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Rebecca Solnit on Rewriting the World’s Broken Stories and the Paradigm-Shifting Power of Calling Things by Their True Names

“To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.”

Rebecca Solnit on Rewriting the World’s Broken Stories and the Paradigm-Shifting Power of Calling Things by Their True Names

“Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in reflecting on what her Native American tradition and her training as a scientist taught her about how naming confers dignity upon life. If to name is to see and reveal — to remove the veil of blindness, willful or manipulated, and expose things as they really are — then it is in turn another step in remaking the world, another form of resistance to the damaging dominant narratives that go unquestioned. Walt Whitman knew this when he contemplated our greatest civic might: “I can conceive of no better service… than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

A century and a half after Whitman, Rebecca Solnit — one of our own era’s boldest public defenders of democracy, and one of the most poetic — explores this crucial causal link between the stories we tell and the world we build in Call Them by Their True Names (public library) — a collection of her essays at the nexus of politics, philosophy, and the selective record of personal and political choices we call history. Composed in response to more than a decade’s worth of cultural crises and triumphs, the pieces in the book furnish an extraordinarily lucid yet hopeful lens on the present and a boldly uncynical telescopic perspective on the future.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Solnit writes in the preface:

One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how “a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.” In the deep past, people knew names had power. Some still do. Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.

When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis. Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it. Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step. Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one. And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.

That, indeed, is what the philosopher and Trappist monk Thomas Merton celebrated in his beautiful fan letter to Rachel Carson after she catalyzed the modern environmental movement by speaking inconvenient truth to power in exposing the truth about pesticides, marketed at the time as harmless helpers to humanity — an act Merton considered “contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization.” Such naming of wrongs, betrayals, and corruptions unweaves the very fabric of the status quo. It is, Solnit argues, “the first step in the process of liberation” and often leads to shifts in the power system itself. In the age of “alternative facts,” when language is used as a weapon of oppression and manipulation, her words reverberate with the irrepressible, unsilenceable urgency of truth:

To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.

More than a century after Nietzsche contemplated truth, lies, and the power of language to both conceal and reveal reality, Solnit writes:

There are so many ways to tell a lie. You can lie by ignoring whole regions of impact, omitting crucial information, or unhitching cause and effect; by falsifying information by distortion and disproportion, or by using names that are euphemisms for violence or slander for legitimate activities, so that the white kids are “hanging out” but the Black kids are “loitering” or “lurking.” Language can erase, distort, point in the wrong direction, throw out decoys and distractions. It can bury the bodies or uncover them.

Illustration from The Little Golden Book of Words

What, then, can we do as namers and storytellers, as part of the truth-telling brigade that stands as warden of reality? Solnit offers:

Precision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect toward those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it’s an individual or the earth itself; and toward the historical record. It’s also a kind of self-respect… The search for meaning is in how you live your life but also in how you describe it and what else is around you.

The precision and respect of our words add up to the precision and respect of our stories — something Virginia Woolf implicitly recognized when she asserted that “words belong to each other” in the only surviving recording of her voice. When James Baldwin insisted that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” he did so with an eye to storytelling as worldbuilding. Solnit addresses this — the remaking of stories as a remodeling of the world — in another piece in the book, exploring the responsibility of those tasked with telling the world’s truths: the writers, journalists, and storytellers whose words shape our understanding of reality. She writes:

Stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermining or reinforcing the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.

In a testament to the crucial importance — and difficulty — of breaking out of our presentism bias and taking a telescopic perspective of the past, she adds:

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those “dominant narratives” or “paradigms” or “memes” or “metaphors we live by” or “frameworks.” However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and that, too often, are also the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions.

[…]

Part of the job of a great storyteller is to examine the stories that underlie the story you’re assigned, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them. Break the story. Breaking is a creative act as much as making, in this kind of writing.

In a sense, what Solnit is advocating for is the opposite of revisionist history — the opposite of the convenient erasure of wrongdoings and betrayals over which the lulling stories of the status quo are written. I think of it as revisionist future — the act of courage and creativity required for changing the terrain of reality by imagining alternative landscapes and new pathways of possibility. “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice,” Ursula K. Le Guin observed in her poignant reflection on how imaginative storytelling expands the scope of the possible. “We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom.”

