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How many roads must a man walk down?

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Jayathilaka and mother Dingiriamma

The journey has been long––very very long. It started in a little village called Dandu Bendi Ruppa, in Nuwara Kalaviya, when Dingiriamma rolled Jayathilaka in a ‘borrowed’ wheelchair for his first day in the village school. “Hodatama Wahinawa Mahaththayo” she told me–– the skies were gray and raining and the distant clouds were coughing thunder. She had covered her 10-year-old handicapped son with a plastic sheet and pushed him on rickety old wheels, gifted to them when an old man died in the next village. Such was the beginning ….

That was then, 25 years ago.

The ceremony was solemn, opulent and almost sacred. The National University of Singapore does not spare anything when it comes to their ‘lime-light’ events. The Class of 2011 all gathered in their robes of black and flat hats, mostly young, ‘this medal winner’ and ‘that medal winner’ of Singapore’s best brains in youth. The recipients of the prestigious degrees totalled more than 400. Then there were the chosen few representing the elite in education, the ones who had read and completed their PhDs in this world-renowned institution. The audience gathered was the ‘who’s who’ of Singapore in their Saville Row suits and Bally feet. Pahalagedara Jayathilaka, too, was there, sitting among the Doctors of Philosophy, his crutches folded across his knees waiting to be called to end his unbelievable journey.

I sat with Dingiriamma, his mother, along with his brother and sister-in-law, whom he had brought down from Sri Lanka to witness the final walk. This sure was a different planet to these rural people and they sat in their village innocence, making feeble attempts to come to terms with the grandeur of it all. If anybody had a right to be there, it sure was Dingiriamma. The name was announced, “Pahalagedara Jayathilaka” and I glanced at the 70-year-old mother and saw her staring ‘blink-less’ as her beloved son walked on to the stage. Eyes glued and tears pouring down a mottled skinned cheek as she celebrated, with absolute awe, each step Jayathilaka was taking, crawling the final crawl in crutches to receive his PhD.

What enormous battles she had fought along with him? What roads they had walked together, poor pilgrims in an unknown odyssey? Hand in hand and crutches clinched, they trudged the unimaginable tortuous steps of a very long journey that had impossible mountains to climb. What wringing they would have done to squeeze out the drops of courage from their dented and battered lives to see the far distant light and to be where they are today?

“How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?” the immortal words of Dylan come to my mind. The answer is not in the wind, but in the unbelievable achievement of Jayathilaka who had surmounted all obstacles to stand tall today with his ‘Fluid Dynamics’ doctorate. The other side of the coin, of course, is Dingiriamma, the simple uneducated mother who cultivated vegetables and raised him with eight other siblings, as a single parent, in an obscure village. What visions would she have of education? What ambitions would she have hoarded as all other mothers do for their sons? What hopes? What ways to even think of him attending school let alone entering a university? She had only the purest of love in a cruel world of ‘cripple-look-down.’ “Mata dukai Mahaththayo, abbagathayekne,” she just wanted to make the little disabled boy play some little part in life other than to be an intrinsic failure with lame legs. That was her call to give her son some normalcy. Dingiriamma, when she pushed the wheelchair to school on the first day, in the pouring rain, would never have thought in her wildest dreams how far this brilliant young man would travel along his long and gruelling trail.

Yes, the old unheralded mother sat among the elite of Singapore, a poor vegetable seller from a village near Dambulla, dressed in a pale brownish white sari, a long necklace of metal and some coloured beads around her neck, and a hanky to constantly wipe her eyes, watching a very rare impossible dream take form and shape in reality.

“The bravest battle that ever was fought

Shall I tell you where and when?

In the maps of the world you would find it not

It was fought by the mothers of men.”

I am sure all you mothers who read this article will silently cheer Dingiriamma, applaud her in your hearts and sing her praises to those you meet. She certainly deserves that and more, the unknown and unsung optimum of motherhood which she in her own simple way displayed in almost unparalleled achievements of emotion filled courage and has unknowingly laid bare for others to emulate.

