifice something means to renounce it. Suhrud is wasting his time.  

This book is still possibly the best place to encounter Gandhi.

No. Hind Swaraj is the quintessential Gandhi. What you have to remember when reading 'Experiments' is that many of his colleagues knew Gandhi was lying his head off. Leung Quinn, the leader of the Chinese in South Africa, was a brave and honest man. Gandhi suggests he embezzled money and ran away. The truth is, Gandhi did not lift a finger to help the Chinese when Smuts decided to deport them en masse. Smuts could not deport the Indians because they were British subjects and the Raj would have to pay to resettle them elsewhere. 

The most outrageous lie concerns the 'simple peasant' who invited Gandhi to Champaran. The guy was a wealthy money-lender. Gandhi's job was to distract attention from the anti cow-slaughter riots occurring across the State.  

It contains, vividly, the record of a man working things out for himself.

No. It is stupid shit. The funny thing is Gandhi tells us that his Mum told him that if an untouchable kid bumped into him he should find a Muslim boy and pass on the inauspiciousness to him. This was essence of Gandhian politics.  

For one thing, Gandhi — unlike the inheritors of his legacy — didn’t have to deal with books about Gandhi.

He encouraged some White guy in South Africa to write his first biography. Romain Rolland's hagiography of Gandhi came out a year before Gandhi started serializing his 'Experiments'. He was a shrewd self-publicist.  

He had other things to think about. His reading, in contrast to today’s Indians, was liberated and creative,

he was a crackpot who read the works of crackpots. Romain Rolland ended up as a worshipper of Stalin.  

while his future (and the future of his country) was a conundrum. Nothing was a given for Gandhi; his progress was diffident, but his curiosity was voracious, his approach questioning and sometimes comically unimpressed (the last a characteristic he would put to memorable use in his mockery of King and Empire).

But the Viceroy had the last laugh. It turned out that just jailing Gandhi & Co from time to time was enough to run things in the manner most profitable or useful to Westminster.  

In Prime Movers (2018), a book on “twelve great political thinkers” from Pericles to Gandhi “and what’s wrong with each of them,” Ferdinand Mount

the father-in-law of Pankaj Mishra 

describes Gandhi’s method: “[Y]ou found out truth as you went through life — or as Gandhi’s critics liked to put it, he makes it up as he goes along. Gandhi does not dispute this: ‘Truth is what everyone for the moment feels it to be.’”

Which is cool if everybody feels like calling you a Mahatma.  

Presumably to distinguish this statement from the fleeting but ferocious convictions that lead to mob violence,

Gandhi's actions led to plenty of mob violence. To be fair, he always insisted that the Brits should not leave till they had handed over the Army to the INC because otherwise aggressive Muslims and Punjabis would grab all the cool, shiny, stuff.  

Mount quotes the philosopher Akeel Bilgrami: “Truth for Gandhi is not a cognitive notion. It is an experiential notion. It is not propositions purporting to describe the world of which truth is predicated, it is only our own moral experience which is capable of being true.”

This is unfair. Gandhi claimed to have Divine inspiration or intuition. He wasn't saying anyone else had any such thing. Just him. He didn't like it when people lied to him by saying things like 'you have shit for brains' because, obviously, everybody actually thought he was the cat's whiskers.  

As for Gandhi’s curiosity and reading (which are an integral part of this “moral experience”): as a student at the Bar in London, he was interested in religion both experientially and as a way of understanding culture, but he knew little about either his own or others’.

Gandhi's big mistake was to say Ruskin and Carlyle were his two Gurus. Both had campaigned for Governor Eyre whose brutal and unconstitutional actions in Jamaica were condemned by Mill.  

Throughout, Gandhi is good at portraying how a consciousness of one’s own ignorance is not incompatible with intellectual excitement:

Gandhi needed to show he was divinely inspired. He hadn't just picked things up from books he had read. He succeeded because he genuinely was a cretin.  

Towards the end of my second year in England I came across two Theosophists, brothers, and both unmarried. They talked to me about the Gita. They were reading Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation — The Song Celestial — and they invited me to read the original with them. I felt ashamed, as I had read the divine poem neither in Samskrit nor in Gujarati. I was constrained to tell them that I had not read the Gita, but that I would gladly read it with them, and that though my knowledge of Samskrit was meagre, still I hoped to be able to understand the original to the extent of telling where the translation failed to bring out the meaning.

Gandhi did not know the meaning. The Bhagvad Gita is the dual of the Vyadha Gita. You can't read one in isolation from the other. Also you actually need heavy duty Vedic knowledge to catch the allusions. This is easy enough for me thanks to Google Search but Gandhi would have needed to study the Gita under a Pundit.  

I began reading the Gita with them.
Gandhi then quotes lines from Arnold’s version that “made a deep impression” on him and “still ring in my ears”:

If one
Ponders on objects of the sense, there springs
Attraction; from attraction grows desire,
Desire flames to fierce passion, passion breeds
Recklessness; then the memory — all betrayed —
Lets noble purpose go, and saps the mind,
Till purpose, mind, and man are all undone.
The Sanskrit is not difficult at all as you can see below. Perhaps, living in an English speaking environment, the young Gandhi felt he was losing his mother tongue.

dhyāyato viṣayān puṁsaḥ
saṅgas teṣūpajāyate
saṅgāt sañjāyate kāmaḥ
kāmāt krodho ’bhijāyate

krodhād bhavati sammohaḥ
sammohāt smṛti-vibhramaḥ
smṛti-bhraṁśād buddhi-nāśo
buddhi-nāśāt praṇaśyati
“It has afforded me invaluable help in my moments of gloom,” he goes on to say about the Gita. “I have read almost all the English translations of it, and I regard Sir Edwin Arnold’s as the best.”

