Category Archives: History

Jamsetjee Framjee Madon — a pioneer of Indian cinema and champion of Calcutta’s poor Parsis

In Pioneering Parsis of Calcutta, Prochy N. Mehta chronicles the little-known lives of the first Parsis who came to the city during British rule.

Jamsetjee Framjee Madon | Niyogi Books | Prochy N. Mehta
Jamsetjee Framjee Madon | Niyogi Books | Prochy N. Mehta
Jamsetjee Framjee Madon was one of the pioneers of Indian cinema. He owned over 120 cinema halls at one time. Jamsetjee was very modern in his outlook and a reformist in his religious views. He was one of the first trustees of the Late Ervad D.B. Mehta’s Zoroastrian Anjuman Atash Adaran and was a supporter of the young Bella, to whom he left Rs 5,000 in his will to help her in her legal case.

Jamsetjee Framjee Madon was born on 27 April 1856 in a very poor family in Bombay. The family being truly indigent, he had to seek employment at the tender age of twelve as a scene-shifter in the dramatic company of Cooverji Ratanji Nazir, at a salary of Rs 4 per month. The young lad got enamoured of the stage, copying the roles of the heroes and heroines of the plays and later playing small roles on stage. Since he had a good voice, he could act the part of a courtesan and became quite popular.

He then joined Elphinstone Natak Company which toured the country and in 1875, on an auspicious day, he came to Calcutta with this touring company. Some time later he took over this company in partnership with a few others. This company prospered, thanks to his experience, far-sightedness and hard work, and made Calcutta its permanent home. Simultaneously he started dealing in auctioned goods and in 1885 started another business as wines and provision merchant at 5, Dharamtalla Street. His honesty, perseverance and gentle nature soon attracted important Indian customers and the shop became extremely popular among government officers and Englishmen. There were seven branches of this store including those at Calcutta, Darjeeling, Lucknow and Delhi.

In 1903, at the time of the British invasion of Tibet, Jamsetjee opened food and provision stores all the way from Siliguri to Chumbi and assisted the armed forces in supplying food and provision to soldiers even at great personal risk. The British officers greatly appreciated Madon’s fortitude and bravery as a result of which Jamsetjee was given a large contract of supplying the army during the wars in Kabul. He carried out his work at great risk and in significantly difficult circumstances, to the utmost satisfaction of the military officers. In appreciation of these services, the British Government awarded him the Order of the British Empire in 1918.

 

On 30 March 1919, the Calcutta Parsis felicitated Jamsetjee at a function under the chairmanship of the trustee of the Anjuman, Seth Edulji Pestonji Guzdar. Madon Seth was congratulated on obtaining the Order of the British Empire and praised for his simple life, gentle nature, honesty and kindness and for his munificence towards the poor.

Seth Jamsetjee, like the other Parsi elders of the community, had a generous nature and was always anxious to assist the needy. Having grown up in poverty he felt for the poor and gave employment to many poor Parsi youngsters in his cinemas and shops. He was thus responsible for the livelihood of a large number of Parsi families. Many of his charities were done secretly and it can be truly said of him that his left hand was not aware of what his right hand gave away. It was estimated that such secret handouts averaged Rs 5,000 every month. This help was not restricted to Parsis exclusively; all the needy benefitted from his charity, irrespective of caste or creed. Many institutions of public welfare owed their existence and prosperity to him.

In 1907 Seth Jamsetjee took up the mission of building a second Tower of Silence in Calcutta. Starting a subscription list with his personal donation of Rs 5,000, he went from house to house and managed to collect a lakh of rupees from the Calcutta Parsis. It was due to his influence that the municipality gave a grant of Rs 27,000 towards the purchase of land for this second Tower of Silence, and he personally bore the expenses of Rs 20,000 towards building it. Seth Madon’s efforts and far-sightedness resulted in bringing together the priests of the Kadimi and Shahanshai sections for the first time in Calcutta. The Kadimi priests performed the religious rites at the time of the foundation and the Shahanshai priests performed the consecration rites.

