by Aneeta Sundararaj

Malaysia is supposed to uphold democratic principles.… Even though Islam is Malaysia’s official religion, this does not make Malaysia a theocracy. That is a slippery slope that we must not descend, for it poses an existential threat to the original concept of Malaysia. … Democracy also involves protecting the rights of minorities, and no government should change the rules on non-Muslims, as well as that of Muslims who do not want a theocracy, as if their rights and opinions do not count.

(Leader, New Straits Times, November 2021)


“What codswallop!”

The middle-aged woman stood on the side of the recently paved road of her mother’s two-bedroom home. She was none other than the famous Nancy Shanker. This small-time Twitter celebrity began unimpressively with a thinning hairline, titanium-rimmed glasses that had thicker lenses on the left, and what was regarded as an apple-shaped torso, but ended, even more disappointingly, in a pair of increasingly hairless legs squeezed into skinny jeans one size too small.

Re-reading the online version of the piece called ‘A Malaysia for All’, Nancy stifled her nervous laugh. Especially when the next link on her Google page was about technology’s newest chapter in the internet world – metaverse.

Maybe, she thought, the digital world was better.

Maybe, it wouldn’t recognise the difference between Muslim and non-Muslim; between democracy and theocracy; between mother and child.

Maybe, the piece was aimed at pacifying the citizenry into blissful ignorance of the fact that our leaders, especially the judiciary, often chose self-serving solutions as opposed to the act (if not practice) of being judicious.

Nancy closed all the web pages on her Android phone because a ‘Ping’ informed her that the GrabCar she’d ordered was on its way. From the back passenger seat, she scanned the laminated QR Code the masked driver with bushy eyebrows held out to her. She showed him a screenshot that she’d been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. After he nodded, she leaned back into the black PVC seats and tried to relax for the drive to her former marital home. The face that was reflected back at her from the car’s window was lined, marked with age spots on the top of her cheeks, and had a hooked nose; it screamed distrust of anyone and everyone.

Nancy sighed, thankful that, this time, the courts weren’t involved. They only ever messed up everything. The one court that had no jurisdiction over her allowed another that had to take away her child and give it to the one man they shouldn’t have – her husband.

Reaching into her large handbag, she pulled out a dog-eared copy of the 1992 edition of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Other than being on the discussion for her bookclub, a newspaper columnist had referenced it in a recent piece. About a third into the novel, she’d gathered that it was a story where people escaped from their world by putting on virtual reality goggles and earphones. Stephenson had conceived a world where the digital representations of people interacted with each other. The newspaper columnist opined that we already live in such a world, but could be further enhanced by metaverse where augmented reality was a layer superimposed over the real world. In this version of the world, we lived inside the internet rather than merely accessed it.

There was a time when Nancy could have discussed such complex theories with her husband. Invited into each other’s train of thought, they’d fathom a utopia where technology narrowed the gulf of inequality, where the rich and poor had the same experiences, and where no one was punished for the religion they professed. Now, the thought of her husband made her pick at a scab on her elbow, exposing a wound she wasn’t yet prepared to let heal.

It was no use. She couldn’t read more than five sentences. Nancy put the book back in her bag and let all the memories flow.

How on earth had it all come to this?


Nancy’s father, an engineer who specialised in intellectual property matters never reached his full potential professionally but settled by becoming an expert the courts occasionally called upon for an opinion in motor-vehicle accidents. The irony of his death when his daughter was two years old wasn’t lost on the reporter who told the story in the newspapers. On that rainy December morning, the driver of a speeding trailer lost control and ploughed into his car when he’d stopped on the emergency lane because of faulty brakes.

Where Nancy’s sole parent was a widow, Shanker’s was a widower who filled the lonely hours after his wife’s death from uterine cancer by becoming a member of the association set up to manage the affairs of the Sri Sundaraja Perumal Temple in the royal town of Klang. A particular feature of this house of gods was the famous vegetarian dish made from faux meat called mutton varuval.

When the stars aligned in 2012, or so the once-naïve Nancy liked to think, the fatherless Nancy met the motherless Shanker at a wedding of a distant relative at this temple. The aunties’ whispers spread like wildfire when Shanker sauntered in. Most of them were related to him by blood or marriage. Those who weren’t, fawned over him, nevertheless. “He’s an engineer, you know. From that Silicon Valley place, you know,” one of the aunties said. “So rich, you know.”

