Thirty years ago, when I was but a schoolboy in Abu Dhabi, with strange hair and an adorable paunch, one of my daily domestic chores involved making a phone call. Each afternoon, after I had returned from school, consumed a substantial snack of some kind, and provided my mother with a thorough daily school report, I would sidle up to our landline telephone.
I would pick it up and dial one of the many Indian jewellery stores in Abu Dhabi. This was a unique phone number that took the caller directly to a recorded message. After no more than two rings, the automated voice message would say something like: “Today’s gold price is XYZ dirhams for 10 tolas."
This ritual took place each afternoon. Afternoon after afternoon. And yet, to this day, I am not entirely sure what a tola is. Google tells me that it is around 11.66g. Who measures things in multiples of 11.66g? It makes no sense.
And then, during our annual vacation to Kerala, my grandfather would call me over and say something like, “Sidin, please go to the shop that is just 5 furlongs away and buy eight annas worth of yam."
And I would have so many questions: What is a furlong? What is an anna? Who eats yam? Can you arrange for air-conditioning, why is this country so hot?
Growing up as an NRI (non-resident Indian) child, these bizarre units of measure were some of the most mysterious aspects of my parents’ culture. Tola. Furlong. Anna. Naya paisa. Cent. Para. Muram. Nazhika.
But, as a fascinating new paper in the latest edition of the Past & Present journal reminds us, the standardization of weights, measures and coinage in India took place not that long ago.
The first of October this year will mark 42 years since the Standards of Weight and Measures Act came into effect. In his paper, Rethinking Metrology, Nationalism and Development In India, 1833-1956, Ashish Velkar of the University of Manchester tells the riveting story of how India transitioned, slowly and hesitantly, from a plurality of standards during the colonial period to more modern, global protocols of measuring, weighing and counting money.
At first glance, this might seem like a natural transition for a nation to make. Especially one that is emerging from the colonial shadow and learning to stand on its own two feet. Surely a tendency towards standardization is one of the fundamental characteristics of a new nation state.
But read Velkar’s paper and you realize that there was nothing straightforward about this process. Indeed, standardizing Indian weights and measures remained a fiendishly difficult thing to do. Colonial attempts, first by the East India Company and then by the British government, enjoyed little success.
Why so? There appear to have been four reasons standing in the way of imperial standards.
First, there already existed a profusion of local and regional standards all over the subcontinent. Second, Velkar says, there was a strain of thinking prevalent both in Britain and across British Imperial administration that uniform standards did not matter, as long as there was some local standard that was enforced strictly.
Third, it seemed impossible to get anyone to agree on what these standards should be. For instance, in 1857, proposals were put forward to make the native maund the standard measure of weight for the railway networks, instead of the ton. There was just one problem—it turned out that the maund was itself measured differently in different places.
Finally, there was a problem of enforcement. Who was going to police all the weights and measures all over India? Who was going to pay for this policing?
Which is why even as late as 1946, Velkar reminds us, commodities such as fish were being measured in heaps, baskets, maunds, seers, tooku, kandi and shekda, depending on where in India you were doing this measuring, and for what purpose.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the push for standardization came not from the colonial authorities but from the nationalist movement. As ideas of central planning began to find fervour within the nationalist movement, Indian leaders began to put pressure on the colonial government. Standards were seen as central to the goal of building an Indian nation.
In 1933, Syama Prasad Mookerji suggested that India adopt the metric system—“the one language of measurement"—even if Britain did not. In 1944, the Indian Decimal Society was formed to lobby for the cause of decimalization. Unfortunately, one of its earliest opponents was Gandhi, who preferred the “traditional" hexadecimal system that the masses were more familiar with.
Eventually, India would have to wait till 1955, and the full force of Nehru’s influence, for the process of standardization and metrication to kick start in earnest (even then, compromises had to be made. Initially, it was proposed to divide the rupee into 100 cents. Later, this was quickly changed to the more “indigenous" naya paisa.)
Velkar’s paper is fascinating on multiple accounts. It tells a great story, of course. It also throws light on the competing, sometimes unexpected, priorities that motivated both the empire and the nationalist. But I think, above all, it reveals the complexities involved in building a nation.
Nations are made up of many things. Armies, central bank, ministries, airports, strategic petrol reserves. But also inches, and millimetres, and paisa and grams.
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview