India in the 1940s: The way we were-Hindustan Times

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August 10, 2013
Memory is a powerful thing. When we look six decades back, we’re filled with an unparalleled sense of pride at the epic movements of history that brought us to this stage. But what about the little details?
We gathered fragments – stories from people’s lives, clippings from old newspapers and photographs from dusty albums and strung them together to bring you an essence of how we lived from 1940-49…


[Mahatma Gandhi's granddaughter]

People see Gandhi as the Father of the Nation, but I knew him as a doting grandfather. As kids, we looked forward to his evening prayers with a sense of enthusiasm and entertainment. Every moment of being with Gandhi was an adventure.

He was often travelling through Delhi and since papa [Devdas Gandhi] edited a nationalist daily (The Hindustan Times) in Delhi, Bapuji and Ba stayed with us.
Initially, we lived at Kingsway Camp and subsequently moved into a big house at Connaught Circus, in the same premises as the newspaper’s printing press. The roaring press machines were like lullaby music for us.

Bapu liked to stay in Harijan bastis, ashrams or prisons. That’s where our holidays were spent. We used to visit him in a prison, or at a station if his train would pass by.
Once we visited him at Pune’s Aga Khan Palace, where he was kept under house arrest. Kasturba was ill and looked frail. I must have been 10. Ba looked at me and said, “I have a gift for you.” When I saw the khadi sari, the first of my life, with its embroidered border, I was so thrilled I wanted to run away with it. Bapu didn’t encourage gifting among family. “You won’t ask me to give it to anybody else?” I asked. At that time Bapu was spinning the charkha and he nodded. It meant the world to me.

My father was fond of eating out. We’d go to the Old Delhi Railway Station, buy a platform ticket and eat in the dining hall. Those were the best meals I’ve ever had.
My first lessons in etiquette were courtesy Bapuji. Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the Labour Party, was in India with the Cripps mission. Bapu introduced me to him and said, “Please meet my granddaughter, she is the daughter of my youngest son.” I was proud to be shaking hands with an Englishman for the first time. I thought it was an opportune moment to display my English-speaking skills. So, when Sir Cripps asked, “How do you do?” I broke into a long story about how I had fever the previous day and how I couldn’t go to school. Bapu took me aside and said in Hindi, “When someone says ‘How do you do’, never give them so many details about your health.” I was shattered. Not only had I failed in English, the man who placed such emphasis on health had asked me not to give out such detail. Every letter Gandhi wrote, whether to Lala Lajpat Rai, or Leo Tolstoy, or Nehru, started with a line enquiring about their well-being.

I remember January 30, 1948 clearly. I was in class 8 and was busy with homework. Then the phone first rang and someone said: ‘Bapuji par goli chal gayi’. The person called again. The third time I realised he was serious. My parents rushed to Birla House and there I saw my father sobbing and Nehruji sitting quietly. My father, in tears, came up to me and said, “Taru, Bapuji ko pranam karo”. Then the entire world seemed to have gone into mourning.
(as told to Aasheesh Sharma)

115th August 1947, Independence Day celebrations at Rajpath, New Delhi. Photo: Nehru memorial museum and library

[Former professor of English and dean (Culture) at Delhi University]

Ours is a fifth-generation Delhi family. My father’s family moved to the Walled City area in 1909, two years before the Delhi Durbar was established.

My father was employed with the Pune Rifles. We lived in what was Delhi’s most culture-rich and education-rich square mile. It had the Civil Lines, Hamilton Road, Tees Hazari and Kashmere Gate. It is in Kashmere Gate that the setting up of Delhi University was proposed by Viceroy Daniel Isaacs, which the British opposed. The Dara Shikoh library and the district courts were here. The Delhi Polytechnic (which later became the Delhi College of Art) was also in the area, so was Hindu College and the new St. Stephen’s building.

We stayed in a building called Rahman Manzil. Our neighbour and family friend was the author Nirad C Chaudhuri, who at that time worked as a clerk with All India Radio located on Alipur Road, where the Clarks Maidens Hotel used to stand.