On a quick detour from a work trip to Singapore, at thirty-two years old, Shanker was the youngest keynote speaker at a conference about the future of the internet in ASEAN.

One auntie, the sort of well-meaning lady whose muffin top hung over the waistband of her sari’s underskirt, happened to glance at Nancy. As though she were watching a tennis ball being fielded from one player to another, she looked at Shanker, then Nancy, and repeated this several times. It struck her that Shanker and Nancy were two of the most attractive people at the wedding and felt an obligation to introduce them to each other. She didn’t know about Shanker’s previous relationships, the first being with a post-doctoral colleague who had poured her heart and finances into helping him with his doctoral thesis. When he graduated and acquired the title of ‘Dr. Shanker Theophilus John’, told her, “I don’t feel the need to share my life with you.” Three months later, he showed no remorse when he got wind that she’d slit her wrists. His priority then was to convince one of his graduate students, a girl whose father was the CEO of a technology company, to give up her coquettish ways and virginity to him. This, however, wasn’t the sort of information that fell into the hands of the nonprofessional matchmaker aunties at weddings. It was enough that there were two people of marriageable age at the same place and time.

Introductions were made at the buffet table. Shanker gave Nancy the treatment ingrained in the DNA of Indian men – shamelessly staring at a woman. He watched as she piled on that special mutton vuruval on her plate and then walked her to one of the empty tables nearby. Once the ‘boy and girl’ smiled politely at each other, the beaming auntie withdrew.

“Do you always eat with such abandon?” asked Shanker, scratching the pimple on his cheek.

“Of course. Doesn’t everyone?”

With that simple exchange, they announced themselves to the world and gave hope to Nancy’s mother, standing in one corner of the kalyana mandap, that her daughter would be next to be settled in marriage.

Meanwhile, listening to Shanker gives a brief explanation of his keynote speech called ‘The Internet and Reality: Endless Possibilities’, Nancy figured that he was best described as ‘controlled’. He was measured in his speech and chose what she called ‘big-big words’ like ‘vacillate’ instead of ‘in two minds’. Shanker thought Nancy was equally intelligent for the simple reason that her all-time favourite novel was Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

“Today,” he said in a deep baritone, “if you want to go to a concert, you have to go to the concert hall. One day, you won’t have to. You can be in Carnegie Hall or Royal Albert Hall in seconds.”

“But doesn’t that spoil the whole experience? I mean the joy is in actually being there, in London or New York, no?”

“Well, you could say that. Still, take dinosaurs or even fights in the Colosseum. Do you need to be there to experience what it’s like?” Answering his own question, he said, “No. You don’t need to create an actual dinosaur. What I am trying to say is that we can experience anything we choose to when we make the internet and virtual reality part of our lives.”

“Ah-so,” Nancy replied, appreciating his intelligence.

As they continued to flutter their brilliance at one another, Nancy became aware that for the first time in her thirty years, she was presenting to a suitor her best self – intense, passionate, and committed.

Their wedding proper on 30 November 2012 was a low-key affair with ‘family only’ guests numbering no more than fifty people. They were invited to a house Shanker bought in the upmarket suburb of Damansara Heights. One look at the standout fifty-year-old leafy angsana tree in the middle of a vast manicured lawn and, within the day, Shanker transferred RM250,000.00 cash as ‘earnest deposit’ into the astonished estate agent’s bank account.

It is said that you never really know a person until you’ve lived with him or her for at least three weeks. Indeed, in less time than that, Nancy discovered that her husband’s public persona differed enormously from his private one. Desperate to be recognised for the brand he was creating for his newly incorporated company, he invited the organisers of the brand, total strangers and certifiable sociopaths, to their first Christmas party as a married couple. Regardless of colour, creed or faith, these men enjoyed Shanker’s hospitality and consumed crates of contraband alcohol. In the privacy of his journal, Shanker chronicled their misdemeanours, mercenary reputations, and patent dishonesty. The new bride Nancy chalked up this kind of hypocrisy as being preferable to the vices of other husbands in their social circle whose wives complained about being beaten black and blue after bouts of drinking or gambling. Lulled into a sense of security and marital bliss, within a year of their wedding, Nancy gave birth to their only child, Stephanie (Stevie, for short).