Illustration of the Trojan horse from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer for young readers

But the most powerful and transformative imagination, Solnit reminds us, is the informed imagination:

The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view. News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo… This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian. You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.

Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives. For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general. This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women. In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy. But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot). Many people have gotten on board with the data, many have not, and so behind every report on a sexual assault is a battle over the terms in which we tell, in what we believe about gender and violence.

Fitcher's Bird: "He hurried away with long strides."
One of Arthur Rackham’s revolutionary 1907 illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

She considers the only antidote to these age-old stories:

Journalists are the story-breakers whose work often changes the belief systems that then drive legislative and institutional change. It’s powerful, honorable, profoundly necessary work when it’s done with passion and independence and guts.

Building on her previous history-informed insistence that “the grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect,” she highlights our warped weighing of which stories matter. Exactly half a century after Hannah Arendt — another of our civilization’s great political minds — considered the power of outsiderdom and asserted that “we humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human,” Solnit writes:

We tend to treat people on the fringe as ideologues and those in the center as neutral, as though the decision not to own a car is political and the decision to own one is not, as though to support a war is neutral and to oppose it is not. There is no apolitical, no sidelines, no neutral ground; we’re all engaged.

[…]

I think of the mainstream media as having not so much a rightwing or leftwing bias but a status quo bias, a tendency to believe people in authority, to trust institutions and corporations and the rich and powerful and pretty much any self-satisfied white man in a suit; to let people who have been proven to tell lies tell more lies that get reported without questioning; to move forward on cultural assumptions that are readily disproven; and to devalue nearly all outsiders, whether they’re discredited or mocked or just ignored.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art from Louis I, King of the Sheep, an illustrated parable of how power corrupts.

Solnit turns to the largest-scale cultural assumption, erected by our civilization’s most unforgiving institutional, corporate, and political power structures — the selfsame assumption Carson had begun to dismantle half a century earlier — from which arises our largest-scale truth-telling responsibility:

For journalists and for human beings generally, the elephant in the room has been there for a long time. It’s not even the elephant: the elephant in the room is the room itself, the biosphere in which all life currently known to exist in the universe is enclosed, and on which it all depends, the biosphere now devastated by climate change, with far more change to come. The scale is not like anything human beings have faced and journalists have reported on, except perhaps the threat of all-out nuclear war — and that was something that might happen, not something that is happening. Climate change is here, and it is changing everything. It is bigger than anything else, because it is everything, for the imaginable future.

[…]

Future generations are going to curse most of us for distracting ourselves with trivialities as the planet burned. Journalists are in a pivotal place when it comes to the possibilities and the responsibilities in this crisis. We, the makers and breakers of stories, are tremendously powerful.

So please, break the story.

Complement this particular portion of Call Them by Their True Names — a super read in its rousing and revelatory totality — with Iris Murdoch on why storytelling is essential for democracy, Ursula K. Le Guin on the power of language to transform and redeem, and Susan Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a decent human being, then revisit Solnit on breaking silence, living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, catastrophe as a catalyst for human goodness, the rewards of walking, how maps can oppress and liberate, and why we read.

BP

Elizabeth Gilbert on Love, Loss, and How to Move Through Grief as Grief Moves Through You

“Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.”

“All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched,” Seneca told his mother in his extraordinary letter on resilience in the face of loss. One need not be a dry materialist to bow before the recognition that no heart goes through life unplundered by loss — all love presupposes it, be it in death or in heartbreak. Whether what is lost are feelings or atoms, grief comes, unforgiving and unpredictable in its myriad manifestations. Joan Didion observed this disorienting fact in her classic memoir of loss: “Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.” And when it does come, it unweaves the very fabric of our being. When love is lost, we lose the part of ourselves that did the loving — a part that, depending on the magnitude of the love, can come to approximate the whole of who we are. We lose what artist Anne Truitt so poetically termed “the lovely entire confidence that comes only from innumerable mutual confidences entrusted and examined… woven by four hands, now trembling, now intent, over and under into a pattern that can surprise both [partners].”