Nothing wrong with that. Arnold's English version is noble.  

What’s striking here — as it is in every page of My Autobiography — is Gandhi’s ability to

make a political point. Gandhi had come to the Hindu Bible with English help. He might equally have come to the Quran Sharif. Indeed, some of Gandhi's Muslim readers thought, that might still happen. But, back then, it was Christians who had all the power. Some of them took an interest in Gandhi because they hoped he would finally come to Christ and bring millions of his fellow heathens along with him.  

give us the transitions in his reading and thinking (his discovery of the Gita through the English language, for instance) without adornment or too much commentary, to not rehearse what he thinks the reader values already but rather to test ways in which it might be possible to convey how things — books, people, events — begin to matter to oneself.

Amit thinks readers are interested in how books begin to matter to some cretin. This is not the case. Gandhi had some political importance at the time. After all, he had unilaterally surrendered to the British and gone peacefully to jail. In the future he might come to Christ and declare that God had sentenced 'the descendants of Ham' to serve the fairer skinned sons of Japhet. 

A few paragraphs later he mentions the fact that he “met a good Christian from Manchester in a vegetarian boarding house,” evidently one of the many productive acquaintanceships he made in his quest for vegetarian food in London. This man points Gandhi in a different direction from Edwin Arnold:

“Do please read the Bible.” I accepted his advice, and he got me a copy. I have a faint recollection that he himself used to sell copies of the Bible, and I purchased from him an edition containing maps, concordance, and other aids. I began reading it, but I could not possibly read through the Old Testament. I read the Book of Genesis, and the chapters that followed invariably sent me to sleep. But just for the sake of being able to say that I had read it, I plodded through the other books with much difficulty and without the least interest or understanding. I disliked reading the Book of Numbers.

Gandhi was against Zionism which, after all, is based on the Holy Book of the Jews- which is the 'Old Testament'. Was he really a Nationalist or a woolly minded Pacificist and Internationalist?  The answer was that he was a guy paid by Indian industrialists to get Indians to boycott British cloth so that Indian Mills could monopolize the Indian market. 

But the New Testament produced a different impression, especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to my heart. I compared it with the Gita. The verses, “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” […] delighted me beyond measure and put me in mind of Shamal Bhatt’s “For a bowl of water, give a goodly meal,” etc.

Shamal Bhatt's works were entertaining and instructive.  

Gandhi gives us a picture here of a world being created on the hoof. The man from Manchester comes across as both a Samaritan and a spiritual entrepreneur:

or a bigot who sells Bibles 

a man from an industrial city in an industrial age, for whom Christianity is not just a faith but an enthusiasm.

The guy sells Bibles- expensive ones with 'maps and concordances'.  

Gandhi’s own sentences move unexpectedly in response to the lack of fixity in his life and his friend’s: “I have a faint recollection that he himself used to sell copies of the Bible,” he writes; but, in the second part of the sentence, the “faint recollection” has, without adequate explanation, become fact: “and I purchased from him an edition containing maps, concordance, and other aids.”

Gandhi was always telling lies of that sort. Everybody he meets is either a fool or a knave or a 'simple agriculturist'.  

No sentence is pious: “I read the Book of Genesis, and the chapters that followed invariably sent me to sleep.” The compression in that “invariably” is telling: it means he tried reading the Old Testament more than once. Gandhi repeatedly points out that he knows little, and yet he always seems to know enough to be a comparativist: lines from the Sermon on the Mount remind him of the Gita (which he first read in English in England) and a song by a Gujarati poet. Everything is in confluence, but there’s no clear point of origin to the various streams.

Yes there is. Amit may not be aware of this but the 'Book of Genesis' originates from Israel. The Gita originates from India. Gujarati poets are from Gujarat.  

How different it is to read Gandhi writing about his reading

Gandhi does not tell us much about his reading. We know he read some Latin but can't be sure whether he read Virgil or Ovid on Virgil. Still, we are not concerned with Gandhi's reading or writing or how he scratched his back. Gandhi was a politician who had unilaterally surrendered and thus broken the Congress Khilafat combine. Why had he done so? The answer was that his intuition was that India was not ready to do without the Brits. At the Second Round Table Conference, and again in 1939, he made clear why this was the case. The Hindus could not defend themselves against aggressive Muslims and Punjabis (regardless of religion).  The Brits must hand over the Army to the INC before fucking off. 

than it is to read most books about Gandhi, where we have a familiar teleology, a beginning and end we’re already aware of! There are few readymade contexts in An Autobiography, few confirmations of what a life and the making of an Indian political leader should look like.

