Collecting origins

Once upon a time, I was a coin collector.

It started with a small cloth bag that belonged to my mother. It was fascinating to me as a child because it was covered with brownish stains – sealing wax, but we thought they were the wrong kind of brownish stains – and that’s how she would discourage us kids from handling it during those occasions when she took the bag out. There was a tiger claw inside, and a bit of a rhinoceros horn, some odd-looking heirlooms and, as I found out one day, coins. Old coins, of different sizes, shapes and colours – and one even with a hole in it. There was a small one paisa coin that boggled my mind – “When I was in school, we would get two chocolates for a paisa”, she explained.  There was a yellow 20-paise coin from 1948, the year MK Gandhi died, with a lotus on one side and his face on the other. Brass, not gold – she said, before I could ask. The oldest coins were from the forties – the hole-in-the-centre was one pice, from 1944, when they were trying to save metal because of the War. There were interesting inscriptions all throughout, and inscribed heads of various Georges and Edwards.

Ma saw my curiosity and, I really don’t know why, told me to keep them. “Start a collection”, she said, probably thinking I would lose interest and misplace them soon enough. I was eleven years old.

What happened was quite the opposite. I was enthused enough to look up coin collecting in the Britannica set at the local library, and found out that numismatics had a long and detailed description. When I look back, the fascination was probably because of repeated readings of Treasure Island – old coins tinkling in your hand is the closest a boy can get to becoming Jim Hawkins. My collection, therefore, was in equal measure a role-play and a serious pursuit. Over the weeks, I grew more and more fascinated with coins. My small collection expanded via contributions from my relatives and neighbours – strangely enough, everybody had a coin or two stored away, either old or from another country, a relic of the past or a souvenir from a family trip, that they would willingly give away, seeing my eyes light up when I held them. One of the good parts of staying in the North East was being surrounded by so many nearby countries – very soon, I owned coins from Bhutan ( which were very, very easily available), some from Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh and Myanmar ( Burma then) and even a few from China, which was a little tougher to get. My father made a few trips to Delhi every year, and he would buy a few every time – I got a few Pakistani coins, a few Russian roubles and more examples from the British era. My collection was an equal focus of foreign coins – the plan was obviously to own a coin from every country – and old Indian coins.

Initially my coins, all ten or fifteen of them, would fit into a small container my mother gave me. But very soon the number increased to a quantity where I had to hijack my geometry box – which we had to take to school only once a week, on Friday – and used it to store my collection. And one day, I decided to carry the coin-filled geometry box to school, after which things got very interesting. Mild digression – our school had a mixture of Assamese, Bengali and Marwari students. One of the good things that came out of this was that we spoke in English to each other, because the Assamese students were wary of their poor Hindi – even though we could watch Hindi films and TV serials, there was a major complex about actually speaking in the language, probably because our accents were bad enough to evoke laughter among the Hindi speakers. The same thing held good for the Marwari kids – their attempts at broken Axomiya made us giggle. The Bengali kids somehow managed to speak in three languages, but out of an unspoken contract, we would speak in English most of them time, to avoid possible violence and “miss-he-laughed-at-me”-type complaints.

Coming back to the topic at hand – the first day I took my coins to school, I discovered two things – one, there were a lot of my classmates who had coins at home – “my father has been to Somalia, I think there are some coins lying around”, or “My grandfather gave me a few old coins, you can have them if you want”. So in a very short time, a lot of those stray pieces made their way inside my geometry box. The second thing was that some of them, mostly the Marwari students, already had coin collections of their own, and over the weeks that followed, they let out that they were interested in trading. Or “exchanging”, as we called it.

The weird thing – well, weird at that time, but natural now that I look back at it – was that within a few weeks, the number of coin collectors in the school increased radically. I am not taking credit for that, mind you, probably there was already a network in place and I was made part of it the day I brought my coin-box to school. But the strange thing was that classmates who were becoming my ‘sources’, who had brought me coins from their elder brothers or parents or relatives, either stopped or in some extreme cases asked me to return the coins they had given me – because they were starting collections of their own. Dang and blast! Coin collecting became a school fad, much like quizzing after Siddharth Basu’s India Quiz or exotic weapons after Amitabh Bachchan in Toofan ( to which I contributed as well).

And with open season came Fucked-uppery of the highest order. “I have some coins for exchanging”, someone would say, looking disinterestedly at my collection. “Do you want?” “I will see”, I would reply and proceed to feign disdain at the ones he was offering. This was probably my first exposure to the cut-throat world of collector politics, and I can’t even begin to imagine how much this prepared me for my future life. Things got more complicated. Exchanges would have to be conducted in secrecy, because rival collectors were always waiting to offer bigger and better deals to the unsuspecting newbie who has been convinced that a 1970 US dime is very rare, much rarer than the Italian coin his father gave him. Exchange deals were also marred by the crowd-swipe, which goes like this – some guy comes with bunch of friends and says he wants to see your collection. Everybody surrounds you, and as you show the coins one by one, somebody palms something. It needed eagle eyes and steel nerves to maintain one’s collecting enthusiasm in the face of such strong competition. On top of it, most of the well-to-do children were taking to buying coins – apparently, in a corner in Fancy Bazaar, the commercial centre of Guwahati, there was a shop called Bargola, whose owner sold coins at high prices, and quite a few of my fellow collectors sourced stuff from there. I was in no position to put any money into my hobby; finances were tightly controlled by my parents until quite a few years later and they would probably just take away collecting privileges if I insisted on pumping their hard-earned money into it. I had to figure out creative ideas to expand my collection.

