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PRABUDDHA BHARATASwami Vivekananda's First Hosts in Bombay  

 

                    

 

 

     Swami Vivekananda's First Hosts in Bombay

          

 

      Swami Shuddharupananda



     Samudra Villa, house of Ramdas ChabildasFrom the Life of Swami Vivekananda by his Eastern and Western disciples we learn that Swamiji was in Khandwa towards the end of June 1892. (1) He had stayed there for about three weeks with Babu Haridas Chatterji, a pleader. From his talks with his host there, we come to know of Swamiji's serious intention to attend the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, to be held the following year. Earlier, Swamiji had heard of this religious convention when he was in Kathiawar. The book on the life of Thakur Saheb Jaswant Singhji of Limbdi, which was written in Gujarati and published in 1896, mentions that it was the Maharaja of Limbdi who gave Swamiji the idea of going to the West to preach Vedanta. We learn further from the Life that when Swamiji was in Porbandar, Pandit Shankar Pandurang, the dewan of the state, told him, 'Swamiji, I am afraid you cannot do much in this country. Few will appreciate you here. You ought to go to the West, where people will understand you and your worth. Surely you can throw great light upon Western culture by preaching the Sanatana Dharma!' Swamiji was glad to hear these words, for they coincided with his own thoughts, which he had expressed to C H Pandya of Junagadh, though vaguely. (2)


     During this period Swamiji exhibited intense spiritual power, which was corroborated by Swami Akhandanandaji. The latter had met Swamiji around this time in Mandvi, Gujarat. He said that he was astonished to see the change in Swamiji's face, which had a sublime, divine radiance.


     Now we can understand why Swamiji told Haridas Babu that if someone helped him with the passage money, he was prepared to go to America. Haridas Babu recognized Swamiji's great personality and wanted him to extend his stay in Khandwa. But Swamiji had to make his pilgrimage to Rameswaram. So he could not extend his stay, nor could he keep halting at other places. Seeing Swamiji's resolve, Haridas Babu gave a letter of introduction to his brother in Bombay and told Swamiji that his brother would introduce him to Seth Ramdas Chabildas, a wellknown barrister there. He then bought for Swamiji a train ticket to Bombay.


     The House Where Swamiji Stayed in BombaySamudra Villa: front view

     Swamiji reached Bombay in the last week of July 1892. There, Haridas Chatterjee's brother introduced Swamiji to Ramdas Chabildas, who received him cordially and requested him to be his guest. Swamiji agreed.
In his 'Discourses on Jnana Yoga' Swamiji says, 'The higher understanding is extremely difficult. The concrete is more to most people than the abstract.' (3) And he cites an illustration in which he gives the description of the house of Ramdas Chabildas, his first host in Bombay. He talks about two men, one a Hindu and the other a Jain, who were playing chess in the rich merchant's home, which was near the sea. (We introduced the above subject to give the reader an idea of the house and its location. For the whole story the reader may refer to the said lecture.)


     In January 2003 the present author located the house of Ramdas Chabildas with the help of two descendants of Chabildas Lalubhai. It stands on Dorab Shaw Lane, Napeon Sea Road, Bombay. (4) Some photographs of the building are included in this article along with their description.


     The author found the house in extremely dilapidated condition. Only the front porch was in use, by security guards, who were manning the place on behalf of its present owner, Sri Bilasrai Mahavir Prasad Badriprasad. The house is a threestoreyed building, known as Samudra Villa. Except for the porch all other areas of the house are unsafe for human habitation. Situated beside the sea, it has long balconies on the first and second floors and matches Swamiji's description of it. After a lot of coaxing, the guards allowed the author inside to have a look. The author has some knowledge of architecture and building construction. After analysing the style of construction and the materials used, he feels that the house is more than 150 years old. The ground floor has stables that can accommodate six to eight horses. Stables in a residential building speak of the owner's wealth. At the rear are utilities like toilets and servants' quarters in a separate threestoreyed building. The main house is connected with the utilities at every floor.

