Prologue: With assistance from our friend Maliha Imami, we learned that this coin was minted in Calcutta/Kolkata in the 37th Year of the Moghul Emperor Badshah Shah Alam Jaloos. It was the “penny” of the time, 1 pai or “pie,” and it took 192 of these to make a rupee. The writing on the obverse side is in Persian/Urdu, Gujarati, and Bemgali (it was minted in the “Bengal Presidency”) and says “one pai.”
I hold in my hand a small coin.
About the size of a U.S. or Canadian nickel.
It is more than 190 years old and I wonder all of the hands that may have touched it.
It was minted in Calcutta as a coin of little worth--
The Moghul “penny.”
It was the coin of the poor, not the merchant.
Insignificant, yet permanent.,
Did it ring as it fell into a mendicant’s bowl?
Was it in the pocket of a traveler from Calcutta to Bombay?
A pilgrim to the Holy Ganges at Banaras?
Did an imam use it to award a child for a good recitation?
Did a British soldier bring it home as a souvenir?
Did any of them know it would sit on a desk in San Antonio?
It was small change that has permanence.
All the hands that held it are now dust.
The names of all who carried it are forgotten.
I am sure that the Great Moghul Badshah Alam
would be delighted to know that I have heard of him,
Thanks to this little thing,
Or perhaps he wouldn’t care, being a Shah and all.
What do I want to do with this coin?
This bit of small change has a permanence.
I want to treasure it and think of those who held it before
And are now forgotten.
And place it in the hand of a child someday.
With the promise that he or she will put it in the hand of a child someday,
I want a sense of wonder and daydreams to persist,
When I am long forgotten,
So that 130 years hence, when my name is forgotten and I am dust,
A new set of eyes can delight and daydream of how this exotic little artifact.
Came into his or her hands,
And share my wonder at the permanence of this small thing,
While so much has changed,
Defying human finitude.
And I hope that one will stop to wonder at the permanence of this small change.
And Shah Alam’s name will live on
When mine is lost in the dust.
This small change is permanent.