Two-anna coin

I’m minoring in literature and  have taken a course this semester called ‘Literature in Translation’. As a project, I’ve translated Sujatha’s இரண்டணா (that’s IraNdaNA) into English.

It’s a simple story set in Srirangam, a temple town in Tamil Nadu. Told through the eyes of a boy.

Here’s a link to the original Tamil version, if you want to take a look.

Learnt a lot while working on this translation, and had a lot of fun. I’ve not formally studied tamil and might’ve made mistakes. Point them out if you find any. Here it is.

Two-anna coin

These days if a person uses words like ‘two-anna’ and ‘four-anna’, you can safely say that they were born before the country’s independence. The two-anna was a singular coin. Brass. Shaped like a square, with none of the ugly wriggles and warped-ness of the one-anna. With its sharp corners blunted. On one face, King George the Sixth, with the crown on his head, would be looking on in profile. If only he had cared to lift his crown and look, it’d have struck him immediately to have a haircut!

A two-anna was an important coin in the economy of those times. Conversions would say, two annas equal two twenty-fifths of a rupee. But do not equate a two-anna to eight paise and underestimate its value! In the days I speak of, this two-anna would pay the bus fare from Srirangam right up to Tiruchi! The dosa at Peninsular café, two-anna. At Krishnan Kottai Vaasal you could get wild berry, lekka sweet balls and sweet tamarind for a quarter-anna, only. That’s one in eight parts of a two-anna. At the DPG store, they’d still return change if you bought an eraser, wooden pen, ink bottle, ruled paper and plotting paper. Or they’d give you salty orange liquorice mittai instead of the change. In the holy month of Margazhi, on the morning of Vaikuntha Ekaadasi, near the holy chariot, a pit would be dug and a large frying pan cleaned out with cow dung set up, the sand from the banks of the Kollidam poured in, and peas fried in this sand till they joyfully popped; one whole bagful of these you could get for two annas. Later that night, under the light of petromax lamps you could buy big-lettered books that told the tales of Vikramadittan, Kokkogam etc. while your eyes drifted elsewhere. At Rangaraja’s the floor ticket for ‘Captain Marvel’ cost two annas. At Thangaraasu’s cycle shop, you could borrow a cycle for two annas. Because it had its poorer cousins like the one-anna, half-anna , quarter-anna and the dumpidi, a twelfth of an anna, beneath it, one who had a two-anna could feel rich as the Aga Khan himself! A copy of Vikadan with its ‘Children’s Bloom’ version, printed in blue colour, cost two anna. A packet of colorful chalkpieces. Apart from sipping on the ‘sharbat’ made from the red sweetened ice that would leave your lips red like lipstick, by grinding it sarrk, sarrk , you could buy a kite, a constable figure, a spinning top. My, what all you could buy with a two-anna!

It was one such two-anna that I’m about to tell you that I’d gone and lost. My Paatti had sent me to Araiyar Store with this two-anna, having told me to get one aazhaakku of oil. She sent with me a small metal kinni. Polished with tin coating. Wide-mouthed. At that age, I would only run to get from place to place.  Within a minute, I was at Araiyar store, Paatti’s metal bowl in hand, saying, “One aazhaakku of oil, Maama”. How did Araiyar store come to be called that, I do not know. The shopkeeper was not an ‘araiyar’, one of the priests at the temple. He was an Iyengar though. While the araiyars of the temple had all always lived in the South Uthira Veedhi Street of the agrahaaram, this ‘araiyar‘ lived eight houses away from ours. This lone Iyengar who had chosen to start a general items store rather than follow caste custom, would welcome customers in his sincere voice. He was always seated on a small wooden sitting plank. Groundnuts and cashew nuts lay about him all day right in front of his eyes, yet he wouldn’t pop them in his mouth. He’d usually have a fan made of palm leaves in his hand. A pleasant aroma arising from elaichi, wheat, rice, cloves, kerosene all together, would float around in his shop.

“Which oil da, sesame oil or coconut oil or castor oil or lamp oil or neem oil?” he asked.

It was only then that I realised there were so many types of oil! So I ran back home to my grandma, “Which oil, Paatti?”

