Sunday, Sep 25, 2022

Lamenting chavanni’s demise

Chavanni died last week. But the Reserve Bank of India’s unemotional announcement couched in official language.

Chavanni died last week. But the Reserve Bank of India’s unemotional announcement couched in official language—‘Coins of denomination of 25 paise will cease to be legal tender from June 30,2011’—conveyed nothing of the immense sadness associated with the death of this lowly coin and,with it,the passing of an entire era in the man-money relationship in India.

Coins of 1,2,3,5,10 and 20 paise denominations had vanished long ago. Now chavanni (four annas) is gone. Soon,athanni (eight annas or 50 paise coin) too will probably be dead ‘demonitised’,in RBI’s pitiless lingo. All money from then onwards will be counted only in rupees. When that happens,there will be nothing left of the species called ‘paisa’ in India. Has anyone paused to spare a thought on what the death of ‘paisa’ means for the social,cultural and psychological history of India?

Mourning resurrects memories. I remember the many things I did with chavanni and with other coins of lesser value when I was young. The first ‘rice plate’ I ate,while on a school outing,cost only 25 paise. The cinema ticket in an itinerant tent theatre that I frequented in my mother’s village during vacation months cost less—10 paise (for kids). The ‘pocket money’ of five paise that my grandfather occasionally gave us when I was studying in first standard was enough for me to buy a handful of locally made sweets in the next-door village shop. The boatman who ferried us across the river to the village on the other bank took no money at all. In the barter system that was still prevalent in our village in the 1960s,my grandfather gave him—and also the shoe-maker,barber and other rural service providers—grains,jaggery and other farm produce after harvest. It was an era when the rich were called ‘paisewale’. Now,with paisa itself on the brink of extinction,the rich are called millionaires and billionaires,and their millions and billions are counted not even in rupees but in dollars. How much India has changed in just 40-50 years!

But in today’s era of unlimited consumerism,it is helpful to remember that India’s ethos has never measured the true wealth or worth of an individual in money terms. Human values have always mattered more. Nothing illustrates this better than Premchand’s immortal story Idgah. It is the heart-wrenching tale of Hamid,a four-year-old poor orphan boy,who is brought up by Ameena,his ageing and hard-working grandmother. On Eid-ul-Fitr,he goes to a nearby fair to enjoy the festival along with other kids from his village. His friends spend their money on games,sweets,toys etc. But Hamid resists the temptation of doing so and,instead,uses his three paise—yes,three paise is all he had—to buy his grandma a ‘gift’: chimta or a pair of tongs to flip the rotis. For he remembered that her fingers were often burnt when making rotis over a clay oven as she had no chimta.

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When Mahatma Gandhi was leading India’s freedom struggle,it was a matter of immense pride for people to become four-anna members of the Congress party. Gandhiji,of course,valued the participation of even those who couldn’t pay chavanni. At a time when most political parties reserve a special welcome for super-rich donors and wheeler-dealers,here is an inspiring and instructive tale about the magnetic bond between the Mahatma and a paisa-wali woman. Once,during a Khadi-campaign tour of rural Orissa,a poor old woman who listened to his speech,wanted to meet him. She was bent with age and her clothes were in tatters. The volunteers tried to stop her,but she fought her way to the place where Gandhiji was sitting. She touched his feet,took out a one-paisa copper coin from the folds of her sari,and placed it in front of him. Gandhiji thanked her respectfully and kept the copper coin with him. Jamnalal Bajaj,a well-known businessman and follower of the Mahatma,who was treasurer of the Charkha Sangh (spinners’ association),happened to be travelling with him. He asked Gandhiji for the coin but Gandhiji refused. “I keep cheques worth thousands of rupees for the Charkha Sangh,” Bajaj said laughingly,“yet you won’t trust me with a copper coin.” Gandhiji’s reply: “This copper coin is worth much more than those thousands. If a man has several lakhs and he gives away a thousand or two,it doesn’t mean much. But this coin was perhaps all that the poor woman possessed. She gave me all she had. That was very generous of her. What a great sacrifice she made. That is why I value this copper coin more than a crore of rupees.”

India became free because of the sacrifices of millions of ordinary patriots like her for whom even chavanni was big money. But what has India’s freedom meant for today’s poor millions? Here’s another question we should be asking ourselves,one that is especially relevant when India is becoming a big economic power—already a trillion-dollar economy and poised to cross the two-trillion-dollar mark by 2015: is the mad chase for more money making moneyed people happier,and our society more harmonious? By ‘making money’ the be-all and end-all of all professions,including politics,have we not created a corrupt society and an even more corrupt state machinery that is corroded from within? Shouldn’t our intellectuals be setting higher,non-monetary,ideals for India’s development,consistent with our country’s cultural and spiritual ethos?

First published on: 10-07-2011 at 01:20:17 am
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