It was Jayathilaka who told me he had heard on his first day in school one teacher telling the other, “Why is this cripple allowed here? He is going to be a problem’, and the other teacher saying ‘Maybe he can at least learn to write his name.” That he remembers well along with the other almost ‘fairy tales’ he told me of his childhood and the way he scrabbled to where he is today.

Jayathilaka received repeated double-promotions and he went from the village school to Kurunegala to do his A/Ls, where he scored the highest marks in the district and entered Katubedde University to study Mechanical Engineering.

That part had been extremely difficult, Dingiriamma’s meagre earnings, from selling vegetables, was hardly adequate to support young Jayathilaka. His best eating had been a ‘banis or a malu paan’ at Mallika Bakery and the ‘food-festivals’ they laid out on campus to those who survived on subsidised meals.

I had very close interactions with him at this time. By then he had joined CandleAid Lanka as a sponsored student. I do remember asking him in his last year how he was faring in his Uni work and how he answered in a humble tone “Captain, I am sure of a First Class.”

How many…

That bowled me completely. Here was a handicapped student crawling in crutches and broke as the ‘ten commandments’ and yet ‘dead-certain’ of his unamplified ability to obtain a First Class Honours degree in the subject he was reading.

Jayathilaka did not get a First Class––what he received was a Super First Class. I did not even know what that meant, but my basic English told me it was better than a First Class.

The journey is now over; Dingiriamma has done her part as a mother to bring her little handicapped boy to where he is today. He, too, has done more than his share, where much more able people would have given up even before they began, Pahalagedara Jayathilaka plodded on to a golden finish line.

Dr. Jayathilaka has been offered employment at the National University of Singapore as a postdoctoral researcher. He will continue there for two more years.

“I want to go back, I like to teach in Sri Lanka, I owe that to my homeland that gave me a free education,” such were his words after the ceremony, spoken in true patriotic vein, sincere and laced with gratitude.

That night we gathered and shared a simple meal to celebrate. They had brought ‘kalu dodol’ from home with just the right Nuwara Kalaviya touch. There was no one to interview them; nor were there flashing lights and TV cameras to record their story. Dingiriamma recalled some of the stories of Jayathilaka’s childhood; how he used to crawl around the table when the others were studying and how his brother taught him to write. And how he went to school pushed in his ramshackle wheelchair and how he painfully walked small distances bending and lifting his bad leg with his hand to take a few steps. The conversation was all about the road they travelled, and the stories sounded unbelievable. I wish I had space to write, but then my words would be superfluous and colourless, totally incapable of capturing the full essence of their journey, let alone the accompanying emotions of the mother and son.

I wonder how Mother Lanka would recognise and praise someone like Dingiriamma. It matters not to her and it certainly matters not to Jayathilaka; they have already won their race. These are stories that should not be forgotten-––especially how a mother and son walked an extremely demanding trail from the village of Dandu Bendi Ruppa to the National University of Singapore and a PhD in Fluid Dynamics.

The shine is on them; it is for others like you and me to see and recognise the simplicity and the greatness. Pale brownish white sari, long chain with beads and hanky in hand to wipe her tears, Dingiriamma stood the tallest at the Class of 2011 celebration. As for Dr. Pahalagedara Jayathilaka in his black and green gown, clutching his crutches, he walked the proudest, yet the humblest at the ceremony, to the loudest possible ovation.

I was so privileged to be there to share that rare moment.



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Beyond the fiction of Alborada

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By Sarath Chandrajeewa

“No matter how much a work of art is sweet, if it hides the truth and disregards humanity it can only be equalled to a beautiful but empty shell that attracts us.” (L.E. Kerbel – Russian Sculptor)

‘Alborada’ is the Spanish word for ‘the dawn’. In 1984, a music group was born in Peru, South America by the same name and they gained immense popularity. Their music mainly spread among people in North and South America. Their music’s foundation was the traditional music of Native Americans who lived in the Andes mountain range (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTD2VDcxvNc). Likewise, in 2005 a soap opera by the same name was broadcast in Mexico, North America, which became very popular. This story was based on a series of events that took place during the historical period when Panama and Mexico were on the verge of gaining freedom from Spain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iM5s_d1vls).