My inspiration, at that time, was Tom Sawyer. Taking a cue from the book, and Tom’s entrepreneurial abilities, I had a bright idea. On a rainy weekend, I took about 10 Bhutanese copper coins, a hammer and a metal block. At a safe distance away from my usually-sensitive-to-sonic-bedlam parents, I proceeded to pound the coins until they became uniformly flat, with a few grooves remaining here and there. I then kept them buried for a few days, which took the sheen off. In school, a grand story was woven. “We had water in the house because of the rain, the other day”, I said. “And when the water was gone, I found a pot full of old coins just near the verandah. It was probably buried at the back and the water uncovered it.” School-children are a gullible lot ( heck, I was gullible enough to believe a lot of weird things – remind me to tell you about them someday) and by the time I repeated the story to a couple of people, the buzz was strongly positive. On top of this brazen yarn-spinning, I also kept my escape options ready. The collectors in the senior class, and the more retribution-prone among my classmates were told that my parents had strictly prohibited me from displaying or exchanging any of those artifacts. Some of the easily convinced classmates were promised that they would get preference for the eventual trade, if and when that happened. When I finally got two of the mutilated ex-Bhutanese coins, demand was sky-high. I remember getting an 1837 East India company coin, with “Victoria Regina” inscribed on it ( the later coins I had, from 1891, had something else inscribed on it, I forget the exact words) in exchange for one of them. The classmate I got it from asked me once, after many many years, the real story behind the treasure trove, and I finally confessed to the con. He shook his head sadly. I think he hates me now.

There are seven shades of love, the Sufis say – and my love for coin collecting crossed the first four – Hub (attraction), Uns (infatuation), Ishq (love), and Adiqat (reverence) – with a small hop and a skip, deftly sidestepped the fifth – Ibadat (worship) – and landed squarely into Junoon (obesession). Unknown ( or probably not) to those who knew me, I became possessed of a Gollum-like lust for my preciouses. The geometry box, once brought surreptiously on random days, to avoid confiscation was now always in my school bag. The teachers were aware of the rampant trading going on during school hours, and though they did not discourage the hobby, they kept any non-educational contraband in the school cupboard until you went and grovelled and apologized and shed a tear or two – but I brazenly brought the box everyday. Everyone knew about it. Geometry boxes have loose hinges, and occasionally a coin or two would slip through them and land in my bag. When I would search for particular high-point of my collection and discover it was not there, my heart would leap to my mouth, and I would frantically search the bag and heave a sigh of relief when I would find it, stuck between the pages of a notebook. I cannot give you any logical reason behind why I did all this – maybe it was the carelessness of boyhood, the ingrained belief that nothing bad will really happen to you until it actually happens.

The seventh stage – Maut (death) – was bound to come, and it did soon enough. One day the school bell rang, and all of ran for the school bus – a hasty boarding entitled you to better seats. School would be over at 3:00 PM, and the bus would start at 3:10. At 3:09, I remembered, with a sinking feeling in my heart, that I had taken my coin collection out of my bag and had kept it inside the desk, because the teacher in the last class had the tendency to randomly check bags. I stayed a very long distance away from school, no direct city buses – and my sister had seen me in the bus, so I could not even claim there was some after-school activity involved. I took a deep breath and made the worst possible decision of my life. “I am sure the box will still be there tomorrow”, I told myself. “Who on earth could possibly take it?”

The next morning, as you must have guessed already, the box was not there.

I cried a little, picked fights with a couple of collectors who others claimed had some of my coins mysteriously appear in their trades. Nothing much came out of it. It could have been anyone who took the box of coins and I had no proof anyway. The teachers clucked and made sympathetic noises and came up with the obvious question – “why did you have to bring it to school?” I had two choices – to start all over again, or to give up and pretend it did not really matter. I chose the latter, obviously.

There is a semi-happy ending to this, though. Two semi-happy endings, actually. My father and I went to Nepal in 1996, just after my board exams were over. He has an elder sister there, whose husband was ( he’s not alive anymore) a renowned editorial cartoonist and had great taste in literature – I did not meet him for too long, but I enjoyed every minute that we spent together. Anyway, so I was walking around Kathmandu with the pater, when we saw an old man with a bunch of coins on the pavement, and stopped to look at what he had. Strangely, the man was selling a lot of newer Indian coins – my father picked up a five-rupee coin, issued in 1984 with Indira Gandhi’s face on it, and asked him how much he was selling it for. “200 Rs”, he said. Both of us were amazed – we used to come across those coins very frequently, and well, they generally were used for their face value. There were other commemorative Indian coins there – the highest was a 100 Rs coin which had some insane price tag, but most of the rest were all fairly common coins, some we hadn’t seen in use at all. We looked around a bit, and realized that the high prices were fairly standard there – and quite a few of them got sold too. My father, after we came back to Guwahati, started a coin collection of his own, focusing on Indian commemorative coins post-1947. He continues to this day, and I remember to keep newly-issued coins aside for him when I come across any.

The other semi-happy ending is that because I had to fill the void left behind by my missing coins, I began to collect comics, which I had treated as very disposable reading material so far. And this time I was careful – no publicity, not much fuss, no evident enthusiasm when some classmate brought bound volumes of Dell comics of the 60s. That collection, obviously, continues to this day. Ain’t life grand?