In 1912, at the time of the building of the Mehta fire temple, Seth Jamsetjee provided his devoted services. The building attached to the fire temple used as a residence for the priests was built and donated by him and his family to the Atash Adaran. He presented several chandeliers, lamps and carpets for the main prayer hall and also many tables, chairs, large cooking utensils for general use. This generous-hearted Parsi also had the foresight to start funds with initial personal donations to take care of the future maintenance of the Atash Adaran.

Seth Jamsetjee was deeply sympathetic towards the poor Parsi families in Calcutta. In Dharamtalla Street he built Khorshed Madan Mansion at an expense of Rs 1,10,176 in memory of his beloved daughter, Mrs Khorshed Rustomji Maneckji Mehta, who had died on 14 January 1920 during the lifetime of her parents. Seth Jamsetjee donated this house to the Anjuman on the understanding that the flats be rented out to the poor and middle-class Parsi families of Calcutta at a low rent. Further he set aside a sizeable fund for the maintenance of this building.

He also secured the land for the ‘aramgah’ for the Parsis in Darjeeling and donated funds towards its maintenance. On several occasions he gave donations to the Anjuman on behalf of his friends and relations. Seth Jamsetjee organised several ‘benefit nights’ in many of his cinema houses to collect funds for charities for Parsis as well as other communities.

In 1923, the British Government honoured him with the award of Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his many cosmopolitan charities.

About twenty years prior to the advent of cinema on a commercial basis in India, Seth Jamsetjee experimented with this new media and perfected it for public viewing. He was truly a pioneer of the cinema industry in India.

The young lad of twelve, who started his career as a scene-shifter at a salary of Rs 4 per month, aided by some lucky turn of events and greatly due to his own inherent ability, perseverance and hard labour, became, in the evening of his life, the owner of a hundred cinema houses in India. Seth Jamsetjee’s life is a shining example of Parsi adventure and philanthropy. Upon his death which took place in Calcutta on roz 22 Govad, Mah 10 Dae, Year 1292 y.z., corresponding to 28 June 1923, Calcutta lost a true benefactor of the poor.

This excerpt from Pioneering Parsis of Calcutta by Prochy N. Mehta has been published with permission from Niyogi Books.

Jamsetjee Framjee Madon — a pioneer of Indian cinema and champion of Calcutta’s poor Parsis

