Toons

It’s Time to Blow The City/ Get Everybody and The Stuff Together

Once upon a time, a decade and a half ago, to be precise, I was introduced to the work of composer Yoko Kanno, and spent endless hours swimming in her music. The soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop was one of the foundational albums of my life. It became not only as my favorite anime OST album of all time, but was high on the list of genre-bending musical works that have inspired me to keep looking for, and appreciating, new music. (Other names in that list, you ask? The OST of Kill Bill. Gangs of Wasseypur. Dev-D. Susheela Raman’s Love Trap.) Oh, lookit, I used to rave about her music so much, back in the day.

Yoko Kanno’s music never really faded from my life, but like other artistes I enjoy and have heard in depth, I would return to the fountain of her album with delicate steps, drinking lightly, trying not to let the taste get too over-familiar. There is a joy to traversing half-forgotten pathways in your brain, when you find yourself being able to anticipate the harkat in an instrumental solo milliseconds before the fact, or when your body tenses at the aneurysm-inducing chorus that is about to hit. It also helped that her music, specifically the Cowboy Bebop OST was not on Spotify, my music application of choice.

That changed in July this year, when all the Seatbelts’ (which is the name of the band that Kanno got together to produce the Bebop OST) work was finally up on Spotify. Here are the complete albums, all seven of them in a single playlist.

But the intersection of Cowboy Bebop and 2020 began before that, with the Seatbelts getting together on Youtube to produce a set of live virtual sessions for charity, called the Starduck Sessions. Yoko Kanno makes special appearances in them, a dancing shadow on ‘Tank’, person sleeping in bathtub on ‘Lion Sleeping’, helmet-wearing pianist in ‘Space Lion’. A particular favorite is the smoky, intimate version of ‘Real Folk Blues’ by Mai Yamane, stripped down to voice, guitar, and bass. All eight videos are here. I swear I blinked back tears at ‘Space Lion’, all over again.

But that was not just it. You see, during the pandemic, a bunch of musicians, with the blessing of Sunrise, the original producers of Cowboy Bebop, and Funimation, the US distributors, produced a virtual session of “The Real Folk Blues”.

The musicians really take it to the next level, especially the combination of singers Shihori and Uyanga Bold, along with guest vocalists Raj Ramayya (one of the voices on both the Bebop movie and OST). The list of musicians is staggering, as is the production quality. The main vocalists do their thing with the original Japanese lyrics, alternating lines among themselves, while the chorus goes into overdrive with a bunch of backing vocalists. Listen to how Uyanga jams with the saxophone at 2:56.

The fun begins when the original song ends. That’s when three rappers get in and add their layers of poetry as the music continues. While the performance in and of itself was enough to get my nerd juices flowing, it’s the appearance of the original Seatbelts line-up in this final part that got me teary-eyed again. Look, there’s Ms Kanno too, being weird and cute and so full of all the coolness. Mai Yamane says hello too.

The full lineup of musicians, from the Youtube description.

Mix / Additional Guitar: Masahiro Aoki (Legendary former composer at Capcom with credits on Megaman, Street Fighter V, Astral Chain, and more)

Organ: Robbie Benson (Band leader, Super Soul Bros)

Keys: Ed Goldfarb (Series Composer, Pokémon: The Animated Series)

Guitar: David McLean (Guitarist on Beyblade Burst, One Minute Melee, host of Animyze)

Synth/Additional Sound Design: Jason Walsh (Senior composer and sound designer at Hexany Audio with recent credits including Overwatch Contenders, PUBG Mobile, and League of Legends)

Bass: Matthew Hines (Touring bassist with recent gigs including the Jonas Brothers, Ledisi, Summer Walker, Kiana Lede, Bazzi, and more)

Drums: Kevin Brown (Touring drummer with recent gigs including Jason Hawk Harris, the Southern California Brass Consortium, and more)

Saxophone: Zac Zinger (Composer and woodwind player for Street Fighter V, Jump Force, Mobile Suit Gundam: Side stories, and more)

Flute: Kevin Penkin (Series composer, Made in Abyss, Rising of the Shield Hero, more)

Lead Vox 1: Shihori (J-pop singer and song-writer on shows like Fairy Tail, Macross Frontier, Irregular at Magic Highschool, and more.)

Lead Vox 2: Úyanga Bold (Lead vocals on things like Mulan (2020), League of Legends, and multiple projects with Hans Zimmer/Pinar Toprak etc.)

Lead Vox 3: Raj Ramayya (Lead vocals on Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Wolf’s Rain, Made in Abyss, and more)

Backing Vox 1: Dale North (Composer for Dreamscaper, Wizard of Legend, Sparklight, Nintendo Minute, and more)

Backing Vox 2: Dawn M. Bennett (Voice actress for anime and game series like Dragon Ball Super, Fairy Tail, RWBY, Borderlands 3, and more)

Backing Vox 3: Kaitlyn Fae (Filipino-American singer, actor, writer, director, co-host on the nerd video podcast, PanGeekery)

Rap 1: Substantial (Legendary jazz-hop rapper, Nujabes’ collaborator, with dozens of major placements and projects)

Rap 2: Mega Ran (Critically-acclaimed nerdcore legend)

Rap 3: Red Rapper AKA Zaid Tabani (Rapper with credits on Street Fighter, the EVO worldwide fighting tournament’s main theme, and Rooster Teeth’s Red VS. Blue)

Poem: D.B. Cooper (Voice Actress and director on Hearthstone, Bioshock 2, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Ghostbusters (2016), DC Universe Online, and more)

Spoken word: Beau Billingslea (Voice actor from Cowboy Bebop – Jet Black)

Ending Tag: Steve Blum (Voice actor from Cowboy Bebop – Spike Spiegel)

String Director/String Arranger/Orchestrator/Disco slide king: Lance Treviño (Film composer for titles like Beyblade Burst God, Hanazuki, Chef’s Table, and more!)

String Copyist/Orchestrator/String Mockup: Dallas Crane (Multimedia composer and personal assistant to Austin Wintory)

Strings: Our string section is composed of brilliant artists whose individual credits include grammy nominations, tours with artists like Eminem, Sting, and Hans Zimmer, and recordings for soundtracks like Steven Universe, God of War, The Lion King (2019), and many, many more.

