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Sybil : the colourful nonconformist

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Sybil Wettasinghe was not merely an example of an imaginative, quality illustrator of her generation, but much more. A journalist, a creative artist, a woman of many roles, she was a trendsetting global-Lankan. As the first death anniversary of this well known writer/illustrator approaches, we remember her life and times.

by Randima Attygalle

The six-year-old Sybil de Silva who left Gintota for her English convent education in Colombo with a head full of ‘aththamma’s folk tales’ and memories of Seedakka’s hopper-making and Yakdehi Muththa’s devil dancing found wrestling with forks and spoons in her convent refectory a futile effort. She wouldn’t compromise the flavour of her favourite lunch of rice with prawns and murunga and would wait till the nuns left the dining room and relish the meal, eating with her fingers amid protests from her schoolmates who would threaten to report her! During art class, she would horrify the Irish nuns at Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya, replicating her sculptor-grandfather’s female figures.

Despite resistance from school, teachers and her mother, Sybil continued to defend her dream of becoming a professional painter. She was not impressed by her mother’s efforts to make her an architect. Her father who encouraged his daughter’s art, submitted her work for an exhibition at the Colombo Art Gallery. The 15-year-old’s work impressed H.D. Sugathapala, Headmaster of the Royal Primary School, who handpicked Sybil to illustrate his Nava Maga Standard 5 Reader. The book which launched her artistic career was also the first book to be printed in colour here in Sri Lanka.

‘Sybil’ was a prophetess in Greek mythology – a woman who claimed to be able to interpret the wishes of the gods through their oracles. But this Sybil Wettasinghe was her own prophet. She was a rebel too. At 19, she knew she was ready for much more than pottering around with paint and brushes. Journalism was her next calling. It was on April 1, 1948 that draped in a new saree her mother had bought for the occasion, her hair in a formal konde, the 19-year-old was presented to D.B.Dhanapala, the Chief Editor of Lankadeepa.

The youngest and the only female staffer then at Lankadeepa, she was assigned a weekly ‘Saturday Strip’, giving life to characters and tales from her Gintota childhood. “Most readers believed the creator of this strip of folk poems and illustrations was a man, misreading my name and when news spread that it was a young girl, there were inquisitive visitors to the Lankadeepa office,” she once recounted.

The visits ended when Dhanapala ran a newspaper account of his gifted new recruit with her photograph. Turning a deaf ear to those who urged the editor to ‘drill some sense’ to the girl who was sketching ‘gibberish, nonsensical figures’, he cheered her on to discover her own metier, never altering her style to please the masses. “Some even proposed Heywood mentoring for me and Mr. Dhanapala wouldn’t hear any of it,” the self-taught artist would say.

Bored with just her weekly Lankadeepa strip and with enough time to spare to buy books with her monthly salary of Rs. 60, Sybil one day boldly strode into the offices of Sita Jayawardena who compiled the then Times of Ceylon Women’s Page and asked for additional work. Soon she was illustrating Sooty Banda’s caricatures of Colombo socialites for The Times.

Moving to the newly launched Janatha Sinhala evening paper of the Lake House Group in 1952 was a turning point for Sybil both personally and professionally. While the Chief Editor Denzil Peiris gave her free rein, young Chief Sub Editor, Dharmapala Wettasinghe implored her to write a children’s story for his sake! Not only was a story born which still keeps girdling the globe, but a romance too bloomed culminating in the nuptial knot between Dharmapala Wettasinghe and Sybil de Silva in 1955. “He was my best fan and my best critic,” Sybil would often say and credit her fame as a globally acclaimed writer to her late husband.

The children’s story Kuda Hora (Umbrella Thief) which Sybil initially wrote and illustrated for ‘his sake’ in the Janatha, became a book which is now translated into several languages. In Japan it was once judged the best foreign book published there and also the most popular children’s book. At a time when Sinhala literature for children meant direct translations of European children’s stories and school texts with a ‘scattering of illustrations’, Kuda Hora with its unforgettable antics of the mischievous monkey ushered a new era in children’s literature. Critic Regi Siriwardena once remarked that, ‘Kuda Hora was the first Sinhala book to completely marry words and pictures.’