Because it is a shitty book. Gandhi took no great pains over it. That is one reason Nehru, and Nehru alone, appeared to be a man with a plan. From the Nehru Report of 1928 to the Avadi Conference in 1955, it was Jawaharlal who set the agenda. A man who takes the trouble to write a decent book (which Nehru did, so as to be financially independent) is a man with a coherent plan. Also Nehru was a Hindi speaker from a numerically quite large, Pan-Indian, caste. Ambedkar and Bose were from minorities.  

Many of the moments described in it — his attempt to become a meat-eater; his admiration for the Gita and the Sermon on the Mount; other fitful developments — have long been canonical, like episodes in the life of a saint.

They are merely anecdotes.  

But Gandhi’s own accounts of them remain provisional, like the time he lived in, and like the intellectual ethos that produced him and others like him.

No. Gandhi was dictating stuff in a careless manner. No 'intellectual ethos' produced him. The guy was just a money-grubbing lawyer.  

What kind of ethos? The key lies in the term prayog,

which is the word for experiment or application. 

which Gandhi used in the title when the autobiography — a collection of the installments he’d written in the periodical Navjivan from 1925 to 1929 — was published in 1930. The term is translated as “experiments” in Desai’s 1940 translation. This word, more than any other, describes the world of Indians from the beginnings of the colonial project to well after it ended, and it implies why that period in India is most significant or memorable not because of the achievements and depredations of that project, or even the triumph of the freedom movement, but for these experiments Indians undertook.

Prayog does not have the meaning of something tentative or experimental. It is merely something done for a purpose. If it succeeds or is optimal we may say it is 'upyog'.  

By “experiment” I think Gandhi means an openness to formative encounters (“truth”), whether they occur as texts, events, or people.

No. Gandhi meant 'prayog'- an action done for a particular purpose. Was it the best or the optimal action? Perhaps. 

Formative encounters are not 'truth'. They may warp you or work for your weal. Gandhi was not advocating openness to sexual encounters or anything of that sort. Manilal Dwiwedi, who would have taught him if he'd remained at Samaldas College, was a different kettle of fish which is why he got syphilis.  

The encounter is accompanied by an acknowledgment of the nature and implications of its impact. Gandhi’s readings, and discovery of, the Bible, the Gita, Ruskin, Tolstoy, even law books, are each encounters comprising this ongoing experiment, encounters that can’t be reduced, as we see from the language of the Autobiography, to remarks like: “He learnt such and such from Tolstoy and the Gita,” or “He admired Ruskin because…”

Yes they can. Gandhi says Ruskin was his Guru. He learnt from Ruskin that if you treat your servant with kindness he will offer to pay you for the pleasure of cleaning your toilet. You'll end up saving money. 

We can say Gandhi learnt from Tolstoy that sex was bad. The Gita says fight but do so dispassionately and Gandhi had in fact shown courage on the battlefield and did recruit- or try to recruit- soldiers during the Great War. He approved of Indian military intervention in Kashmir.  

Tagore, temperamentally different from Gandhi and often in disagreement with him, is also shaped by this experimental ethos, this openness to the encounter.

Tagore had great filial piety. His Daddy told him to manage the family estates and that is exactly what he did do. Then, after Daddy died, he took over as the head of his Dad's religious sect which is why he ponced around in a kaftan.  

In his case, the encounters include his unsettling acquaintanceship with his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi's acuity of perspective;

Tagore behaved properly. His elder brother was a fool for having educated his wife but neglected to pork her.  

his discovery of the English poet Thomas Chatterton converging with his discovery of the 15th-century devotional poets Chandidas and Vidyapati (just as there’s a simultaneity to Gandhi’s reading of Arnold’s translation of the Gita and the Sermon on the Mount);

Tagore was a young genius who wrote of Valmiki's genius or 'pratibha'. He was naturally interested in Chatterton, a doomed genius, and Keats and so forth. Chandidas and Vidyapati are great poets. Which Bengali poet won't encounter them? 

I suppose what Amit is getting at is that neither Tagore nor Gandhi were forced by their Professors to read certain set-texts. But, back in those days, there was no Netflix or Pornhub. Literate peeps read books to pass the time.  

and his transformative revaluation of the fourth-century Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, who was being discussed in educated circles in India and Europe in the 19th century because of William Jones’s 1789 translation of Shakuntala.

William Jones knew of Kalidasa because his Sanskrit teachers rated that dude. India is called Bharat because that was the name of Shakuntala's son.  

According to Tagore himself, he knew little Sanskrit until he turned 14,

Paninian Sanskrit as used by the classical poets. But erotic themes are of little interest to boys before the age of puberty.  

and began to learn the language when he found the 12th-century poet Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda among his father’s books, puzzling over a form of poetry that seemed to have no stanzas. He claims he was later electrified on first encountering these lines in Kalidasa: “Mandakininirjharashikharanam / bodha muhu kampitadevadaru” (“the breeze, moist with drops of the Mandakini, / makes leaves fall from the deodar trees”).

Kids don't like stuff like that. They want to hear about muscular dudes beating the shit out of each other.  

Tagore’s biographer Prashantakumar Pal says Tagore was actually taught Kalidasa by his tutor when he was 13, but the terms in which Tagore chooses to frame his memory in My Reminiscences is important.

No it isn't. Indians know that kids are turned off by the 'Shringara rasa' erotics of the courtly poets. They are cool with the animal fables of the Hitapodesha.  