Central Bank of India – a Pioneer

With all of you at home, let’s dwell into some Parsi history of an iconic banker…..
HDFC Bank is a giant in its own sense. Financial companies look up to it & Mr. Puri’s management style. But we all know nothing endures for ever. Here’s a story of a equally prominent Indian bank of its time that is still functional but hardly anyone cares today…..
This bank was registered in December 1911 with a paid up capital of a meagre 20 lakh. It was founded by a Parsi who started his banking career with Bank of India as an accountant. In those days, even if BOI was Indian sponsored, key managerial positions were all held by Europeans.
At Bank of India, our Parsi bawa reported to a guy called H P Stringfellow, a European ofcourse. He drew a salary of Rs. 5000/- a month while our Parsi bawa was paid Rs. 200 a month.
Not only were there huge pay disparities and humiliations, Europeans dominated banks were partial when it came to giving out credit to Indian entrepreneurs and businesses.
Our Parsi bawa didn’t like this. He wanted an Indian Bank managed by Indians. It was not easy. Early 1900s also saw rise of Swadeshi movement and after initial hesitation it was applied to the world of banking as well.
So one morning the young Parsi boy told his boss ( H P Stringfellow) that he has had it enough and that he will set up his own bank. His boss thought of his idea as a ‘huge joke’ but soon realised he was serious. Mr. Stringfellow asked our Parsi bawa to reconsider his decision.
But the young boy was determined and said to his boss – ‘Sir, I have made up my mind. I resign from the bank’s service. One day my bank will be bigger than yours’. Here’s the first connection of this Bank with HDFC bank
Thakoredas Parekh who worked with our Parsi bawa at BOI left along with him & assisted him in setting up his bank by joining as Superintendent of Current Account and Bills Department. It’s noteworthy that Thakoredas Parekh is Deepak Parekh’s grandfather.
But initial few years post starting operations were not easy. 87 banks failed between 1913-1917, starting before WW1 and accentuated by it. Notice the main cause of failure. 100 years later, anything has hardly changed when it comes to Bank failures.
Early on post the bank started its operations, there were multiple runs on our Parsi bawa’s bank too. Just 2 year in to operations, there was a major run on the bank. Directors of the bank pledged titles of their personal properties to pay to depositors.
Before 1923, Parsi bawa’s bank saw through another couple of bank runs. Each time coming out stronger purely on commitment and sincerity of its management. Then something extraordinary happened in 1923.
Not many know this, but Tata’s once owned and operated a bank too – for a grand total of 6 years. They had once set up Tata Industrial Bank (TIB) during boom of WW1 (1917). TIB had paid up capital of Rs. 2.3 cr and deposits totalling to ~6 cr. These were big numbers back then.
Post WW1, the TIB started to get into trouble. Once the boom of WW1 ended TIB’s industrial investments rapidly depreciated. TIB had also spent 66 Lakh on magnificent structures in Bombay & Calcutta. House of Tatas was also passing through a lean phase in early 1920s.
Imagine what history would have looked like had a bank from Tatas failed. Although a competitor bank, our Parsi bawa didn’t want TIB to fail. TIB failing would have put shutters on operational success of lot of other Indian sponsored banks.
That’s when Parsi bawa put up a bold scheme. Although less than one fifth in size, he wanted to Amalgamate TIB with his bank. In today’s parlance, purely by Balance sheet size, it’s like amalgamating SBI with HDFC Bank.
A few boardroom dramas later, TIB was amalgamated with our Parsi bawas bank in July 1923. Post amalgamation, the capital and reserves went 4x immediately. The staff of TIB was mostly European who slowly were replaced with Indians.
With this and some truly fantastic innovation mostly mastered by our Parsi bawa, the bank went on to become a force to reckon with in Indian banking industry. There were some firsts which came out from this bank. For example this bank was the first to launch a Safe Deposit Vault.
It was also first in India to introduce HSS passbooks and system of withdrawals by cheques in Savings Account. In 1924 it became the first to employ women assistants to serve lady customers and even maintained a separate department for them.
Infact India’s first woman commerce graduate Yasmin Surveyor was the first to join the women department at the bank. She got her commerce degree from Sydenham College.
Your Wealth RM selling you estate planning? Our Parsi bawa’s bank did it back in 1929. First one to start in India. Your banker sold you a savings account sighting free life insurance protection? Parsi bawa’s bank offered free life insurance if one maintained avg. bal. of Rs.10.
Parsi bawa also launched ‘Home Savings Safe’ account. When was the last time your banker asked you to save? These days it’s only about spending – CC, PL, Auto loans. At one point one in 15 Bombayite had an account with his bank.
By the time our Parsi bawa’s bank turned 25 years old, it was by far the largest bank in India with one third market share in deposits. To compare HDFC bank is also 25 year old and its market share is less than 10%. What are the industry first innovations from HDFC Bank?
You might say, ah HDFC bank today competes with SBI. Our Parsi bawa also had competition with SBI’s predecessor Imperial Bank which was must stronger than what SBI is today. Imperial Bank was not only a commercial bank then,it performed duties that RBI performs today
So which bank am I talking about? Our Parsi bawa’s name was Sir Sorabji N Pochkhanawala & his bank’s name is Central Bank of India. Sir Sorabji was only 30 year old when he founded Central Bank. Today Central bank’s Mcap is 6500 cr against 4.2 lakh crore of HDFC bank!
Proudly shared by Jehangir Bisney
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Example of a true entrepreneur the likes of whom should motivate us. Being my grandfather’s brother here are a few interesting facts not in the article.He joined Elphinstone college but dropped out to work with Chartered Bank to support his family. He was a fast on the job learner and decided to self school to take and pass and obtain the British Banking certificate. He then started training young Britishers who went on to become bosses. He got fed up with the discrimination and decided to open a bank owned by & operated by Indians. HE WAS ONLY 27. When he went home and told his family, all except his young wife Sakerbai, were upset at his stupidity and did not talk to him for 6 months. The rest as described above is history. The English banks tried their hardest to sink his bank but he prevailed and he was recognized and Knighted in 1934. He passed away in 1937 at the age of only 54 partly due to diabetes and his love for food. Hopefully it will motivate someone as it did me. If you can dream it you can do it.
Edul Daver

