By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Conversion Blues : Centigrade >< Fahrenheit -- Lb. >< Kg. -- Miles >< Kilometres

The 1970s were a period when I was inclined to write with a heavy accent on humor.  Shankar's Weekly and Hindustan Times Evening News in New Delhi were ideally suited for this purpose.  (SW had a wide All-India circulation and a tremendous reputation, and HTEN was the only evening English paper in the Capital those days and was read by readers of all the morning papers.  I made my debut in SW with the following article:

Shankar's Weekly
22 July 1972
Centigrade and Fahrenheit

MORE than fifteen years after India switched over from Fahrenheit to Centigrade, I am still not able to come to grips with the new system.  I can feel the heat or the cold on my skin when you talk in terms of Fahrenheit, but Centigrade is still a matter of tough mental calculation with me.  I have a feeling that it is just the other way round with the younger generation.  The influence of high-school education, apparently, more formidable than one imagines!

One of my very young colleagues in the office told me the other day:  "So the heat wave is gone, Sir!  Yesterday's maximum was only 34.7 degrees."

I did not answer at once;  nor did I hear what he said next, for I was thinking: 

"34 into 9 is 306 by 5 is 61.2  --  .7 into 9 is .63 by 5 is 1.26  --  61.2 plus 1.26 equals 62.46  --  32 plus 62.46 is 94.46."

 "Yes, it was only 94.5 degrees yesterday,"  I said aloud.

"Excuse me, Sir!"  my colleague said, looking amused.  "I was saying that the progress report from East Zone has been delayed again!"

I refused to be ruffled.  "Do you think it won't get hot again?  Maybe we will hit 100  degrees today,"  I said.

It was the youngster's turn to go into a daze now, and he did not seem to hear my next question.  Obviously he was thinking:

"100 minus 32 is 68  --  68 into 5 is 340 by 9 equals 37.7  --  that's about 38."

"Well, frankly I don't think so, Sir!  Maybe we will go as high as 36, but not 38," he said at last.

"Forget the weather, will you?"  I ordered harshly, with great satisfaction.  "I was asking you why East Zone is delaying the report again!"

I have the same kind of trouble with kilometres, litres and kilograms.

The dashboard of my car is a constant source of despair to me.  It has a meter ticking off the speed and distance in kilometres, and another showing the engine temperature in Centigrade.  These dials don't make any sense to me, and I spend a lot of time de-coding their messages instead of concentrating on my driving.  And I have never really understood how my car has been performing after I stopped knowing how many good old miles it ran per good old gallon!

I insert a coin in a weighing machine in the grocery shop, and out pops a card which reads 59 kg.  "59 into 2 is 118 by 10 is about 12 plus 118 equals 130,"  I think as I walk away.  "Must put on at least 10 pounds."

But somehow I have managed to get the new coins into my head  -- probably  because small change exercises the mind more often than the weather or the weighing machine do.  I have, in fact, forgotten my annas, except that I still like to call 25 paise 'four annas', and 50 paise 'eight annas'.  (Remember there were 16 annas to the rupee, 12 paise to the anna, and 192 paise to the rupee?).  

But I find that there are other people in this country who cannot get used to the decimal currency any more than I can get used to Centigrade.  Take vegetable sellers, for example.  Wherever you go in India,  they seldom quote their prices in the present paise.  They still say 'this sells for 6 annas' or 'that sells for 10 annas.'

However, while I am still struggling with my lb. and my oz., they do seem to have got used to the kg.  Thus, you often hear hybrid expressions like "6 annas for 100 grams. or "8 annas for 250"  in the vegetable market.  No doubt this is so because there never was any standard weight in our market place before the kg. came along!


PostScript, 2013
In reverse gear!

Well, that's what I wrote in 1972.   But 30/40 years later, visiting America for long spells to be with my children and grandchildren, I've been facing precisely the opposite problem  --  because meanwhile I've absorbed the metric system into my bloodstream but America is still preserving its pounds and miles and Fahrenheit.  Of course, that's exactly like the trouble I have when I transcribe in American English all these old articles which I had written in good old English English!

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