In 2021 Asoka Handagama made a film in Sri Lanka by the same name, Alborada. The protagonist of this film is Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973), the Chilean Consul in Ceylon for two years, from 1929 to 1931. He was very young, only 25, when he was appointed to this post. Ceylon was a colony at the time and he was lodged at No. 56, 42nd street, Wellawatte, Colombo 6, a place close to the sea. He had written down his reminiscences, in his own language, in book form. Later it was translated into English and published under the title ‘Memoirs’. According to this book, he had referred to his house as ‘My solitary bungalow’. It is said that the name Alborada was proposed by Pablo Neruda for the house of his friend, Lionel Wendt (1900 – 1944), who had lived at Guildford Crescent, Colombo 7.

Wendt too was fluent in several languages including English, Spanish and some other European languages. It is apparent, from documents and events that took place at that time, that his house, Alborada, had not been a lonely or tranquil place. It is clear that house Alborada was always full of people, such as painters, dancers, actors, photographers as well as pianists and those who enjoyed music. It was more like a cultural centre where discussions, art critiques and debates took place. (L.C. Van Geyzel, et al. [2000]. ‘Lionel Wendt: A Centennial tribute’. Lionel Wendt memorial fund; Sampath Bandara. [2017]. Lionel Wendt Kalava Saha Jeevithaya, Sarasavi Publication. [Sinhala]).

Though Handagama’s film was titled Alborada, the actual location, where incidents mentioned took place, was the Solitary Bungalow, the Chilean Consul’s official residence (Jamie James. [2019]. ‘Pablo Neruda’s life as a struggling Poet in Sri Lanka: A young poet’s Adventures in the Foreign Service’. Retrieved from https://lithub.com/pablo-nerudas-life-as-a-struggling-poet-in-sri-lanka/). In the 20th Century Sri Lankan context, Alborada was a distinguished active cultural centre. As a Sri Lankan cultural symbol, it directly connects with the character of Lionel Wendt. The creator of a work of art has the total freedom to create his work as he pleases and also to choose whatever name for the particular work. Handagama’s Alborada is similar to a poem, set to inspiring music. It includes a series of artistic figure compositions and features a number of skilled performing artistes. The trailer of Handagama’s film gave me some ideas.

When creating a work of art based on historical events, rather than myth and imaginary incidents, its trustworthiness depends on the people who faced the incident, the actual incidents, exact places, time period and the political and cultural background. Consequently, thorough research is necessary to identify accurate works based on historical incidents. It is difficult to rectify myths or false assumptions ingrained in society by unreliable books, documents, magazines or films. People will always embrace falsity, deception and myth, over the truth. Our culture as well as other cultures are replete with many such examples.

Alborada

‘Alborada’ is the name of Lionel Wendt’s house. It is important as it is the house of a great Sri Lankan cultural icon of the last century. It is also important as Alborada was the name given to the renowned cultural centre of modern history, in Sri Lanka. It is from this place that art activities in our country were taken to the international arena. Alborada was situated at No. 18 old Guildford Crescent. Today this street is called Premasiri Kemadasa Mawatha. Six years after his demise, in 1950 his friend Harold Peiris (1905-1981) demolished his old house, Alborada, and built a gallery and a performing arts centre (Lionel Wendt Art Gallery and Theatre) to commemorate him. It was designed by painter Geoffrey Beling (1907 – 1992), Principal Art Inspector, Department of Education, and Bernard G. Thornley (Manel Fonseka. [1994]. ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt, Lionel Wendt Photographs’. Deutsche Bank Colombo and Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund).

When Lionel Wendt was alive, renowned upcountry master dancers, Amunugama Suramba and Nittawela Ukkuwa used to lodge at Alborada with their troupes, when they visited Colombo (Dancer Dr. Vaidyavathi Rajapakse, daughter of Master Dancer Suramba, Personal communication, 2017).

A documentary movie ‘Song of Ceylon’, directed by Basil Wright in 1934, was placed first at the Brussels International film festival in 1935. The creative segments of the movie were organized at Alborada. Manel Fonseka reported in an article, ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt’ in 1994, that in an interview with Julia Margaret Cameron, Basil Wright had said this about Lionel Wendt; “I think he was one of the greatest still photographers that ever lived. I should place him among the six best I’ve come across”.

