My mother, mai, as we call her, had this curious habit of collecting coins. Coins of any denomination would be collected by her and secreted away into her old tin box, steel trunk it was called, which was stored on the overhead shelf in her puja room. Once in a while the trunk was pulled down, dusted, and a fresh lot of coins was placed inside.
Those days, and I am talking about the 60’s here, coins ranged from one paisa, the tiny round copper ones graduating over time into squares of aluminum alloy. The copper ones were called “tickli“, perhaps due to their resemblance to the bindi which, in Bhojpuri, was called tikuli. There were the flower-shaped two-paise coins and the hexagonal three-paise ones. The five-paise coins were square-shaped with rounded corners. Ten-paise coins were also flowery like the two-paise ones but were larger in size. There was a new coin those days- quite short-lived- the circular twenty-paise one. Made of a copper with a lotus flower on one of the faces. Then there was the smallish circular twenty-five paise coin and the slightly larger fifty paise one. The former was called the “chawanni” – a colloquism for char anna. This coinage, pardon the pun, was rather obsolete as the annas went away a few years after the British left. The fifty paise one was called the “atthani”, or eight-anna coin. The one rupee coin came much, much later.
A couple of years ago, when I was helping out my elder son with a mathematics assignment- the assignment was on coins- I had to hunt far-and-wide for coins. The lowest denomination coin I could find was the ten-paise one. The ones of lower denominations seem to have vanished! Even the ten paise and the twenty five paise coins were rare.
Mai would collect all these coins and tuck them into her tin box. This was a bit of a joke amongst us children, her collection of coins.
I would ask her sometimes why she was doing this.
She was collecting the coins, she would say, to gift it to my wife, mehraroo is the word in Bhojpuri; “Tohar mehraroo key sab dey deb ham.” Or a variant of this. Like, she would buy a golden necklace for the wife. Or buy her an expensive Banarasi sari.
I must have been around eight or ten years when these discussions happened and needless to say I used to be quite amused by this argument. The concept of a mehraroo was vague one as far as I was concerned.
And if mai was angry with me for something when I asked her this question she would say she was collecting the coins for the day when I would be married and my wife would give her neither food to eat nor new clothes to wear! All this would amuse me no end!
Over time as I progressed into teenage and my priorities became different, my queries to mai on her coin-collection stopped. I even stopped noticing her coin collection.
If I had paid attention I would have noticed its waxing and waning. When money was not available at home towards to end of the month (before my father, Pitaji, got his monthly salary) mai would dip into her reserves to buy the household essentials. Pitaji‘s salary as a college lecturer was barely sufficient to meet the routine needs of the family. An illness in the family or an unforeseen wedding in the extended family was enough to upset the expense budgets.
One big expense for the family was when I was being sent to join a college in Nagpur for my 11th and 12th Std. My school did not have a plus-two course and there were no other decent ones in Jamshedpur those days.
The weeks before the departure were spent in a flurry of shopping. A new steel trunk of my own to carry my clothes and stuff, some new clothes, toiletries, footwear, a table-lamp and some stationery items. Long-lasting snacks were prepared so that I could partake some home bites in a distant land (“God knows what kind of food you will get in your hostel mess!” mai was concerned.)
I was very excited at the prospect of staying in a hostel and even begun a small research on the cinema theaters in Nagpur. Nagpur those days had at least four-to-five times more cinema halls than Jamshedpur and this was a source of great excitement to me! Academics was incidental!
I did have this nagging awareness at the back of my mind about the financial drain this was proving for the family but I chose to ignore it in the overall excitement of a new life away from home. As my day of departure neared, I would sometimes notice mai crying quietly. I realized that the pain of separation from me was sad for her. But I would shrug it off and would maintain a brave front myself.
The day of departure came, I was to board the train to Nagpur in the evening.
Sometime in the morning, mai called me aside and handed me a small packet in an envelope.
“This is for you”, she said. And then she walked away into the kitchen.
I impatiently ripped apart the packet and I saw inside a gleaming new HMT Kohinoor wrist watch. My very first watch! I never had a watch of my own. During exam time in the senior classes in school I would borrow my father’s watch to help keep track of time. A metal-strap mechanical affair, white-dialed with “radium”- the watch markings would glow in the dark to enable an easy reading of the timing. I was aware of the financial burden my travel was having on the family and I felt a bit guilty that they had spent scarce finances on the watch. Soon enough I discovered that mai had emptied out her coin collection to fund this watch.
The collection which she had built all these years!
It was my turn to cry!
30 years later: I do not, as a rule, wear watches these days. There are far too many things around you to tell you the time; the mobile phone, the display at the bottom right corner of the laptop, the Ipod. The only time I wear a watch is on a flight when neither the laptop nor the mobile phone is on. Last week, when I was leaving home to board a flight, I picked up the watch I normally wear on flights. The watch was dead, the battery had given up. Rummaging through my collection of watches, I realized that none of these had not been attended-to in the last few years and all had dead batteries. The only watch I could pick up was the good old HMT Kohinoor, which though dead, sprung to immediate life the moment I wound it up!
This watch may be the clunkiest I have, but for me it carries far too many meanings!
And of course it is still my most reliable watch!