Tagore’s father, Debendranath, had his own accidental encounter in the early 19th century

1839- mid Nineteenth Century 

with a page from the Upanishads that had come loose and was flying about in the breeze, a text that would come to mean much for Debendranath and others (including Eliot) as they tried to formulate terms for the nature of the modern.

Debendranath had no such desire. His Daddy had been a little too modern and left the Estate encumbered with debt. 

These episodes parody, and are the opposite of, the “books that changed your life” paradigm we see in the weekend papers.

Nonsense! They are exactly similar.  

Nor are they related to a passive imbibing of a colonial education

There was no colonial education. The Tagores paid good money for tutors or the chance to attend English medium schools.  

(Tagore hated school;

he was a freakin' genius! Also, someone had to manage the family estates.  

Gandhi was no lover of the classroom)

this is unfair. He studied hard in England and matriculated while also passing the Bar.  

or hard-headed nativist revisionism, which depends on already knowing what you must value in your heritage. What links all three — Gandhi and the Bible and the Gita; Tagore, the Vaishnav poets, Chatterton, and Kalidasa; Debendranath and the Upanishads — is an alertness to chance. A temperament for accidentality governs the “experiment.”

Wow! A Brahmin encounters the Upanishads by chance! A Hindu in London encounters the Gita and the Bible by chance! A Bengali poet who visited England where he had relatives, encounters English and Bengali poets by chance! Is Amit utterly mad? 

It would be a different matter if Gandhi had become interested in ancient Aztec Religion or Tagore had decided to dedicate himself to dancing the can-can because of a chance encounter. 

An important part of this experiment had to do with what they wore. Those who look to the cultural confluences of the 1960s, to what the hippies and “flower power” set began to wear amid the eruption of East-West psychedelia,

bell-bots? But sailors had worn that. Tie-die shirts? But prostitutes of various types have always dressed flamboyantly. 

in order to determine what a generation driven by romantic ideas of liberation might dress like, could go further back to Indians at the turn of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th: Swami Vivekananda switching from the Western clothes he wore when he was the student Narendranath Dutta to saffron turban and Indian jacket or, often, to loose Bengali dhuti and bare-torsoed simplicity;

Which is what the vast majority of Indians wore- at least once they got home from the office. India is very fucking hot.  

the Mughal-inspired sherwanis and especially the round-collared jacket that Nehru adopted, later named the “Nehru jacket”;

But his ancestors had dressed like that since the eighteenth century! No doubt, the costume of the Muslim aristocrat had become simpler and more sober but the same was true of the British aristocracy.  

Tagore’s loose, flowing, shapeless, body-covering garment (the Tagore family spent tortuous moments trying to imagine what the appropriate dress for a modern Bengali might be);

Tagore had to have a beard and wear a robe because he was the head of a Religious sect. 

Ambedkar’s strategic black suit;

No. Ambedkar was an important lawyer and public official. Such people wear suits rather than assless chaps.  

the sari’s extraordinary evolution;

the skirts evolution into the 'mini' was extraordinary. The Sari hasn't changed very much.  

the educated Bengali refining what was essentially rural clothing — the dhuti — into legitimate bourgeois attire;

But Madrasis did the same. Chidambaram looks mighty fine in his white veshti.  

Gandhi’s abandoning of the barrister’s suit for the peasant’s white dhoti, which earned him Churchill’s irritable and elaborate sobriquet, “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer […] posing as a fakir […] striding about half-naked.”

Gandhi liked showing off his bod. Unlike most Indians he didn't have a pudgy tummy.  

There is no binary, as between the 20th-century Japanese’s predominantly suited appearance and his “authentic” dress.

Japanese business executives changed into a kimono when they got home.  

One is reminded, by this strange compulsiveness and heterogeneity,

Indians like wearing Indian clothes when at home in India- how very strange! 

of what Arvind Krishna Mehrotra said of writing poetry in English in India in the ’70s: “We wanted to escape the language of skylarks and nightingales.” But this desire to “escape” didn’t take Mehrotra either to Hindi or to a more Indian-sounding diction in English; it made him look, as he created a language suitable for his poetry, to the Beats and Surrealists.

Because it was the 70's. Everybody was doing stupid shit back then.  

Something equally defamiliarizing, rather than expectedly unconventional, was happening earlier with clothing.

No it wasn't. The Brits accepted that Indians would remain Indian in costume though they might put on a jacket over their 'jibba' and 'veshti' or dhoti.  

If one thing connected the various attempts at redefining what a modern Indian might wear,

it was the Army where everybody had to wear the same uniform.  

it wasn’t nationalism or a utopian idea of Indian dress, but relative austerity

not just relative. India was as poor as shit.  

— in some cases, a pronounced austerity and simplicity that derived not just from the secular middle class’s renewed interest in idiosyncratic religious figures

That interest was a constant.  

on the one hand and its engagement with socialism and Marxism on the other,

which turned out to be meaningless. India was simply too poor for either.  

but also from its imagining of a spiritual temper for modernity.

The good thing about modernity is that it dispenses with any such temper. Road rage is another matter.  

Gandhi recognized this temper in his encounter with the Gujarati writer Narayan Hemchandra when he was studying law in London. “He did not know English. His dress was queer — a clumsy pair of trousers, a wrinkled, dirty, brown coat after the Parsi fashion, no necktie or collar, and a tasselled woollen cap. […] Such a queer-looking and queerly dressed person was bound to be singled out in fashionable society.”

