I saw Anjali putting a thousand rupees in the ornate, kitschy Envelope preserved in the dusty compartments of the now antique Godrej cupboard with its rusted lock and key…..These envelopes saw light of the day only on occasions like these- Diwali, Christmas, Ugadi to be given to the first unlikely horde of relatives, grandfather’s factory workers and the helpers who swarmed the haveli during these times.
Anjali was putting a one rupee coin along with the 1000 Rs. I asked her not to put it, (I am something of a renegade…or at least I would like to believe that!) slightly irritated about this stupid tradition of putting a one rupee coin along with the money, for luck. What good is a one rupee coin in today’s age, I scoffed. She told me in a mysterious voice, you never know what a one rupee coin will do. She told me a convoluted story of how Rajnikanth brings the whole corrupt establishment down with one rupee in the Tamil blockbuster Shivaji. I was about to launch a diatribe on the senselessness of the Indian film industry when suddenly the one rupee in Anjali’s palm began to laugh! I am not kidding! It was laughing uproariously as though it had some private joke running in its head….It seemed as though it was laughing at me….I could not tolerate this insult and threw it on the ground…..
The coin fell on the ground with a tinkle and I was glad to see that it had stopped laughing. Thank you, it lisped, I have longed for the cold ground ever since the day I was minted. All of my great adventures begin when I fall down, on the streets, in houses, in brothels and the jungles ….I would prefer that to the clammy greedy hands of humans any day!
Anjali sat down on the bed looking intrigued and spoke to the coin, “Do tell us about your journeys….I am sure a coin has a totally different experience of the world!”
At this, the coin sat itself down comfortably (If it is possible for coins to do so!) And with the practised air of an experienced raconteur it began to narrate its story.
First there was darkness….then there was the smell of metal and a new day began for me as I cooled off the heat of my birth…I was washed and dried and something made marks all over my body. It seemed alright until the most terrible weight crushed me. I thought I would die…..That was my first experience of pain. I learnt that this pain makes us coins immune to it later in life…Sort of like the vaccination that human babies get.
I don’t remember what happened after that. I must have passed out.
Next thing I remember I was looking at my own reflection in a young child’s deep brown eyes, as she held me in her palm and wordlessly gazed at me with adoring eyes…..and then all went dark….. The child had put me in her mouth and I could hear her choking. Her tiny being seemed to quiver all around me as she tried to breathe…..I could hear panic in the adults’ voices as they tried to dislodge me from the dark place and finally a strong pair of arms seemed to do the trick and out I came, with all the speed of a rocket to land against a wall that threw me to the ground. I realised then what it meant to be alive……That was when I began to love the ground. It doesn’t just mean adventure……it means that I am alive.
They made the child lean against the wall and fussed over her.But what about me who had had a greater ordeal? That was my first meeting with humans in life – and I was appalled to realise how selfish they are. While I was recovering from my shock, the child, unnoticed by its parents silently slipped me into her pocket and later that evening kept me in her piggy bank….This was when I developed my fear of closed spaces…..claustrophobia is very dangerous, especially for coins whose livelihood depends on it!
Years passed…..The girl grew up and in time had made a small fortune in small change, in the piggy bank……I was glad I had company but the long years of being alone made me crave solitude, especially as the piggy bank was positively bursting with other coins!
Those coins taught me a lot. That was my first brush with the real world and I realised just how naïve I was when compared to those seasoned, worldly wise ones. They would tell me raucously about their exploits and it pleased me no end to hear about their adventures. I longed for such things too and dreamed of the day I would be free from the confines of that piggy bank.
That was also my first meeting with the female coins whom I cordially disliked. I felt tongue-tied and embarrassed in their presence and found them much too frivolous. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Coins that I admired for their brave exploits simpered before these creatures and blushed. By some uncanny feminine instinct, they sensed my aversion and took to making catcalls, hooting and teasing whenever they saw me. I kept myself to one corner and made myself as inconspicuous as possible whenever I saw them.
One lucky day, the piggy bank broke because of the kid brother’s naughty ways and I was finally set free! The impact of the fall threw me and some other lucky coins under the shelf; the not so lucky ones were scooped greedily in cupped hands and kept aside.
It was a few weeks under the shelf- new found freedom but the vagaries of dust before we were found again by the maid. The mistress, in one of her cleaning moods, had ordered her to clean under the shelves.
The maid picked us up. Kindness and warmth were pulsing in her calloused hands. I could read from her hands that years of drudgery and hard work, had not diminished her sense of compassion and grace. She took us to the mistress. There were quite a few of us, making a hundred rupees (give or take) among ourselves.
The mistress, touched by her honesty, gave her the coins as a reward. And I could feel the maid’s gratitude ebbing and flowing in the lines on her palm. Such expressive hands they were!
She took me home. And I’ve never felt as secure in anybody else’s hands ( And believe me, I’ve seen a lot of hands !) as I did in hers. It seemed as though my destiny lay in her hands…..Whenever she gave me away, for meeting the many expenses of her family, or at the temple as an offering to the Deity or as a token of compassion to the beggar on the streets, I invariably found myself in her hands despite the various places I was exchanged in.