The birthday cake ordered for Stevie was a wonder of the 2014 baking world. It was a three-dimensional replica of Barney, the purple stuffed dinosaur that Stevie cuddled and whose head was tucked under her triple chin every night before she slept. Two candles in front of Barney’s yellow big toes were about to be lit when there were flashing lights and police outside the gates. While the other mothers huddled to protect their toddlers, Nancy watched, dumbfounded, as Shanker walked into their house followed by three police officers. A woman who accompanied them pried Stevie’s chubby hands away from Nancy’s waist as a policewoman held Nancy’s bony arms behind her back. Sweat pouring from every pore of her being and above the deafening sound of toddlers wailing, Nancy heard her husband say, “The child is now mine. She is now Siti Zubaidah binti Shamsir.”


He shook his head, nonchalant. “I converted. My name is Shamsir. Mohammed Shamsir bin Abdullah,” he added, in the style of the most famous character of Ian Fleming’s spy novels. He turned on his heel and walked out of Nancy’s life. In the arms of a stranger who followed her husband, their distraught and tearful child cried out for her mother.

There was a flurry of activity from the departure of terrified guests dumping torn party bags in the bin as they left, to paying off caterers with the explicit understanding that they would keep mum about what they’d witnessed.

“You’re coming with me. I will protect you,” her mother said, dragging a wide-eyed Nancy into her bedroom. Too numb to do more than sit on the side of the orthopaedic mattress and stare at the antique chaise lounge her husband had gifted her a year ago, Nancy watched her mother open the made-to-measure fitted wardrobe.

Fifteen minutes later, Nancy walked behind her mother wheeling a suitcase out the door. She glanced back at the ruined birthday decorations and saw a fat gecko gunning for Barney’s big toe. She closed the front door decorated with wrought iron inserts.

“What are you doing?” Nancy’s sexagenarian mother asked.

It had been five days since Nancy had had a proper meal. She ran her fingers through her uncombed waist-long hair. The grease provided her fingers the necessary traction to turn the pages of the many newspapers from yesteryear strewn all over the floor.

“I have to find it,” she whispered, for once grateful that her mother was a secret hoarder.


“Conversion case. From 2005, I think.”

“Ah…” her mother understood immediately. Putting aside other chores and tasks, mother and daughter spent the next few hours combing through the newspapers. They stained the keys of her mother’s desktop computer while surfing the internet until they found every article written about cases of non-Muslims whose spouse converted to Islam and, without the consent of the person they married, converted their children as well.

“We must put all this on the internet, Nancy-Baby,” her mother halfway reading through her second article. She said this in a hushed voice, as if the suggestion was unacceptable to her daughter. Nancy blinked several times, not wanting the tears to fall when she heard her mother say her nickname. Unaware of her emotions, her mother added, “People must see your love for Stevie. Your story.”

“Why?” Nancy whispered. “No need for everyone to know my shame…”

Her mother, with a latent fury within, said, through gritted teeth, “Shame? No need. You’ve done no wrong.”

Nancy, examining her brittle fingernails, knew better than to argue at this point and conceded with a weak, “Okay.”

Within a week, Nancy’s mother, who hitherto had no interest in the internet beyond scrolling Google’s headlines, set up a Twitter account with the handle @swly, an abbreviation for ‘Stevie, We Love You’. From an initial following of five friends, the number of followers ballooned to one thousand a week later and thousands more in three months.

The first posts were of Stevie from the moment she was born until her ill-fated Barney-themed birthday was met with a lukewarm response. Out of the blue, in 2015, @aussieclean, a Malaysian who emigrated to the Antipodes, shared a link to a YouTube called ‘Man in a custody battle for beloved child.’ @aussieclean proceeded to denigrate Nancy for not fighting for her rights. Although incensed that such an unwarranted accusation could be made, Nancy thought it wise to first watch the video. She called out to her mother. Once settled next to her, Nancy pressed ‘Play’ and almost immediately she reached out to grip her mother’s hand. There on the screen was her husband. She couldn’t help but notice his even, and too white, incisors and canines. They had to be veneers, she thought, when she noticed his gummy smile. Next to him was a child dressed in a hoodie and dark glasses, and unrecognisable to the rest of the world. But Nancy saw the crooked little finger on her left hand, a miniature version of hers and she held her breath. It was Stevie.

