x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Ram Tolani's coins are an agent of change

Ram Tolani has 250,000 coins. Why? The answer lies in childhood memories that lay forgotten until he suffered a stroke and could not work. Two years later he shares his hobby with the next generation, starting a new cycle of warm memories.

Ram Tolani has collected 250,000 coins, but he cannot remember the first coin he bought two years ago.
Ram Tolani has collected 250,000 coins, but he cannot remember the first coin he bought two years ago.

On the eve of his daughter's wedding two years ago Ram Tolani collapsed, the victim of a stroke. Rushed to the hospital by his family, he does not remember anything of that night or the next night, when he left the hospital and attended the wedding.

Even when watching the video of the wedding, he does not recall being there, greeting guests and participating in rituals. After the wedding he wanted to go to work every day, but because of the lingering effects of the stroke was stuck at home. So he asked his son Sanjay to find him something to do. Sanjay, 27, had the clever idea of channelling his father's energy into a childhood hobby. For more than two hours he sat with his father, trying to make him recall what about his childhood he treasured most. In the end, the answer was simple: coin collecting.

"I had almost forgotten what I wanted to do," Mr Tolani said. "Back then it was an expensive hobby. I could not pursue it then. I was given limited pocket money and it was not the passion of anyone in the family. Then I grew up, I had the money but no time." Now Mr Tolani, 55, the managing director of an insurance company, exhibits his collection at special events in Dubai and displays coins at his office, where visiting schoolchildren are fascinated by their sparkle.

The key moment in rediscovering this passion, Mr Tolani said, was when Sanjay found a small tin box in his grandparents' home in Indore, India. Inside was a small collection of coins and stamps his father had passed on to him. "They were not limited-edition coins," Mr Tolani said. "I had some stamps from the 60s that my brother had sent me from England. But nothing was collectible." After Mr Tolani had complicated surgeries in India and the Middle East, son and father went through the box. There were a few hundred pieces but "that did not take him long to sort," Sanjay said.

So Sanjay introduced his father to online auctions of rare coins. In the meantime, word spread among Mr Tolani's friends that he was starting up a collection of postage stamps. "The simple thing was that he was using his brain again, but he was not stressed out doing so," Sanjay said. "His friends handed over their childhood collections to him," he continued. For his part, Mr Tolani's son travelled extensively to North America and East Asia to participate in auctions on behalf of his father.

Over the past two years, the collection has grown and now includes more than 20,000 stamps. Mr Tolani made bids of as much as US$20,000, trying to buy entire lots of coins and postage stamps, and kicking off bidding wars online. Recently, Mr Tolani displayed some of his collection at the Summer Surprises festival in Dubai. It included Mughal coins that are centuries old and coins from 2 to 3 BC minted in Mohenjadaro, in what is now Sindh province.

The collection also features currency notes issued by the Dutch when they ruled Indonesia, as well as British currency used in India in 1864 that he bought from British auction houses because the Indian government does allow the export of items more than 100 years old. The coins, which come in lots, must be sorted for their value. That gave Mr Tolani plenty with which to occupy his mind. Once the house started overflowing with his collection of coins, the collection was transferred to his office.

"He has turned the office into a museum," Sanjay said. "I said, 'no problem'. If this turned him around and brought his family and friends closer to him, then it is OK." He has 60,000 postage stamps now, along with 250,000 coins and 10,000 currency notes, but he cannot remember the first coin he bought two years ago. When a child shows particular interest in his collection during school visits, Mr Tolani gives them a token coin and tries to encourage a hobby.

"Even being educated, I have learnt all kinds of things about money and history that I did not know earlier," Mr Tolani said. "Now I want to pass it on to the next generation. I want to pass all this on to society."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae