My current effort for my "A Matter of Numbers" column in Mint is titled "The Number of Things". Just in case you were curious, the answer is yes: the essay does mention svelte figures, though perhaps not quite the ones you're thinking of.
There's also a mention of "the beginning of this month, less than three weeks ago" -- which applied when I was writing the essay, but I overlooked the fact that it would be published in September. So if your brow furrows at that, put it down to my own clumsiness with numbers, which is exactly what I'm going on about anyway.
You'll find it here.
Though if you have difficulty with the link, the text is below (with the September mixup fixed).
Some clarifications for those of you who might not know a few references in here: a crore is 10 million. The Mauryan Empire ruled over much of India between about 325 BC and 180 BC. Antilla is the massive mansion India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, has built for himself in Bombay. The Commonwealth Games were staged in Delhi last year, and turns out to have been one enormous cesspool of corruption.
A lady I knew well was warm, well-read and knowledgeable: an all-round sweetheart. Sadly, she also suffered from a far too common affliction. She was a near-total innumerate. She went blank when faced with bank statements. Despite showing her that her investments brought her an income considerably greater than mine, she was convinced she was a pauper.
"I can't understand all these numbers!" she'd say with a helpless smile.
Many of us know about illiteracy, but how many are concerned about widespread innumeracy -- the inability to deal easily with numbers? (The mathematician John Allen Paulos made the term famous with his 1989 book, "Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences"). Think of how often you've heard people saying "I hated maths in school!" Or "I'm a people person, not a numbers person!"
I'm just wondering, do we as easily talk up our difficulties with words? Have you heard people say, echoing the lady I knew, "I can't understand all these letters!"
And yet numbers are everywhere, all the time. Whether in the latest budget, or the latest gigantic scam, or the results from the last Census: numbers surround us, often with plenty of zeroes attached. If we don't understand them, we don't understand their impact. We don't fully understand issues that affect our lives every day.
But fear not! If you merely leap aboard a number wagon with me, we'll look more closely at some svelte figures -- ok, bad adjective -- we've heard of lately.
The Commonwealth Games mess, remember that? One report quoted an official thus: "The total CWG misappropriation may touch Rs 8000 crore, which is quite huge and alarming." Sure, but how huge? Well, let's say a CWG scamster was spiriting money away at the rate of one rupee per second, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Pretty rapid misappropriation, I'd say. So how long would he take to fill his pockets with 8000 crore?
The answer: more than 2500 years. That is, to be done today, this rupee-a-second scamster would have had to start nearly two centuries before the Mauryan Empire.
Puts 8000 crore in perspective, no?
Rolling right along: In February, Pranab Mukherjee announced a "provision of Rs 1,64,415 crore" for defence services in this year's budget. "Needless to say," our Finance Minister continued, "any further requirement for the country's defence would be met." No doubt this set off the same applause in Parliament that previous Ministers have received for statements like "we will not compromise on national security!"
Applause is good, but what does that figure really mean? What is our military costing you and me?
For each Indian man, woman and child -- all 1.2 billion of us -- we will spend nearly Rs 1400 on defence this year. Compare to the allocation for education Mukherjee also announced: Rs 52,057 crore, or about Rs 430 for each of us. Break it down like that, and it's easier to see that not compromising on security costs our Central Government over three times as much as the imperative to educate you does.
Or try this. All through 2011, we will spend Rs 52,000 per second on defence. Going at that rate, our friend the CWG misappropriater need not have started his spiriting before the Maurya Empire. Nope: the second week of August, less than three weeks ago, would have sufficed, thank you.
And speaking of 1.2 billion of us. That's a whole lot of us, sure. But how many Indians, really, in terms we can understand?
Suppose you are sitting on a stool at the entrance to Bombay's Azad Maidan. Everyone in the country has been asked to file past you into the Maidan and it's your job to count them. Let's say you're ten times as efficient as the misappropriater: in every second that he spirits away a rupee, ten Indians pass and you count them.
If you started today, you'd be sitting on that stool counting Indians trudging past till June 2015. (Give or take a few bathroom breaks). That's how many Indians.
And why are they filing into Azad Maidan? This thought experiment further asks you to imagine building a wall around the ground. The idea is to cram Indians every which way into the resulting enclosure: cheek to fleshy cheek, layer upon bony layer. How high would the wall have to be to accommodate every single person in this country? A metre? Ten metres? Fifty?
The correct answer is -- drum roll please -- about 3 kilometres. There are a lot of us, you know.
And by the time the last Indian -- that's you, finally free of your stool -- leaps onto the quivering pile of fellow-citizens, we'd have built a structure even taller than Ambani's Antilla. About 20 times taller, in fact.
And from somewhere inside that quivering pile, you might just hear the lady I knew: "All right, I understand 1.2 billion! Too damned well! Now let me out!"