But we also gain something — out of the burning embers of the loss arises an ashen humility, true to its shared Latin root with the word humus. We are made “of the earth” — we bow down low, we become crust, and each breath seems to draw from the magmatic center of the planet that is our being. It is only when we give ourselves over to it completely that we can begin to take ourselves back, to rise, to live again.

How to move through this barely survivable experience is what author and altogether glorious human being Elizabeth Gilbert examines with uncommon insight and tenderness of heart in her conversation with TED curator Chris Anderson on the inaugural episode of the TED Interviews podcast.

Rayya Elias and Elizabeth Gilbert (Photograph by Elizabeth Gilbert)

Gilbert reflects on the death of her partner, Rayya Elias — her longtime best friend, whose sudden terminal cancer diagnosis unlatched a trapdoor, as Gilbert put it, into the realization that Rayya was the love of her life:

Grief… happens upon you, it’s bigger than you. There is a humility that you have to step into, where you surrender to being moved through the landscape of grief by grief itself. And it has its own timeframe, it has its own itinerary with you, it has its own power over you, and it will come when it comes. And when it comes, it’s a bow-down. It’s a carve-out. And it comes when it wants to, and it carves you out — it comes in the middle of the night, comes in the middle of the day, comes in the middle of a meeting, comes in the middle of a meal. It arrives — it’s this tremendously forceful arrival and it cannot be resisted without you suffering more… The posture that you take is you hit your knees in absolute humility and you let it rock you until it is done with you. And it will be done with you, eventually. And when it is done, it will leave. But to stiffen, to resist, and to fight it is to hurt yourself.

With an eye to the intimate biological connection between the body and the mind (which is, of course, the seedbed of feeling), Gilbert adds:

There’s this tremendous psychological and spiritual challenge to relax in the awesome power of it until it has gone through you. Grief is a full-body experience. It takes over your entire body — it’s not a disease of the mind. It’s something that impacts you at the physical level… I feel that it has a tremendous relationship to love: First of all, as they say, it’s the price you pay for love. But, secondly, in the moments of my life when I have fallen in love, I have just as little power over it as I do in grief. There are certain things that happen to you as a human being that you cannot control or command, that will come to you at really inconvenient times, and where you have to bow in the human humility to the fact that there’s something running through you that’s bigger than you.

Illustration from Cry, Heart, But Never Break, a Danish meditation on love and loss

Gilbert goes on to read a short, stunning reflection on love and loss she had originally published on Instagram:

People keep asking me how I’m doing, and I’m not always sure how to answer that. It depends on the day. It depends on the minute. Right this moment, I’m OK. Yesterday, not so good. Tomorrow, we’ll see.

Here is what I have learned about Grief, though.

I have learned that Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.

The only way that I can “handle” Grief, then, is the same way that I “handle” Love — by not “handling” it. By bowing down before its power, in complete humility.

When Grief comes to visit me, it’s like being visited by a tsunami. I am given just enough warning to say, “Oh my god, this is happening RIGHT NOW,” and then I drop to the floor on my knees and let it rock me. How do you survive the tsunami of Grief? By being willing to experience it, without resistance.

The conversation of Grief, then, is one of prayer-and-response.

Grief says to me: “You will never love anyone the way you loved Rayya.” And I reply: “I am willing for that to be true.” Grief says: “She’s gone, and she’s never coming back.” I reply: “I am willing for that to be true.” Grief says: “You will never hear that laugh again.” I say: “I am willing.” Grief says, “You will never smell her skin again.” I get down on the floor on my fucking knees, and — and through my sheets of tears — I say, “I AM WILLING.” This is the job of the living — to be willing to bow down before EVERYTHING that is bigger than you. And nearly everything in this world is bigger than you.

I don’t know where Rayya is now. It’s not mine to know. I only know that I will love her forever. And that I am willing.

