OF NICKLES "N" DIMES

have not unlearnt counting as I grew up from a school going kid to a learned gentleman that I now am. Yes indeed it was a long journey and I loved every moment of living it. There was, however, a period of time when I faced a little uncertainty about my counting abilities when the decimal system of currency was introduced in 1958 as the old coins of the rupee system got changed to the paisa system that is now in vogue. There was a change in the weights and measurement systems as well that changed seers into kilograms and miles into kilometers. I had just qualified as a Medical Graduate and had very little acumen in counting and converting the old system into the metric system. In fact I became a medical man because I could not solve arithmetical problems as well as others could do. I simply did not have that caliber in me. To my horror I found out that I could not even become a surgeon that my father wanted me to be, because I have a fear of looking at blood outside the human body. So I had to make my choice as to which part of the education should I profess to further my career. There perhaps was the only thing that I could do and that was that I take medicine as my subject of work. I did my masters in medicine and started practicing in a government hospital. The salary was not as lucrative as the profession of the surgeons, but I could manage. There is one thing that I possess in plenty and it is the sixth sense when it comes to diagnosing an ailment. Those were days when technology was not good enough to aid the medical sciences in tools of diagnostics. I kept up the pressure on myself to find ways of looking at aids that would facilitate my work. I soon took an interest in Biomedical Technology and did some research on the subject. I had some initial success and my talent was recognized by the state government who prompted me to continue further in upgrading such systems at the hospital. I was on a look out for a good coach to set me up on a track that would show me the results. I was suitably aided by them for admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at Boston for a course in Biotechnology. This was a five year program and my study was funded by a handsome grant of a stipend during the stay there.

It was finally on the Independence Day in August of 1959 that I left for Boston. I had prepared myself for the journey and was mentally geared up to take the challenge. It was perhaps a big day for my parents who accompanied me all the way to Delhi where some pre-departure formalities were required and they did not like to leave me alone until all the issues were sorted out. The British Airways flight took me to London where I had to break journey and the next flight across the Atlantic was in three days as all other flights to US were booked. Those were days when aircraft had propeller driven engines and took a long time to reach you anywhere. Flying across continents was a time consuming affair. I had three days of forced stay in London and it was exciting to go around on my own and explore the monarchial culture to which I was not exposed. I learnt more about the European culture every time I flew in to London but right now I felt a little happy at least that I had not to worry about counting my paisa as I got used to the pound and shilling but intrigued at the same time about the “farthing” that was being debated to be taken out from the currency markets in England. There were demonstrations by people against those who did not accept the lowest coinage (12th of a penny) in trade as it was found to have become irrelevant. There were stories of people denied their goods if they paid in farthing and some shouting and abusive exchanges were witnessed in such bargains.

I landed in New York from where I had to take a connecting flight the next day that brought me to the Logan International Airport at Boston. There was someone from the institute waiting there to receive me and take me to the campus where arrangements had been made to house me in a one room apartment just across the river front. I was pleased with the reception I had and things looked good already. The sensation was short lived as I soon realized I faced the same problem with my handling the money here as at home. The small change that comes with the Dollar is difficult to understand as compared to the rupee system back home. I still have not figured out why a dime that carries ten cents should be smaller in size than a nickel that is valued for half. Why is it difficult to find a 50 cent coin or a dollar coin when it could make things a wee bit easy perhaps? Why is it that all the currency notes are of the same size and design, except of course the picture it carries of American Presidents and it is only the bold number at the upper corners that establishes its value? To ensure a fair treatment to myself I never carried notes of higher denomination and the biggest value I ever held was a $1 note. Why is there so much dependence on the quarters that have become common in all vending machines including the phone booths? In the next few months I met many other friends who I found carelessly handling the cents coins. In fact I found out a classmate who stored the cents in a plastic water container and never used these for any purpose whatsoever, while as I had these all the time in my pocket weighing me down and I eagerly looked forward finding a suitable disposal mechanism as I did my shopping.

My friends at the campus soon learnt about my obsession with getting rid of the small coins. Whenever we had to go Dutch on an outing and square off our debts, I invariably ended up pocketing the loose change. I remember an incident when paying for a burger I counted at least 20 cents coins along with other change and handed it at the counter and the cashier at the other end remarked acidly: Oh you must be a rich man Sir. That remark threw me off balance as I stopped trading in this fashion. It was at an outing to New York when we took an elevator ride up the top floor of the Empire State Building where I found a guy converting the cents coins to images of the tower itself in a machine press. I converted some two dozen coins for a fee and decided to gift these to friends at Srinagar on my return. I still have some of these with me as a reminder of the times. Interestingly I found that people in New York didn’t much care about these coins either, as I found such small coins lost on footpaths or in hallways of buildings or even on the taxicab floors or at Metros. Suddenly my obsession ended at this realization of the insignificance of these coins. But the farthing in England took a beating and was finally withdrawn from circulation in 1960 when I was just about ending my first year of stay at Boston. The next few years of my stay in the US saw no change in the currency system. I was, however, happy that the measurements of distance was in miles to which I was accustomed to by not really living out the kilometer system as I did not really drive in my own country for I possessed no vehicle, two wheeler, three wheeler or four wheeler. I may have learnt about nickels and dimes in the US but I also learnt about the Petticoat Lane in London. That is a different story altogether, may be for next time.
Shri BL Dhar was born and brought up at Srinagar. After completing his Master’s Degree in Mathematics he ventured out of the state and found a job in the Civil Aviation Department joining as a Gazetted Officer. His area of activity was at Delhi and Mumbai International airports. He was selected to undergo training at the school of aviation; Luxembourg under the UNDP program and later posted at the Corporate Headquarters in New Delhi. He had in the meantime joined the newly formed PSU, Airports Authority of India, from where he retired as a General Manager in 2000. He has written innumerable articles about aviation that was published in the house magazine. He is now settled in Delhi and keeps his interest alive in writing..
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