Sorry. I had to bring my daughter.

For protection. It’s a battle right now.

You know how it is. No one to look after.

If I can’t trust the mother, how to trust anyone?

Nancy paused the video. “Battle. Trust. Protection. What is he talking about?”

“Ya. Ya. Ya. Rumour is that his father has disowned him. No use. No one here cares if a Hindu is disowned or dead. Play. Let’s see what other stupid things this man will say.”

In the next frame of the video, a blond man with a scratchy voice said, “Fergal Cane. Irish Times. Stephanie. Sorry. I mean Siti Zubaidah. Do you miss Mummy?”

Nancy didn’t blink for fear of missing her child’s answer.

“Answer Uncle. He is asking you a question,” Shamsir prodded Stevie.

The child looked at him and then journalist who repeated the question.

“Siti-?” she mumbled.

There was absolute silence.

“Your name, child,” Shamsir said through gritted teeth. “Siti Zubaidah is your name.”

“Name?” The child looked down. In a voice replete with heartbreak she said, “Don’t know the name, Papa.”

Nancy stared at the screen, not aware of the hand that reached out quickly, clicked on the mouse, and stopped the video. When the laptop was shut completely, she heard her mother say, “I need coffee. Going to make some.”

Nancy remained seated at the dining table. For one second her heart ached for her child and she felt the prick of tears. In the next, she pitied the kitchen utensils upon which her mother was taking out her fury. A few minutes later, Nancy’s mother plonked a coffee mug down in front Nancy. With a ferocity in her voice that was new to Nancy, her mother declared, “All this posting of photos is of no use. If he wants a trial by media, I will give him a trial by media.”

In three days, Nancy’s mother hired a virtual assistant, a student with the digital name of @tarastar undertaking Mass Communication Studies at a local university. Her task was to filter and moderate all ‘followers’ and comments that came through the Twitter account. Through this exercise, a list of potential legal experts and media-savvy individuals or organisations were identified, then pared down to those willing to offer their services without a fee or at least a much-reduced one.

With the online nameless and faceless team in place, the campaign to get Stevie returned to her mother began in 2016. As advised by her team, @swly neither agreed nor disagreed with any views put forward. Instead, @swly vicariously told Nancy’s story by telling the stories of others in similar situations.

The first was the tragic case of R. Subashini who, in 2007, lost her child when her husband converted their child without telling her. This kind of unilateral conversion of a child to Islam was permissible. No provision of the Federal Constitution was violated because the word ‘parent’ was used in Article 12(4); therefore, there was no need to procure the consent of both parents.

When the response was ‘What does this mean, actually?’, the explanation from @swly in late 2016 was as follows: ‘Since 2007, invariably, a non-Muslim parent in Malaysia in such cases had no redress. So, effectively, I lost my Stevie and no court in Malaysia can help me.’

‘What do you mean there is no court who can help you?’ asked @agnessa. ‘If he’s now Muslim, then why don’t you go to the Syariah court?’

Nancy laughed. @swly, however, acted on the advice of her team and waited until the new year before publishing the following post:

‘As a non-Muslim, I cannot go to the Syariah Court. That court doesn’t have any jurisdiction over me. I can only go to the Civil Court, the relic of our colonial past. The day my husband – and he’s still my husband – converted, our marriage became null and void. If I want to marry anyone else, I have to file for divorce. Now that he is a Muslim, he is subject to the rules and regulations of Syariah Law. Also, article 121 of our Federal Constitution says that the jurisdiction of the Syariah Court should not be disputed even though they are not constituted as superior courts. So, this means that I go to the Civil Courts and he goes to the Syariah Courts.’

It was a long while before @ruskilaw responded with, ‘What does this mean? Are you saying that you’re no longer the child’s mother?’

Inserting a tearful emoji at the end of her reply, @swly wrote, ‘She is now the child of God. So, you tell me, am I still her mother?’

The 1025 responses to this ranged from disbelief to discontent. The one that comforted Nancy the most was a one by a former diplomat in a self-imposed exile now living in Adelaide, Australia, @harishamade: ‘The Arabisation of Islam in Malaysia is contrary to the concepts of secularism set up by the founding fathers of the Federation after Independence. It was written almost fifty years ago that in a multiracial and multi-religious society like ours, the leaders of the country strove not to be too identified with any particular race or religion so that the various communities especially minority communities are assured that we will not allow their rights to be trampled underfoot.’