“We should proudly coat both your cheeks with gold and set precious stones in them! When have we ever used any oil less than nallennai in our home, da! Nallennai only!”

I ran back to the store, “One aazhaaku sesame oil , maama..”.

“But Nallennai is two-anna and a half per aazhaakku, appa. Will you go back to Paatti and get another half-anna?” I ran back and Paatti went, “Why, you fool, madaiya, if an aazhaaku is for two-and-a-half annas why couldn’t you have simply got oil for the two annas you had! Can’t you think for yourself! Will you just keep running around like this!”

“But you never told me, Paatti!”, said I, and I was right enough, wasn’t I? “Put this into your ears then: go to the araiyar and ask him if he did not give us a full aazhaakku of oil for two annas just last week! If he doesn’t agree ask him for three fourths and three sixteenths of an aazhaakku. Make sure all the oil is poured into the vessel, and bring it back without spilling a drop. Don’t run back, or you might spill the oil from the kinni!” These warnings were made unnecessary by an event that prevented my visit to the Araiyar’s Stores.

In front of Rajan Girls’ School, in the middle of the street, near the chariot space, I heard the sound of drums. I would have to cross that to go to Araiyar store. A crowd was building up. A jester’s drum sounded. The membrane resonated every now and then. Clad in pyjamas, a little girl, put her palms on the ground and nonchalantly somersaulted around the perimeter of the arena. A young boy, barely older than her adroitly lifted a staff and stood it up on one tip with a practised ease, and even as he did this a street magician, one of those ‘modi masthaans’, drew a circle on the ground and started placing all sorts of things in it – snake boxes, a snake-charmer’s magudi instrument, all sorts of things..a rooster’s nose, a feather, a blanket, a black towel, and even as he spread them out in the circle, “Come, come to see me, descendant of the great Nagoor Baba Modi Masthaan! I can turn a man into a snake, a snake into a man!” I was staring at a mongoose slowly going around a nail to which it was tied, and the masthaan saw me. “Don’t be afraid, come closer and sit, vaa, kundhu!” The shaggy-hair girl smiled at me, her little teeth showing.

The oil was forgotten. I went and sat down in the first row. Every now and then beating his drum for punctuation, the masthaan went on talking non-stop, “I can capture evil spirits and make them do my bidding. I tie up the mouths of bears and tigers, carry a lion on my back, make snakes dance! You, What is this?” he said , pointing at a person in the crowd.


“What did you say? Groin?”he said. Laughter in the crowd.

“Careful, I will transmute you and sell you away..! I move around in the world without a soul seeing me, stay young forever, get into another man’s form, walk on water, sit in the fire, all of that, but what for?”he asked the crowd, paused a moment, removed his shirt, and slapped his stomach hard so the crowd could hear, “For this desolate stomach!”

“You don’t have to give your money, no. Keep your money in your own lap. Watch the tricks, and if it makes masthaan happy, put one-anna, two-anna, quarter-rupee, half-rupee, one-rupee in the plate. Now, I will play a ball-game with this infant as the ball! Everyone now, a loud round of applause!” he said and without waiting for claps, whistled ‘Uiee! Uiee!’

By now, I was completely engrossed. “If there is one person here with courage, step forth” he taunted, and a boy stepped forward. He called the boy to himself and even as he did something with his fingers in front of the kid, the boy lost consciousness! He wrapped him in a dirty towel and lay him down on the ground. “Tch tch, who knows which unfortunate household he comes from..”

He drew a face on the ground, with a disproportionately large mouth, kept a pen-knife close to it, opened the snake-basket and provoked the snake within. It  pecked viciously at his wrist once. “Ta! ta!” he rebuked it. Inside, I did feel a nagging urge to leave the place and go. But it was as if I had been tied up there. I was never going to budge from this place, in my whole lifetime! The mongoose pissed itself in fear.  The pyjama girl took a long pole and jumped deftly from the masthaan’s shoulder on to a rope tied between two poles, and began to walk on it with expert ease. After that, she suspended herself at one corner of the pole, her stomach resting on the corner, limbs hanging downward and he, balancing this pole from below, the girl at the top, took her around the arena! All this while, the boy from before had been lying down, eyes closed, eyes still seemingly closed. I was getting very worried. “Who knows which unfortunate woman begot this son! Shouldn’t he be woken up!”