Violins – Molly Rogers, David Morales Boroff, Felicia Rojas, Jeff Ball

Violas – Joe Chen, Molly Rogers, Isaac Schutz, Jeff Ball

Cellos – Andrew Dunn, David Tangney

Upright Bass – Travis Kindred

After all the tears had fallen, it was time for me to go back to basics, and re-watch the series and the movie. 20 episodes in, and I can’t get over how timeless Cowboy Bebop remains. ‘Asteroid Blues’ is the episode I must have seen at least 20 times in 3 years, giving friends the initial hit of the show. ‘Jamming With Edward’ and ‘Mushroom Samba’ still get me laughing hysterically. The poignant episodes with Faye and Jet still hit that perfect note of melancholy and wonder. The boy from seventeen years ago would approve, I think.

Footnotes

  • Guess what, The Yoko Kanno Project is still online, a rarity in a world of rapidly decaying links from two decades ago.
  • I never knew that the character of Ed was based on Kanno herself, according to director Shinichiro Watanabe. I found that out a few days ago.
  • Of course, it’s but natural that after watching Bebop, I will be jumping on Samurai Champloo, followed by Kids on the Slope, both of which I have seen before. It’s Watanabe’s newer ouevre that I haven’t seen, including Terror In Resonance and Carole and Tuesday. To be remedied soon.
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AR Rahman, Music

On PK Mishra, The Forgotten Hero of Dubbed Lyrics

This post has been in my drafts for ages. I was trying to get citations on certain facts, but that would have required months of burrowing through old issues of Filmfare and Stardust magazines and time, which I don’t really have. It’s sad and strange that the Internet does not remember PK Mishra anymore, even though his songs ruled the airwaves back in the day. If you have any more PK Mishra facts, including what his real name was, anything at all, hit me up. He needs a Wikipedia page at least. I want us to not forget.

You are a poet from Rajasthan, and you have been trying to break into the film industry for a while. Out of the blue, you get a call. You have been employed to write the lyrics for songs in a new movie. The director is well-known in his field, and the composer is new to the game, no baggage, zero ego. You feel a thrill as you go in to your first session. Song-writing for Indian films is all about creating words and music based on a situation, a feeling, a bend in the road, an ode to the vagaries of life, and you are eager and curious to see what’s in store for you.

But what is this? You are told that the songs have already been written, in a different language, and you actually have to translate it into Hindi. Harsh, but what to do? You know the original language, so it’s not all that bad. It’s all about coming up with rhymes and verses in your mother tongue. You can roll with that, you say, and get to it.

Except there is a hitch. You cannot just translate as is, you see. The actors in the film have already shot the visuals in a different language, and you have to ensure that their lips sync with the new words as well. “What do you mean?”, you ask. “They are singing in a different language.” “Er, no, ” you are told. “They have to seem like they are singing in Hindi.” Well, fine, it’s a constraint. But you are an artist and you understand constraints, so you go about and do your job. You have to pay attention to the visuals, so that you understand at what points of the song you see lips moving, and others where you can get away with playing fast and loose. “Asha” and “Aasai” sound about the same, so that’s easy.

Another hitch. You see, the composer and director both insist that certain words have to stay the same. They match the mood perfectly, and even though they do not have any meaning per se, those words need to be around. “MTV generation, sir. Youth, sir,” you are told. “They need to latch on to something catchy, otherwise how can they remember the song?” You don’t really understand, because you saw the movie and there’s no one named ‘Rukkumani’ in it, and you try to bring up the fact that the North Indian version of the name should probably be ‘Rukmini’, but no one cares. So you shrug and you do your best.

Yet another request. There is this song , a full-blooded, goose-bump inducing song about how great….Tamil Nadu is. But the rest of India wouldn’t care, so you need to talk about the country instead. The good thing is, there is no lip-synced video, so you can go wild, and you do.


So Roja comes out, and the songs, your words accompanying them, go stratospheric. Never mind the fact that they got your name wrong on the cassette cover. Your name is not PK Mishra, they called you Mishra-ji when you came in every day, and they forgot to ask you what your first name was. When they couldn’t find you, some wit decided to put PK in there, since you came in to work a little tipsy, every now and then. Ha ha, really funny. But none of it matters, because they love the music, and those songs you wrote, they are playing on the radio, and even on Chitrahaar.

People are talking about AR Rahman, the new wonder kid from Madras, and every now and then, somebody even talks about you. But mostly, they laugh at how saucy that Rukmani song is, even though you thought it was tame by what your peers were putting forward in Hindi cinema at the time. The kid ends up winning a bunch of awards, as does the lyricist for the original songs. Nobody pays much attention to your work. After all, what you did was nothing original, anybody can translate words from one language to another, right?

But yet, it turns out that you make this a steady career. You fit a niche. There is opportunity to be seen for every producer that wants the pan-Indian market, and you are the go-to guy when it comes to transliteralipsyncizing songs into Hindi. You accede to every demand, and you do your best to play by the rules. You take it easy, as a matter of policy. Other lyricists would have run screaming for the hills if asked to write a rap song that talks about localities in Chennai, one that makes use of local references, puns, and tongue-twisters, but you gamely take on the challenge, transposing it to a different audience. For some songs, you put in the exact English words they want in the verses. Well, except for that time you thought nobody up North cared about Elizabeth Taylor so you put Madonna in there instead, but hey, it went well. You don’t bat an eyelid when they ask you to take on songs that swim in alliteration and onomatopoeia; if it’s possible in Tamil, you will find a way, any way, to get a Hindi version. You become flexible with meaning sometimes, when a song about the Goddess Kali becomes one about being the Prince of Delhi. Despite your lyrics being burdened with the broken accents of singers unaccustomed to Hindi.

The strange thing is, when given creative freedom with your translations, you go above and beyond. I look at your translated version of songs that were remade with different actors (oh yes, that was a thing too, later in the nineties) and they are so different from the ones where you need to adhere to specific imagery from the original Tamil version. You also made the best of the leeway from tracks that do not involve lip-syncing. Also interesting are the translation choices you make, like taking a song that’s about the daughters of various people in a village (can’t even) and make it one with actual women’s names. A song about a flower blooming to the touch becomes one about falling in love, but just a little. (What does that even mean, we wondered, to have thoda thoda pyaar, as opposed to dher saara pyaar? But that was you playing around with the Tamil words “thodath thoda” and picking the word transposition of least resistance. The meaningless word “Kulivalile“, shoehorned into the visuals of a film just because the composer and lyricist couldn’t think of a better word, to you that word became “Phoolwaali ne“. I don’t know whether to laugh or just be in awe of your creativity every time I hear the Hindi version.

