“Welcome to the USA!”

Chitra and I left Mumbai for Cincinnati on March 4, 2004 and have lived in the US since then. We started fresh in the city of the ‘Flying Pig’ – Cincinnati (Cincy) – blessed with wonderful friends, who lovingly introduced us to the American culture and traditions. In the gloom and unprecedented events of 2020, we finally became US Citizens, which was the only bright milestone for the year. Cincinnati, Procter & Gamble (P&G) and kind friends helped us setting our foundation and living this American dream. Sharing a few reflections from the early times of this journey.

Learning the American Accent or Not

In early 2004, we went in for our H1 (work) and H4 (dependent) visa interview. We were among hundreds who waited in long lines, our documents organized and ready for submission. In front of us stood an Indian teenager applying for his student visa. His father had accompanied him for support and assistance (only till the entrance of the embassy building). All through our time in the queue, we overheard him speak to his dad and occasionally to us. All of us were nervous and a sense of uncertainty loomed in the air. Once inside the embassy building, we noticed that kid again, at a distance, waiting for his interview turn. He was visibly nervous and had his hands clasped, head bowed low, as if in in prayer. We got busy with our interview process and later, walked out of the embassy in relief. The embassy officer had retained our passports, which meant they had approved our visa. While we were buying bottled water from a stall outside the embassy, someone spoke to both of us in perfect American accent ” How are you guys doing?”. He rolled his r’s perfectly in an American accent and now had an exaggerated swagger. It took us a few seconds to place the voice and the face. It was the same kid, now with a sparkle in his eye and new confidence in his demeanor. He was also headed to the US and was already speaking with his new accent. In the roughly 60 to 90 minutes since we had last seen him, he had changed into this cool American Indian kid! We still think of that and have a good laugh. In this matter, we are both quite slow – it has been 17 years in the US and we are yet to give up our “native” accent.

“Welcome to the USA!”

We arrived in Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) on March 4, 2004. There was to be one more screening before entering the US, with the US Border Agents who screen all international passengers. You always heard and read stories about people getting sent back because the border agent officer was not convinced by the visa holders case. So, after the ~20 hours journey, once again, we entered a zone of uncertainty. They examined my visa and supporting documents first. I remember being asked a few questions and then it was Chitra’s turn. The officer asked her a couple of very basic questions, stamped her passport and commented “It wasn’t as bad as you had imagined, right!!?? Welcome to the USA and enjoy your stay”. Chitra had a big smile on her face – that was her first interaction with an American in the US. I have to admit people in general are very polite and welcoming with her. I wonder why…hmm? 🙂

Second Honeymoon Ends

My employer, Tata Interactive Systems (TIS), was relocating me to Cincinnati to manage our new partnership with Procter & Gamble (P&G). My manager, Nikhil Puri, prepared me for the assignment and was very clear about how long the gig will last. “Suresh, this is for 6 months and then you come back”. I had shared this with Chitra and we were both quite excited about it. We had mentally prepared ourselves for this 6 month assignment – it would be our second, extended honeymoon! I had taken an Executive Rental apartment (Garfield Tower Apartments), which was a few blocks from the P&G headquarters. This apartment was very well stocked with everything we could need, from cutlery to well designed furniture, even a house keeping service. 75% of my salary was going towards the rent and we were really living a lavish “second honeymoon”. We hosted several dinner parties at home with some of my clients and friends. Our guests were impressed with our apartment and thought well of TIS for taking good care of me, the expat from India! My 6 month tenure was coming to a close and while talking to Nikhil, it became clear that they wanted me to extend it by 6 more months. We had zero savings at this time and I negotiated a 12 month plan. Then came the tough choice of moving from our executive apartment to an unfurnished apartment in the same building. We were now in an empty apartment and had to set it up from scratch. The purchasing guidelines were simple; cheap, good looking and sturdy. During this time, my client sponsor’s wife, Brenda, was visiting Cincinnati downtown and requested to meet. I vividly remember getting back from work to find Brenda very delicately seated on our new dining chair. She looked uncomfortable and I can only imagine, must have had many, many questions buzzing through her mind. The TIS expat had moved to this bare walled apartment with zero frills. If she had asked me, I would have said “honeymoon period is over and reality has set in”!

