Prologue: In India, there is a practice to round financial transactions to the nearest 1 — so when you give to or take money from someone, it is common to see 11, 51, 101, 201, 251, 501, 1001, 10001, 50001 and so on. In this article, I explore why.
Hindus by the numbers
Quick trivia related to this — we love odd numbers. 9 planets. 3 gods. 7 lives. 1 supremo. And there are so many more. Point is we have been in perfect ease with odd numbers in a long, long time — thanks to Hindu Mythology.
I tap into business for some insight. When people started doing business with currency (as opposed to barter), accountants, sellers, buyers were perhaps introduced to the concept of sticking to a rounded number, primarily because currency was printed/minted only in rounded numbers (anas — 4, 8; rupees — 10, 20, 50, 100). That probably meant that if I was a seller, our transaction would be rounded-off and complete, giving me a notion of uncertainty whether you — the buyer — would come back again to me. So in a desperate effort to keep the customer coming and to keep the book going, businessmen must have started pricing their products and services around weird numbers, so an average transaction would transpire as follows:
Seller: Dear customer, thank you for buying from me. You owe me 51 bucks
Buyer: Oops, I only have a 50 rupee note and a 100 rupee note
Seller: That’s ok, you can give me 1 buck next time
Since in those days, people considered loans degrading/burdening like nothing else (these days it’s cool), the buyer would then owe it to the seller to go back to him again.
What was true for business perhaps extended to the popular culture and eventually to the family, since business and personal life were less isolated from each other than today. In festive occasions, weddings and other life-cycle events, it became common to give Rs.(n+1) as opposed to Rs.n, because they would have liked to reassure themselves of the solidarity of the relationship. The act of giving in odd numbers is highly ritualized, but the essence of the gesture has stayed the same throughout.
Another interesting viewpoint I came across (thanks to Divya) is from one of India’s 2000-year-old treasure — Kautilya’s Arthasastra. Arthasastra is a treatise covering several aspects (public administration, military strategy, code of conduct etc…) of life. Atleast one intrepretation the practice of adding that extra rupee is an “indication of our intention to continue giving in future”. Further, that one extra rupee “signifies that we should always give a little more than expected, more than what we need to give”, symbolizing “prosperity and abundance, an overflowing that defies the finality of a rounded sum.”What do you think? Are there alternative theories?
Teaser: What reasons our obsession with seeing prices like Rs.99, $19.95 or ₤39.99?