But tell me, Mishra-ji, was there ever this feeling in the recesses of your mind, that all your work, the kind of ideas and effort you put into unraveling the cultural Gordian knot of North and South, all of it was temporary? That by transferring near-verbatim the flavor of one end of the country, you relinquished some of the ownership that comes with pure art. I am into comics, and there is this recurring joke in that field about inkers. The punchline is that inkers are not real artists, that they just trace the penciller’s work. I see that similar argument made about your contributions to Indian cinema, and pardon my language, that is such bullshit.

Maybe you realized that there will come a time when there is more money to be made in remaking films outright, using a different creative team. Perhaps you suspected that, had you continued work in purely dubbed films, you would become a relic, and those colleagues and patrons that offering you a steady assembly-line of work will switch off the lights and walk away anytime the money dried up. There were songs you were clearly phoning in, employing the bare-minimum effort to string coherent lines together.

By 1997, the writing was on the wall. Others had taken your place in the corridors of Panchathan Record Inn. You branched out among other music composers of the South. Your oeuvre included names like MM Kreem and Deva and Illayaraja, you bringing their tunes to a different market, just as you brought Rahman’s. It was interesting to see you branch off into doing original Hindi and non-Hindi films. Your work with director Mani Shankar, in particular, stemming from your collaborations with Karthik Raja. You did not burn up the charts or the box office with those, but they remain worthy snapshots of your career.

My personal favorite of your non-Rahman career however is this all-but-forgotten album called Meri Jaan Hindustaan, released in 1997, the same year ARR’s Vande Mataram appeared, with lyrics by your spiritual successor Mehboob. Pop patriotism was at a fever pitch, that fiftieth year of our independence, and one cannot fault you for climbing aboard that money train. But what a product, sir ji. Your song for Lucky Ali, ‘Anjaani Rahon Mein’, remains the most famous of them all, still accessible on YouTube. But there are others I find worthy of both mention and memory. This Chitra and MM Kreem duet called ‘Kho Jaane Do’, which had Deepti Bhatnagar and Rani Jeyaraj in the video. Karthik Raja’s ‘Sehra Baandh Ke Nikle’, a strange, almost atonal ditty punctuated with a rap section that you wrote. I have never managed to find out if you wrote the Baba Sehgal number “Howzzatt”, or the Illayaraja track with Kamal Haasan vocals ‘Apna Josh Hai’. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were so.

It is 2020, Mishraji, twenty eight years since you first brought a nation together with your words. I was a twelve year old boy in Assam when I saw your name on that cassette cover, and for the next couple of years, seeing your name on a byline made me wince and celebrate all at once. Because I did not know what to expect, and believe me, that is not a bad thing. Your words are seared in my brain, and come back to me in the strangest of moments, like when I am outside and there’s a bus across the street, I half-expect a man in red socks to come flying out the window and begin thrusting his pelvis gloriously at the world. The words accompanying the song in my head are like confused bursts of radio static, and go from Tamil to Telugu to Hindi, and of course, your words are the ones I really understand, even though it’s the other languages I mouth along. I envied the lucky folks who had access to Tamil releases, but your work helped relieve some of that FOMO. A phrase that did not even exist back then, but the feeling did, believe me.

The words you strung together felt so random sometimes, and yet when I listened closer to the Tamil versions, and pore over online translations, I realized you were not the one rhyming “sensation” with “temptation”, nor were you the one with the fishing net metaphors. You were however wholly responsible for the evocative phrase “baadal tirikit tirikit bole“.

Despite being good at your professional career and a symbol of change, you are barely a footnote to that decade of musical upheaval. Your words have now become samples of memetic derision among those that sigh over the poetry of Hindi film music. AR Rahman has always maintained a studied distance from your existence, and would rather not consider the pre-Rangeela years of his dubbed catalog as canon. Your namesake turns up when I look for you online, a gentleman associated with the current political party. There are one or two articles about your death in 2008, with the vaguest of allusions to your life other than what we already know. There is not even a picture of you available anywhere. No interviews, even though I scrounge through a multitude of YouTube channels that trade in vintage film videos. What I have figured out is that you came from Sujangarh, Rajasthan, and that you lived in Chennai for the major part of your life, and that you knew Tamil well. Or you must have. I wonder how and why you made it to the Madras film industry, of all places. There is not even a Wikipedia page for you, sir, and I have thought very hard about how I can create one. But alas, without citations and online paraphernalia, it is impossible to categorize you as a “person of note”.

And it’s sad, Mishraji, that your work does not get the sort of appreciation that it should. Without you, there wouldn’t be this cross-pollination of North and South that defined Indian film music of the nineties. At least, it wouldn’t have happened this early. You had created a path for others that followed, people with more clout who could insist on a little more respect for lyrics and their translation, getting producers to pay up for re-shoots so that the constraints on their words were loosened. You did not have that luxury, but you delivered without complaint or drama, with professional courtesy, not letting your ego get in the way of a director’s vision or a composer’s idiosyncrasy.

What remain with me are memories of conversations I have seen on random channels at random times of my life. How you proudly spoke about changing the main lyrics of Dalapathi to something more palatable in Hindi, than the exact translation that you were asked for (“Aye ladki, chutki bajaa” just didn’t have that zing, you said. ) How you felt forever cheated because they got your first name wrong on the cassette of Roja and you were stuck with it for the rest of your career – and life. And I can see you chuckling over not using “the ship of friendship” in your translation, because it just wouldn’t work in the song.

You have popped up the most random of places when I went hunting for you – is that really your voice on the Akshay Kumar version of Jhoole Jhoole Lal, from that smelly turd that is Jai Kishen? IMDB seems to think so. Your name also comes up as composer for Sapna Avasthi’s album Pardesiya.

The one question I would have liked to ask you, though, is this. Were you doing this because no one else would, or did you really enjoy it all? I would like to believe it was the latter. I would like to think that there is no way you could come up with a phrase that goes “flexible like a noodle” without chuckling to yourself, and weren’t indulging in your drink of choice when rhyming “Glaxo baby” with “BP”. Your lyrics, sir, remain among the most fun experiences of my adolescence and a pleasure (and sometimes, a pain) to revisit. Is there anyone else who will match your chutzpah when it comes to visual poetry? There is no muqabla, subhanallah.


