The Indian Ocean is a collection of stories about daily life in places around the Indian Ocean Rim. Dispatches From Kochi is the first instalment – a collection of stories from Kochi in Kerala, India. Written by Robert Wood, this series brings to light the texture and tone of everyday life in this small port town.
Coins and Alcohol is a story about Christie, an eccentric figure with a love of coins.
Voice: Zoe Hollyoak
Copyright © 2017 Robert Wood.
This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.
This story was originally published on January 24, 2019.
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In Kochi, the Kerala State Beverages Corporation controls the sale of alcohol. One can buy beer and wine at select hotels and restaurants, but hard liquor and drinking at home has to go through the KSBC. They are closed on the 1st of every month as a stop gap measure to limit how much money people spend on alcohol, hoping that this measure will encourage people to pay bills and stock up on food before spending their hard earned cash. There are a few outlets around Kochi – low slung concrete bunkers with steel grated windows through which you gesture and hand over money to a clerk doling out whiskey or gin or vodka in small plastic bottles that fit easily in your hand. On the weekends you often see a line of men waiting for them to open at 10 am.
The first time I met Christie, he had just left that line. I could see a small bottle of whiskey in his hand and he hailed me down out the front of my place. As is so often the way here, he asked me where I was from and upon learning that I was Australian, he began to speak at length about his coin collection. This was not the usual conversation, which tended to focus on cricket and, at a stretch, animals. Christie was different and soon he had invited me to his place for a meal and to show me his coins. Christie said:
I began collecting coins as a child. My father worked in the Gulf and he was sending back presents, but I liked coins and stamps. I have coins from all over the world, some from Australia, but I do not know how much they are worth. There are some very big ones that I have though. Australia has some of the largest coins.
As Christie explained to me what he looks for in a coin, I was struck by how this pursuit seemed both compelling and mindless at the same time. He tends to go in for newness and so he is always keen to update his collection. Would I mind if he brought some Australian coins around and I had a look at them?
The next time I see Christie he is standing in my front yard with a fistful of coins that he has come to show me. I take a look at them and smile. He asks how much they are worth in rupees, glancing sideways as if afraid to ask. He has about 200 rupees worth in Australian coins and he asks if I will swap with him. I do and he smiles and is quickly on his way. This happens twice more – he shows up unannounced with coins in hand and I acquiesce but grow conscious of his invasion of my personal space. What will my landlord think?
One evening it is late and Christie comes to knock on my door. He is agitated and asks again to swap some Australian dollars, but by now I have explained to him that he cannot come unannounced. And then I see it. Here on the porch while the mosquitoes circle and the geckoes run up the wall, I see him in a new, desperate light. I had not seen it earlier – the bloodshot eyes, the sallow cheeks, the furtive glances, the slight shake, the unkempt clothes. Christie is an alcoholic and whenever he comes to see me he is low on funds and on his way to the grog shop. I explain to him that I can’t swap money with him, that I myself am low on cash because of the currency crisis, that there are people who can help with this, but it is not so easy when there is a barrier between us. He looks hurt, but I realise that this is because he will have to find a new hustle to support his habit.
There are, of course, alcoholics all over the world, and, when one looks from the outside, India seems to have a relatively sedate drinking culture. It is highly regulated and people do not seem to get off the leash like they do in a great many places, Australia included. ‘Australia’ is oriented to the United States, because it orients itself from the East Coast, which looks further East still, to Hollywood and then to Madison Avenue and Washington, of not all the way to the history of Europe. The fantasy of alcohol there is a glass of rose by the Seine. But in those fantasies we travel the world round, ending up, like a forlorn romantic searching in our pockets for the coin that will buy us for a cold beer even if we are down and out in Tehran.
What a story from Kochi may open up for us is that in traveling the world round, like a coin or a drink, we can come to recognise what home is, not in the money that delimits our national boundaries but in the narratives and interactions we have when we open ourselves to locations that are natural. Christie told me how he had always wanted to leave India but not so much that he had made a concerted effort. Instead he would draw pictures of ships like the ones his father travelled on and look up new coins on the internet. That was his way of connecting out to the world, that was his story to tell even when he drained his bottle and all that he could see was a hollow refraction of life itself.