Our First Dinner Invite in the US

Penny and Dick are two of the kindest people we know. Chitra started volunteering at Dress For Success (a non-profit) and developed a strong friendship with Penny. We were invited to dinner and this was our first visit to an American household. They lived in Asbury, Anderson Township which was ~25 minute drive from our apartment. We did not own a car back then, so Dick very graciously offered to pick and drop us back. They had invited us at 4 PM and we assumed it would be fun to talk and walk around their 4 acre plot. In our minds, we would have dinner at some point later in the evening. We were totally surprised when they announced dinner had been served at 4 PM. Indians are known to eat a late lunch and an even later dinner. We had had our lunch around 2 PM so I was quite shocked to be seated for a steak dinner so soon. I truly enjoy my meat and I had a strong sense of disappointment for not being hungry enough for such a special meal. We politely let them know about about our late lunch and they were kind enough to pack our dinner to take home for us. We had begun to view America through their home and family. We were also beginning to break many stereotypes in our minds about the American culture and the way of life here. Since our first dinner invite, we have spent many dinners, luncheons, movie outings, Christmas and Thanksgiving with them. Penny and Dick, if you ever read this, our interaction with you made us feel at home, loved & accepted and also helped us integrate better with America. Thank you and we love you.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) Set A Strong Foundation for My Corporate America Journey

Working for P&G as my first American client was a blessing. I worked with the best in the industry when it came to global business processes, innovative thinking, people maturity and program communication protocols. I have to call out Eric Brocious, who was my client sponsor then, and the brain behind the partnership with TIS. He mentored me and walked me through every step of the learning curve. There are many moments from those years which are memorable (some funny, too), however I would like to highlight a an episode of failure. We were working on a global learning program, developing modules for new hires across the world for P&G. This program – P&G’s Success Drivers – had high leadership visibility and more importantly, many senior executives who directly provided content for many of the modules. During the content creation phase we hit bad turbulence and it took us long to correct course. The delayed correction was in-part because of our my team’s quality control process and partly because of the delays we faced in getting these senior executives to provide their material in the correct structure. We got summoned to a meeting by Keith Lawrence, one of the key sponsors for the global program. Eric, Kim McGraw (Global Talent, Learning & Development Manager) and I were participating as one team. I was, however, representing the supplier team (TIS) and got roasted in the session. Honestly, had the meeting gone on a bit longer, tears would have rolled down my eyes. The meeting got over, we all stepped out and Eric told me to take the rest of the day off. The next day, I remember meeting Eric and he coached me not to take this failure personally. “What was stated was not directed at you but rather, at everyone in the room”. Although, for me, Eric and Kim getting lectured for the poor quality on my team’s deliverable was a personal failure. It took me a few days to recover and we did manage to land that program successfully. Eric was not my direct manager, he was a client, however, his people management and leadership skills are something I hope to have walked away with. Eric and I continue to be good friends and did I mention, big fans of Skyline Chilli (5 way!).

Exposure Outside Cincinnati & P&G’s Cosmopolitan Bubble

Penny was a professor at Thomas More University (Northern Kentucky) and she had invited us (Chitra and me) to guest lecture the Executive MBA students on ‘Cultural Diversity and It’s Impact on Work Life’. The objective was for both of us to share from our personal experiences how Culture Impacts Work Life in the US and in India. These were 30-45 minute sessions and it also gave us a glimpse into American life outside the Cincinnati + P&G bubble. It was interesting to hear the type of questions being asked and to observe how our answers were being received. Many of the students attending the program had never stepped beyond the borders of Kentucky. In one session, we were asked if India was a Monarchy. This came as a surprise to us because CNN was running an advertisement campaign on air where their anchors were answering questions emphasizing CNN’s global reach. One such question in the campaign was “Which is the world’s largest democracy?” to which Anderson Cooper would answer “India”. We were once asked “what was one aspect that impressed us most about America?” We were not prepared for this question, but replied unhesitatingly and in tandem, “The public library system”! The students looked back at us almost in disappointment. Coming from India, the large, well stocked, friendly Public Libraries in the US were a marvel for us – it was a very honest answer. We undertook ~5 such sessions and in every interaction we would learn something new. I have to say that living in Cincinnati and working in P&G was a cosmopolitan bubble that is rare and we were lucky to experience it.