An Incomplete PK Mishra Discography

RojaTamilRojaAR Rahman
Dharam YodhaMalayalamYodhaAR Rahman
Muthu MaharajaTamilMuthuAR Rahman
Tu Hi Mera DilTamilDuetAR Rahman
VishwavidhaataTamilPudhiya MugamAR Rahman
Humse Hai MuqablaTamilKaadhalanAR Rahman
Chor ChorTamilThiruda ThirudaAR Rahman
PriyankaTamilIndiraAR Rahman
Love BirdsTamilLove BirdsAR Rahman
HindustaniTamilIndianAR Rahman
Duniya Dilwalon KiTamilKaadhal DesamAR Rahman
Mr RomeoTamilMr RomeoAR Rahman
Aaj Ka RomeoTamilIndhuDeva
DalpatiTamilDalapathyIllayaraja
Sazaa-e-KaalapaniMalayalamKaalapaniIllayaraja
GrahanHindiOriginal movieKarthik Raja
ChhaliaTamilRaasaiyyaIllayaraja
Meri Jaan HindustaanHindiOriginal AlbumMM Kreem/various
PardesiyaHindi Original AlbumPK Mishra
Naya JigarTeluguSnehamante IderaMM Kreem
Govinda GovindaTeluguGovinda Govinda
Mitr My FriendB Illayaraja
The Smart HuntTamilVettaiyadu VillayaduHarris Jayaraj
Coffee Aur KreemHindiOriginal AlbumMM Kreem
16 DecemberKarthik Raja
MukhbiirKarthik Raja
Vellu NayakanTamilNayaganIllayaraja

Notes:

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Comics, Manga, Myself

Reading At the End of the World: The Drifting Classroom

There are a few names that immediately come to mind when you say “horror manga” — Junji Ito, Suehiro Maruo, Hideshi Hino, and Kazuo Umezu (or Umezz, if you prefer). Of these, Umezu is the oldest, born in 1936, and was still making manga as recently as 1995. Beyond his primary career, Umezu is a musician, an actor, screenwriter, and film director. And as the 2009 picture below shows, he’s also a bit of a visual personality.

He’s hugely influential in the manga industry, and the newer crop of horror manga-ka, including Ito have gone on record citing his work as one of their major sources of inspiration. Rumiko Takahashi, known for blockbuster series like Ranma 1/2, Inuyasha, and Maison Ikkoku worked as his assistant early on her career — and I believe you can see shades of Umezu in her short Mermaid Saga.

Sadly, his work has not been widely available in English. Orochi was a single-volume work published by Viz in 2002, and is now unavailable. The two volume Cat-Eyed Boy came out around 2008, and has been unavailable in dead-tree format for about a decade now, though thankfully available on Kindle and Comixology. For the record, this is what I wrote about it in Rolling Stone magazine about this title back in the day:

Kazuo Umezu is known for his gruesome, no-holds-barred comics. One of the of luminaries of the horror manga scene, Umezu knows how to unabashedly press the right buttons on his unsuspecting readers, his stories taking you down uncertain paths in deserted temples, suburban neighborhoods and bucolic villages. The Cat-eyed Boy in the stories is a monstrous-looking creature who plays the omnipresent narrator, at times an onlooker of the ghastly proceedings, and at other times actively involved in the eerie goings-on, leaving you riveted and repulsed at the same time.

But it is the eleven-volume Drifting Classroom that has been the white whale for completist manga collectors. The series was published in its entirety in 2006, and went out of print. Thankfully, in 2019 Viz chose to republish it in a three-volume hardcover format under its Signature imprint, at a great price point. The books are gorgeously designed volumes, and one of the reasons I jumped on them (other than the chance of these going OOP very soon too), was the visual and tactile experience of the hardcovers. The text you see on the covers are embossed, and the outer surface of the books have a matte texture that makes it feel like a vintage publication. I also dig the glitchy font design, with the word “CLASSROOM”. Its like adjusting an old television set to an alien signal.

This is the official description of the series on Viz’s website:

In the aftermath of a massive earthquake, a Japanese elementary school is transported into a hostile world where the students and teachers are besieged by terrifying creatures and beset by madness.

What the summary does not tell you, though, is how the story-line is a series of escalating events that are accompanied by strained nerves, wild revelations, gruesome deaths. There is a mood of panic and fear that propels the story forward, most of it heightened by the anachronistic artwork from Umezu. The series came out in 1973, after all. His style is cartoonish, and does not possess the vocabulary or style of modern manga. The emotional pitch of all characters are set to a default of 8 out of 10, and every setback or stressful situation twists that dial to 200. So, as a reader, that’s the first threshold you have to cross to take the book seriously.

The many faces of Sho Takamatsu

The story is told from the point of view of Sho Takamatsu, a twelve-year old sixth-grader who begins the story by getting into an argument with his mother before rushing off to school. The unresolved tension between the two play a significant role in events of the manga, and the narrative device is Sho’s diary in which he is talking to his mother. When the school disappears, it’s through his eyes that we see the horrors unfold. He jumps through the various stages of grief in the course of the first few chapters, and is one of the few that realize the kids have to maintain the peace both among themselves and among their juniors. It is not easy to steer this school of semi-hysterical children towards any kind of common action plan, but Sho does his best. From the very beginning, he takes on responsibilities beyond his age, calming the younger children down, taking charge of things when they spiral out of control.

The initial chapters of the manga capture the agonizing revelation that the survivors are well and truly alone, trapped in a world that is all desert and desolation, with the only resources available being the ones that are in the school compound. Umezu uses creative ways to dispose of the adult teachers, most of whom attempt to be the voice of reason as things go south. By the middle of the series, there is only one adult left, and he is in no mental condition to interfere. Having the teachers around in the initial chapters also demonstrates the freedoms inherent in the educational system in the seventies, namely, the ability to slap crying kids into silence.

