The number system of India

Relax for a moment and think about numbers. Everyone has certain feeling attached to them. There is something about them we feel but we can’t put our finger on it. If you treat numbers purely – just as symbols and remove all the meaning, feelings associated with it – then it turns into a whole new science. This is what Bertrand Russell was trying to do using numbers to define the fundamentals of Mathematics.

But today I am not going to dwell into that aspect. I want to talk about the peculiar Indian number system. Peculiar but useful in it’s own way. Different countries treat numbers in different ways and I believe that the meaning, feelings you associate with numbers is linked with the practices and culture around you.

I am going to list few (partial list) idiosyncrasies of Indian numbering system. Some are funny and some are mysterious. Here we go:

1. Age:  This bothered me a lot for a long time. Only recently I have come to add some meaning to this. Let me give you a visual with an example. Say a baby is born in India.

On day 1, when the baby is born. He is 1 day old.

The parents are happy and life goes on. Something magical happens when the baby crosses 2 weeks. Let’s look at it in a little detail. Here is the breakdown of 4 weeks.

As you can see (assuming 4 weeks in a month) there is a tipping point that tilts the age of the baby which kinda gets stuck with him for the rest of his life. Here is what happens.

As the baby crosses 2 weeks mark (sometimes 10 days mark) – suddenly out of nowhere the baby is 1 month old. I have no idea how this is logical (my explanation follows later). It also happens so fast that it’s impossible to detect. There would be some God motherly like figure in the family and some given day within the 1st month- she would use baby’s age in a sentence in such a way that she implies that baby is 1 month old! Trust me on this, I have a lot of these elderly ladies in my own family.

Now even before the baby is 1 month old, he is ALREADY ONE MONTH OLD. Here is another visual to give you some more perspective. This is the timeline for a typical year.

The thing you need to understand here is as the months progresses – the child is always more older than he technically is. When he is around 10 months old (I mean like finish 10 months) – the same old lady would be back and call the child 1 year old. WTF? Now immediately after his 1st birthday cake – he starts to be 2 year old till his next birthday cake!

So, when a Indian person tells you that he/she is 25 years old, you should always (98% of the time) assume that he/she is actually 24 years old and in his/her 25th year.

I know this is weird. We Indians might look like we are rushing to age and reach that nirvana our Gods have been promising us. But trust me – we are humans as well – like any other person we would like to be forever young! But why follow such a weird system then? What is the benefit attached to being always older than you actually are?

I can only think of only one reason. And here it is – India is a very religious country. I have met only few Atheists there. And with religion comes a lot of rituals. Every child has some ritual associated when they are – 3 rd month passing, 5th month passing, 7th month passing, 9th month passing, 11th month passing, 3rd year passing and on and on.

You see a pattern? There are rituals attached to the passing month, not to the end of the month. Meaning, I can shave my daughter’s head ONLY when she is in her 9th month or 11th month or when she is 3 years old. (Yeah you can’t get it shaved in any other months as it would incur bad omen on the child! and what parent would want it?). So, if you are following a lot of ritual associated with your child’s passing month then you would count his/her age in the same way.

I think that is the reason why our counting of age is so lopsided. There is a method to it’s madness.

2. Storeys: I am not sure whether you guys know it or not. We Indians invented zero. Prior to that romans had their crazy system which was useless when it came to division. Egyptians were smart and had something in place but no zero/nada/zilch. The arabs took our zero and created the decimal system.

So in India when we count the storeys in a building it’s always – ground floor, 1st floor, 2nd floor and so on. Some elevators (lifts) also have zero on them indicating that it’s the lowest floor. So imagine the Indian who is fresh off the boat – trying to get to 42nd floor. He is going to miss it by 1. This again, I don’t know the reason why it’s like that but I am guessing it’s because we like to use the zero. It’s also cultural. I bet Google India has the zero floor and all the geeks there grok that!

3. Temperature:  Ok, this one is weird. And I don’t know why. I have noticed that we follow metric system when we want to indicate cold and imperial system when we want to indicate hot. Like we would say – “It’s very hot today, the temperature is 108 degrees” – which is implying Fahrenheit. And we would say “It’s very cold tonight, Delhi is like 8 degrees” implying Celcius.

I have no idea about the disparity here. May be we want to use higher number for hot and lower number for cold! But everything else is completely metric – kilograms, litre etc except land. Land is still measured in Acres. Mostly the farm land. That is the only exception I have come across.

4. Distance: Ok, this one is funny. Ask any American the distance between SF and LA they would say “About 7 hours”.  Ask any Indian the same question they would say “About 350 miles”

This is a big gotcha for Indias. You see, you guys (Americans) measure distance using time because you have freeways. When you say ‘about 7 hours’, it pretty much takes 7 hours – depending on your bladder and eating habits of course. But for us Indians we don’t have the luxury to mesure distance in time. We can’t! Because our infrastructure is busted and half of our animals live on the road. There is no guarantee that I can go from point A to point B in certain amount of time. Because there are frigging way too many variables. All I am guaranteed is that I will reach point B sometime but don’t know when.

The ONLY TIME we Indians measure distance in time is when we use trains to travel. Unlike American rail, Indian rail is HUGE for the area it covers. Indian rail has 1.6 million employees, yes thats double the number of people who live in San Francisco. Take that Amtrak! So, anyhow – the trains pretty much run on time and there are a lot of trains which go overnight. So, in that context we Indians say – it takes a night to go from point A to point B.

It all boils down to – if we are driving, we don’t know when we will see you. If we take a train, we will see you tomorrow morning.

5. Time:  Finally the time. Our perception of time is very very different – I want to write more about it but I think it will take it’s own blog post because it’s connected at so many levels – philosophically, mentally, spiritually etc,. But I would say this – Salman Rushdie‘s quote in his amazing book – Midnight’s Children, sums it up.

“No people whose word for ‘yesterday’ is the same as their word for ‘tomorrow’ can be said to have a firm grip on the time.” 

And the word he is referring to is – “Kal” in Hindi. Depending on the context it can mean yesterday or tomorrow! Go figure.

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