“You all watched the show, now our Rani‘ll bring a plate…one anna, two annas..” As the crowd rose to leave, “Ei!,” he yelled, a threatening, murderous roar. After getting the kids to show you the tricks, I’m not leaving without getting my money! You just see what’ll happen if you go home without giving money!” he said, lifted the pen-knife and slashed at the mouth he had drawn on the ground. Blood began to flow out of the mouth of the boy who had been lying down, unconscious. “This is what’ll happen to you in the night!” Everyone’s breath caught in their throats. We were all mortified! In that dead silence, he came to us, pen-knife in hand, slowly. He did not even notice me putting the two-anna I had. He came around, now sounding a tambourine drum. The mongoose was going around in circles. By now, I could not even remember when the tricks had ended. Slowly, like one who is just waking from a dream, I came away walking. I only fully woke from the trance when I was close to home, and it was only then that the realities of the real world hit me! Not just “where is the two-anna?!” but also “where is the bowl, where is the kinni?!”. I had left even the kinni there! Paatti called out from the kitchen, “Why so long, da? Keep the oil kinni on the kitchen table and go study your lessons.” I ran back to the street corner. By now, the magician would have surely collected his belongings and left already! Sure enough, the street was completely empty. He had left!

As I stood there, staggered and not conscious of my surroundings or myself, drumbeats echoed from the South Chithirai Veedhi Street corner. I ran in the direction of the sound. Near the South Entrance to the temple, opposite Vani Vilas Press, he had begun to set up his next ‘dera’ spot, and a crowd was slowly building around him. I went closer. That boy, who had lain just a few minutes back, blood spilling out of his mouth, was happily playing with the pyjama girl.

The magician himself was turning the bowl from our household over and over in his hands, as if to estimate how much money it would fetch.

“Come, little brother.”

“I.. I came to see the show at the Keezha Chithirai Veedhi Street sir left my kinni and left sir that kinni is mine sir..”

“Little brother had come eh? I will return the kinni. But one cundeesun.”


“Will you come with me on the show? Laralkudu Pichaandaar temple this side, Kulitthalai that side… right up to Pudukkottai we could go!”

The pyjama girl looked at me and flashed an enchanting smile.

“Do you have ABC-books?” he asked. I sat down right there and broke into silent sobs.

“Give me my kinni“.

“Here, I am giving you, I am giving you.” Instead of giving me the bowl, he kept holding it out as if he was giving it and then drawing his hand back. He only returned it when I started properly crying big.

“Return the kinni and come back to me, I’ll feed you good Iyer oottu food. We’ll go around the world.. Benaras, Allahabad, Kolkata..”

When I made to return home, that girl was continuously looking at me.”You are coming, no? When you come, bring ABC-book and come,” she said.

I came home running and broke my savings undiyal , got eight quarter-annas together, went to Araiyar store and returned with the oil.

I sit down and think once in a while, had I feared my Paatti‘s scolding and gone with that street magician that day, what would have happened. A mundaasu tied around my head, playing a mathalam drum with one hand and a flute with the other, that girl whirling about, dancing… One thing is certain, I wouldn’t have written this tale.

Written in Tamil by Sujatha

Translated into English by Dinesh Jayaraman

Note: The word cloud at the top of the post has been generated using the Wordle Java Applet. Check it out here.

9 Responses to “Two-anna coin”
  1. jils says:

    good work da.. good tht u kept certain tamil words like ‘paatti’, ‘kinni’ etc. without any change, it helps in connecting with d situations in a better way :).

    • Yeah, I wanted to make sure I retained the Tamil essence. But if you look harder, you’ll see i’ve also atleast once implicitly explained what these terms mean, so that even the non-Tamil reader can understand. It’s one of the things i’m proud of, in this translation. 🙂

  2. Varsha says:

    Nice post 🙂 Will be great if you could translate some more short stories from Tamil for readers like me …

  3. Lighter says:

    Coin – Groin.
    Noob 🙂

  4. Smruthi says:

    Very well translated 🙂

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  1. […] you might also want to see my translation of Sujatha’s இரண்டணா here: Thank you for reading, and please feel free to […]

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