I was born in 1942, the year of the Quit India Movement. In 1946, there was talk about India breaking free from the shackles of the British. The Anglo-Indians were caught in a unique situation. The general public perceived us to be close to the British because of our European lifestyle. But we were not entirely accepted by the British. I used to say Anglo-Indians were the most thoroughbred half-castes in civilisation. Well, we have managed beautifully, producing a Cliff Richard and a Ruskin Bond.

Our family chose to stay back. In 1940, my mom was appointed the first postmistress of India and my father got a deputation with the Delhi Improvement Trust which would carve out the New Delhi district and go on to become the DDA. Mom, referred to as ‘dak khane ki memsaab’ by colleagues, stood out when just one per cent of India’s workforce was female.

Established in the 1930s, the Gidney Club in Connaught Circus was where the Anglo-Indian community met and celebrated Christmas and anniversaries and attended the May Queen Ball. Ritz Cinema was next door to us. I remember watching The Adventures of Captain Marvel here. The Hindi cinemas in our neighbourhood were Novelty and Minerva and I was a big Dev Anand fan. Kashmiri Gate also had the Carlton Restaurant. It is here that the famous Rudy Cotton band, led by one of as one of India’s greatest jazz saxophonists, performed live.

On 15th August, 1947, there was electricity in the air. We attended a special service at St James (Delhi’s oldest church set up in 1836). After a meal at Carlton, we bought a tricolour and proudly displayed it from our window. Rahman Manzil was lit up with hundreds of lamps and people burst crackers and lit sparklers to ring in a pre-Diwali Diwali. We had a party at home. At that time we didn’t have proper record players, so someone began strumming a guitar. Even as a four-year-old, I knew it was a special day. The image of a tricolour fluttering out of our window has always stayed with me.
(As told to Aasheesh Sharma)

2ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM: A father and a son pose with volunteer scouts, as crowds (many on bicycles) throng the Red Fort to celebrate Independence Day on August 15, 1947
[Former deputy director, Delhi Public Library]

I was seven years old when India gained independence in 1947. The Mazarul Islam School, Farashkhana (near Chandni Chowk) where I studied, gave us tricolour toffees as part of the celebrations.

We led a different life – we learnt the alphabet with slate and chalk (slates were cleaned with multani mitti).

My mother wore ghararas at home and my father, who worked in the Municipal Committee, wore a khaki hat to work and a felt hat for special occasions.
Though we had electricity at home since the late 1920s, we only had a few pedestal fans. Ceiling fans were not available in the market. The old-fashioned, big hand-pulled pankhas mounted on the walls and khus-khus pardahs kept the heat out. Kerosene lamps lit up the evenings.

Tongas were the preferred mode of transport since buses and cars were very few. Women hardly ventured out, and even if they had to go across the street, a doli was called for. However, this changed post-Independence as dolis disappeared overnight, and my mother visited the market in a hand-pulled rickshaw.

Cooking was a different ritual. You had to blow at the fire to start the chulha, and all the masalas were ground by hand. There was meat every day – made with vegetables or in the form of mouth-watering nihari.

On Fridays, when the butcher shops would be shut, there would be khichdi for lunch, which made all the kids upset.
The radio was a source of entertainment. However, we were more interested in playing hide and seek and gilli danda than cinema or music. A plane passing overhead was the highlight of the day for all children!

Of course, there was a flipside to Independence too – the chaos that the Partition brought with it. As Faiz said, it was a “dagh dagh ujala…”.
(As told to Zehra Kazmi)


Paper money in the 1940s, printed at the Currency Note Press in Nasik, featured the face of King George VI. By August 1940, when a new Re 1 note was introduced during war time, notes displayed a new feature – the security thread. After Independence, it was felt that the King’s portrait be replaced by a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. The |consensus moved to the choice of the Lion Capital at Sarnath in lieu of the Gandhi portrait, according to the Reserve Bank of India website. Since 1835, Re 1 equalled 16 annas. By 1957, Re 1 equalled 100 naya paise and eventually today’s regular paise.

Value for money

Gold prices
As of 1947, the price of 10 grams of gold was Rs. 88.62. Today it is closer to Rs. 29,000.

The dollar rate
It was exactly $1 = Re 1. You read right; one rupee was equal to one US dollar in value as at Independence, there were no external borrowings on India’s balance sheet. Devaluation began with the first five-year plan. Today one US dollar is close to Rs. 61.