‘Kosgama kuda ne, minissu kuda dekalawath ne’

(Kosgama people don’t have umbrellas nor have they ever seen any) set the scene for Kuda Hora. From Habarala leaves which served as umbrellas, a half eaten bunch of bananas in the village tea kiosk, the bulath heppuwa, hiramanaya to the cat on the Sinhala ulu-tiled roof, all her work breathed and celebrated the Sri Lankan flavour at its best. She often lamented that these ‘roots’ were missing in most contemporary Sri Lankan children’s literature.

Challenging the West-aping, servile mentality, the writer who defined the shape and form of Sri Lanka’s children’s literature for nearly 70 years, was bold enough to question, “why glorify apple trees and snow-capped mountains when we are part of a rich heritage.” In all her scores of much loved books including Hoity the Fox, Weniyan kalu weniyan, Sooththara Puncha, Runaway Beard, Poddai-Poddi and Meti gedara lamai, the authentic Sri Lankan flavour had been her credo. In a digital era where aththamma’s kitchen is only an image from the past, ‘googled’ and found, her documentation of an era gone by is priceless. Moreover her work impel a generation living in a cultural vacuum to revisit a value system fast eroding.

Sybil’s proficiency in English, her convent education and her exposure to English speaking circles of Colombo did not drive her to become yet another Anglo-Sri Lankan, a trait she shared with her journalist-husband. On the contrary, she would be skeptical of elaborate hats, gowns and parasols. Her social satire built around the character of Kusumalatha which she wrote and illustrated for the Sarasaviya paper was an index of this. In taking the authentic Sri Lankan landscape in which a distinct value system thrived, to the global platform, she would not compromise her style for any affinity with a particular ideology. For this, she was lauded by the world. She was one of the earliest Lankan writers and illustrators to go international long before ‘international citizenry’ became a buzz word.

Besides several state literary awards, and honorary titles, her work won a number of coveted international awards including the Nikkei Asia Prize for Culture 2012, Isabel Hutton Prize for Asian Women Writers, the Best Foreign Book Award in Japan in 1986 (for Kuda Hora). Her documentation of her childhood- Child in Me won the Gratiaen Prize for the most Creative English Book in 1995. She also won a Guinness world record in 2020 with her book Wonder Crystal a few months before her death at the age of 92, for having the most number of alternative endings which were solicited from young readers.

Accepting the Nikkei Asia Prize 2012 in Tokyo in recognition of her ‘magnificent contribution to enrich people’s lives in the region’ and first time bestowed on a Sri Lankan, Sybil remarked that although she had five grandchildren of her own, she considered all the world’s children hers. “Children are the spice of my life,” she remarked. Deeply moved by her love for children, Nikkei Inc. President & CEO Tsuneo Kita noted that her presence ‘bestowed a magical atmosphere’ at the event.

A woman with a fiercely independent mind who called herself her own ‘best friend’, Sybil did not bend the rules by which she lived. This was true of her artistic style as well. While most of her contemporaries would align themselves with a particular ‘school’, Sybil remained unaware of ‘current trends’ as she hardly stepped into Colombo’s galleries. She was never an understudy. “It never bothered me not to belong to any school or group,” she would say. With only her artistic DNA in her, the gene passed down by her sculptor-grandfather, Sybil went on to evolve her style of ‘talking pictures’ enthused by the fine nuances of a childhood spent in the South and people and places of her everyday life. A strong promoter of nurturing the inherent talent of children and allowing it to evolve naturally, she believed that ‘green skies’ and ‘blue trees’ were very much a part of this process.