This brought on another three months of online discussions that centred on one issue: why did Shamsir convert to Islam in the first place? He had made it public knowledge that there was no third party involved in the breakdown of his marriage. When the Malaysian Twitizens suggested that Shamsir now stood a chance of obtaining the status of being a ‘bumiputra’, others begged for an explanation. So it was that when it was explained as ‘affirmative action to help the Malays of the land’ get the upper hand, it was the courageous @ruskilaw who asked the obvious question: ‘Isn’t that discriminatory practice?’

Not one Malaysian Twitizen responded to this. Not even @swly. The reality of the situation, if ever it was put into writing, was farcical, at best. In this land of a thousand smiles, because Nancy belonged to a minority race, she had few rights and almost zero access to any recourse when her child was taken away from her. She was a ‘pendatang’, an immigrant, in the land of her birth.

While everyone online mulled the conundrum Nancy was in, time passed and, just like that, it was 2018. There seemed to an upsurge of energy among @swly’s nameless and faceless supporters when they read her post that, on 29 January, the apex court ruled that henceforth, in a civil marriage, the consent of both parents must be obtained before a Certificate of Conversion to Islam can be issued for a child. Although she was aware this was probably an act to pacify non-Muslim voters in an election year, @swly was caught up in collective clarion call to ‘Go bring our Stevie back.’

It was particularly sad that @swly’s online jubilation didn’t quite translate offline. Outwardly, Nancy had regained eight of the ten kilograms she’d initially lost; the bald spots on her scalp were now filled with tufts of baby hair; and, the nightly bouts of itching were confined to her upper arms. Inwardly, crying herself to sleep every night, she filled the hollow in her heart that appeared when her child was taken away with memories: Stevie sucking on her thumb; the first time Stevie said ‘Changu’ when her grandmother gave her the stuffed Barney; the special dress made for Stevie’s birthday. These were all in the past.

One day in the third quarter of 2021, her mother said, “Forget the courts if you want to find our Stevie-Baby.”

“Then how, Mama?” Nancy asked scrolling through headlines about the world emerging from the hardships of a global pandemic.

“We hire a private investigator,” Nancy’s mother suggested.

The scrawny fellow had a stillness about him and a way of fixing his gaze that made you immediately aware that he didn’t have a single iota of spontaneity or frivolity about him. His two-page report revealed surprises, the main one being that father and daughter never left town as anticipated and publicised all those years ago. In fact, they were settled in the house in Damansara Heights. Also, there was someone new in their lives named ‘Versha’.


When the GrabCar came to a stop, Nancy looked around her. Mumbling her thanks to the driver, she alighted and stood outside what was once her home. Yes, the neighbours’ houses were the same notwithstanding the weather-worn spots of fungus peeping out from fissures in the walls. The smell of warm bread wafting from a home-based bakery business down the road evoked a sense of the familiar. Where there once was a rickety five-foot gate and overgrown hedge, there was now an eight-foot wall plastered with white cement and ornate electric gates. Only the new shoots on top of the angsana tree were visible from the outside.

“Come inside,” a voice boomed from nowhere. Nancy recognised it as her husband’s but she couldn’t detect a speaker anywhere. Like Dorothy walking along the yellow brick road, each step she took on the cobbled pathway to the heavy wooden main door filled her with dread and wonder in equal measure. Her husband appeared in the open doorway.

“You’re here. Come inside,” he said, uncharacteristically cordial.

After Nancy stepped inside, he showed her to a chair nearby and said, “Wait here.” He disappeared behind an ornate oriental screen that featured an intricate tapestry of a lilac phoenix and red-gold dragon soaring into a pale, yellow sky. This exquisite artwork rendered it impossible for Nancy to see anything of what was once her marital home.

Sighing, she removed her mask and reached into her bag to pull out a smaller one which contained several gifts for Stevie: a new stuffed Barney, a pack of cards, a packet of sweets, letters she’d written to Stevie, birthday cards that were never sent for a lack of an address to use, photos of Stevie’s relatives on her maternal side, etc. Nancy was sorting through them when she sensed a familiar presence. When she looked up, there was a young girl who appeared to be spying on her from behind the screen. A set of doe-shaped eyes inherited from Nancy stared at her, unblinking. It was Stevie.