Umezu eases us into a cast of interesting supporting characters in subsequent arcs. There’s Saki, the level-headed girl who has a crush on Sho and therefore sides with him at all costs. The fifth grader Gamo looks like a scrawny nerd, and he is the brains of the gang, with the best ideas and theories whenever they are in a jam. Otomo, the class representative, starts the story as a member of Sho’s inner circle. Then there are the strange ones, like Nakata with the unquenchable appetite and hyperactive imagination, the handicapped girl Nishi, who struggles to keep up with the rest of the gang.

The challenges the kids face are unrelenting. The food delivery person takes over the cafeteria and keeps everyone away from what he considers his supplies. A particular teacher loses his marbles in a spectacular way. There is an outbreak of a deadly disease. Food and drinking water problems. Factions within the classrooms attempting coups and trying to rig elections. Blame-games and accusations related to who was responsible for causing the cataclysmic event, and the occasional ripple of superstition. A sudden rainstorm that threatens to destroy the school garden with a mudslide. A conflict that leads to an outbreak of fire. People unwilling to listen to reason. The school, as is to be expected, becomes a microcosm of society, and all burden of leadership falls on the shoulders of a bunch of twelve-year old children. And all these problems pale into insignificance when the supernatural elements creep in. A strange insect appears to consume some of the school-children, while leaving others unharmed. Ugly mushrooms grow everywhere, with no way to find out if they are edible or not, and those who consume them are….oh, now that is something you should read for yourself.

Very early on, the characters come to the realization that their displacement is actually a time-jump. They have arrived many years into the future, and in their original present, the school is considered to have been destroyed in an earthquake. This introduces a nifty semi-supernatural angle to the story, where Sho’s mother hears his voice in key moments of their struggle, and her actions in the past end up influencing the outcomes of events in the children’s future. This, incidentally, also leads in to the eventual climax at the end of the series.

The sixth grade children agree to become the “parents” of the kids from the lower grades, with both the boys and the girls agreeing to carry out their responsibilities. This reads, and sounds both like social fantasy, and a reflection of the fact that it is the younger generation that think about and make sacrifices for the common good, and self-organize against existential threats. (shout-out to Greta Thunberg et al) No doubt some of this sounds very familiar if you have read Lord of the Flies, and the dozens of similar stories involving school-children stuck in mock societies bereft of adults.

Midway through the series, it is all but apparent that the story is an allegory for climate change. The desolate world the children are transported to is literally the future they inherit from a generation that has played havoc with nature. The explanation for how exactly the planet ends up this way fits in neatly with Umezu’s body-horror tics — grotesque tentacled creatures begin to appear, even as some of the students undergo physical changes because of their, ahem, dietary decisions. The fun is in seeing Umezu twist the knife even he guts the familiar tropes of the story. Like the best of horror stories, there is a tightrope between horror and absurd comedy that he excels at.

Shit gets real

As the description suggests, there is a also vein of tragic madness that runs through the characters and their tribulations. Remember what I said about the heightened emotional pitch in Umezu’s writing and artwork? That is what makes the really dark turns of insanity among the characters distressing to the reader. When such a thing happens, when a character loses it, you do not realize at first whether it’s just the creator doing what he does best, or if it’s genuinely a character trait. It’s only when true horror comes lurching at us that we jerk back in our seats. By then it’s too late, both for us reading the story, and for the characters who bear the brunt of these breakdowns.

And of course, it goes without saying that Umezu is phenomenal at pacing and the art of the slow build-up. For all my scoffing about pitch, his mastery of layout and his ability to amplify childhood fears to a crescendo is in display throughout the book. Look at this example of a page where the kids have to hide from a monster. Gamo advises everybody to pretend to be an object to clear their minds of thought, since that is the only way to avoid being detected. “Become a thing,” he urges. A wordless page demonstrates Sho’s state of mind, even as the clock is ticking.

There are numbers thrown around in terms of student casualties as the book goes on, and let me warn you — the death toll gets higher and higher, and Umezu does not shy away from gruesome visuals. One of my favorite sequences is when the school is under attack by a giant insect, one that is seemingly unstoppable. Ikegaki, one of Sho’s classmates elected Minister of Defense, takes it on himself to organize the class scrappers to attack the monster as the others shelter behind barricades. They manage to turn the insect away, but not without casualties. The aftermath is brutal.

And that of course is one of the main reasons I still love well-written manga. The focus is not just on the grand moments, but also on what comes after. The sequence of panels slowly closing up on Ikegaki’s face make me tear up.

As the years go by, I have come to the conclusion that stories set in school hold great emotional resonance for me. Not because I have great memories of my school life, nor that I put myself in the shoes of a school-child when I am reading them. It’s possible that the combination of innocence and potential strikes a chord in me. Adulthood brings with it the jaded third-person perspective towards events in the lives of school children that are so earth-shaking for them. Umberto Eco wrote, “Life is about reliving your childhood in slow motion.” That may well be true, but I know I will never feel the bitterness of a high school rivalry, the pain of a crush on the girl sitting at the adjacent desk, the sheer terror of a teacher’s disapproving glare, at least not first-hand. Therein comes in my fascination with the school story, my way of vicariously living those myriad life experiences all over again. School is never a place one wants to be in as a child, but for some of us, it is a mental image of home, of a time and place where we were safe. And in a time when nothing and nowhere feels safe, isn’t it natural that I turn to school stories for succour?

The school in the series represents a similar safe haven for the children. There is an emotional sequence around the middle, where Sho says “Tadaima” when he enters the school gates, back from an external expedition. The word, which means “I’m home” becomes a mantra for the children, all of whom begin to chant it as well, becoming a source of acceptance of the fact that they really have nowhere else to go. The Drifting Classroom, for all its perceived faults, is one of the finest school stories out there, and all you need to do is to switch off that irony-meter in your brain and give in to its charms. Despite the lump in your throat, you will find yourself cheering on the protagonists as, like the best of school stories, it ends on a hopeful note.

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Books

Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow

OK, so here’s a book that reminds me of Neil Gaiman a lot. Part of it is the subject matter. The story is almost a primal narrative, brimming with character and story tropes spanning cultures. There are multiple references to fiction affecting reality, and how myths inform the present. There is even a talking raven.

“Words are seeds. With words you embroider narratives, and the narratives breed myths, and there’s power in the myth.