     
This house belonged to Seth Chabildas Lalubhai, who was one of the wealthy merchants of Bombay. We have the sale document of the Samudra Villa, dated April 1916, executed between Kesarbai, wife of Chabildas Lalubhai, and the purchaser, Dorab Shaw Bomanjee Dubash, a Parsee. That explains how the lane got its name.
It would be a good idea if, with permission from the headquarters, the local Ramakrishna Math arranges to put up a small marble tablet near this bungalow to commemorate Swamiji's stay there during JulyAugust 1892.

 

      Ramdas ChabildasSamudra Villa engraved on facade

 


     In 1875 Ramdas Chabildas was a student of Elphinstone School, which has all along been a prestigious institution. (5) Later he went to England and earned his postgraduate degree in arts around 1884 and then his law degree. On his return to India the government honoured him with a walking stick with a goldandsilver handle, for becoming the first Indian barrister. Ramdas Chabildas was also a Sanskrit scholar, well grounded in the Vedas and the Upanishads. Apart from Swamiji, he had hosted at his bungalow eminent spiritual personalities like Swami Dayananda Saraswati. So his house must have resonated with religious debates and discussions. (6) He was a staunch Arya Samajist and a founder member of its Bombay branch. From Swami Dayananda Saraswati he received training in basic Sanskrit and in composing kavyas. On Dayananda Saraswati's demise in 1883, he composed a twentyoneverse tribute to him in Sanskrit. It is significant that the Arya Samaj of Bombay had about 100 founder members in 1875. Among them Chabildas Lalubhai was prominent.

     During Swamiji's twomonth stay in his bungalow, Ramdas had numerous discussions with him, one of Samudra Villa: view of stablewhich has come to light from Mahapurush Maharaj's conversations at the Bombay ashrama on 19 January 1927. Mahapurush Maharaj told the monks that Swamiji had stayed in Ramdas Chabildas' house and visited many places in Bombay. He further said, 'Ramdas Chabildas belonged to the Arya Samaj and was against the worship of God with form. He had much discussion with Swamiji concerning it. One day he said to Swamiji, "Well, Swamiji, you say that worship of God with forms, idolworship and such other doctrines are true. If you can prove these doctrines by arguments quoted from the Vedas, I shall leave the Arya Samaj, I promise you." Swamiji replied emphatically, "Yes, surely, I can do that." And he began to explain to Chabildas the Hindu doctrine of imageworship and such other doctrines in the light of the Vedas. Ramdas Chabildas was convinced and made good his promise by leaving the Arya Samaj.'
It seems Ramdas Chabildas was only a few years older than Swamiji; so they gelled. Moreover, they had converging interests: scriptures and Sanskrit. On 22 August 1892, Swamiji wrote to the Dewan of Junagadh, 'I have got here some Sanskrit books and help, too, to read, which I do not hope to get elsewhere, and I am anxious to finish them.' (7)


     It appears Swamiji could not visit the Elephanta caves because the monsoon had already set in, preventing launches from plying to Elephanta Island. During the monsoon the Arabian Sea is very rough, choppy and ferocious. However, Swamiji did visit the Kanheri caves near Borivili, a description of which will be given later on in the article. In his unpublished letter dated 22 May 1893 from Bombay, he writes to the Maharaja of Khetri, 'At Bombay I went to see my friend Ramdas, barristeratlaw. He is rather a sentimental gentleman and was [so] much impressed with your highness' character that he told me that had it not been midsummer he would rather fly to see such a prince.'

     From Bombay Swamiji went to Poona. At the railway station he was introduced to the renowned Samudra Villa: dilapidated staircasescholar and patriot Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who was his fellow passenger. Tilak says in his reminiscences, 'At Victoria Terminus a sannyasin entered the carriage I was in. A few Gujarati gentlemen were there to see him off. They made the formal introduction and asked the sannyasin to reside at my house during his stay at Poona.' (8) We can safely assume that among the group of Gujarati gentlemen were Ramdas Chabildas and Shyamji Krishna Verma, his friend and brotherinlaw.