What Re 1 could buy
The average yearly inflation for 1948-2013 is 6.55 per cent. So what cost Re 1 in 1947, now costs about Rs. 59.27, an increase of 5827.00 per cent.

Shaving blade: 7 o’clock slotted blades, double edged, were priced at 12 annas for a packet of 10
Book: Tenali Rama by ASP Ayyar, Rs. 2
Rain Coat: Rainy Coat (water-proof) from Cooch Behar Industries Rs. 4
Radio: Emerson Radio (Model 517) Rs. 175
Tobacco: Ogden’s Coolie Cut Plug tobacco (Rs 3/4 per 4oz tin)


According to textile historian Rta Kapur Chishti, author of Saris of India, the contemporary urban style, or the five-and-a-half-metre drape in which the pallu goes front to back across the left shoulder, became the standard for working women across India after Independence. But the style has its genesis in the late 19th century.
“It is said that Gyanodanandini, wife of Satyendranath Tagore, the elder brother of Rabindranath, went with her civil servant husband to Bombay around the 1860s and adopted the Parsi way of wearing the sari. At that time, the local Bengali style wasn’t considered elegant for outdoor wear (it wasn’t worn with a petticoat and blouse). Gyanoda even opened a school in Calcutta to teach draping styles,” says Chishti.

After Independence, young women began experimenting with more salwar-kameez styles

4Textiles expert Jasleen Dhamija shifted to Delhi in 1940 from Abbotabad in Pakistan. “My family had links with the Congress. We didn’t wear synthetics and my sister wore khadi,” says Dhamija, 79. She recalls how the elite and the royalty wore chiffons and nylons and the aam aadmi donned mill-made dhotis. Saris could have been sourced from mills or from local weavers. But with the chiffon classes, the urge to ape Europe was apparent. “Saris looked like curtains since the patterns were filched from wallpapers and bathroom tiles,” she says.

After Independence, the young Dhamija became more experimental. In 1948, when she was in college at Miranda House, she and her friends visited Pahar Ganj. “We bought the fabric that wives of workers used for odhnis and lugdis and created salwar-kameezes.”


We didn’t read much – we couldn’t. The adult literacy rate in 1941 was 16.1 per cent (it is now 74.04 per cent). But Indian writing of the time was tinted with the advent of Marxism on the literary scene in the 1930s. Writers were re-examining their relationship with social reality. Here are some works published in the ’40s for some perspective:
Twilight in Delhi (1940) by Ahmed Ali: It is the story of Mir Nahal and his family – an upper middle class Muslim household in the now old Delhi. This was also the first novel to call for freedom from British rule.

The Sword and the Sickle (1942) by Mulk Raj Anand: The final part of a trilogy, it is about a Sikh sepoy, who after fighting in France and being imprisoned in Germany, comes back to India. The book also deals with the rise of Indian Communism.

The English Teacher (1945) by RK Narayan A semi-autobiographical book, it is about an English teacher in Narayan’s fictionalized town, Malgudi, and how he deals with the death of his wife.


The early decades of the twentieth century had seen the entry of several new advertising firms, both Indian and foreign. Most ads were published in English language newspapers. They were neatly laid out, mostly typographical and featured excellent illustrations.

It all adds up to marketing
some ADs from newspapers of 1947

By the 1940s, the ads reflected the nationalistic spirit of the decade. The quality of life in the ’30s and ’40s had considerably improved. Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were big markets for most products and hence, for advertising in general. As the middle class rose, the advertising focus shifted from luxury goods to convenience-driven consumer goods. Ads for foreign products made by foreign ad agencies were also Indianised. Lux signed actress Leela Chitnis to endorse the soap in 1941, the illustrations in the ads were also made to look Indian.

Actor-singer KL Saigal ruled the ’40s like a collossus, says historian Pran Nevile. “His popularity didn’t diminish with his death in 1947. Noor Jehan was the most popular leading lady. After 1947, she moved to Pakistan and Suraiyya took her place.” A few big hits of 1947 included these:

1. Yahan Badla Wafa Ka from JUGNU, Singers: Mohd Rafi and Noor Jehan, Composer: Feroze Nizami, Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
One of the first hits of Mohd Rafi, the duet was picturised on Dilip Kumar and Noor Jehan. The lyrics are remembered even today.

2. Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon Dil-e-Beqarar Ka from DARD, Singer: Uma Devi, Composer: Naushad, Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Sung by Tun Tun, the well-endowed comedienne, the mellifluous song was composed by Naushad. Shakeel Badayuni’s words were full of longing. Sample this: Ji chaahataa hai munh bhi na dekhun bahaar kaa.

3. Hum Dard Ka Afsana Duniya Ko Suna Denge from DARD, Singer: Shamshad Begum, Composer: Naushad, Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Sung in Shamshad Begum’s inimitable voice, it is filmed on orphaned children. The words tug at the heart strings: Ham par bhee karam karna, ham tum ko dua denge. Poignant!

4. Mera Sundar Sapna Beet Gaya from DO BHAI, Singer: Geeta Dutt, Composer: SD Burman, Lyrics: Raja Mehdi Ali Khan
O chhod ke janewale aa in Geeta Dutt’s soulful voice had the nation singing the blues.

5. Sunday Ke Sunday from SHEHNAI, Singers: Meena Kapoor and Chitalkar Ramchandra, Composer: C Ramchandra, Lyrics: PL Santoshi
Comic and entertaining, it was soon ruling the charts!

Movies, monsoon, Magic: The scene outside Mumbai’s Metro cinema, shot in 1947. The Regal and Eros were the other other popular theatres where both English and Hindi movies ran to packed houses


Going to the movies was one of the biggest forms of entertainment in the late 1940s. Delhiites flocked to Regal, Rivoli, Plaza and Odeon. Mumbaikars bought tickets at The Regal, Metro, Liberty and Eros. Here are some of the biggest grossing movies of 1947 (tales of the freedom struggle are conspicuous by their absence).

Top 6 grossers of 1947
* Jugnu: Rs. 50 lakh
* Do Bhai: Rs. 45 lakh
* Dard: Rs. 40 lakh
* Mirza Sahibaan: Rs. 35 lakh
* Shehnai: Rs. 32 lakh
* Elaan: Rs. 30 lakh
(Earnings in net gross; source:

Cast: Dilip Kumar and Noor Jehan Director: Shaukat Hussain Rizvi Music: Feroze Nizami
Synopsis: Dilip Kumar’s father is a Rai Bahadur who lives in a palatial house with a chauffeur and attendants but is on the lookout for a family that would shell out (incredible as it may sound!) two lakh rupees in dowry for his eligible son. The leading lady Jugnu (Noor Jehan) is asked to sacrifice her love by her boyfriend’s mom. And so the story ends on a tragic note, as was the case in many movies of the 1940s.

Dilip Kumar and Noor Jehan in Jugnu, one of the biggest box-office success of 1947. A campus romance, the film’s music and strong social subtext with an anti-dowry message stood out even then

Watch it for: Noor Jehan’s singing, the rakish looks of young Dilip Kumar and the way the film tackles the subject of dowry. A young Mohammed Rafi does a cameo as Dilip Kumar’s hostel mate!

Cast: Badri Prasad, Suraiya, Munawwar Sultana Jehan
Director: Shaukat Hussain Rizvi Music: Feroze Nizami
Synopsis: The love triangle is the story of an orphan who is indebted to the nawab who adopts him and helps him become a doctor. The nawab’s daughter likes him, but he falls in love with the daughter of a patient.

Watch it for: The beautiful talaffuz in chaste Urdu: Sample how Suraiya pampers Sultana. “Hamam tayyar hai. Ghusal karlo, behen,” she says, when her bath is ready.

Cast: Noor Jehan, Trilok Kapoor Director: K Amarnath
Music: Pandit Amarnath and Husnlal Bhagatram
Synopsis: Mirza, once the naughtiest boy in the village, falls in love with Sahiban. But Mirza’s arch enemy is also head-over-heels in love with Sahiban and is irked that she prefers Mirza. He takes advantage of village gossip to fuel Sahiban’s brother’s anger against the couple. They are forced to separate. The couple try to get back together, but like all old love stories, their love is doomed.