The Fascinating Story of Maneckji Limji Hataria

The Fascinating Story of Maneckji Limji Hataria; Scholar, Civil Rights Activist and Personne Particulièrement Extraordinaire!
In 1779, the sudden death of the Shah Karim Khan Zand threw Iran into turmoil.
Fearing for their safety, two wealthy Zoroastrian families left Kerman and made their way to Yazd and eventually reached the distant port city of Bombay in 1796. One of them was a beautiful girl named Golestan-Banu, daughter of a benevolent merchant Kai Khusrau-i Yazdyar.
After arriving in Bombay the Yazdyar family was helped and looked after by the local Zoroastrians and Golestan eventually married a Framji Bhikaji and settled into comfortable life, however, her heart ached for her land Iran and her city Kerman.
She urged her father, husband and later her children to help her people in Kerman. Inspired by her, Golenstan’s husband Framji spent considerable time and fortune in assisting Iranians trying to find passage to Bombay.
In 1834, her eldest son Burjorji Framji set up a fund to assist Irani arriving in Bombay. 20 yrs later, her grandson Meherwanji founded an ambitious organisation ‘Society for Amelioration of the Condition of Zoroastrians in Iran’ and this would have far reaching consequences.
As the 1st emissary of this Society, the Surat (India) born “Manekji” arrived in Iran in April 1854 and with his charity, honesty, tact & patience in negotiations, and  moral and physical courage, literally changed the fate of Zoroastrians in Iran in the next few decades.
His efforts led to the 1882 repeal of jazia on Zoroastrians by the Shah, secular education for Zoroastrian boys & girls (which was unheard at that time) and achieved universal literacy, became mostly urban and relatively wealthy in just a generation.
Manekji is fondly remembered by the Zoroastrian of Iran and a bronze bust of his placed in the famous atash bahram of Yazd. The social and economic success of Zoroastrians in Iran owes it to the generous support they received from the Indian Zoroastrians, aka “Parsi”.

How Parsis shaped India’s taste for soft drinks

A bottle of Pallonji’s raspberry soda comes with this helpful disclaimer: “Contains no fruit.” Electric red in colour, and syrupy sweet to the taste, the raspberry soda is a beloved cultural icon of India’s fast-disappearing Parsi community – as well as the endangered Irani cafes in the western city of Mumbai.

It is pure, fizzy nostalgia.

But peer more closely into one of Pallonji’s ancient glass bottles and you can discern a story of much greater significance: how Parsis helped shape India’s taste for soft drinks.

Over the past two centuries, Parsis were instrumental in popularising and producing carbonated beverages in India, laying the foundations for what is today a $8bn (£6.9bn) industry.

Soda had become a popular beverage in London by the early 1800s. Companies such as Schweppes sold plain carbonated water, advertising it as a health elixir. Other firms experimented with flavoured variants such as lemon, orange, and raspberry.

Inevitably, soda found its way from the heart of the empire to India, where it was a luxury item for Britons in the subcontinent. In 1837, Henry Rogers, a chemist in Mumbai, set up what was likely western India’s first “aerated water” factory.

Rogers’ product was not simply a refreshing pick-me-up. Before Mumbai completed its modern waterworks in the late 19th Century, it relied on well water, which was filthy and potentially deadly.

Poster of a Parsi aerated water manufacturing companyImage copyrightH D DARUKHANAWALA, PARSIS AND SPORTS
Image captionThe Parsi community were instrumental in manufacturing aerated drinks in India

In the best of times, residents complained of drinking muddy liquid that was “very foul both to sight and smell, of a yellowish brown colour”. In the worst of times, hundreds died from cholera outbreaks.

Drinking carbonated water could be a life-saving habit. After all, carbonic acid in soda killed bacteria and viruses.

This was even more the case after the invention of carbonated tonic water in 1858, which contained quinine to ward off malaria.

Parsis sensed a commercial opportunity in the new fizzy drinks consumed by their colonial masters. Many were already involved in businesses that catered to Britons, as commissaries to the army or owners of hotels and “Europe shops” in cities.