Casiopea Tun dreams of doing her own thing, of escaping from a family that treats her and her mother as outsiders, wanting more than the hint of a thousand-peso inheritance from her autocratic grandfather. One fine day, Casiopea finds an escape from her life of drudgery through, of all things, a Mayan death god, who she awakens from imprisonment. She becomes a willing co-passenger to this deity on a journey across Mexico, as he seeks to regain his powers, his missing body parts, and his throne from his treacherous brother.

“You’ll give me your name,” he said as the station and the town and everything she’d ever known grew smaller and smaller. She adjusted her shawl. “Casiopea Tun.” “I am Hun-Kamé, Lord of Shadows and rightful ruler of Xibalba,” he told her. “I thank you for liberating me and for the gift of your blood. Serve me well, maiden, and I shall see fit to reward you.” For a fleeting moment she thought she might escape, that it was entirely possible to jump off the tram and run back into town. Maybe he’d turn her into dust, but that might be better than whatever horrid fate awaited her. A horrid fate awaited her, didn’t it? Hadn’t the Lords of Xibalba delighted in tricking and disposing of mortals? But there was the question of the bone shard and the nagging voice in the back of her head that whispered “adventure.” For surely she would not get another chance to leave this village, and the sights he would show her must be strange and dazzling. The pull of the familiar was strong, but stronger was curiosity and the blind optimism of youth that demanded go now, go quickly. Every child dreams of running away from home at some point, and now she had this impossible opportunity. Greedily she latched on to it.

If you remember the first eight issues of Sandman, the arc of the god Hun-Kamé’s quest to regain the missing parts of his body follow a similar pattern, bargains and stand-offs (I was tempted to add ‘Mexican’ as an adjective there, but that wouldn’t have made sense except as a cheap chuckle) and the occasional bloody confrontation against demons, wizards, and even a succubus. As in American Gods and Anansi Boys, there is the thesis that the gods and mortals exist in a co-dependent manner, and that the locale determines the power and relevance of a god. The monotheistic ideal of divinity is dismissed with a scathing sentence: “The god of your church, if he is awake, does not live in these lands.”

The relationship between Casiopea and Hun-kamé takes center stage, as mortal and god give and take parts of each other into themselves. From the god of death, Casiopea learns that her problems with family were a tad more universal than she thought, and that control over one’s life does not bring contentment. Hun-kamé, attached to the mortal world by the shard of his bone implanted in her hand, finds himself comprehending the nature of human existence. He gazes at Casiopea marveling at the beauty of stars and the ocean, and they converse about poetry and death, dreams and flowers. They are on the clock. The longer time passes, the more Casiopea finds her essence leeched away, while Hun-Kamé becomes better accustomed to his mortal body.

“Dreams are for mortals.” “Why?” “Because they must die.” Somehow this made a perfect sort of sense. The volume of Aztec poetry she had read was full of lines about dreams and flowers, the futility of existence. “That’s sad,” she said, finally. “Death? It is unavoidable, not sad.” “No, not death,” she said, shaking her head. “That you don’t dream.” “Why would I need to dream? It means nothing. Those are but the tapestries of mortals, woven and unwoven each night on a rickety loom.” “They can be beautiful.” “As if there’s no other beauty to be had,” he said dismissively. “There’s little of it, for some,” she replied.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia nails the tone. The book is dedicated to her grandmother, and the story is narrated with the sort of omniscience that elderly tale-smiths possess, an ability to talk about the innermost workings of the heart and to soak you in the atmosphere of the setting. In this case, Mexico in 1927, which comes alive in all its sun and dust.

Mexico City in the 1920s was all about the United States, reproducing its women, its dances, its fast pace. Charleston! The bob cut! Ford cars! English was sprinkled on posters, on ads, it slipped from the lips of the young just as French phrases had once been poorly repeated by the city folk. A bad imitation of Rudolph Valentino, hair slicked back, remained in vogue, and the women were trying to emulate that Mexican wildcat, Lupe Vélez, who was starring in Hollywood films. The pace was absolutely insane in Mexico City. Everyone rushed to and fro, savage motorists banged the Klaxon looking for a fight, the streetcars drifted down the avenues packed with sweaty commuters, newspaper vendors cried out the headlines of the day at street corners, and billboards declared that you should smoke El Buen Tono cigarettes. Kodak film and toothpaste were available for sale in the stores, and, near an intersection, a poor woman with a baby begged for coins, untouched by the reign of progress and modernity.

As with the real world, Moreno-Garcia paints the fantastic world of Xibalba in surreal imagery with her words, making the realm of death (pun intended) come alive in your mind. Once again, shades of the Dreaming from Sandman.

Xibalba, splendid and frightful, was a land of stifling gloom, lit by a cheerless night-sun and lacking a moon. The hour of twilight did not cease here. In Xibalba’s rivers there lurked jade caimans, alabaster fish swam in ink-black ponds, and glass insects buzzed about, creating a peculiar melody with the tinkling of their transparent wings. There were bizarre plants and lush trees, though no flowers bloomed in the soils of the Underworld—perhaps some had, at one point, but they’d long withered. These were all bits of dreams that had taken physical shape, but the nightmares of mortals also abounded in the fabulous landscape of Xibalba.

Before I read the book, I was told that it’s slow-paced and that “nothing really happens”. I am not sure what the detractors were looking for, the pacing was deliberate and measured. The road trip does not feel repetitive, and the slow-burn change in the relationship between the two protagonists is organic, as is the realization of the duality in the actions and motivations of mortal and deity. The quest is not just that of one god and his acolyte, but is mirrored by his rival and brother Vucub-Kamé, who had imprisoned Hun-Kamé many years ago to occupy the throne of Xibalba, and his followers. Specifically, Martin, Casiopia’s cousin and bête noire, whose aggressions, both micro and macro, were among the main reasons she fled from her hometown. And there too, the writer weaves in surprising plot twists. Was Martin really all that bad, we find ourselves wondering, or was he weak, his frailty possessing him to be jealous of Casiopea’s strength of will?

Like in a good story about gods and myth, this one also features the use of prophecy as a storytelling device. Vucub-Kamé is gifted at foresight, and in multiple sequences, ex-sanguinates and eviscerates various animals to understand what the future holds for his reign. The answers he sees are unclear, but it is Casiopea’s presence that is the most confusing for him. At the same time, there are disturbing visions that appear in our lady protagonist’s dreams, of blood and death in the city of Xibalba. Hun-Kamé warns her about the power of words and stories, and his recalcitrance to speak about the myths she knows, of him and the stories around him, further muddy the path ahead.