Onward.

Gilbert adds in the interview:

It’s an honor to be in grief. It’s an honor to feel that much, to have loved that much.

Rayya Elias and Elizabeth Gilbert (Photograph courtesy of Elizabeth Gilbert)

Complement with life-earned wisdom on how to live with loss from other great artists, writers, and scientists — including Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Rachel Carson, Charles Darwin, Johannes Brahms, and Charles Dickens — and the Stoic cure for heartbreak from Epictetus, then revisit Gilbert on creative bravery and the art of living in a state of uninterrupted marvel.

BP

An Illustrated Field Guide to the Art, Science, and Joy of Tea

From leaf to cup, by way of the history of human civilization.

An Illustrated Field Guide to the Art, Science, and Joy of Tea

“The first sip is joy, the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy,” Jack Kerouac wrote of tea in his 1958 novel The Dharma Bums. Late one night that year, he walked five miles with an enormous tape recorder strapped to his back to keep the woman he loved from taking her own life.

Lois Beckwith didn’t die that night. She and Jack soon parted ways as lovers, but remained friends. Eventually, he introduced her to the man who would become her husband. Their son would go on to devote his life to tea.

In Pursuit of Tea founder Sebastian Beckwith fell in love with tea while working as a trekking guide in Bhutan and northern India in the 1980s, and has spent the years since procuring and advocating for the planet’s finest, most sustainably grown and ethically harvested teas. Traveling to and working with small farms in Asia’s most historic tea-growing regions, he sources teas that grace the menus of some of New York City’s finest restaurants and have powered much of my own writing over the years. In his workshops, seminars, and lectures, he has brought the art-science of tea to the American Museum of Natural History, the French Culinary Institute, and Columbia University.

Now, Beckwith harvests the wisdom of his life’s work in A Little Tea Book: All the Essentials from Leaf to Cup (public library) — part practical field guide to choosing, preparing, and enjoying tea, part love letter, co-written with his childhood friend, former firefighter, and Gutsy Girl author Caroline Paul, and splendidly illustrated by Caroline’s wife and my dear friend Wendy MacNaughton.

Radiating from the pages are deep knowledge, good-natured humor, and a largehearted love of tea — the plant, the experience, the ecosystem of botany and labor and ritual, which George Orwell considered “one of the main stays of civilization.” What emerges is an encyclopedia of fact and joy, delving into the cultural and political histories of tea alongside its practical science and daily delights, bridging the sensorial and the spiritual dimensions of this ancient tradition turned modern staple.

Punctuating the book are various curiosities from the history of tea, emanating broader insight into human culture, the nature of creativity, and the serendipitous, often haphazard ways in which new ideas take root. Take, for instance, the story of the tea bag:

Tea bags were invented in the late 1800s but became wildly popular only after a New York tea purveyor named Thomas Sullivan sent samples of tea in silk bags. These were intended to be opened, the tea emptied out and then brewed, but customers instead dropped the bags straight into the water — and then complained that the material did not allow for the tea to steep. Sullivan turned to a more porous cloth and the tea bag was quickly embraced in America (though most of Britain turned up its nose, using loose tea until the mid-1970s.)

There are also invaluable antidotes to various oft-repeated myths, misconceptions, and half-truths — from the elemental fact that the six basic types of tea (white, green, yellow, oolong, black, and dark) all come from a single plant, Camellia sinensis, to the complex matter of caffeine. Beckwith and Paul offer a scientific corrective:

Many of us drink tea to wake up at the beginning of our day. You may even have heard that Camellia sinensis contains more caffeine than coffee beans. This is true, but misleading. We use much less tea than coffee by weight for a serving, so your cup of tea actually has at most one half the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee. The relative level varies depending on the leaf used (the buds have higher concentrations), the cultivar, the leaf shape (a larger leaf results in a slower infusion because there is less surface area than, say, a fanning tea grade in your cup), and the brew time and technique (since caffeine is water-soluble, the longer tea steeps, the more caffeine is extracted; powdered tea like matcha has more caffeine because the leaves are consumed, not infused). It is important to note that caffeine does not correspond with tea type, so one cannot categorically say that black tea has more than green, or yellow tea has more than white.