Nancy dropped everything, ran forward, fell to her knees, and gathered the girl in her arms. Over and over again, she whispered “My baby.” It was as though with each kiss on the bony cheeks, Nancy was transmuting a memory she’d stored in the hollow in her heart.

“Calm down,” Shamsir said. “You’ll scare her,” he added and prised Nancy’s hands away from the child. Nancy pulled away and returned to the chair. “Come here,” she said smiling and reaching out her hand. The child, for she was still no more than that, looked up at Shamsir. “Go,” he said and the child took a few steps before she stood in front of her mother.

“Let me look at you.” Nancy took in the short choppy hairstyle with spiky and jagged edges. The skin was pale and the look blank. It was as though the child didn’t know how to smile anymore.

“Who are you?” The child’s voice was soft.

Nancy stared at her child for a long while. This had to be the other woman’s fault. Her husband couldn’t be so cruel as to ensure that their child forgot Nancy entirely. With daggers in her eyes, Nancy demanded to know, “Did your Versha do this? Where is she?”

Shamsir smirked, not missing a beat. Nancy recognised this immediately. It informed her that he was confident that he had the upper hand and there was no harm in sharing information with her. Pointing towards the back of him, he said, “She was up all night with Siti Zubaidah. She’s tired and taking a break to recharge her batteries.”

Nancy didn’t remember the remaining thirty minutes spent with her child. No. Not her child. A zombie who was lifeless and found the world around her strange.

That night, for the first time since she’d moved back to live with her mother, Nancy crept into her mother’s bed. In her mother’s embrace, she wept for herself and the child who no longer knew that Nancy was the one who gave birth to her.

Meanwhile, in the house in Damansara Heights, Shamsir concluded that the success of his experiment had exceeded his expectations. As he put Siti Zubaidah to bed, he also helped her put on the custom-made goggles and plugged in the earphones. When he switched it on, he could hear Versha’s voice say, “Hello baby girl. You’ve had a difficult day. It’s time to sleep now.” Shamsir saw his daughter stick her thumb into her mouth and then cuddle her new stuffed dinosaur for comfort. He walked to the plush master bedroom he once shared with Nancy wearing a contented smile and playing with his greying goatee. Seated at his desk, he opened his journal and, in his cursive longhand, he wrote:

Hypotheses proved. We don’t need to bother with bureaucracy or ideologies, governments, kingdoms, sultanates, or religions. The past must be forgotten to make virtual reality a complete success. In our lifetime, we didn’t need to create an actual dinosaur to know what it would be like to see a dinosaur. We didn’t need to rebuild the Colosseum to enjoy gladiators fighting. It was all possible with technology. Similarly, Siti Zubaidah no longer needs a mother. With the internet and virtual reality, she has forgotten the concept of an actual mother. The only mother she knows now is Versha. Ergo, metaverse is the only way forward for our Metopia.



1.     Maizatul Nazlina. The grounds of judgment in the Indira Gandhi ruling. The Star Online. []

2.     Khairah N. Karim. Federal Court rules unilateral conversion of M. Indira Ghandi’s children to Islam null and void. NST Online. []

3.      Gurdial Singh Nijar. Review of the Indira Gandhi decision. []

4.     Maizatul Nazlina. The grounds of judgment in the Indira Gandhi ruling. The Star Online. []

5.     Bernama. Federal Court also orders NRD to remove ‘bin Abdullah’ from birth certificate. []

6.     New Straits Times, 2021. A Malaysia for all. [online] p.2. Available at: []

About the Author:

Aneeta Sundararaj is a versatile writer from Malaysia, Aneeta’s latest and bestselling novel, ‘The Age of Smiling Secrets’ was shortlisted for the Book Award 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia. She created a resource website called ‘How to Tell a Great Story’.  Set in Malaysia, this contemporary novel is about a family torn apart when the husband converts to Islam and, without the knowledge or consent of his wife, converts their child as well. Throughout, Aneeta continued to pursue her academic interests and, in 2021, successfully completed a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Management of Prosperity Among Artistes in Malaysia’.

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