Knowing Aunty Sybil or Sybil nenda as a nation of children called her, was a journey of discovery. Her cozy little home was my sanctuary. With each passing hour in her wise, wonderful company I rediscovered a phenomenal woman of iron will living in a slight frame. Seated at her weathered kitchen-table, I would spend many happy hours with her. “If only this table could talk,” she would often gleefully tell me. From the cat family which she lured with her ‘magical recipe’ of milk, sprats and bread to floating saucepans in her flooded drawing room (as a result of a tap left running throughout the night) her mischievous wit offered me constant amusement. Neither of us had any inkling that the breakfast of kiribath, lunumiris, ginger-tea and hakuru she treated me to a few weeks before her death was to be our last shared meal.

There were ‘story times’ too when the child in me would surface true to her mantra that ‘there is a wonder child living in all of us’. I would sit at her feet, she in her rocking chair telling me stories in her beautifully modulated story-teller voice. The one of the mermaid living six lives and realizing she is made only to be a mermaid remains one of my favourites. “A child is like that, we cannot make them live the lives we want, we have no right to realize our unrealized dreams through them, for they have their own destined paths,” she would tell me in the end. Then there were stories to which I was treated beyond her illustrated pages; trials and tribulations of a mother and a career woman, her measure of hurt and betrayal and so much more.

Long before ‘work-life balance’ for women was heard of, at a time when most of her contemporaries would abandon their vocations to raise a family, Sybil juggled both. To use a present day cliché, she ‘shattered the glass ceiling’ unconsciously. She was among the pioneering professional Sri Lankan women to have pioneered a path that generations of young women could follow. When her husband, the famous editor, Dharmapala Wettasinghe, became a political victim and lost his job, it was Sybil, then a mother of four young children, who kept the home fires burning. The batik business she set up during their dark hour not only helped her make ends meet but eventually rose to be an enterprise in which many took delight.

Sybil herself was a chronicle of history, her life intersecting with almost a century of changing socio-political and cultural milieu of the nation. Soon to turn 93, Sybil nenda kept herself busy at her desk everyday immersed in the child’s world, surrounded by her pots of ink and birds who would chirp outside her window. A verse from her popular book Child in Me would resonate;

 

A child and a grown up

Live as one

In perfect, perfect harmony

Within me.

She remained the six-year-old ‘Gintota girl’ until the very end…..



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Amusement ride brought to life on big screen Jungle Cruise

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By Tharishi Hewavithanagamage

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra from screenplay written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, and Michael Green, ‘Jungle Cruise’ is loosely based on Walt Disney’s theme park attraction of the same name. After success of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise, it comes as no surprise that Disney wanted to create another ride-based movie, this time featuring one of its first rides. The riverboat amusement ride was the only attraction to exist in the Adventureland themed section on Disneyland’s opening day in 1955. The live-action riverboat adventure stars Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, and Paul Giamatti.

The film is set in 1916, and follows Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) in a fervent search for a mystical tree whose petals known as Tears of the Moon, are said to have healing properties. Her strong belief that she could bring about medical breakthroughs and save numerous lives, prompts her to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, deep into the Amazon rainforest.

With a map in hand, Lily along with her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) enlist the help of skipper and swindler Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) to help navigate the vast waters of the rainforest. Coveting the mystical petals for their own goals are Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) and a team of 400-year old cursed conquistadors led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez). In a race against time, the bad guys and the jungle, Lily must place her trust in Frank if she is to ever reach the tree, but it’s easier said than done.

The latest Disney movie is definitely fun to watch. It’s a classic, and far too predictable, adventure, where a small group of protagonists venture into the unknown. The movie obviously borrows heavily from big screen hits like ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘The Mummy’ franchise, ‘Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid’ and even the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise. This film is a patch-work of tropes.

The two-hour movie also packs a lot, which is precisely why the plot gets murkier as the audiences and protagonists cruise through. The big picture is brimming with smaller side stories which include characters that aren’t essential to the plot and in the end remain forgettable, like Paul Giamatti’s crusty harbormaster Nilo, who unfortunately falls into the margins of the movie. And scenes such as Prince Joachim talking to bees, makes the film utterly nonsensical. However, the strongest points of the movie are seen in the strengthening relationships and character development, which receive just about enough screen time to hold the story together. And while there is no overarching theme for this tale, it handles themes like women empowerment and exoticism.

