Of prices and values

D. N. Bezboruah

It is only tural that someone who was born in the early thirties of the last century and has maged to stay alive till the second decade of this century should get somewhat nostalgic about prices of things in his school days, the value of the rupee in those days and its totally eroded value now, not to speak of other human values that people used to cherish at one time but may not any longer. Such nostalgia is rather pleasant for old fogies like us who had none of the amenities of today and were compelled to do a lot of physical work that schoolchildren do not have to think of doing nowadays.

I was just six years old when World War II began and 12 years old when it ended. World War II is an important milestone in our lives because my school and my sister’s school were occupied by the military, and we became refugee schoolchildren in other schools. In those days, we did not have running water in Jorhat. We did not have any fuel for cooking beyond firewood and kerosene and we had no luxuries beyond a large radio that got us the news and some music with too many crackles. As far as communications was concerned, the cell phone wasn’t even dreamed of in those days, and homes with telephone connections were very few indeed. We did not have a telephone. A fairly regimented life made someone like me a fairly efficient shopper. And that is how I remember many prices.

My day would start with a very early lunch before going to school. In school, we would have to devise something for midday scks that cost us about Rs 3 per month. This was hardly surprising, considering that the tuition fee in classes IX and X was just four rupees a month. When I got back from school at about 4 p.m., I would have a quick serving of scks before leaving for the market for the daily shopping. This was done on a British bicycle that my uncle had bought for me for the princely sum of Rs 54. My mother would give me two rupees for the day’s shopping that included fish or meat, vegetables and other additions like ghee. In those days, the rupee was divided into 16 ans with each an further divided into four paisas. One did that go beyond the paisa to the pie, though everyone knew that 12 pies made an an. I still remember that you could get 14 seers of laahi rice for a rupee. I also recall more experienced shoppers telling me that one could get 18 seers of laahi rice to the rupee in Goalpara. I also recall buying 30 eggs to a rupee. Petrol was just one rupee and six ans a gallon. Several years after my father passed away, I chanced to find a notebook where he used to keep a record of salaries paid to the domestic staff. The cook ate with us and was paid Rs 15 a month. Faiz Talab, our Afghan driver was paid Rs 18 a month (without food). He left soon after Father’s death and started driving buses; but he visited us children quite often. Every time he went home to Kabul, he returned with huge quantities of dry fruits and nuts for us. A boy who did most of the household chores and ate with us was paid just four rupees a month. This was not very surprising because the daily wages of Dasram Saikia, a skilled carpenter, was just 10 ans (62 paise) and the wages of his jogaalis (assistants) was just five ans (31 paise) a day.

When I joined Cotton College as an Intermediate student (the two years one had to do in college before getting on to degree courses), I discovered that one could mage quite well as a boarder on about Rs 80 per month. Mother was generous enough to let me have Rs 90 a month. Our mess dues were generally below Rs 30 per month (less than one rupee a day) and our tuition fee was just Rs 10 a month. I recall that the first tailor-made tweed jacket (we called them coats in those days) that my uncle got for me cost Rs 26 and that the best pair of shoes that one could get at Bata was just Rs 18. I also recall buying 20 oranges for a rupee.

In retrospect, what I am really impressed about my childhood days is not so much the cost of things, but rather the value of the rupee and the values of the cars, bicycles, gramophones and such equipment that people acquired in those days, in terms of quality. Whatever we bought was sturdily made. Manufacturers in those days never thought of cutting corners. The value of the money spent was clearly reflected in the quality of goods that one acquired. This is one of the values that I am talking about. I thought it might be worthwhile mentioning the value of the rupee at that point of time. When I was a schoolboy, the US dollar was worth just five rupees. The late Hemendra Prasad Borooah told me that when he went to study in Harvard, the US dollar was worth just three rupees and twelve ans or Rs 3.75. I do not recall the exchange rate for the pound sterling during my school days. It must have been around eight rupees, going by the fact that the pound sterling has always been worth about 1.5 US dollars. I had anything to do with the pound sterling only when I went to England as a student in 1965. The pound sterling was then worth Rs 13.33. The value of the pound rose to Rs 21 in January 1966 when the rupee was devalued. In 1965 the rupee was still reasobly strong, going by the fact that the one-way airfare between Calcutta and London by BOAC was just Rs.2,056. And right up to 1988, the US dollar cost less than Rs 14. The sudden erosion in the value of the Indian rupee is a recent phenomenon that has remained a source of worry for a lot of people.

This brings me back to the value of goods that people bought right up to the 1950s and 1960s. It brings me back to an accident in which six lives were saved because the car in which they travelled was far sturdier than what you can get these days. That is the kind of value of goods that people will always cherish. There were six of us—two uncles and four nephews—in this 1946 model V8 Ford Mercury sedan hurrying from Jorhat to Mariani to put one of the uncles on a train that would eventually take him to Madras (Cheni). Our progress was impeded by a ramshackle truck that persistently refused to let us pass. When the truck driver eventually siglled for us to pass, he did it with mischievous intent, because he immediately got the truck into a rrow culvert. Our high-powered Mercury just had nowhere to go. It first hit a wooden guard post about a foot in diameter and sheared it off like a sword going through a ba plant. Next the car hit a steel guard made of a railway track. The impact bent the steel guard, but the car flew up about eight feet in the air and landed on a paddy field on its right side. Good Samaritans walked up the left side of the car and held the heavy doors open so that we could crawl out. They also stopped the playful truck driver and forced him to back up his truck and pull our car out of the field. When my uncle who was driving the Mercury pressed the starter button after the car was back on the road, the car sprang to life at once. I noticed that the only damage to the Mercury was a single crack on the front right window glass and a slightly dented mudguard. The front bumper that had taken the worst of the impact was quite intact except for its centre that had a slight indentation the size of my small fingeril. Any present-day sedan—even with its seat-belts and air bags but without bumpers—would have left no survivors. One cannot but hail the value of a car that gave stched all six occupants out of the jaws of death. One salutes people like the manufacturers of the car and those who rushed to help six people out of an overturned car that could easily have caught fire. It is good to be alive to salute a high sense of values that impels ordiry mortals to acts of heroism. Such values are far more precious than what used to come with well-made goods that people could buy.  In fact, the values imparted to us by our elders when I was a schoolboy are ones that I cherish even today. I am uware of how important some of these precious values are to the youth of today.

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