As a result of discussions held at Alborada, master dancers Nittawela Ukkuwa and Amunugama Suramba were taken to England for a recording of drum beats, for the movie ‘Song of Ceylon’. This trip was sponsored by painter Harry Peiris (1904-1988). A dance school was established to develop up-country dance, in Gunnepana, Sirimalwatte, Kandy in the 1920s for Master Suramba, as a result of discussions held among a group led by Wendt and George Keyt (1901-1993). This troupe, which included the group of up-country dancers, Ukkuwa, Nittawela Gunaya, Punchi Gura and Sri Jayana Rajapakse, was later upgraded as the ‘Dance Ensemble of Central Lanka’. Jayana’s coming of age ceremony, inclusive of his ‘Ves ceremony’, held at the Degaldoruwa Rajamaha Viharaya, Kandy, in 1939, and Jayana’s dance training in India later, were all sponsored by Wendt (Dr. Vaidyavathi Rajapakse, Personal communication, 2017).

The first art inspector appointed to Sri Lanka, during the colonial era, was Charles Freegrove Winzer (1886-1940), an Englishman. He became close friends with Wendt, during his tenure in Sri Lanka. In the early years, Winzer and Wendt both wrote reviews on exhibitions of George Keyt, Justin Peiris Deraniyagala (1903-1967) and Geoffrey Beling. Wendt also translated Neruda’s art reviews from Spanish to English and published them (Manel Fonseka.

[1994]. ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt, Lionel Wendt Photographs’. Deutsche Bank Colombo and Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund).

The first avant-garde art movement in Sri Lanka, the ’43 Group’, was born under the leadership of Winzer and Wendt. The 43 Group consisted of Wendt (Chief Organizer), painters Harry Peiris (Chief Secretary), George Keyt, J.W.G Beling, Richard Gabriel (1924-2016), Ivan Peiris (1921-1988), Justin Pieris Deraniyagala, George Claessen (1909-1999), Aubrey Collette (1920-1992) and L.T.P Manjusri (1902-1982). The meetings of the 43 group were held at Alborada until Wendt’s death.

Afterwards the meetings were held at the house of Harry Peiris, Sapumal Foundation, Barnes Place (Sarath Chandrajeewa. [2010]. ‘Modern Art in Sri Lanka and its socio-political environment’, Artful resistance: contemporary Art from Sri Lanka, ZKF publishers. Germany).

As mentioned above, Pablo Neruda was only 25 when he was in Sri Lanka as the Chilean Ambassador (1929-1931). At 29, Wendt was four years older. In his book ‘Memoirs’, translated from Spanish into English by Hardie St. Martin, published by Penguin, Neruda had written thus about Wendt, on page 93.

“Little by little the impenetrable crust began to crack open and I struck up a few good friendships. At the same time, I discovered the younger generation, steeped in colonialist culture, who talked only about books just out in England. I found out that the pianist, photographer, critic and cinematographer Lionel Wendt was the central figure of a cultural life torn between the death rattles of the Empire and a human appraisal of the untapped values of Ceylon.

Lionel Wendt, who owned an extensive library and received all the latest books from England, got into the extravagant and generous habit of every week sending to my house, which was a good distance from the city, a cyclist loaded down with a sack of books. Thus, for some time, I read kilometers of English novels, among them the first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published privately in Florence” (Memoirs by Pablo Neruda, translated from Spanish by Hardie St. Martin [1997]. Penguin Books).

To be continued

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Politics at its most primitive

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By Uditha Devapriya

Review of Shaveen Bandaranayake’s Groundswell

Sarasavi Publications, 2021, 118 pages, Rs. 300

Half-way into Shaveen Bandaranayake’s novel, the Minister at the heart of the story tells us that the wealth he earned was people, not money. This is what politicians usually say. In the very least, it is what people who dislike politicians imagine they say.