Very true. The Dowager Duchess of Bridgerton would snub the fellow.  

Hemchandra isn’t a displaced provincial:

He was from Mumbai- a more cosmopolitan city than Gandhi's Rajkot. Also he was 14 years older than Gandhi and an established journalist and translator. He could afford to dress like a zany. It made him more interesting.  

“He had a boundless ambition for learning languages and for foreign travel,” and wants to visit America next. “But where will you find the money?” Gandhi asks him, to which Hemchandra says: “What do I need money for? I am not a fashionable fellow like you. The minimum amount of food and the minimum amount of clothing suffice for me.” Later, both Gandhi and Hemchandra are invited to meet Cardinal Manning, the archbishop of Westminster, whom Gandhi admired for the work he did to end the dock workers’ strike in 1889.

So we both called on the Cardinal. I put on the usual visiting suit. Narayan Hemchandra was the same as ever, in the same coat and the same trousers. I tried to make fun of this but he laughed me out and said:

“You civilised fellows are all cowards. Great men never look at a person’s exterior. They think of his heart.”

The man of letters did not need to dress up. The young barrister-to-be could not afford to appear Bohemian. 

In what kind of context should we place this accommodation of austerity (“never look at a person’s exterior”) that’s so definitive of Indian modernity,

This is foolish. Indian modernity did look at things like whether a chap kept 'shika' (the tuft on the back of the head religious Hindus were supposed to keep) or a woman kept 'bottu'.  

and how should we trace its legacy?

It does not exist. I've been turned away from posh places in Delhi for wearing 'veshti' which North Indians think is actually 'lungi' (only to be worn at home) because of the way we Madrasis wrap it.  

(Gandhi, of course, takes a cue from Hemchandra when he revises Jesus’s “Give unto Caesar”

Gandhi was refusing, at that time, to give unto the Kaiser-e-Hind, money from the Salt Tax.  

riposte upon being asked, after his meeting with King Edward VII, whether he could have dressed differently: “The King was wearing enough for both of us.”)

Also the fucker had a crown. I want a crown too.  

But let’s look at where Gandhi places himself: “The Gandhis belong to the Bania caste and seem to have been originally grocers.

Which is what the name Gandhi means.  

But for three generations, from my grandfather, they have been Prime Ministers in several Kathiawad States.” That is, they were administrators. Two pages later, Gandhi adds: “My father never had any ambition to accumulate riches and left us very little property. He had no education, save that of experience. At best, he might be said to have read up to the fifth standard.” Of his mother: “The outstanding impression my mother has left on my memory is that of saintliness. She was deeply religious. She would not think of taking her meals without her daily prayers.” And: “My mother had strong common sense. She was well informed about all matters of State, and ladies of the court thought highly of her intelligence.”

Gandhi does not say that under his father's stewardship, the Princedom he served was relegated to third class status. Nor does he mention the fact that his dad was a devotee of a syphilitic 'Maharaj' who infected the wives of his acolytes. Gandhi was signalling that his Mum belonged to a different, more puritanical, sect.  

The statement, “My father never had any ambition to accumulate riches and left us very little property,” is telling.

But some of Gandhi's colleagues knew his dad was shit at his job. Gandhi was merely saying he was also a bit shit at providing for his family.  

It points to a significant aspect of the experiment of Indian modernity that Gandhi was part of, and which millions after him would be: the coming into existence of an educated — sometimes highly educated — middle class that wasn’t a class of landowners.

Such a 'kayastha' or 'writer' caste had always existed. Brahmins in most parts of India aren't landowners. The same is true of Baidyas and other learned castes.  

Quite a few members of this class may have, in one sense or another, lost caste, as Gandhi had by crossing the “black water.”

He was re-admitted.  

But this non-landowning class was marked not by caste or loss of caste alone (the “black water” episode is a turning point but also, eventually, an irrelevance in Gandhi’s life), but by education, self-critique, and the sort of “experiment” we find recorded in An Autobiography.

Nonsense! What marked this caste was professional success or its lack. Money matters. Promotions matter. Education matters. Self-critique does not.  

The creation by Indians of a non-propertied middle class

which occurred thousands of years ago.  

has had far greater implications for the country’s history than Macaulay’s ambition to create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

Macaulay had no such ambition. He was saying that people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dwarkanath Tagore were already pretty Anglicized- as MPs in Westminster could see for themselves. They wanted John Company to stop wasting money on teaching Persian and Sanskrit. They would themselves pay good money for English language instruction. 

Its legacy becomes clearer after Independence, when the place of this class, in India and among Indians across the world, continues to consolidate itself, and has a particular tone and appearance different from, say, the educated elite in Pakistan, which was invariably landowning.

In India a guy from some backward caste in a remote village might stand first in the IAS or graduate at the top of his class at an IIT. He or she may set up a company and become a billionaire. Pakistan is a little more socially stratified.  

The non-landowning educated class in India for decades maintained a Narayan Hemchandra–like position, until economic deregulation arrived in 1991: “What do I need money for? I am not a fashionable fellow like you. The minimum amount of food and the minimum amount of clothing suffice for me.”

