One Rupee. I know what you’re thinking: I had the same thoughts as well. “You’d need a LOT of those to buy anything of value. Just one will get you nothing and nowhere.”
“Do they even make those any more?” “They’re nothing more than collector’s items now.” There was even that song ‘Aamdani athanni, kharcha rupaiya’, which implied that spending one whole rupee was definitely living beyond your means. Was it really that long ago? I couldn’t immediately think of anything obtainable for a single rupee. I’m well aware that in days gone by, a rupee was a big deal: I’ve often heard my parents talk about it. In fact they even mentioned there was a time when their entire monthly electricity bill was less than a rupee. I remember having a super amused expression on my face. A rupee. One. Ek. A solitary rupee. That was simply too long ago.
In today’s world, where anything worth possessing costs nothing less than a thousand rupees, where a bottle of water on the menu of a fancy restaurant costs close to a hundred rupees, this story takes us on a nostalgic trip into the not-so-distant past when the single rupee was indeed quite valuable, if not mighty.
But then I stopped to think…was it really? In these times of inflation, expensive onions and designer labels has the humble rupee been completely forgotten and rendered useless? It’s definitely less prevalent now. These days, grocers hand you a piece of rock-hard, inedible candy, making a sale, claiming not to have a single rupee to give you as change.
After sifting through my treasure chest of memories and having a few leisurely conversations with my folks, I was pleasantly proved wrong. We came up with a host of things that were and are yours for the taking, all for ek rupaiyaa!
One of my favourites? Chai.
That’s what I remembered you could get with a single, glorious, 1 rupee coin.
Whether it was a shiny rupaiyaa or a grimy one, it would bring the homely comfort of a roadside chai, where the chai-walla would mix his special combination of sugar, tea, milk and in my case; cardamom. He’d blend it all together, pouring it from one shiny steel glass to the other – up and down, up and down, till that frothy loveliness appeared – and present it to me with flair: wah bhai wah. You could also get a drool-worthy hot samosa for 1 rupee at the nearby train station, always accompanied by tamarind-flavoured dip. I can almost guarantee you remember it the way I do: perfectly crisp edges, filled with precisely the right amount of potatoes and peas and when dipped in that chutney – sigh. Heaven in your mouth!
Speaking of railway stations, you could get your weight and your fortune for the day printed on a thick piece of cardboard for one rupee. Those tall, hefty weighing machines were such beautiful relics. I believe they still exist, but the fees are a little higher now.
At the local marketplace in my hometown of Goa, certain varieties of candy are still sold at 2 pieces for a rupee. Lest you think these ‘cheaper’ candies are inferior to the others, don’t be fooled.
They’re delicious and have been a favourite with my mum for years in their black and red striped goodness. The joy of an eating a candy ball is unparalleled.
As a kid, I remember using the rupee to make decisions: heads or tails solved many a quandary. Deciding where to eat, what games to play, which movies to watch: everything. I wonder if they still use a rupee coin for the toss at cricket matches anymore. On family holidays, retrieving a fallen rupee was a popular pool time game, one that tested our speed and sight under water.
Through my growing years, we often made road trips along the Bombay-Goa route. As is customary, regular stops were made for snacks and of course ‘loo stops’. This is probably the oddest utility of the one rupee coin, but definitely the most useful one.
Whenever we needed to make a trip to the washroom, we’d hand over a rupee to the lady at the entrance and in return were rewarded with sparkling clean, non-smelly facilities. And we all know how rare they were.
As I grew older and did more home-related chores like market trips, I encountered random shopping tales of the rupee. I once overheard a vendor telling a friend how expensive coconuts had become, a staggering `30 each, compared to the good old days, when they were just one rupee.
Despite their drop in value, the single rupee is still an important part of Indian traditions. Cash gifts at auspicious occasions like engagements and weddings always end with a ‘1’: that single rupee added to the main amount. Whether it’s a small gift of `11, or a large one of `50,001, that ‘shagun ka rupaiya’ is always tacked on for luck.
A while ago, since I’ve been here in the UAE, at the end of a vacation to India (where my home and heart remain) I usually went to the airport armed with a little bag full of ek rupaiyaas. Once past check-in, I would patiently wait in a queue to use the shiny red payphone to make my last goodbye calls to the family I was leaving behind. This wondrous link to the outside world only took one rupee coins. And I remember how every time I’d keep digging deep into my pocket to find another, another and yet another… just to keep chatting for a few seconds more, before I boarded the flight out.
Dad remembers a time when bus fares were one rupee. Similarly, a kilo of rice, a decent bunch of sardines from the local fish market, a novelty matchbox and a handful of nails from the hardware store were all available for a single rupee.
You can still buy a few random things for ek rupaiyaa: a sachet of shampoo, three pieces of Polo, a dash of washing powder, a photocopy. In some restaurants, you might get an idli, and in smaller towns or villages a glass of nimbu paani or a pudiya of chana or bhel.
And while a child would probably be richer with a piggybank full of silent, folded, larger denomination notes, there’s nothing that can replace the pleasant jingle-jangle of a moneybox full of one rupee coins and the glee it brings.
Perhaps the modest little one rupee coin is able to hold its own, after all.
Keep blowing the Trumpet! This & many more stories await in the pages!