‘Jungle Cruise’ offers audiences an imaginative look at deeper areas of the Amazon. The titular jungle, Frank’s beloved boat and adorable pet Jaguar Proxima are CGI highlights, whereas most other effects, notably the ragtag supernatural conquistadors, who look like they hung out with Davy Jones for too long, fall flat.

The film also delivers meticulously choreographed action sequences that showcase each individual character’s physical prowess. Everyone gets a chance to throw a punch with good form, not just The Rock. The film also draws in ideas and references from the actual ride. The humor, a courtesy of Frank’s pun-laden jokes is an actual reference to the theme-park attraction. The ride is known for its corny jokes, all delivered by skippers who narrate the adventure to visitors. Everything comes together to make the film a fun-filled experience. It falls short of a strong plot but is driven forward by the performance of the two leads.

An unlikely pair, both Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt showcase their stellar acting skills. Blunt brings a strong charisma as an intrepid scholar and adventurer, breaking barriers in ‘a man’s world’ through her role as Dr. Lily Houghton. Blunt expertly navigates the character’s inner nerd and heroine in doing amazing stunts and even takes on Johnson’s muscular self. Johnson pours his heart and soul into his character Frank. At first glance Frank comes across as a rogue character with no depth and mainly supplies humor to the tale, but as the story unfolds Johnson taps into deeper aspects of the character. The Blunt-Johnson pairing oddly makes their banter fun, but the sense of awkwardness can be overwhelmingly uncomfortable in some scenes.

Jack Whitehall’s role as Lily’s not-so-adventurous brother McGregor, is Disney’s latest attempt to introduce a gay character, but fails to leave a deep impression. It also seems like it’s never a good adventure without the nefarious Germans trying to kill everyone, but Jesse Plemons brings more comedic relief than menace to his role as Prince Joachim. The conquistador villain Aguirre played by Edgar Ramírez, remains sidelined and underused.

At the end of the day, ‘Jungle Cruise’ is a fun summer adventure that everyone can enjoy. Although the film doesn’t meet the standards set by their cooler counterpart ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, ‘Jungle Cruise’ brings its own unique quirkiness that saves it from drowning completely.

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Astrologers suggested he be ordained

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Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera

Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera was an eminent scholar monk in the nineteenth century. He was the founder of the Vidyodaya Pirivena.

He was born in the village of Hettigoda in Hikkaduwa on 20-01-1827.

As was the Sinhala custom, his horoscope was cast by an eminent astrologer who predicted that the child was under the evil influence of the planets and that he will have a life of misfortune, with a suggestion that he be ordained. The parents then consulted several other eminent astrologers who too, made similar predictions.

(As later events proved, the predictions happened to be from those who had not properly mastered the science of astrology, or due to the inaccurate time of birth recorded).

As per the predictions, his parents then decided to ordain him. With that in view, he was given only a temple-oriented education, with no formal schooling.

When he was about 14 years old, preparations were made to ordain him at an auspicious time. But, as the auspicious time was fast approaching, he was found missing.

After he was found, he told his father not to ordain him and bring the Buddha Sasana into disrepute, as his astrological predictions were adverse.

However, he was ordained later as Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, of his own volition.

Nobody ever thought, at the time, that he would one day be a scholar of great repute.

The following year, he sojourned at the Mapalagama Temple, in the Galle District during the Vas Season (rainy season) with his preceptor Mobotuwana Revatha Thera and several other monks.

This young Sumangala Samanera (novice) endeared himself to the devotees, with his disciplined demeanour and with his sermons, based on the Jathaka stories (stories of the former lives of the Buddha). One such devotee – John Cornelis Abeywardena, an English scholar (an ancestor of the present day Galle politician Vajira Abeywardena) volunteered to teach English to this young inspiring preacher.

It was a time when some bhikkhus were engaged in native medical treatment. And Sumangala Thera, then still a novice, was to answer this question as to whether the bhikkhus could engage in such a practice.