 

 


      Ramdas Chabildas' Family

 


     After getting his law degree, Ramdas Chabildas started his practice in Bombay. Later, in the late 1880s, he began his practice as barrister in Nagpur. (9) He purchased a twoacre property at Civil Lines from the Baxi family and built a large bungalow, Jamna Villa, named after his wife Jamnabai. (10) The Baxis were neighbours of Ramdas Chabildas. Ramdas Chabildas had two sons, Suryakant and Jaisen, both barristers. Suryakant died when he was about forty, leaving behind three sons and two daughters. Jaisen practised as a Samudra Villa: crumbling roofbarrister in Nagpur and was elected mayor of the city. The Corporation of Nagpur honoured him by naming one of the city's neighbourhoods as Ramdas Peth, after his father. Suryakant's eldest son Janak was a commander in the Indian Navy.


     At present, Ramdas Chabildas' property is all sold and his descendants are living mainly in Bombay, except for one in Nagpur. On the said property there still exists a memorial that preserves the relics of Ramdas Chabildas and his wife. Two marble tablets on the memorial say Ramdas Chabildas died on 22 October 1920 and Jamnabai on 10 January 1914.

 

 

      Chabildas Lalubhai (Ramdas' Father)

 


     
Chabildas Lalubhai was born in Bombay in 1839. He was a Suryavanshi Gujarati, a kshatriya belonging to the Chevali Bhansali community. Bhansalis are descendants of King Bhanusal, who ruled in the northwestern part of India. Their family deity is Mother Hinglaj. Hinglaj is a place in Baluchistan (now in Pakistan) popularly known as Marubhumi Hinglaj ('desert Hinglaj'). It is one of the shaktipithas of Mother Sati. A journey to Hinglaj is very difficult due to its hostile terrain. Swami Trigunatitananda had visited this place on pilgrimage.

     In later times, the Bhansali community came further down from the northwest, and some of them settled in Kutch, Sorath (Kathiawar), Surat, Sindh and Cheval. So they are called Kutchi, Sorathi, Sindhi and Chevali Bhansalis. Being Gujaratis, the Bhansali community preferred to do business and trade. Chabildas Lalubhai's father was Lalubhai Jairamdas; he was in the British Army.

 


     Chabildas Lalubhai As a Businessman and Builder

 


     At the young age of thirteen years Chabildas Lalubhai joined Messrs Cullar Palmer & Co at their Bombay branch for Rs 15 a month. From the beginning his mind was set on starting his own business. So after gaining some experience he gave up his salaried job, purchased some big countryboats and used them for carrying freight to and from foreign steamers at BhavchaDhakka (Bombay seaport). This enterprise of his was highly successful. Gradually he became one of the foremost business magnates and owned his own steamship named Galileo for doing business with foreign companies. Galileo was insured for Rs 5 lakh. At that time English cloth was hugely popular and much soughtafter throughout the world. Chabildas Lalubhai took advantage of this business boom. He imported English cloth and amassed huge wealth by selling them to wholesale traders in Bombay. He also had a factory in Jamnagar, Saurashtra, where decorative goods were made from ivory. He exported these and other prime goods to Britain and France. Since he was the first visiting Indian trader to France, the French government honoured him with a letter of recognition.


     Chabildas Lalubhai was also highly successful in obtaining building contracts from the government and private parties. Along the BombayPoona rail line, from Karjat to Lonavla, where the Khandala Ghats are situated, he secured works connected with the railway line. In Bombay he built a number of buildings. The buildings he erected and owned still exist in Dadar. (11)

 


     Chabildas Lalubhai's Borivili Bungalow

 


     When Swamiji visited Bombay in 1892 there were trains plying between Colaba and Andheri. Since the Kanheri caves are about 22 km from Bombay it can be presumed that along with Ramdas Chabildas and Chabildas Lalubhai Swamiji may have taken the train from Grant Road (which is nearer to their bungalow) to Andheri and then proceeded to Borivili by horse carriage, or they might have used an eighthorse shigram carriage from the Napeon Sea Road bungalow. Chabildas Lalubhai had a spacious bungalow in the western part of Borivili, a suburb 20 km away from the city, along Lokamanya Tilak Road and west of Factory Lane. He had purchased it from Seth Jayram Bhatia. At this bungalow, he used to entertain his British friends and business contacts. From Borivili, the Kanheri caves are very near. Whenever guests arrived, about forty people were hired to light the bungalow with Petromax (gasoline) lights in the evenings and also to carry delicious food to Kanheri, where some sort of picnic lunch was usually arranged. Gamavati Seth, one of the descendants, gave us this information. It is quite possible that Swamiji too may have been lodged in this bungalow for a few days and similarly entertained.
Four Generations: (r-l) Chabildas Lalubhai (father), Ramdas Chabildas (son), Suryakant Ramdas (grandson) & Janak Ramdas (great-grandson)
     This Borivili bungalow of Chabildas Lalubhai had marble statues and a garden. It being a Gujarati's bungalow, there was also a huge swing for people to sit on. In the evening many people from surrounding places visited Swamiji to listen to his talks on religion. Chandrakant, a young man who used to come there with his father, was quite inspired. Even after Swamiji's departure, he continued to visit the house daily to pay obeisance to the memory of Swamiji; and this practice he kept up until he was ripe old. When inquisitive people asked him why he saluted the bungalow, he would narrate that when he was young he had had the good fortune of meeting and talking with a radiant, powerful and loving swami. (12)