Watch it for: The beautiful music and Trilok Kapoor (Prithviraj Kapoor’s brother and a thoroughbred Kapoor). See it as a precursor to Bollywood’s affair with classic love stories such as Heer Ranjha and Sohni Mahiwal.

Cast: VH Desai, Indumati and Kishore Kumar
Director: PL Santoshi
Music: C Ramchandra
Watch it for: The jazz-influenced compositions of C Ramchandra which were like a spot of sunshine in the otherwise gloomy film music scene. The song Aana Meri Jaan, Sunday Ke Sunday became an anthem for the young at heart.


These landmarks that add to New Delhi’s splendour had very English-sounding names. But they were symbols of the British Raj, and we Indianised them.

* Rajpath: This sprawling boulevard was known as King’s Way.
* Parliament House: Formerly the Council House, this building was designed by British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker – responsible for the planning and construction of New Delhi. Covering nearly six acres, its diameter is 560 feet.
* India Gate: With a height of 42 metres (designed by Lutyens), it was known as the All-India War Memorial, and has the names of the Indian soldiers who died during World War I etched on its surface.
* Rashtrapati Bhavan: Designed by Lutyens, this structure has four floors and 340 rooms, and was known as the Viceroy House.
* Janpath: An important part of Lutyens’ design of Delhi, it was known as Queen’s Way.


In 1947, Bombay was still part of the Bombay Presidency. Now-defunct addresses reflect the life of the time.
* Banian Road: From Bania, a trading caste who had houses there.
* Beef Lane, Bhajipala Street, Dukar Wady, Kasai Street, Kitchen Garden Lane, Milk Street and Mutton Street: Areas that had butcheries, vegetable bazaars, piggeries, produce gardens, buffalo stables or meat shops.
* Depot Lane: It led to a night-soil depot situated at the end of the lane and was known among residents as name Hagri Galli.
* Garibdas Street: “Garibdas” meant “your humble servant ” and appeared to be a coveted title for a Bombay landlord to own.
* Gunpowder Road: Named after the powder magazine there.
* Palki Gully: So called because palanquins, used by Khojas at weddings, were kept here for hire.
* Scandal Point: A popular place to rendezvous.


Back then, if you had wheels perhaps you’d already know what freedom would taste like. Cars were symbols of prosperity. Trams chugged along our roads, new bus routes were being charted out, streets were filled with people cycling to work. The tonga was another favoured mode of transport.

The horse carriage was a preferred mode of transport, though now it serves mostly as a tourist attraction.


The first 10 years of the Nehruvian period from 1947 to 1957 were decisive in shaping what the city would acquire a taste for. Partition refugees brought with them the tandoor. “The idea of eating home-cooked food prepared at the roadside by another refugee family at a moderate price appealed to homeless refugees. This was the genesis of Delhi’s dhaba tradition,” says food historian Pushpesh Pant.

Kebabs, burra and Kandhari food became the staple at restaurants. At the same time, original Dehlavi food survived this onslaught – poori, bedami and methi ki chutney still tickled the palate of Old Delhi families. But people were acquiring a taste for paneer and maa ki dal. A favourite with those who relished a mean maa ki dal was Moti Mahal in Darya Ganj, recall old-timers. Monish Gujral, grandson of KL Gujral, credited with popularising the Peshawari delicacy, says the Darya Ganj restaurant, set up in 1947, was a social leveller. “Till then, fine dining was restricted to Europeans and Indians with titles. Moti Mahal opened its doors to all classes: a restaurant where an auto driver could be seen dining with an industrialist,” says Gujral.

8Embassy Restaurant was a favourite with many Delhi families.

Once the refugees found their feet in the city, the action shifted back to Connaught Place. Wenger’s was popular with lovers of good confectionery. Even as the elite coveted a table at Gaylord’s, government servants did not shy away from Kwality, which set up shop in 1939. Pant recalls how his father celebrated his confirmation as a Gazetted Officer at Wenger’s as a live band played. Embassy was the place to head for when the family had to be treated to an elegant Indian repast. And United Coffee House, which opened in 1942, was the haunt of the arty crowd that loved its juke box.