He construed that it was harmless to treat the hapless, destitute patients, friends or relations, provided it was not for any material gain and that it was not a serious violation of the Vinaya rules.

While travelling by train, one day, this Samanera met a group of pilgrims from Siam (now Thailand), coming down south, after a pilgrimage to Anuradhapura.

The pilgrims knew only their Siam language and the Pali language, resulting in they being cut off from the local populace.

One of them, half-heartedly spoke to this Samanera in the Pali lanugage. It was then that he realised that he was spaking to a Pali scholar. This resulted in exchange of views between the two of them.

Later he continued with his higher learning under several reputed venerable preceptors and also authored several valuable books.

During the Vas Season, in that year 1858, he sojourned at the Bogahawatta Temple, in Galle, and commenced publishing a newspaper for Buddhists named “Lanka Loka”.

He was a close friend of Col. Henry Steele Olcott, who arrived in Ceylon in the year 1880.

During those colonial days, the first class compartments in trains were more or less reserved for the white masters. Quite often, these compartments were seen going empty, except for one or two of them, while the second and third classes were crammed. Though some Sri Lankans had the means to travel first class, they didn’t have the courage to do so. There were others who did not care a damn for the white skins and unhestatingly travelled first class.

One day Sumangala Nayaka Thera was travelling to Kandy and entered a first class compartment, occupied by two high- spirited Englishmen.

With characteristic arrogance they subjected the Nayaka Thera to a barrage of vulger comments and rude insults.

“This old fellow has, by mistake, got into this compartment” one of them said.

“No, this is not a mistake. He is purposely, fraudulently, travelling first class with a third class ticket.”

“Shall we hand him over to the Railway Authorities?” asked the other.

The Thera gazed at them silently with a benign smile on his face.

At Polgahawela, the train was shunted into a siding, for the train carrying Sir Arthur Gordon, Governor of Ceylon, who was returning to Colombo, after a holiday, was due at any moment.

The train arrived and the Governor’s special compartment drew up right alongside the one occupied by the venerable monk. Glancing out of the window, the Governor saw Sumangala Thera and a smile of pure pleasure shone on the Governor’s face. For he and the learned monk were close friends. Scholars both, they visited each other quite often and spent many hours in erudite discussion.

“My dear High Priest! Fancy meeting you like this!” said Sir Gordon, opening the door of his compartment and walking into the one occupied by the Thera. They were engaged in a lively conversation, in English, and the train was 11 minutes late.

With the Governor’s departure, the two louts now crestfallen and repentant at their boorish behaviour, profusely apologised to the Thera.

With a smile on his face, the Thera, accepted their apologies with a brief exhortation. Thereafter they were engaged in a lovely conservation till the journey’s end.

Once there was a clash between some Buddhists who went in a procession and some Catholics at Maggona, resulting in the death of a Catholic.

As a sequel, a Buddhist named Seeman Fernando was sentenced to death. On representations made by the Nayaka Thera to the Governor, Seeman Fernando was released.

One day, a group of pilgrims that also included some members of the Cambodian Royal Family, went to Kandy with the Nayaka Thera for an exposition of the Tooth Relic.

It was a non-event as no prior intimation had been made to the Dalada Maligawa authorities in time.

The next morning, the Thera was walking leisurely along the Nuwara Wewa, when Governor Gordon, who was going in a horse drawn chariot saw the Nayaka Thera and after greeting him indulged in a lively conversation. When he told him about the non-event of the exposition of the tooth relic the previous day, the Governor took immediate steps for a special exposition, directing the Government Agent to make the necessary arrangements.

In the year 1873, he founded the Vidyodaya Pirivena – a seat of Buddhist higher learning. It was his greatest service to Buddhism.

When the permit to have a perahera was first introduced at the turn of this centry, the Nayaka Thera, as Head of Vidyodaya, sought permission to hold the annual perahera of the Pirivena. Permission was at first refused, but mysteriously granted a few days later.