Chitra with Mary (to Chitra’s right) and her yoga friends

Finding Her Passion, Yoga!

Moving with me to the US was a big step for Chitra. She was going to be on a dependent visa and would not be eligible to work. We had both done our MBAs together, she was the second individual in our batch of 1996-98 to get campus recruited with a company that was her dream workplace – Shoppers’ Stop (the first corporate retail chain in India). She had always been sure about her decisions and goals. When I was offered the P&G role, she was once again sure about leaving behind her career and joining me on our “second honeymoon”. So, after the initial high of being in a new country, she wanted to get busy and my client Bea Davis directed her to Dress For Success (DFS). DFS’ vision is to provide assistance to women in need with appropriate clothing to interview for a job, and also provide a stable, safe and caring environment as they reclaim their lives. DFS’ Cincy office was walkable from our apartment and she began volunteering with them. Soon, she had a small circle of good friends and was in a happy place outside home. When we moved to a larger apartment in Mount Lookout, she ended up walking into Delta 1018 Fitness Center. That led her to meeting her first yoga teacher, Mary Kemper. Little did she know, that it was the start of her Yoga journey. Mary introduced Chitra to all her students saying, “This is Chitra from India and she has never done Yoga before”!! Yes, it is a shame that back when we were in India, Yoga did not get the respect it deserved (I know it has changed since then). I personally thought Yoga was for senior citizens, a slow moving activity that I did not want to be associated with yet. Since 2005, Chitra has been blessed with gifted teachers who have inspired and encouraged her. Today, she continues diving deeper in her practice and is a certified Yoga teacher. It gives her joy and balance. For that, we both say “Thank you, Mary”!

“Listen People, Suresh Jogs!”

Among the many people I interacted with in P&G, Deb Lowell is a name I can’t forget. We did not work on a project, neither were we close friends. We ended up working in the same work bay and got to interact as office colleagues. She was curious to learn about my experiences and would often pull my leg over my choice of words. She was a firecracker with a great sense of humor. We were once talking about our routine after work and I said, “I jog in the evenings”. She asked me to repeat what I had said, which I easily did. She then proceeded to stand up from her chair and announced loudly “Listen people, Suresh “jogs” in the evenings!”. I don’t remember if anyone paid attention to what she had announced, but she later explained to me that I should be “running” and not “jogging”. Growing up in India, going for a ‘jog’ or ‘jogging’ was part of my vocabulary. More importantly for me, my ‘jog’ was like a punishment. When I would get in trouble, papa insisted I go for a ‘jog’ or when our soccer coach made us ‘jog’ around the field for not performing. She went on to share her wisdom on the word ‘run’ and how that fit well with my age, fitness level and action. That led us to exchanging notes on how much we ran etc. She sowed in me the idea of running the ‘Flying Pig Half Marathon’. On May 1, 2005, I ran my first half and since then ‘running’ has become a big part of my life. I have completed two full marathons and it no longer feels like a punishment. Chitra, too, has been bitten by the bug and has run two half marathons. So ‘running’ is now an integral part of our lives gives us joy and balance. Deb, wherever you are “Thank you”!

  • Bhavesh bhai and me

Jai Hind Jai Maharastra

While staying in the downtown apartment, we met Bhavesh Parmar, whom I fondly call “Bhavesh bhai” (Bhavesh brother). He also hailed from Mumbai, Maharastra, and as we Mumbaikars say, our wavelengths clicked immediately. He lived in the same apartment building and we started hanging out together – movies, dinner/lunch, tea/coffee, Indian temple trips and ping pong (table tennis). Bhavesh was single then and a very mild natured, kind, human being. He had been living in the country longer than us so, in that respect, a senior with more experience. Chitra always narrates the story of serving Bhavesh bhai his first cup of tea in our house. She asked him how many spoons of sugar, to which he replied “six”. Chitra confirmed that twice and then proceeded to make Bhavesh’s special sugar tea! To his credit, he has now curtailed his sugar intake drastically. He owned a black Volkswagen Passat and would never hesitate in offering us rides to Newport on the Levy or the Indian Temple. Did I mention he is a devout Hindu and takes his Monday evening trips to the Hindu Temple in Cincy very seriously. We were not as religious but dinner plans after temple visits used to be a good motivator to tag along. As our friendship grew, we would greet each other with “Jai Hind, Jai Maharastra” (Victory to India, Victory to Maharastra). Till date, every time we talk or meet, this greeting makes both of us smile. He continues to flourish in wonderful Cincinnati with his beautiful wife – Dipali, son – Bhavya and their pet dog – Fufi.