The good news is that the Bombaywalla was no stranger to eating out, even in the 1940s. Pancham Puriwala, right opposite the GPO at Fort, was serving up meals back then. Colaba was home to The Wayside Inn, where Dr Ambedkar drafted nearly half of India’s Constitution at a table in the late ’40s. Cafe Royal opposite The Regal was popular with locals and the iconic watering holes Leopold Cafe (which had opened in 1871 as a general store) and Cafe Mondegar were thriving.

In Kalbadevi and Bhuleshwar, the flourishing cotton trade of the previous decades meant a steady inflow of traders from Gujarat. Single, male and on a budget, they’d find sustenance at little dining halls that served home food for a few annas a day. In 1945, Govindram Shankarji Joshi and four of his friends from Rajkot started The Friends Union Joshi Club, an eating house with a monthly meal service.

In the new, ordered suburb of Matunga, you could get a full South-Indian meal at Mani’s Lunch Home (which opened in 1937) or Rama Nayal Udipi (which opened in 1942). For a Sunday evening sundae, it was Bachelorr’s on Marine Drive. And for anyone with cash, there was always the plush Taj Mahal Hotel.

* A plate of mutton biryani at Britannia & Co, Mumbai was Rs. 2.50. Today, Rs. 400
* At Manis Lunch Home, Mumbai, a Set Meal cost only 6 aanas. Now it costs Rs. 120
* A coffee cost just 90 paise at United Coffee House. Now it costs Rs. 115. A chicken sandwich here cost just 90 paise then. Now it costs Rs. 125
* Four dozen lemon tarts cost only Rs. 4 at Delhi’s Wenger’s Bakery.


The year 1947 was a moment of great nationalistic fervour tinged with the trauma of Partition. The zeitgeist of the 1950s was a turning point of sorts in the development of contemporary Indian art, say experts. “It was the beginning of a new introspection after the Bengal School Revival,” says Virendra Kumar Jain, 80, owner of Kumar Gallery, set up in 1955, arguably one of the first to show leading artists such as MF Husain.

0From the archives: Virendra Kumar of Kumar Gallery with MF Husain in the early 1950s

Apart from Kumar, the Dhoomimal Art Gallery patronised artists such as Jamini Roy since the 1930s. “After the Partition, I had my first brush with artists from the Government College of Art, Lahore. It included people like Satish Gujral, BC Sanyal, PN Mago and Dhanraj Bhagat. They held their first show in the early 1950s at the Freemason Hall in Janpath, next to the Imperial Hotel, which managed to draw in only a few visitors,” recalls Kumar.

With the setting up of the Delhi Shilpi Chakra Group in 1949, the art scene in Delhi perked up. “The coffee house on Janpath was an intellectual hub. It is here that one ran into a Husain chatting over coffee with Kulkarni or BC Sanyal,” recalls Krishen Khanna, one of the pioneers of the Indian art movement.

Khanna, 87, recalls the euphoria of freedom and the anguish of Partition in August 1947 and has captured some of it on canvas. “I was 21. We listened to Pandit Nehru’s speech and looked forward to a golden era. One didn’t envisage the mess we would be in at that time,” he says with a chuckle.

Khanna has fond memories of a joint show with Husain in Delhi’s All India Fine Arts & Crafts Society. “Husain Saab and I went back a long way. Till the time he bought his apartment in the upmarket Nizamuddin East, which became a hub for artists, musicians and dancers in the city, he used to come and stay with me at my father’s Mathura Road residence.”

At a time when private patrons in Delhi were few and far between, State patronage was also gaining momentum with the setting up of the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1954.

11To life and freedom: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, considered the architect of independent India, addresses people at the Red Fort on Independence Day. The mood was upbeat and the nation looked towards the future with tremendous optimism.
This Independence Day Special Issue was put together by Aasheesh Sharma, Saudamini Jain, Shreya Sethuraman, Rachel Lopez and Amrah Ashraf. Do send us your feedback at

From HT Brunch, August 11

First chef from India to be invited to Le cordon Bleu to demonstrate in Paris. Monish is credited with the trailblazing turn-around of Moti Mahal, from being a small but iconic presence in Delhi, to becoming a multi-national corporation that is well on its way to defining how the world eats Indian food. A traditionalist, Monish has remained true to the signature dishes that made Moti Mahal a legend, while reinventing the dining experience into one that is exciting and avant garde to suit modern sensibilities.


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