They added soda to their inventories. According to community lore, the first Parsi to settle in Ahmednagar – a dusty army outpost in the Deccan – arrived in town with a soda-making apparatus strapped to a mule, with which he slaked the thirst of British soldiers.

By the mid-1800s, Parsis began imbibing the strange drink themselves.

Here, they served as trendsetters for other Indians, who had looked at soda with suspicion.

The Marolia family sold their soda in special round-bottom bottles

 

Click Here for the full story with some great pics

By Dinyar Patel
Historian

Deciphering Persian tablets

Machine learning promises to streamline handling of tomorrow’s bureaucratic drudgery — and, it turns out, that of 2,500 years ago.
What’s new: Computer vision is helping researchers at the University of Chicago translate a massive collection of ancient records inscribed on clay tablets.
How it works: Persian scribes around 500 BCE produced thousands of documents now collected in the Persepolis Fortification Archive.
Researchers have been translating the cuneiform characters for decades. Now they hope to speed up the job with help from DeepScribe, a model built by computer scientist Sanjay Krishnan.
  • The university began capturing digital images of the tablets in 2002. Students hand-labeled 100,000 symbols.
  • DeepScribe was trained using 6,000 annotated images. It deciphered the test set with 80 percent accuracy.
  • The researchers hope to build a generalized version that can decipher other ancient languages.
Behind the news: The archive mostly contains records of government purchases, sales, and transport of food, helping scholars develop a detailed understanding of life in the First Persian Empire. University of Chicago archaeologists found the tablets in 1933 near the palace sites of early Persian kings. They returned the artifacts to Iran in 2019.

FREDDIE MERCURY CLOSE

 

‘Freddie Mercury Close’ was officially unveiled on February 24, by Freddie’s sister, Kashmira Bulsara, and the Mayor of the London Borough of Hounslow, Councillor Tony Louki. Personally I would have preferred ‘Freddie Balsara Close’. (Balsar is a small town in Gujarat.). But then Fareydoon Balsara never wanted to be known as a ‘desi’.

LONDON — A street in the London suburb where Freddie Mercury lived as a teenager was renamed Freddie Mercury Close on Monday at a ceremony attended by the late Queen frontman’s sister.
Their family moved to Feltham in west London after fleeing the revolution in Zanzibar in 1964.
Local authorities agreed to rename part of Hanworth Road – the address of the headquarters of the World Zoroastrian Organization. Mercury was born a Zoroastrian and practiced the ancient religion as a child.
The family actually lived a short walk away at 22 Gladstone Avenue. That site was marked with a blue plaque in 2016.
Mercury died in 1991 aged 45 due to complications from AIDS. The Mercury Phoenix Trust, a charity set up after his death, supports projects fighting HIV and AIDS worldwide.

Farokh Engineer – A rare phenomenon

TODAY, 25 February, is the 82nd birthday of Farokh Engineer.

One of the great keepers and also a magnificently attacking batsman.

As Engineer once said “Some people tell me, you used to play T20 40 years before its invention!”

Farokh was a dasher. The first Indian cricketer to endorse a product and the last Parsi to have played for India.

Happy Birthday!!

It was a rare phenomenon to be able to find such a player who’d fit in to play as an excellent wicket-keeper as well as a fantastic batsman during the 1960s. That’s when Farokh Engineer came into the Indian Cricket’s family tree. Discover more about one of the hard-hitting batsmen who also guarded the team with excellency by positioning himself behind the stumps only on Mid Wicket Tales with Naseeruddin Shah.

 

Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library

The British Library is fortunate in having an unparalled collection of over 100 Zoroastrian works ranging from the oldest, the ninth century Ashem Vohu prayer written in Sogdian script discovered by Aurel Stein in Central Asia in 1907, to, most recently, manuscripts collected especially for the Royal Society in London during the late-nineteenth century. Although Zoroastrianism is Iranian in origin, most of our manuscripts in fact come from India. They are written in Avestan (Old Iranian), Middle Persian, New Persian, and also in the Indian languages Sanskrit and Gujarati.