Meet the Davis Family

While working from Mumbai, my first P&G project was with Bea Davis. It was also her first project with TIS and an Indian team. As a Project Manager, my role was to make Bea successful with her clients and leadership. She was responsible for the learning and development activities for the Supply Chain Operations group. This project of mine was a success and I think she had given Eric a good thumbs up for my performance and selection as the Cincy based Key Account Manager from TIS. Her late husband Joe and she were one of our first dinner party guests. They were open to exploring the Indian cuisine and Chitra churned our her best dishes – Bhindi Churi Muri (thinly sliced and spiced fried Okra), Yellow Dal (lentil dish), Indian Fish curry, Roti (Indian Bread), Rice and Gajar ka Halwa (grated carrot sweet dish). They loved the food and Joe, specifically, loved the fried Okra, which became standard on our menu every time they came home. Two points about Joe, he could talk intelligently about any topic and he had a towering yet gentle personality. They reciprocated by having us over to their home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and other occasions. Bea’s green bean casserole is the best ever and I haven’t had better anywhere else. She may never realize this, but the confidence her words instilled in me, gave me the courage to fly higher professionally. Bea, you will always have a soft spot in my heart.

Reflecting back on our American journey, we were lucky to have started in Cincy, at P&G, and surrounded by friends who brought positivity into our lives. We love you all and look forward to many more memorable moments together.

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Summer of 1985 and 2020

The Morton Arboretum – Summer 2020

Summer of 1985. I was in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India. Dad was working for the last Maharaja of Nawanagar (Jamnagar) – H.H. Jamsaheb Shatrusalyasinhji Jadeja – and we lived on the palace grounds in a bungalow (single family home). We were accustomed to living in huge homes because Dad was with the Indian army for 23 years and many of our cantonment homes were similarly styled. The only difference here was that we were cut off from the rest of the city by a huge wall running around the ~50 acre palace grounds. There were many wild animals – Monkeys, Black Bucks, Indian Gazelles, Blue Bulls, Spotted Deer, Wild Buffalos, Monitor Lizards, Crocodiles and many more – roaming free, like in a private preserve. Life was royal when we first moved here. We had our tea/coffee/milk and snacks while peacocks roamed in our yard and danced to impress the peahens.

In those years, Jamsaheb did not have any sustained cash flow. He owned many large palaces all around Jamnagar and hundreds of families had been working for him from generations. ‘Eccentric’ would be a very mild characterization for him. My dad managed his operations and administration – people and property. There were months when employees did not get paid and the growing dissent would nudge Jamsaheb to travel abroad or to Mumbai. Not sure what he did there, but on his return money would be available and employees paid. There were rumors that he would sell his ancestral treasures in these trips like antique swords with embedded gems, antique jewels, gold, vintage cars etc.

My dad ended up using much of his retirement funds for our family expenses and many a times paying salaries to folks working in the palace. Now is not the time to dwell into the ‘eccentric’ nature of my dad. However, this lifestyle led to my dad exhausting all his savings and finally deciding to pursue new work in Mumbai, Maharastra, India. Since it was the middle of the school year, it was decided that Mummy, my older brother and I would stay back to complete the year. Also, our presence would be a reminder to Jamsaheb that he owed dad and needs to stick with his promise to pay up.

A couple of months into our stay, Mummy had not received any payments from Jamsaheb and money from dad was only trickling in. I’m not sure of the exact reason but we lost electricity in our home. On enquiring with Jamsaheb, we were told it was temporary and would be restored soon. Electricity and water charges were paid for by the Palace. We continued living in that home for around 7 months with no electricity and facing severe financial troubles. I was in 6th grade and my older brother in 10th. Honestly, that phase in life did not scar me for long but two stories have stayed with me till date. These are linked to Parle-G biscuits and a used cricket bat.