     After Chabildas Lalubhai's death, his wife Kesarbai and their two sons Janmeyjay and Bhadrasen and their families lived in this house. The building does not exist anymore. Some two decades back, Hansaben Goragandhi, daughter of Janmeyjay, inherited the property and demolished the bungalow to raise a multistoreyed apartment building.

 


     Swamiji's Visit to Kanheri Caves

 


     It is highly unlikely that Swamiji and his host would have returned to the Napeon Sea Road bungalow Chabildas Lalubhai when the latter had a big, spacious bungalow in Borivili. Moreover, Swamiji was no casual visitor. He would have minutely observed and studied each and every cave. He had a deep interest in rockcut architecture. These caves, numbering more than 100, are among the largest Buddhist caves in western India. Swamiji must have been fascinated to see Caves 1, 2 and 3 for their massive pillars, sculpture and stupa. Perhaps the chaitya hall in Cave 3 and the assembly hall in Cave 10 gave him the idea that the natmandir (prayer hall) of the future Ramakrishna temple should have such a design concept. Swami Vijnananandaji incorporated this and other ideas of Swamiji in his drawings and plan of the Ramakrishna temple at Belur Math, which was completed in 1938. So it is reasonable to presume that Swamiji might have returned to the caves more than once to study them in depth, because all their details do not lend themselves to serious study in a single visit. They made such a deep impression on him that many years after he had visited the caves, Swamiji spoke of them to his disciples who had gathered at Thousand Island Park, USA. The wealth of details Swamiji studied at the Kanheri caves is evident from Sister Christine's reminiscences of him:


     While he was at Thousand Islands he made plans for future, not only for his disciples in India and the work there, but also for those of his followers in America, who were hoping sometime to go to India. At that time we thought these plans were only daydreams. One day he said, 'We shall have a beautiful place in India, on an island with the ocean on three sides. There will be small caves which will accommodate two each, and between each cave there will be a pool of water for bathing, and pipes carrying drinking water will run up to each one. There will be a great hall with carved pillars for the Assembly Hall, and more elaborate Chaitya Hall for worship. Oh! It will be luxury.' It seemed that he was building castles in the air. None of us dreamed that this was something which could ever be realized. (13)

 


     Sister Christine's Visit to Kanheri Caves


     Many years later, when Sister Christine visited Bombay, she visited the Kanheri caves. It is interesting to read what she has to say about her visit. She took a train to Borivili and then hired a bullockcart. When the road had ended, she and the bullockcart driver had to go on foot. She says:


     We went only a short distance and then came to a stream which at that season was almost dried up. On the other side was a small hill. Here we found carved stone steps leading to the top. And what a view there was from the crest of the hill! The ocean on three sides, a forest leading to the water, carved seats on which to rest, sculptured halls of magnificent proportions. Here it all was - the island with the ocean on three sides, a great sculptured Assembly Hall, the Chaitya Hall, … the small cells, containing two stone beds each, pools of water between the cells, even the pipes to carry water! It was as if a dream had unexpectedly come true. Coming upon this abandoned site, which answered in detail to the fairytale we had heard long before in America, I was profoundly affected. (217)


     When Sister Christine narrated to Swami Sadanandaji her visit to the deserted island of 109 caves, he told her:


     Yes, Swamiji in his wanderings in western India before he went to America, found these caves. The place stirred him deeply; for it seems that he had a memory of a previous life in which he lived there. At that time, the place was unknown and forgotten. He hoped that some day he might acquire it and make it one of the centres for the work which he was planning for the future. (218)


     Swamiji might have easily acquired the Kanheri caves because he knew that if he asked Ramdas Chabildas to give them to him for his future work, both Ramdas Chabildas and Chabildas Lalubhai would have readily agreed, because it was then one of their properties.