But all good things come to an end in your mortal world. The lady suffered from some ailment that slowly began to eat away her life. She wasted away before my eyes and it was a sad day indeed when she died. I now had to fall in with the evil ways of the son who came back from the city to lay his hands on the little property his mother had so lovingly built with her hard-earned money.
It turned out that he was a brute who beat up his wife. A wastrel who spent time in the company of men with questionable morals – the goons, pimps, alcoholics and gamblers who would be ready to do anything for money.
He came to a bad end. Once, in a drunken brawl, he was killed and thrown into a ditch. The culprit made off with all the money he could gather. I laid there in the pocket for days with the putrefying corpse. The stench was unbearable. I had lost all hope of rescue when finally the municipality sweeper cleared the corpse and sent it off to the burning ghats.
The coin lay pensive for a moment.
And then what happened? Anjali prodded.
The coin rose from its reverie. Such pathos I saw in the burning ghats. Thousands of people had died. The corpses kept coming. They had died in their sleep by breathing in some toxic fumes from a factory. Some had been horribly trampled, squished to a jelly by the panicked crowds that ran to survive the cloud of gas. Dead People lying everywhere. It was a terrible sight. The municipality was baffled. A daunting task lay ahead of them…..to cremate the sea of bodies. I was still in the pocket. I don’t know how many days passed. The corpse was quite forgotten in all the commotion surrounding the dead.
“You mean you were there when the gas tragedy happened?”Anjali broke in excitedly.
Perhaps…..I don’t know what it was called. All I know is that it was ghastly.
“That was about thirty years ago.” I exclaimed incredulously. “You don’t mean to say you’ve been in circulation all this while? Think of all the history you’ve seen!”
Much before thirty years, I think. I have no conception of time. You human beings think that time moves ahead……but for me it’s always been a cycle – from pocket to pocket, hand to hand, and the occasional freedom of the ground…..
“Tell us more!”I was completely hooked by its story!
I would, if you stopped interrupting….Now, where was I? Ah, yes! Lying there in the pocket. One of the doctors seemed to believe that the corpse was a victim of the gas disaster and whisked it away to conduct an autopsy.
“Excuse me, sorry to interrupt you, but how do you know these big words?” Anjali asked timidly. Hmmmm, Valid question, I thought.
Well, coins can read you know! In fact, some coins are more scholarly and well read than your best scholars…..
The coin seemed miffed. Anjali apologized. “The autopsy” I gently reminded.( I could definitely write this for the local newspaper! It would make for an amusing read.)
While they took away the body, I was kept among the personal belongings of the deceased. Mounds and mounds of clothes, wallets, timepieces, rings and women’s ornaments.
The compounder of the local hospital took all of these with him and I was there among them. It’s funny, even in times of terrible tragedy and great loss , there are those among you who want to profit by it. The gold must have turned his head. We went to some faraway place in a train.Days and nights in the overcrowded train to some unknown destination.
As the man got down the train with his considerable luggage, a pickpocket swiped the wallet I was in and went on his way quietly. Oh, the things I have seen in that pickpocket’s house. He seemed partial to us coins – something of a coin- collector…..Coins were neatly classified according to the place of origin…. That was a very cosmopolitan place. I didn’t know there were so many different coins throughout the world!
The coin’s voice turned dreamy. That was when I met her, my beloved.
She was a royal centime from the aristocratic Franc family – A dainty little thing, worlds apart from her hoity-toity, condescending siblings. She was quite unlike those frivolous coins of my piggy bank days. We struck a warm friendship…..She showed a lively interest in my travels and what I had to narrate….Her life had been more or less sheltered and she longed to be free….I admit, we got quite close…The other coins disapproved. They tried to steer her away, by calling me a lowly Indian rupee…..There was jealousy as well…..The British Pound Sterling and the American cent who till then had considered me an unworthy sop, began to see me as a rival…..I was oblivious to their snide comments as long as I had my beloved with me….
Our romance was short-lived. The pickpocket had been caught red-handed by the police and in a moment of desperation, had confessed the whereabouts of his loot.
And it ended. My beautiful centime was taken away from me. I was heart-broken. No coin has ever made the kind of impression she has…..I wonder where she is know….In faraway France? Or lying in the pocket of an unworthy policeman as a souvenir….who knows?
The coin fell silent. We waited. Perhaps some painful memories had surfaced and it needed time.
It was over ten seconds. “Mr.Coin?”Anjali ventured timidly.
I went and touched the coin….Seemed like any ordinary coin, no life, no voice.
I looked at Anjali. She stared back at me.
“Did the coin speak just now?”
Anjali nodded. We looked at each other for a while and then she picked it up and put it back in the envelope.
I told her, “You’re right…..A one rupee coin can do many things.” What a bizarre end to a bizarre conversation!