For readers not from India, Parle G is a biscuit brand that was super popular (and back in the 80s, probably the only nationwide brand). Not too expensive, I enjoyed them by stacking a few and dipping them in milk before devouring them (Yummy!). However, 1985 was no ordinary summer and Mummy had to ration these biscuits for me. Many times, I ate the last biscuit and had to wait for mom to buy another pack at a feasible time. Till date, I dig Parle G and love its taste and texture.

I was introduced to the sport of Cricket in 3rd grade and had begun developing good skills. During the same year in Jamnagar, I had outgrown my first cricket bat but continued playing with it. I did not want to ask mom for a new one, knowing well that we could not afford it. It was during this time that we got invited for lunch to a friend’s place and the hosting family had a son the same age as my brother. During this visit, that older kid played some cricket with me and commented on how well I was batting. When it was time to leave, he brought out a used cricket bat, which was pretty knocked up (chipped, dinged & had a shaky handle). He was planning to junk it – instead, it came home with me. I was super thrilled to have got a bat that was a good fit to my height. Since we did not have electricity at home, I had to try and finish all my school work during day hours. We used multiple Petromax lanterns around the house at night and there was a proper routine for getting them ready and started to ensure we had enough light around the house. My playing hours were cut short and the fact that we lived inside the palace grounds resulted in me being largely cut off from friends who lived away from us. Before nightfall, my mom would come to the backyard and ask me to bat. She would pick pebbles and throw them towards me, my goal being to hit them clean and far. This was her way of keeping me engaged in an activity I enjoyed.

Ringing in 2020 from Hawaii

Fast forward to 2009, when Yash was born, I was determined that my son would never experience financial hardships on account of my folly or stupidity. We have managed and planned our resources well. We live a balanced lifestyle, take vacations regularly and Yash has always lived in a home owned by us. I love buying him his sports gear and equipment. This activity gives me such joy that he would probably never comprehend. We celebrated and welcomed the new year – 2020 – in Hawaii and it started out as what seemed like another memorable year. Then our lives got consumed by Corona Virus (COVID-19) and the “normal” changed for everyone. From late February, I started working from home and Yash’s last elementary school year (5th grade) moved online. Soon it was time for his summer break and we hunkered down at home. Both Chitra and I wondered how this isolation would impact Yash. Little did we know then, how 2020 will go down memory lane as an unprecedented year changing social behaviors for all humans.

All through the year we have counted our blessings and have reiterated this message to Yash. He may never have experienced first hand family financial troubles, but Chitra and I have tried to instill in him a value and appreciation for his lifestyle and it’s associated comforts. I am not someone to celebrate too soon and he has many more years ahead as he further develops to being a kind human. But it would not be a stretch to say that he has value for money and has never begged/bugged us for unnecessary or expensive gifts/toys etc.

Summer of 2020 was a test for Yash and eerily similar to my 1985 experience. He was largely confined to home and had to entertain himself with whatever was available in and around the house. Looking back at the year I give him an ‘A’ grade. He made good choices and did not let COVID-19 restrictions break him. I want to go on record, listing down activities that he spent time on during this lockdown. In the future whenever I lose it with him or question his actions, I can read this blog and remember his resolute and happy energy during the summer of 2020.

Monkey Slack-line Activity – Summer 2020
Come On Papa, You Will Do It Someday!!

We had given him a choice to buy something to keep him physically occupied in our yard. After some research we boiled down to buying a monkey slack line and he was on board with that plan. Honestly I was equally excited about it and had visualized swinging my 45 year old body from it with the agility of an olympian gymnast! After a great deal of effort, we managed to hook up the line and very soon my dreams of swinging across the line went swinging along. The ‘slack’ in the line makes you (well ‘me’) feel like a sack of potatoes and my arms would give way to a slow-motion drop on the grass. Yash was initially very excited but soon realized the effort it took to swing across the line. I remember telling him to keep trying “you will be able to swing back-n-forth five times by the end of summer!” After many attempts he got the hang of using his core and soon began to enjoy the challenge. He spent many, many hours just hanging about and displaying his monkey spirit in full color. He was able to cover the 25 feet long swinging adventure and back, six times by mid summer. He had begun to develop calluses on his hands and I may not have acknowledged this enough, but I was proud! Etched in my memory is the thrill in his eyes seeing me struggle, barely making it to the second grip and falling down not so gracefully.