 


     Chabildas Lalubhai's GenerosityChabildas Lalubhai with Second wife Kesarbai and son Janmejay

 


     Even though Chabildas Lalubhai had amassed immense wealth, he was a devoted and benevolent person at heart. During the plague of 1874, he built shelters on his own land in Goregaon, a suburb of Bombay, for the benefit of the people, who were fleeing the city. Later, during a famine, he provided food, clothing, shelter and every kind of necessity to hundreds of orphans for a whole year. There are around fortythree Ram temples in Bombay built by rich Gujarati businessmen; the one in Gulalwadi was built by Chabildas Lalubhai. (14) In his last will Chabildas Lalubhai mentions the construction of (a) hospital open to all, (b) a sanatorium for Hindus, (c) a lodge for poor Hindus, (d) industrial and technical schools and colleges, and (e) scholarships for students of all communities.

 


     Swamiji and Chabildas Lalubhai


     The Life has mistaken Ramdas Chabildas and Chabildas Lalubhai for the same person, though they were son and father, respectively. Swamiji refers to Ramdas Chabildas as Mr Ramdas and to Chabildas Lalubhai as Mr Chabildas. The book says Seth Ramdas Chabildas later accompanied Swamiji to Chicago from Yokohama. (15) But, in fact, it was Chabildas Lalubhai who travelled with Swamiji to Japan and then to Chicago and Boston. In the Life, we find that 'Mr Chabildas, who had been one of Swami's hosts in Bombay, sailed for Japan by the same ship [Peninsular].' (16) In his unpublished letter dated 22 May 1893 to the Maharaja of Khetri from Bombay, Swamiji writes, 'His (Ramdas') father intends going to Chicago on 31st (May 1893); if so we could go together for company.'


     In his letter dated 20 August 1893 to Alasinga Perumal from Metcalf, Massachusetts, Swamiji writes, Samudra Villa: sea view'Mr Lalubhai was with me up to Boston. He was very kind to me.' (17) In the same letter he continues, 'Ramdas's father has gone to England. He is in a hurry to go home. He is a very good man at heart, only Baniya roughness on the surface.' (18)


     In his letter of 6 October 1893 written from Bombay to Sri Jagmohanlalji, Dewan of Khetri, Akshay Kumar Ghosh says, 'In continuation of my last letter I am glad to enlighten you on various news about Swamiji. Just now I returned from Mr Chabildas, where I went in the morning to get exhaustive information about him. Mr Chabildas was always with his holiness until he separated at Boston in America.' The letter continues:


     On separating, Mr Chabildas enquired what actual sum Swamiji had with him, when it was ascertained that Swamiji had only ?100 with him, which in Mr Chabildas' idea is too paltry a sum to live upon in Chicago for a period longer than three or four days, as the country is five times as much dear as England. Swamiji entertains the idea, if possible, of coming in Europe and spend a longer period in the continent, say about a year. But at Boston Mr Chabildas requested him to telegraph his London firm whenever he wanted any pecuniary help, and has on his way back himself advised his London agent to respond to him. From New York Mr Chabildas wired Swamiji twice but was given no reply. Then again from London Guruji was asked if he was willing to join him to come back to India. The reply that was received was this, 'Don't wait, will go back a long period hence.' (19)


     In his letters to his friends and disciples, Swamiji spurred them on to engage in some kind of business, like selling Indian goods in the United States, rather than cajole their white masters to give them jobs. The story of Chabildas Lalubhai's success, his rise from rags to riches by doing business very much agreed with Swamiji's thinking. Swamiji appreciated his enterprising nature.


