Villagers in central India didn’t think much of their coinage when they compared them with the British ones I showed them. Whereas the British coins were ‘heavy’ (bhari) and ‘shiny’ (chamakdar), and were thus considered to contain silver and even gold, Indian coins were ‘light’ (halki) with no silver content whatsoever. This prompted villagers to reflect on what this might mean and why there might be a difference. Indian currency wasn’t proper money at all; that Indian coins lacked any silver content and were ‘light’ demonstrated that it was ‘fake’ (nakli paise). It also explained India’s poverty: ‘It’s because our coins don’t have any silver in them that we are poor’, one man said. British currency is real money (asli paise) because it contains gold and silver (evidenced by its weight and lustre) and therefore makes British people richer than Indians.
Indian money had not always been like this. In the past, villagers told me, money was not ‘light’ or second-rate; in fact, it used to be made of silver. It was right that the British money I showed them was ‘heavy’ and valuable because it was in the time of the British (angrez ke zemana) that Indians had silver coins. Like my coins, those coins also bore the head of a queen. This seemed right too. ‘But the queen you’re talking about was probably Victoria, and the one on my coins is Elizabeth, one of her descendants’, I said.
According to them, their ancestors used to have lots of silver coins like the one depicted. Women used to wear strings of them as necklaces and men carried them around in little pouches. To get to market, men undertook long journeys through the forest. Weighed down by their coins, older men tired quickly and buried them in the forest, digging them up on their return home. But sometimes, being old men, they forgot the spot and were unable to retrieve them. So, I was told, there are hoards of silver coins throughout the forest waiting to be found. Most are still in the same locations. But some have the ability to move. If there is a bit of gold among the silver coins, they come alive and roam the forest. These silver coins with life (jiv) have great power and are much sought after by local people. By engaging the services of a sorcerer, they can with difficulty, be tracked down. If one captures the living silver coins and places them in one’s house, one is assured of wealth forever.
Silver coins with jiv roam the forest but they occasionally come into the village and appear to people in dreams. One man told of such an encounter:
‘In the dream, I was standing on the road outside my house. I don’t know what I was doing there, but it was night. I saw a procession of pots coming towards me, rolling on the ground. I don’t know how many there were, maybe four or five. They all had lids. The first pot stopped beside me and told me to look inside. I was quite scared but I looked all the same. I couldn’t see anything; it was too dark, too black. I told this to the first pot who then asked me to put my hand inside to feel what was there. Now I was really scared and I refused to do it. I thought they must be ghosts (bhut-pret) or witchcraft (jadu-tonha) and I really just wanted them to go away. The pot said that if I felt inside I would be rich forever. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I told the pots to leave. Before they left, they lifted up their lids and I saw silver coins inside. I wish I had reached inside. If only I had known. I could have had all those silver coins. I was just too scared.’
This man was apprehensive about accepting the silver coins because he equated them with ghosts. Ghosts behave in much the same way as these silver coins with jiv. One comes across them most often in the forest or at crossing points but occasionally they too venture into settlements, taking on the guise of a traveller seeking shelter for the night. Accepting a ghost into one’s home is fraught with opportunity and danger: in return for a home, it does one’s bidding and increases one’s wealth by stealing grain and gold from one’s neighbours. But it will eventually turn on its host, consuming him and his household.
Ordinary colonial-era silver coins without jiv are also much in demand, particularly among gamblers who play satta. Satta is a numbers game and to win money you have to correctly guess one or more of the numbers that are released daily by the ‘satta-kings’ who run the racket from Mumbai. Gamblers use colonial silver coins to divine the numbers that will appear and upon which they will place a bet. Coins bearing a family resemblance to the silver coins are also sought after. What they look and feel like is absolutely crucial to their power. And this is why a seasoned gambler from a neighbouring village, having heard of the present-day British coins that I had brought with me, came to my door asking to borrow one. He passed over the ten and twenty pence pieces (too light) and the fifty pence coin (odd shape) that I showed him. He liked the heaviness of the £1 coin but it was the £2 coin that really caught his eye. The British £2 coin is a token type of coin with a silver coloured centre and a gold coloured edge and rim. It was the unusual combination of the gold and silver colour present in a single coin that attracted this gambler as well as the similarity of the coin in size and lustre to colonial silver rupees. Although I insisted that I didn’t think there was any silver in it and that it was Elizabeth and not Victoria who had minted it, he took it away nevertheless.