Despite the refusal, the Nayaka Thera had gone ahead with the arrangements to hold the perahera, and when a senior police officer on horseback brought the permit personally to the High Priest, he contemptuously rejected it and sent the officer away.

This incident was reported to the I.G.P. who, in turn, reported it to the Governor of the colony of Ceylon.

The Governor, a close friend and admirer of Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, sent his Maha Mudliyar, Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, as his personal emissary, to respectfully request the learned scholar monk to come to Queen’s House to discuss the matter, as His Excellency feared that the act of the Nayaka Thera would be an undersirable precedent.

“I refused to accept the police permit for this reason,” the Nayaka Thera, told the Governor. “When I first asked for permission to hold the perahera, permission was refused. A few days later, permission was granted. This indicates that permits are given, not according to any law, but at the whims and fancies of police personnel, which is all wrong. That is why I refused the permit that was given on second thoughts. The freedom to practise the Buddhist religion and its rites have been guaranteed in the Kandyan Convention, and I shall be grateful if you and your minions will kindly remember that.”

The chastened Governor was profuse in his apologies to the outspoken scholar monk.

The Nayaka Thera was taken ill on the 21st April 1911 and passed away on the 29th (about 110 years ago).

Perhaps he would never have envisaged, that his much cherished Vidyodaya Pirivena would be no more on a tidal wave, in the years to come.

 

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Talented and versatile

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Shareefa Thahir is not only popular, as a radio personality, but she also has a big following on social media. Each time she uploads a new photo, or an event where she is in the spotlight, the ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ keep soaring. Shareefa does the scene at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (Radio Sri Lanka – 97.4 and 97.6) as an English announcer, and news reader, and she is also a freelance TV presenter, and news anchor, on Rupavahini.

Had a chat with this talented, and versatile, young lady, and this is how it all went…

1. How would you describe yourself?

In just a few words, I would say a simple, easy-going person. And, my friends would certainly endorse that.

2. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I love myself, and I accept whatever laws I may have. So, obviously, there’s nothing that I would want to change in myself.

3. If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

Absolutely nothing because they are amazing…just the way they are (and that hit by Bruno Mars ‘Just The way You Are’ came to mind when you asked me this question!)

4. School?

Melbourne International, and Gateway College. I was the captain of my house and participated in athletics – track events, etc.

5. Happiest moment?

Oh, I will never forget the day I won the Raigam Award for my work on television.

6. What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Accept yourself and enjoy the tiny things in life.

7. Are you religious?

I believe in God, but I don’t think you should go about announcing it. I stay true to my heart.

8. Are you superstitious?

A little …..stitious! Hahaha! Just kidding – not at all!

9. Your ideal guy?

Someone who accepts me for who I am, and who is supportive in my journey…like I would be in his.

10. Which living person do you most admire?

I would say Jennifer Lopez, for the simple reason that she is still very energetic, and active, for her age (52), keeps herself in good shape, and still has a huge fan base.

11. Which is your most treasured possession?

Yes, I would say my talent.

12. If you were marooned on a desert island, who would you like as your companion?

My best friend as I would certainly need someone to chat with! Hahaha!

13. Your most embarrassing moment?

Saying ‘good morning’ to viewers on an evening live show!

14. Done anything daring?

Not yet. I wonder when I would get that opportunity to do something…real daring, like, let’s say, climbing Mount Everest!

15. Your ideal vacation?

A life without social media, in Greece, enjoying the beauty of nature.

16. What kind of music are you into?

Oh, I can go on and on about this; it depends on my mood. I love alternate rock, mostly, but I enjoy reggae, and pop, too.

17. Favourite radio station?

SLBC’s Radio Sri Lanka.

18. Favourite TV station?

Channel Eye (for obvious reasons).

19 What would you like to be born as in your next life?

Myself…again.

20. Any major plans for the future?

I’m hoping to start a new venture. However, I’m keeping my fingers crossed, as right now the scene is pretty dicey, with this virus being so unpredictable.

 

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