Indians had to cut their coat according to their cloth. There were some wealthy or very talented people who dressed in an eccentric way. But then the last Nizam of Hyderabad was said to dress poorly.   

At the same time, it inculcated a cosmopolitanism and curiosity about the world it didn’t always have the means to act on (until the 1990s, the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act [FERA] only allowed Indians a tiny amount of foreign exchange when traveling abroad): “He had a boundless ambition for learning languages and for foreign travel.”

Plenty of 'middle-class' Indians emigrated and did well for themselves.  

These predilections and often self-imposed restrictions gave to Indian modernity, especially to its domains of culture and education, an air of shabbiness.

No. India was shabby because it followed stupid economic policies and thus remained as poor as shit.  

Gandhi is an early example, and an extreme one, of this moral ethos: for him, being a Middle Temple lawyer and “striding about half-naked” can’t be put down to political strategy alone.

Yes it can. Gandhi was making a ridiculous demand- viz. that the Brits hand over control of the Army to the INC- and thus it helped if he looked like a 'Holy Fool'. As things were, he managed to unite everybody at the Round Table Conference against him.  

It’s part of a critical self-consciousness, once pervasive in India, that constantly questioned the nature of civility and civilization.

Why not question the nature of stupidity and the nature of poverty caused by doing stupid shit?  

It was as important as satyagraha or “non-violence” in overturning the values of a small set of imperialists as well as of native landowners.

The small set of imperialists were doing fine till America- and Clement Atlee- pulled the plug. Satyagraha proved wholly useless. 'Native landowners' could only keep their land with the help of hired goons. But that game was not worth the candle.  

Then there’s the “saintly” mother, who isn’t spoken about in terms of her educational achievements but of her “strong common sense,” and the fact that she was “highly thought of” for her “intelligence.”

Nothing was known against that good lady. Gandhi might well have been telling the truth.  

Through her, too, Gandhi establishes a practical and intellectual context that goes beyond recognized, institutional “colonial education.”

No he doesn't. There was no 'intellectual context' in Porbandar or Rajkot. Gandhi would have looked silly if he had pretended otherwise. Still, it is true that the milk-maid often discussed Darwin's theory of Evolution with the chowkidar.  

This also comprises a legacy. It reminds me that, while my mother received no further education after her school-leaving matriculation certificate (she was haunted by this, and blamed it on her family as well as the bad times they’d fallen into), she had read perhaps more widely in Bengali literature than my father, and had an extraordinary capacity for acute literary criticism.

I recall Amit's mother complaining of the noise we were making in the flat above theirs. She certainly seemed a strong minded woman able to get he point across. Pity her son is a cretin.  

Gandhi’s portrayal of his mother’s intelligence also made me think of my own mother saying of the woman who worked for years as a maid in our house, and who, besides her, brought me up: “She has a wonderful sense of humor and is more cultured than the women I meet at parties.”

Again, this is a perfectly reasonable observation.  

No doubt these remarks — both Gandhi’s and my mother’s — risk being called naïve or condescending, but they are also political.

No. They could be political if more information was provided- e.g. Gandhi saying 'Mum said the only way the Brits would upgrade the Princedom was if it spent more on schools and less on dancing-girls'.  

They are part of the experiment of overturning the expectations of “colonial modernity.”

There was no expectation. All the Brits asked is that the Princes devote less time to raping and robbing their subjects. Gandhi said the people his father served did nothing else.  

It’s a politics that led to that other unprecedented experiment in democracy that’s been remarked on by Ranajit Guha and others, and, as Ferdinand Mount points out, is reiterated by Perry Anderson: “In India alone, the poor form not just the overwhelming majority of the electorate, they vote in larger numbers than the better off.”

This is true of any poor country which bothers to hold elections.  

Not just the poor, as Ranajit Guha noted, but the illiterate, bringing into play value systems that are different but inextricable from ours.

Nonsense! The illiterate don't vote differently from the literate.  

This is one part of the legacy that’s still at work, mainly because governments — including BJP-led ones — change periodically due to the exercise of the franchise by, and the so-called “wisdom” of, the poor and often the unlettered. (For the first time after Independence, this “wisdom” came into question on May 23,

Amit doesn't like Modi. That should keep him safe from Mamta's goons when he visits Kolkata.  

unless what’s at work is a God-like wisdom whose purpose isn’t immediately decipherable.)

Modi is a good PM. Rahul is a moon-calf. It doesn't take 'God-like wisdom' to figure this out.  

The knowledge of the limits of colonial education

which cost money and therefore was limited to those who could pay 

always informed Indian writers and thinkers as a living force: Gandhi’s trouble with English, his account of his parents, Tagore’s hatred of school and education at home, his inability to finish his degree at University College London, Narayan Hemchandra’s deficiencies in the English language — all these are interconnected developments and choices, at once political and imaginative.

No. They are wholly irrelevant.  Gandhi had no great difficulty with English because he was a young and friendly chap who lived 3 years in London. Tagore was rich and didn't need to be a barrister because he could always look after the family estates- which is what brought in most of their money. He did attend lectures on English poetry at UCL before his father called him back. Hemchandra did not need to be very good at English. He was a successful writer in his own language. 

The politics constitutes a paradox, so that a woman like Gandhi’s mother could stand as both a precursor and a counterpart to Chandramukhi Basu and Kadambini Ganguly (an exact contemporary of the degree-less Tagore), the first women graduates — from Calcutta University — of the British Empire, including Britain itself.