In the past few years several of our manuscripts have become familiar through exhibitions such as Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination held at SOAS (2013) and New Delhi (2016) and also through the Zoroastrian articles and collection items included in our recent website Discovering Sacred Texts. Building on this and thanks to the philanthropic support of Mrs Purviz Rusy Shroff, we have now been able to complete digitisation of the whole collection. This introductory post outlines the history of the collection and is intended as the first in a series highlighting the collection as the manuscripts go live during the next few months.


One of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Ashem vohu, discovered at Dunhuang by Aurel Stein in 1907. Transcribed into Sogdian (a medieval Iranian language) script, this fragment dates from around the ninth century AD, about four centuries earlier than any other surviving Zoroastrian text (BL Or.8212/84). Public domain

The collection is made up of three main collections described below, dating from the seventeenth, the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, in addition to individual items acquired by British travellers to India and employees of the East India Company. I’ll be writing more about these individual collections in future posts.

Thomas Hyde (1636–1703)

Samuel Guise (1751-1811)

Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner

Other sources

The remaining manuscripts were acquired in India, mostly by East India Company servants Jonathan Duncan Governor of Bombay (1756–1811), Sir John Malcolm (1769–1833), and the Scottish linguist and poet John Leyden (1775-1811). They range from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.


The beginning of the Qissah-i Sanjan, the traditional story in Persian verse of the settlement of the Parsis in India composed by Bahman ibn Kayqubād at Nausari in AD 1600. This copy is undated but was written, most probably for John Leyden, on paper watermarked 1799 (BL IO Islamic 2572, f. 1v). Public domain

Further reading

Samuel Guise, A Catalogue and Detailed Account of a Very Valuable and Curious Collection of Manuscripts, Collected in HindostanLondon, 1800.
Almut Hintze, An introduction to Zoroastrianism, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
Jenny Rose, Zoroastrianism from the early modern period, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
Ursula Sims-Williams, Zoroastrianism in late antiquity, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
—————-, “The strange story of Samuel Guise: an 18th-century collection of Zorostrian manuscripts,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 19, 2005 (2009), pp. 199-209.
—————-, “Zoroastrian Manuscripts in the British Library, London,” in The Transmission of the Avesta, ed. A. Cantera. Wiesbaden, 2012, pp. 173-94.

We are grateful to Mrs Purviz Rusy Shroff, Mr Neville Shroff and Mr Zarir Cama for their generous support towards this project.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library

 

Click Here for the full detailed story

SANJAN STAMBH CENTENARY TODAY – FEBRUARY 15, 2020

SANJAN STAMBH CENTENARY TODAY – FEBRUARY 15, 2020
Mademoiselle Delphie Mennant, a French lady scholar, visited Sanjan in 1901. She has written a scholarly book, Les Parsis, about the history, religion and culture of our Parsi  community.
In an article in a Parisian magazine she wrote: “We are astonished to find that the Parsis have, up to now, neglected
to raise a commemorative monument to mark the place of the landing of their ancestors and the place where the Sacred Fire burnt for the first time in India.”
Her suggestion was taken up by Shams-Ul-Ulema Dr. Sir Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, then secretary of Bombay Parsi Punchayet.
A committee was appointed in 1910 and they decided to build the Memorial Column at Sanjan.
On Roz 8 Mah 6 1289 Y.Z. i.e. February 15, 1920, the Sanjan Stambh was inaugurated.
Three special trains were run to take a huge contingent of Parsis from Mumbai. A special train was also run from Surat, which was taken advantage of by residents of Surat, Navsari, Bilimora, Valsad, Udvada in large numbers.
Vada Dasturji Khurshedji Minocheherji performed the Jashan. Shams-Ul-Ulama Dasturji Darabji Peshotanji Sanjana led the Humbandagi.
By Marzban Jamshedji Giara

Pioneering Parsis of Calcutta – Book Launch

It started as legal research but swiftly became a voyage of discovery. I was entranced by the stories that unfolded as I glimpsed history in the making. Various scenes played out in front of me as the kaleidoscope of society in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries revealed itself. I was spellbound by the great deeds and wonderful accomplishments of our community members who strode larger than life on Calcutta’s stage. Their foresight, intelligence and broad-minded views were truly remarkable. It pained me that some of our history was never told and much of it forgotten. At the prompting of dear friends I decided to put my findings into a book. Come take a walk with me into the glorious history of Calcutta Parsis.

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