Yash explored creativity with his hands, building stuff. Small things with paper, hard cardboard, scraps he would salvage from packaging materials etc. We had a new neighbor move in and he approached them for empty boxes they were recycling after the move. They were very kind to share with him. That only meant one half of our basement was a war zone…sorry creative studio (!) This artist has a special ability to push his mumma’s blood pressure through the roof! I have to admit, Chitra has lowered her benchmark for tidiness for Yash. Mind you, that’s Chitra’s low benchmark, which in a majority of households would be their best home showings. He started exploring paper based models, initially these were Minecraft characters, airplanes, guns, swords, shields. Later he picked up a glue gun to create interactive gaming models. And recently he has been exploring with clay. My dad too would build stuff with his hands, like ship models, airplanes models etc. He would showcase them in local exhibitions and gift them to friends and some strangers too. There is some gene of my dad in Yash…the building part, sharing with others – not so much yet!

From Yash’s Art Studio!

His poetry writing and comic illustrations took a back seat, however he explored random activities…being Batman all day long, jumping out of closets to welcome mummy home…put together a green super hero costume – Night Vision – and wore that for many days, inside and outside home (even in the summer heat)…and recently after watching Robert Downing Jr.’s Iron Man movies he created an Iron Man helmet! He wanted to explore camping on his own (with Bambi), so we pitched a tent in our backyard. Bambi and he did make it through all night. Do note, I was ordered to be the night watchman sleeping on the family room floor to keep watch on “her” precious son!

Welcoming Mom & Iron Man Inspiration

Dad had introduced me to many classic war movies during my middle school years. So this summer with the COVID-19 lockdown, we bought a few blu-rays for our home collection. Yes I still collect (!) physical movie Blu-rays. Every weekend we had family movie nights and watched them, hopefully creating some more good memories with Yash. There were a few that Yash really liked and we ended up watching them multiple times. Listing some of these classics from our home collection: Guns of Navarone, The Bridge on River Kawai, Von Ryan’s Express, Where Eagles Dare, The Longest Day and Kelly’s Heroes. Yash’s favorite were Guns of Navarone and Von Ryan’s Express. Many of Yash’s art projects (guns, planes) were inspired from these movies and he also does an awesome German officer imitation!

Another form of entertainment, if I can use that phrase, was the 2020 presidential election. We followed key events – debates, town halls, election night etc together and it was largely limited to PBS Newshour. I was impressed with how Yash was absorbing the words spoken by both candidates and also what political analysts were sharing. Later, on election night we swapped between multiple news channels to understand how election results were being presented. Yash was very tickled by all the frenzy around “CNN Projecting Now” immediately followed by “Too close to call”.

This year marked Yash’s venture to online gaming and interacting with his friends over video (Zoom/FaceTime). He has now explored Minecraft, Pokemon and also follows a couple of YouTubers. This last bit gets me to roll my eyes, as I wonder what excitement or entertainment value it has. Watching a 21 year old live stream his game and thousands watching it. As Yash will say “Papa you are just too old to understand this!” There is a character called ‘Technoblade” and he is Yash’s new hero. Yash narrates words of wisdom (!) spoken by Techno or funny quotes by him. We (Chitra and I) have also been subject to some of Techno’s animation – music/action – videos on YouTube, multiple times. I did google him today and realized he has 3.79 million subscribers to just his YouTube channel and more than half a billion views to his videos! Someone has planned for his retirement in his twenties, while I still continue to figure out my path. Technoblade, more power to you as long as you instill more thoughts of ‘kindness’ (!) into Yash.

2020 has been a challenging year and there is much to forget. As a parent, this was a test for us. These were events outside our control and certainly impacted Yash’s school and social life. I don’t recall him bugging Chitra or me with the dreaded ‘I am bored’ statements or getting into trouble at school or at home because of all the energy he has in him. Being a single child, he either went out and entertained himself or created new stuff. We sincerely hope he carries this trait forward and leverages it more.

Bambi at Peace with the World

In closing, as a family we have been blessed to have a steady household income, a stable job, ability to Work from Home (WFH) and retain our sanity staying hunkered down at home. We have been able to contribute to some of our favored charities and hope 2021 is a better year for the world. Bambi, for sure, is the most delighted Menon this year, as he has all his humans around him…always!! Until next time, be kind.

#summer2020 #YashMenon #hope2021 #technoblade

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