No. Grace Annie Lockhart graduated from a Canadian College in 1875 some seven years before Basu and Ganguly. But London University had started admitting women in 1869. 

To the lay observer, it seems as if Gandhi’s reputation mutates subtly, in phases. The chameleon-like shifts between saint and charlatan, holy man, crank, and astute politician, existed from the start.

Gandhi was not a good politician. He would get disheartened and call things off just when he was in a strong position to get a worthwhile deal. The truth was 'Pax Britannica' was a valuable commodity. If Britain would transfer control of the Indian Army to the INC, Hindus might as well agree to Independence. Otherwise the Muslims and Punjabis would overrun the country.  

After Independence, he began to be seen by some Indian intellectuals as a critic of modernity, a proponent of the homespun, the (in contrast to Nehru) anti-industrial, and the ecologically sound.

That was true enough. However, Gandhi was also a bit more 'pro-market' than the bureaucracy. He wanted a rapid lifting of war-time price controls. He had no objection to vesting rights to land in the peasants rather than some sort of creeping collectivization favoured by the Left. He was friendly with the big industrialists and financiers. Kumarappa could be considered his successor in the field of Economics and Fiscal Policy. Nehru & Co wanted nothing to do with 'wage-goods' or agricultural growth.  

Khadi, the form of cotton he urged Indians to produce for themselves, in a quest for self-subsistence (thus, the swadeshi or “made at home” movement), became the apparel in the 1960s and ’70s of intellectuals, artists, and politicized undergraduates, a sort of hallmark, in its rough texture, of both austerity and modernity.

No. Khadi became the apparel of the Congress politician in the Twenties and Thirties and remained so till the Sixties and Seventies. Amit is talking about khadi kurtas worn over blue, preferably American, jeans. This, together with the handloom satchel was the mark of the 'jhollawallah'. But it had to do with smoking bidis and being able to drink 'desi' liquor rather than 'austerity' or 'modernity'.  

Curiously, at around the same time, the Indian government largely closed India to all but a small percentage of foreign investment, seeking to

let Indian Business Houses gain monopoly profits in return for plenty of bribes. 

develop its own industry and market (something that, critics say in retrospect, stood it in good stead when, 17 years after deregulation, the world markets crashed in 2008 and the Indian economy seemed relatively unaffected).

Fuck off! India's dirigiste policies crashed because the country ran out of foreign exchange and had to ship its gold deposits to London. India was doing 'catch up' growth and had no sub-prime problem in 2008. However it did have lots of fraud in its Nationalized Banking system but Modi seems to have got things under control. Still, if Congress returns to power, the country will go down the toilet just like  Pakistan.  

Gandhi’s Luddite proclivities, as well as the left’s animosity toward the West (besides Nehru’s project of industrialization

which was supposed to be Soviet style, not Western 

), marked India for 44 years after Independence, slowed down “development” to the “Hindu rate of growth,” and, some would say, protected India, its democracy, and its poor from the vagaries of the market.

Because genuine democracies are ruled by a Dynasty- right? Still, being protected from the market- where you can buy nice things and sell stuff for top dollar- is a mighty fine thing which is why we should just get busy starving to death. Nobody alive is safe from the vagaries of the market.  

After globalization, when the very contradictions that made India both frustrating and sometimes comical became an integral part of its astonishing economic “miracle,” new metaphors were thrown up for the Indian boom, for its irreducibility and exuberance.

No they weren't. India was just imitating the 'Tigers' same as China had done.  

The English-language magic realist novel

which ones? Rushdie's? But he had been fatwa'd and was in hiding when Manmohan reformed the economy.  

was one of them; Bollywood was another.

No. People thought the Nineties was the heyday of the NRI movie.  

Gandhi as metaphor, too, was subtly energized by India’s boom,

No. It was the Americans who thought Gandhi had super-powers. How else could 300 million Indians have gotten rid of 30,000 Whites?  

moving from saint and eccentric to a species of the sort of life-force that seemed to characterize India’s new success.

Every species has 'life-force' till it goes extinct. What on earth is Amit getting at?  

Ramachandra Guha, who has undertaken a large-hearted project

fat-headed is the mot juste 

whose aim is to give us a portrait of Gandhi that’s both exhaustive and affectionate, spans, himself, both post-Independence khadi-wearing India

There was no khadi fad after Independence. Amit's dad, like my dad, wore suits though by the Seventies 'Safari Suits' were acceptable.  

and the post-globalization ferment in his engagement with a figure who is now the subject of a considerable two-part biography. Guha began as an environmentalist,

he began as a student of economics

a discipline whose non-grandiose tone, in the decades before global warming, owed much in India to Gandhi, as he points out in Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, 1914–1948 (2018): “I spent the first fifteen years of my career working on the history of Indian environmentalism, whose main actors were influenced by Gandhian methods of analysis, critique, struggle and construction.”

Which is why they were totally shit.  

Guha is now a historian;

He was too stupid to be an economist.  

his Gandhi today is an arresting agglomeration of inconsistencies that, like India after globalization, is its own form of logic and persuasion:

No. It is stupid shit.  