Come to think of it, both amount to the same thing: we’ve turned politicians into objects of hate so much that we’ve come to love them for being who we think they are. Since we can’t control them in real life, we want to dominate them in popular fiction. The number of plays and films that poke fun at Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Ministers testify to how badly we want to be, not like them, but above them.

I am deeply suspicious of satire of that sort. In his excellent review of Pusswedilla, Hafeel Farisz tells us why political parody ends up serving the people and objects being parodied. This is not rocket science. At its best, political satire can move us to anger, disenchantment, and rebellion. At its worst, it can lull us into a sense of complacency with things as they are and as they seem. Farisz seemed to think that Pusswedilla epitomised the latter, reinforcing cultural stereotypes while offering no proper critique of the political establishment and the ruling class. I suppose you can say the same thing of Vijaya Nandasiri’s comedies: at his best, he makes us aware of the corruption of the political class; at his worst, he turns the corrupt into objects of love-hate, full of tropes and clichés but nothing substantive.

Shaveen Bandaranayake’s Groundswell reads as a political satire, though I have my doubts. Interweaving different stories and unfolding like a film, it goes back and forth. I won’t call its ending funny, but then how can any novel involving politics end on a funny note?

What Bandaranayake does in his story, short as it is, is to tell us that nothing good can come out of a system mired as much in corruption as in patronage. Since these people are tied to each other through politics, politics can prove to be their undoing. The way he forays into this theme and explores it, without regurgitating the usual political clichés, puts the novel at a notch or two above what you come across at, say, the Lionel Wendt. Without conforming to crude stereotypes, he attempts to humanise his characters, showing us why connections matter in politics, and why they don’t always work out.

The plot is simple enough. A woman comes across a corpse of a man at the foot of a hill one fine morning. She informs the police. By the looks of it, he seems to have lost his grip and fallen to his death. The story then rewinds to a political rally at that most obtrusive site of political rallies, a temple, where we are introduced to Sarath Aluwihare, a Minister trying to win his next election. We are also introduced to Sunil, a young man endeavouring to land a job. Events will unfold in a way that will bring the two of them together.

We are told that Sarath hails from a family of politicians, and that this family has been in politics for over two generations. The surname tells us as much. Sunil, on the other hand, is so unobtrusive that Shaveen doesn’t grant him the privilege of a surname, which, after all, is the preserve of those who matter. Like other village youths lacking employment and in dire search of a patron from the ruling class, Sunil clearly is not important; even when he finds a job as Aluwihare’s driver, his status rises, but not so much as to protect him from the novel’s ending. He is as destined to his place in life as Aluwihare is to his.

There are other characters though, and they have surnames. There is the head priest of the temple, for instance, an unabashed admirer of Aluwihare who uses him to achieve his not so religious purposes. Then there is Dileepa Jayanetti, who rises “from rags to riches” and ends up becoming the owner of the country’s biggest media house. Dileepa finds his way up by befriending the daughter of another prominent politician, who introduces him to Aluwihare, who in turn becomes his biggest benefactor. You sense the pattern here.

Halfway through the story, Dileepa hires Lasantha Muthukumarana, a journalist who tries to stick to the tenets of his trade. Dileepa does this because he thinks that by hiring the honest, he can keep them from being honest. For someone who is so bright and manipulative, this is far from the most brilliant decision he could have taken: a few pages later, Muthukumarana is investigating a hit-and-run incident which may be connected to Aluwihare.

In Bandaranayake’s world, everyone seems to know everyone else. That is why it comes to no surprise that the man run down by a vehicle in the middle of the night should have been married to a woman Aluwihare just happened to hire at his Ministry, and that she should be rumoured to have formed the object of Aluwihare’s affections. That Lasantha thought for a moment that a news report linking all this to a prominent Minister would make it in a paper linked to and blessed by that Minister is, of course, intriguing. But he tries to get it published it anyway. When the predictable opprobrium follows and he finds he can’t get it in, the story moves to its inevitable and in many ways unsurprising conclusion.