All of these separate threads come together incredibly well in the end-game. Far better, I would say, than Gaiman’s American Gods ended, if we are still comparing. The winner of this game of throne is decided not by gods wielding bolts of magic and blood, but by the choices and actions of their champions. The overall theme, that of gods depending on mortals for both their existence and sustenance, is something that is a recurring theme in both Sandman and the prose works of Gaiman. Moreno-Garcia adds a delectable layer of romance and a historical milieu that make it more than just another twice-told tale. The four principal characters have distinct voices and motivations — Casiopea’s distaste for her fate and headstrong demeanor contrasting against Martin’s obedience to his grandfather, and Hun-Kame’s self-assured hauteur plays well against Vucub-Kamé’s insecurities. The decisions that drive the ending are laid out wonderfully across the story. We hold all the pieces, and once events transpire, we see how descriptive paragraphs like this scatter clues in plain sight.

Mortals believe gods to be omnipotent and ever-knowing. The truth is more slippery; their limitations are multiple, kaleidoscopic, and idiosyncratic. Gods cannot rudely move mortals like one moves a piece across a game board. To obtain what they wish gods may utilize messengers, they may threaten, they may flatter, and they may reward. A god may cause storms to wreck the seaside and mortals, in return, may raise their hands and place offerings at the god’s temple in an effort to stop the hurricane that whips the land. They may pray and bleed themselves with maguey thorns. However, they could also feel free to ignore the god’s weather magic, they could blame the rain or lack of it on chance or bad luck, without forging the connection between the deity and the event. A god can make the volcanos boil and cook alive the villagers who have made their abodes near its cone, but what good is that? If gods destroyed all humans, there would be no adoration and no sacrifice, which is the fresh wood that replenishes a fire.

Among all its virtues, most of all its inherent readability, this book provided a great introduction to Mayan myth and encouraged me to look more into Popol-Vuh. I am intrigued by the story of the Hero Twins, alluded to throughout this book. Also, Moreno-Garcia seems be a genre-surfer par excellence — her other books include one that’s described as Lovecraft meets the Brontes in Latin America, another that combines music and magic in Mexico City, yet another that’s a magical romance set in a world inspired by France of the Belle Epoque. A lot to dive in, in the coming months.

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Books

A Food Novel: The Pasha of Cuisine

If there is one constant thread in my life, it is this realization that one thing leads to another, in the best possible way. Consider, for example, that after reading and gushing over the third book of The Daevabad Trilogy, I began to look around for the next hit (To be clear, I use the word in the context of narcotics, not in that of popularity) that might continue to further explore the medieval Islamic world. While it was tempting to swim around in the fantastical waters of djinn fiction, with the names I had mentioned in my review, I also wanted a book that was a little different and unpredictable.

I was also listening to podcasts featuring Shannon Chakraborty, to hear her thoughts about the series and to continue holding on to Daevabad and its pleasures. Among the interesting tidbits she talked about was her obsession with food, in particular historical recipes and writings on food. She spoke of a deleted scene in the second novel, which was to feature a cooking competition during Navasatem. And then, she went on to recommend a specific book called The Pasha of Spices.

A hasty online search showed that the novel Pir E Lezzet, written in Turkish by Saygin Ersin, and translated into English by Mark Wyers, was available on the Hoopla app. It took about a week for me to get to the book, two days to finish it, and here I am, on a Saturday afternoon, babbling words of appreciation with stars in my eyes and a tremendous longing for kebabs and baklava.

The book, set in Ottoman Turkey, begins with a botched dinner party organized for the King’s Sword Bearer, a man of tremendous influence and a foul temper. The main course includes a leek dish, a vegetable that the guest is known to detest. As it turns out, he dreamily eats his dish, and then on realizing what it is, walks out in a huff, leaving the owner of the house to sputter at the cook for his disrespectful choice. The next morning, however, there comes an invite from the Sword Bearer — hand over the cook to be my personal chef, he says, and all is forgiven. The cook, already punished for his transgression, knew this was exactly how things would transpire and is ready to go.

We follow the young unnamed cook into the palace kitchen and its chaos, and the story slowly peels away secrets and histories that reveal the trajectory of the young cook’s life. In the space of the first few chapters, we realize that his presence in the palace kitchen, even his very existence, is no accident. There is the matter of his growing unease as he accompanies the guards to the palace, with a near-panic attack as he draws closer. The master of the kitchen, Head Chef Isfendiyar, seems to share a mysterious bond with him. And there is the matter of his interest in the Sultan’s Odalisque Harem, forbidden to all men other than the royal family.

Over the course of the next few days, the cook works not only to secure his culinary grip over his new master’s palate with his masterful use of flavors and ingredients, but also woos the latter’s harried assistants by cooking sweets and delicacies for them. At the same time, he takes on the responsibility of cooking for the Harem, making friends with Neyyir Agha, the Chief Eunuch working for the Haseki Sultan, who was “known to be one of the cleverest women that palace had ever seen, (and) wielded power over the sultan and the Harem at a very young age.” There are flashbacks that reveal the broader story of the cook’s journey, from his hidden background and innate culinary ability, to his apprenticeship at a bordello, and his journey to redeem both his title and his destiny. His quest involves a woman, if you must know, but it also involves coming to terms with his own emotional vulnerability. It is quite a journey.

Where Ersin excels is in making the story tread a fine line between historical fiction and fantasy. The chef whispers secret words as he cooks his magnificent meals and adds his ingredients one by one. Is his culinary skill related to magic or is it a real-world skill? They call him the Pasha of Cuisine, which is a title bestowed once in a generation, one that combines both the inborn ability to discern flavor and taste from an early age coupled with years of training. His dishes are shown to be able to influence both the emotions and the will of his diners. This paragraph, for example, gives a great insight into the way the Pasha’s abilities to heighten that relationship becomes important plot-points through the narrative.

Everyone knew that linden naturally brought on a feeling of calmness, and when fermented, that effect was heightened. Some religious scholars stated that fermented linden was an intoxicating substance that Muslims were prohibited from consuming. But if they were to have tasted a pastry made with the linden fermented by the Pasha of Cuisine, they wouldn’t have just advised against its consumption but banned it outright. In the hands of the Pasha, the innocent fermentation created a substance that tore down the barriers of logic that held back strong emotions and did away with all self-control. Whoever ate the fritters would forget about fear and loyalty, discarding tradition and rules in the process. The void created by the fermented linden would be filled with the sugar, the taste of which would be heightened by the sesame oil. The cook knew that sweet, one of the four basic tastes, was coupled with the element of fire, which was famed for its violence.