'A friend from his London days,

Josiah Oldfield 

who had followed his subsequent career closely, remarked in 1934 that “Gandhi is a problem. To Rulers and Governors he is a thorn in their side.

Oldfield was wrong. Gandhi presented Viceroy Willingdon with no great problem. The secret was to lock him up and threaten to confiscate the property of his supporters.  

To logicians he is a fool.

But logicians are fools. Bertrand Russell was one.  He was a more extreme pacificist than Gandhi.

To economists he is a hopeless ignoramus.

Like logicians.  

To materialists he is a dreamer. To communists he is a drag on the wheel.

The Communists liked him. They thought that just as, to paraphrase Lenin, Tolstoy helped bring about the 1905 Revolution so too would Gandhi create the conditions for a Communist take-over of India.  

To constitutionalists he represents rank revolution.”

No. He represented an irrelevance. The Brits passed the 1935 Act and Congress got on side by 1937.  

To this list we might add: “To Muslim leaders he was a communal Hindu.

Which Muslim leader thought so at that time? Azad? No. Jinnah? No. Shaukat Ali? Again no. The fact is, Jinnah and Shaukat and Liaquat thought Congress would accept coalition governments in the Provinces they won. Nehru rejected this and put in Hindu premiers over popular non-Hindus in two important States. That marked the parting of the ways.  

To Hindu extremists he was a notorious appeaser of Muslims.

No. Hindus thought he might be able to pull the wool over the eyes of the Muslims who were considered slow-witted. It wasn't till after Partition, that Hindus had no use for him.  

To the ‘untouchables’ he appeared a defender of high-caste orthodoxy. To the Brahmin he was a reformer in too much of a hurry.”

No. Brahmins wanted to ally with 'Harijans' so as to keep out the 'dominant castes'. Congress delivered the Brahmin-Harijan-terrified Muslim coalition they wanted though no doubt smart Kayasthas benefitted most.  

Guha here is rephrasing, in the way he puts this account together, an observation of E. P. Thompson’s about India that he once cherished: “[A]ll the convergent influences of the world run through this society: Hindu, Moslem, Christian, secular; Stalinist, liberal, Maoist, democratic socialist, Gandhian. There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind.”

What about Taoism or Confucianism or Wicca? The fact is China was more intellectually diverse than India. A Chinese author, like Lin Yu Tang, could write well enough about Indian philosophy but no Indian could do the same about China.  

But there’s a difference in tone between Thompson’s statements, which are an attempt to characterize and acknowledge the kind of “experiment” that produced, and was embraced by, Gandhi, Tagore, and Narayan Hemchandra,

The experiment that produced Gandhi involved his Daddy's putting his pee-pee in Mummy's chee-chee place. Gandhi decided to stop embracing so revolting a procedure.  

and Guha’s elaborate riff on Gandhi’s “friend’s” remark from 1934, which has an odd triumphalism about it

Josiah was saying that Gandhi was a crackpot- probably because he was the wrong sort of vegetarian.  

that comes close to what Perry Anderson named “the Indian ideology”: a point of view that is unvanquishable simply because it

does not exist 

encompasses everything and can’t be pinned down, a way of thinking that (and this is something Anderson didn’t discuss) isn’t engendered by Hinduism or the ideals of the freedom movement as much as it is by India’s jubilant self-assessment after deregulation.

After deregulation there was no fucking ideology though Rahul claims to have a 'vichardhara'. But he is a moon-calf. Meanwhile, an Indian billionaire is the father-in-law of the British PM.  

Guha offsets triumphalism with diligence, detail, and, as I said earlier, affection.

Affectation, maybe. Still, the guy is seriously weird. He might be stroking himself off affectionately as he reads about what Gandhi's pals said about him.  

He also reminds us in his preface that, while “previous biographies

like Eric Ericson's? Fuck off!  

had relied largely on the ninety-seven volumes of Gandhi’s Collected Works […,] [a]s a biographer, I knew that one must go beyond the works or writings of one’s subject.” But Guha is aware of, and not immune to, the attractions of Gandhi’s prose, and he quotes the Indian critic Pattabhi Sitaramayya’s characterization of his style: “[S]hort sentences shot out like shrapnel in a feu de joie at a new-year parade.”

A feu de joie consists of rifle fire. Shrapnel comes from artillery fire.  Still, Gandhi wasn't as verbose as Nehru in his declining years. 

Despite mention of the New Year parade, Gandhi’s prose doesn’t really celebrate anything: either himself, or India.

He dictated stupid shit because he had a paper to fill up with shit.  

The “shrapnel” analogy is apt, because it suggests dispersal rather than a wish to add things up;

No it suggests wanting to kill or maim lots of people.  

it hints at the makeshift nature of the experiment.

It suggests an utter want of compassion.  

Although biographers before Guha may have consulted Gandhi’s works exclusively, too few readers have.

Because shit is shitty.  

Publishers may have reached a consensus that it’s time to read books about Gandhi; but, even more, it’s time to read Gandhi.

No it isn't. Gandhi dictated stupid shit because he ran a weekly journal filled with his stupid thoughts on various stupid subjects. True, a lot of that stuff is unintentionally hilarious, like his suggestion that true non-violence requires us to chase after puppy dogs and smash in their heads. Still, Gandhi, in translation, is comprehensible to Amit. Proust- not so much.  

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