     Chabildas passed away in Bombay on 5 December 1914, at the age of seventyseven. ~


     Thanks

 


     1. To the descendants of Chabildas Lalubhai: (a) Smt Gamavati Seth, daughter of Sri Janmeyjay Chabildas and his first wife; (b) Smt Hansaben Goragandhi, daughter of Sri Janmeyjay Chabildas and his second wife. She gave us Chabildas Lalubhai's photograph; (c) Sri Suryakant Seth, son of Smt Gamavati Seth, who identified Chabildas Lalubhai's Napeon Sea Road bungalow; (e) Sri Harishbhai Khot, son of Sri Bhadrasen Chabildas. He was the second descendant who identified Chabildas Lalubhai's bungalow on Napeon Sea Road and gave us a copy of the sale deed of the said bungalow and also its photograph.


     2. To the late Sri Mahendra Seth, son of Smt Gamavati Seth. He helped us by getting most of the newspaper references and the will of Chabildas Lalubhai.


     3. To (a) Sri H L Ganjawala, corporate architect and chartered engineer, for acquiring the layout plan of the Napeon Sea Road bungalow; and (b) Sri Manesh Ganjawala, architect and interior designer, for taking pictures of the bungalow.



AcknowledgmentsSamudra Villa: another front view

 

 

1. Mulchand Verma, 'Both Mira Road and Bhayander Owned by Gujarati Seth Chabildas Lalubhai' (Gujarati) in Mumbai Samachar, 14 May 1991.


2. Hemchandra Narsi, 'On Sri Ram Temples in Bombay' (Gujarati).


3. Chabildas' will dated 12 August 1914.


4. Sale deed of Chabildas Lalubhai's bungalow on Napeon Sea Road to Dorab Shaw Dubash, dated 1 April 1916.


5. 'Daring Businessman Chabildas Lalubhai' (Marathi) in Upanagar Dhvani, 14 August 1979.


6. A M Khadilkar, A Brief Introduction on Chabildas Lalubhai (Marathi pamphlet). The author is headmaster of Chabildas Lalubhai Boys' High School, Dadar, Mumbai 400 028.


7. 'Centenary Celebration of Chabildas School' (Marathi) in Navkal.


8. Sri Prakash Bhandari, 'Letters Recording Vivekananda's Troubles in the US' in The Times of India, 6 March 1999.


9. 'Outline of Chabildas Lalubhai' in Bombay Chronicle, 7 December 1914.


10. Kishore A Hursh, 'To Work for the Freedom of India Became His Duty' (Gujarati) in Saptahik Dastan, 22 December 1955.


11. Vishnu Pandya, 'The Last Will of Shyamji Krishna Verma' (Gujarati) in Janmabhumi, 12 January 1994.


12. Mangal Bhanushali's Gujarati article in Smarananjali.

 


Notes and References

 


1. His Eastern and Western Disciples, The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 2 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1, 2000; 2, 2001,), 1.302.


2. Ibid., 1.295.


3. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 18, 1989; 9, 1997), 8.13.


4. In 1973, the author's mother, Smt Lilavati, and Srimat Swami Gautamanandaji Maharaj, President, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, had gone to Mansen Kursandas' house to find out the letters of Swamiji written to Ramdas Chabildas and his father Chabildas Lalubhai, but they could not find any. Mansen was Ramdas Chabildas' nephew and lived in Tin Batti, Walkheshwar, Bombay.


5. History of Arya Samaj (Hindi), 1982, 1.2624.


6. Upanagar Dhvani (see item 5, 'Acknowledgments').


7. CW, 8.289.


8. His Eastern and Western Admirers, Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1994), 20.


9. Reported by Mulchand Verma in Mumbai Samachar, 14 May 1991.


10. The author gathered this information in August 2003 from Smt Motabai Baxi, who is now ninetyfive years old.


11. Upanagar Dhvani.


12. Heard from Smt Hansaben Goragandhi.


13. Reminiscences, 215.


14. From the aforementioned Gujarati paper by Hemchandra Narsi (see item 2, 'Acknowledgments').


15. Life, 1.304.


16. Ibid., 1.391.


17. CW, 5.12.


18. Ibid., 5.19.


19. Akshay Kumar Ghosh's unpublished letter to Sri Jagmohanlalji, Dewan of Khetri; by courtesy of Swami Vivekananda Complete Works Committee, Belur Math.


     



International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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