The flashback sequences are truly fantastic. The cook apprentices with Master Adem, a former Pasha, and then embarks on a voyage that goes beyond mere culinary school. He studies horoscopes under the eccentric el-Haki brothers, who teach him the medicinal properties of foods, and how food affects individuals based on their star signs. From the Lady of Essences, he understands not only the intricacies of spices, but also the means to soothe his wounded soul. And I must mention that from the moment the Lady of Essences makes her appearance and asks the cook why he came to her, the only face and voice I could hear was that of Tabu in her Vishal Bharadwaj characters. (One would assume the first mental image associated with such a character would be Aishwarya Rai in Mistress of Spices, but I have spent years trying to forget that experience.) All his journeys lead him, finally and fittingly, to Alexandria, where he has to ask a question, and one question only, of the Master Librarian. That question reveals, both to him and to us, the greatest secret of what it means to be the Pasha of Cuisine.

Spices are not related to intelligence, but to emotions. It is meaningless to know what spices are, whether they come from trees or roots or bark, or to memorize their natures, as it won’t be of any use to you. You should be able to inhale the scent of garlic and write two verses of poetry, compose an epic about the basil and mastic combining in your mouth, and extol the virtues of myrrh and a pinch of rosemary. Only then can you tell me that you’ve learnt about spices. You should look into the eyes of the person you want to mesmerize with your food and see into their hearts and soul, and at the same time be able to go through all the scents you know in your mind and decide which ones will either dampen or whet the appetite of their soul. Only then can I say that you’ve become the true Pasha of Cuisine.

Gratuitous Tabu photograph for eye-candy purposes

I am in no way capable of talking about the historical accuracy of the novel. In the writer’s own words, “the Ottoman era is our very attractive “Fantasy Realm”. It is our Neverland, it is our Narnia, Westeros and Middle Earth. It has a magical atmosphere; very real on one side and very ‘dreamy’ on the other. Also it is so flexible. You can write a realistic political novel in that atmosphere and you can also write a mystical novel like the Pasha of Cuisine in the same atmosphere.” Below is an excerpts from a Turkish blog that talks about the culinary atmosphere in the Ottoman era. For the record, the reign of the Ottomans lasted six centuries, and it is unclear which period of those 600 years the book is set in. Warning: plot points in the description at the link below, so please do not click if you do not want to be spoiled.

Diverse Ottoman cuisine was amalgamated and honed in the Imperial Palace’s kitchens by chefs brought from certain parts of the empire to create and experiment with different ingredients. They were brought over from various places for the express purpose of experimenting with exotic textures and ingredients and inventing new dishes, and they served for 10.000 people every day! Meat was used in most foods. Kebabs and stews with every kind of meat were cooked in the palace kitchens. Birds such as chicken and duck were mostly roasted on a spit and you’ll read one of the most difficult recipe of The Ottoman Palace kitchen: Enveloped kebab which is cooked with different types of meat (turkey-partridge-chicken-quail). These poultries are put in each other in a size order, enriched with spices and put in oven. Have you seen green pilaf before? The Turks’ fondness for pilaf was such that it attracted the attention of travellers. It is an easy recipe, but among the indispensable tastes of the Ottoman cuisine. Spinach is boiled and crushed in strainer, then filtered with the help of a muslin. You can use this green water to cook your pilaf! How about a milk kebab? Lamp is boiled in milk, and meat is lined on a spit and slowly cooked.

http://maviboncuk.blogspot.com/2018/05/book-pasha-of-cuisine-by-saygin-ersin.html

Other than the Pasha of Cuisine himself, there are supporting characters known for their devotion to food and their craft, like the Mad Fishmonger Bayram, “the greatest fisherman not just of Istanbul, but of the Marmara Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Black Sea, and even all seas around the world according to some”. He was also a master of cooking seafood, and his makeshift shack where he served favored guests was a secret unto itself. Why exactly he was considered mad is a story that is part of the book and I will leave you to find out for yourself. But the descriptions of Bayram’s cooking, specifically his fish soup, is both insightful and poetic.

Fish soup was one of the two greatest soups in the world, and the pinnacle of fish dishes as it had to be made perfectly, just like anything else that was difficult. A fish soup could not be “so-so,” “alright,” or “passable.” If done right, it would be soup; if done wrong, it would be rubbish, and that was that. It was one of the strangest dishes in the world. The more ingredients one added, the better it became. It did not have an absolute taste. The base flavor was fish, provided its smell was just right, but the soup changed taste with every spoonful. The first spoonful might be fish accompanied by celery stalk and carrot, the second might be onion and a small piece of fresh oregano, while the third could be the pure taste of fish scorched lovingly with the sweet taste of black pepper. The carnival of tastes continued until you finished the bowl. You would never guess what you would get with the next spoonful, and each sip was a surprise.

I will say, however, that the reason why the book has me rapturously singing its praises, goes beyond poetic food descriptions and exotic characters and locations. It is that the story takes a stand about art and the myth of the solitary genius that works tirelessly to achieve their goal and climb to the pinnacle of their chosen field. In a way, The Pasha of Cuisine is the anti-Whiplash, a movie I love passionately, but cannot get over how it leaves me shattered at the end of every viewing. The cook’s mentors (all but one, without spoilers) genuinely want him to succeed, and do so without compromising his life at the cost of his art.

Your soul is incomplete. You’re completely alone, and as long as you can’t mend the void within your soul, you’ll remain alone. Becoming the Pasha of Cuisine will not make your soul whole again. On the contrary, you will only be deserving of that title once you heal your soul.

Throughout the book, we know the cook not by his name, but by the title bestowed on him. We hear his name, for the first time, on the last sentence of the book. It is a triumphant end to his journey, bringing both closure and a sense of prophetic fulfillment. The epilogue that follows is a fine dessert, but even without it, I felt sated and full, like I just finished a masterful meal by a genius chef. This was followed by an overpowering urge for kebabs, but that’s TMI, I guess.

Notes:

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