Tea also contains the unique calming and relaxing — but not sedative — amino acid theanine, which has been found only in Camellia sinensis and one mushroom, Boletus badius. Theanine has been shown to improve mood and increase focus when combined with caffeine. This may be why tea drinkers often avoid the anxiety and jitters of those who imbibe coffee (known to some of us tea lovers as “devil juice.”)

Complement the lovely Little Tea Book with Orwell’s eleven golden rules for making the perfect cup of tea and the MacNaughton-illustrated field guide to wine, then revisit the touching, improbable story of how Kerouac saved Beckwith’s mother’s life.

BP

The Dalai Lama on Science and Spirituality

“What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter.”

The Dalai Lama on Science and Spirituality

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both,” Carl Sagan wrote in his final book nearly four centuries after Galileo made the same point in his famous letter defending his life.

A recent Pioneer Works conversation about science and spirituality with physicist Alan Lightman, based on his immensely insightful and poetic book on the subject, reminded me of a different, older conversation contemplating the relationship between these two hallmarks of the human experience.

In the early 1990s, shortly after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama sat down for a five-day dialogue with a group of ten Western scientists and one philosopher of mind, seeking a scientific perspective on what Buddhism calls the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion — the primary classes of emotion that cause us to harm ourselves and those around us. The wide-ranging conversation, the synthesis of which was later published as Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama (public library), aimed to bridge ancient spiritual practices and modern findings in biology, cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience in an effort to reveal the human mind’s capacity to transcend its own fundamental flaws.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet (Photograph: Tenzin Choejor)

With an eye to the complementarity between Buddhism, which has been exploring the human mind for millennia, and Western science, whose neuroscience and psychology are barely a century and a half old, the Dalai Lama writes in the preface to the book:

Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth. In Buddhist training, it is essential to investigate reality, and science offers its own ways to go about this investigation. While the purposes of science may differ from those of Buddhism, both ways of searching for truth expand our knowledge and understanding.

Art by Oliver Jeffers for Love Letter America

Four millennia after the Buddha laid down his tenets of critical thinking, known as The Charter of Free Inquiry, the Dalai Lama points to the scientific method as our mightiest tool in the pursuit of truth, but also insists on applying it to science itself:

I have often said that if science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts. If upon investigation we find that there is reason and proof for a point, then we should accept it. However, a clear distinction should be made between what is not found by science and what is found to be nonexistent by science. What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions.

Calyces of Held — synapses made by axons carrying auditory information and contacting neurons in a brainstem structure called the trapezoid body. One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s stunning drawings of the brain.

The purpose of spirituality in a secular world, he argues, is that of a moral compass that tempers the destructive emotions that so often accompany our modern materialism. In consonance with Adam Gopnik’s insight into the essential nonreligious value of the Bible, the Dalai Lama echoes Martin Luther King’s assertion that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere [for] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” and writes:

The more we pursue material improvement, ignoring the contentment that comes of inner growth, the faster ethical values will disappear from our communities. Then we will all experience unhappiness in the long run, for when there is no place for justice and honesty in people’s hearts, the weak are the first to suffer. And the resentments resulting from such inequity ultimately affect everyone adversely.

With the ever-growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play in reminding us of our humanity. What we must do is balance scientific and material progress with the sense of responsibility that comes of inner development. That is why I believe this dialogue between religion and science is important, for from it may come developments that can be of great benefit to mankind.

The concrete manifestations of and path to that civilizational benefit is what the remainder of Destructive Emotions explores — questions of whether these destructive emotions are an elemental part of human nature, what lends them their formidable power, and how much plasticity there is in the brain to allow for outgrowing them. Complement this excerpt with Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr on subjective vs. objective reality and the uses of religion in a secular world, pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell on mathematics, divinity, and the human search for truth, and Albert Einstein’s 1931 conversation about science and spirituality with the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore.

BP

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