In saying all this, I am by no means revealing the plot. In fact, surprising as it may seem, the plot is what least interests me about Bandaranayake’s novel. This is a narrative I have come across many times, in many forms. Bandaranayake takes great pains to make it all relevant to the immediate political situation, i.e. the one we are in, now. Those who manage to draw links between his characters and their “real-life counterparts” should, therefore, be forgiven for thinking that he has attempted political critique masquerading as satire. My interest in it, then, has less to do with the novel than the genre it belongs to.

If Groundswell can be called a satire, it is satirical only to the extent that his characters are caricatures. Yet, as I implied earlier, it is not a satire in the way that a work like Pusswedilla is. The characters fit into preconceived and familiar patterns, but that doesn’t make them the clichéd tropes they turn into elsewhere. These characters are more rounded, certainly more complex. Sarath Aluwihare, for instance, does not possess the overstuffed tummy his counterparts from countless parodies do, while Sunil doesn’t become a Renfield type figure hell bent on catering to his “Master.” Even though Bandaranayake can be facetious, and is pugnacious, he refuses to dabble in the kind of satirical humour which could have turned his story into a Vijaya Nandasiri style parody of politics in Sri Lanka.

Depending on how you view it, this may be the strongest point or the biggest weakness in Bandaranayake’s novel. Groundswell makes several important points, and they should be considered pertinent whether they be couched the language of satire or of serious political critique. The medium is hardly the message, contrary to what people might say, and the way you communicate your ideas should not really impact the importance of those ideas.

And yet, there are one or two episodes which reveal Bandaranayake’s funny side. It is here that the disjuncture between the satirical undertones and the ponderous overtones of the narrative, and the author’s voice, proves fatal to the development of the story.

Bandaranayake is at his best when he is setting up situations, and these situations are, all things considered, effective in setting up the plot. He tries to create atmosphere, and does a good job of laying the context. But when each and every point is prefaced by laboriously long explanations of social phenomena, such as the separation between temple and State in Sri Lanka, or the wretched fate encountered by a million or so menial workers in West Asia, you struggle to distinguish between the narrative and the commentary.

For local readers, these explanations will at best be passé. I suspect they will be for foreign readers as well. Groundswell is a novel, or more correctly a novella, which could have been shorter, tighter, and more effective without them. Not surprisingly, the story gains strength when Bandaranayake cuts to the chase, and loses track when he does not.

I have read this kind of story many times before. What makes this one interesting is that it is Bandaranayake’s first attempt at fiction, and that, for a first attempt, it’s damn good. Even within its limits, he has come up with something enjoyable. That I enjoyed the book, and of course the brilliant illustrations that more than just decorate it*, is why I wish it were leaner, shorter, and tighter. Less can be more. More often than not, it is.

* With one exception: the eighth drawing depicts a scene that, if you think about it carefully, is at odds with the text on the opposite page.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Thirty two little ballerinas win awards at TBSC’s 2021 prize giving

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Text and pictures by
PRIYAN DE SILVA

Thirty two little ballerinas were presented with certificates of achievements and awards at the 2021 prize giving of The Ballet school of Colombo (TBSC) held recently.

Directors of TBSC Tara Cooke and Romina Gyi said that they were extremely proud of the achievements of their charges and thanked the students and parents for their dedication in attending classes diligently despite the trying conditions.

Certificates of achievement were awarded in the baby ballet, junior ballet and intermediate ballet categories to students who excelled in pre-classical and pre-jazz ballet.

Debbie McRitchie, International Director of the Commonwealth Society of Teachers of Dancing (to which TBSC is affiliated), in her congratulatory message thanked the parents for investing in their childrens dance education and the teachers of TBSC for preparing the candidates. She said that dance is like life and is a journey but not a destination and encouraged all stakeholders to work harder.

The prize giving was a proud moment for both students and parents as it was a parent who presented the certificates of achievement to their child. Five-year-old Shenaya de Alwis Samarasinghe was the youngest candidate at the prize giving, passing with honours in pre-classical ballet.

The Ballet School of Colombo was the former ‘Oosha Garten Sschool of Ballet’ pioneered by the late Kalasuri Oosha Saravanamuttu-Wijesinghe and was instituted as the ‘The Ballet School of Colombo’ in 2016.

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