MARK TURIN and the possibilities of unlimited guff


© Mark Turin, 2000

Yesterday, we went to Thamel to phone America. As we walked past the old Central Immigration Office I realised quite how much and how fast Kathmandu has changed. There is, of course, a touch of happy irony in the fact that the old Immigration building now houses a shiny and glittering Grindlays Bank office. Although the Immigration Office’s shift to Baneshwor has made many a Kathmandu cab driver all the wealthier, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps the office should have stayed where it was, on the edge of Thamel. What with the new visa regulations and charges ($50 USD per month), I am quite sure that Immigration would be coining more money than Grindlays.

In no time we were at our trusted STD shop. It is worth pointing out, to the newly arrived non-Asian visitor to Nepal, that STD shops are not roadside clinics where people can be cured of their Sexually Transmitted Diseases, but telecommunication centres in which the abbreviation stands for Subscriber’s Trunk Call. As we strolled in, I had a flash back to making my first ever international phone call from Nepal, about nine years ago. I had walked all the way down to the Central Telegraph Office at the bottom of Kanti Path, opposite the National Stadium. There, I had placed an order for a 3 minute phone call which was connected by a smiling operator. It couldn’t be any more removed from the little communications kiosk we were in now, with photocopiers, computers and faxes all whirring away.

We had come to try out, this free internet-based phone service to America. We had heard about it from a friend from Upper Mustang, a part of Nepal with no roads let alone phones. His brother was working in McDonalds in New York city and he had come all the way to Kathmandu just to speak to him. In Thamel, he had been told, it was possible to phone America for free by speaking through a computer. We had made a mental note to find out about this miraculous phone service when back in town.

In the STD shop, the owner carefully explained the situation to us. Although there would be no international phone charge, it would cost us Nrs. 10 per minute, a small service charge as otherwise he would make no money on it whatsoever. Before he connected us to the headphone set, he just wanted to check that the line quality was good, so he dialled his niece in America. He phoned America just to check that the line was good enough! It took me a minute or two to recover from the shock. When I came to, he was already talking. “E Priya, khana khayau? Tero bhai aeko cha ki chaina?” (Hey Priya, have you eaten already? Has your younger brother come home or not?) he asked, talking with her as if she were in Kalimati and not Kaliphornia. Having established that all was well on the West Coast, he got off the phone and smiled, “the line is excellent” he said, “…and my nephew has not yet come home from work” he added, more as an afterthought.

The implications for Nepal of this incredibly cheap (in fact, almost free) telephonic contact with America should not be underestimated. The wonderful thing about innovative technologies in general, and specifically the internet in this case, is that they open up previously untapped modes of communication. The speed with which educated Nepalis have embraced the possibilities offered by email and internet-related technology never fails to impress me. I have a number of Nepali friends who have used email without ever having sent a fax or received a telex. Although (or perhaps even because) the technological innovation always seems to come from outside, Nepal can bypass all the intermediate stages which have hampered the spread of new computer technology in the West. The middle-aged middle-classes in Europe, for example, are noticeably resistant to using email and surfing the Net. “Why should we now get email?” they ask, “only five years ago we got a fax because everyone told us that we couldn’t live without one!” This is precisely the problem with technologically advanced countries. Since they have been at the forefront of technological change, their populations have been the willing (and sometimes not so willing) guinea pigs for a range of dead-end technologies, like BetaMax video tapes to mention but one. How many old and unused 286 desktop computers are collecting dust in attics in Nepal? Well, not half as many as there are in England, I can assure you. It seems to me that computers arrived in Nepal at just the right time in their development, at a stage when they really are both user-friendly and useful.

But briefly back to a simple technological step which is saving Nepalis with relatives in the United States thousands of rupees in phone calls. No one knows quite how long it will last, and Internet Service Providers here in Nepal as well as the telecommunications company are getting rightly nervous about the implications of near-free phone calls. But one thing is clear: for the moment you can talk to your friends and family in America for a just a couple of rupees a minute. Perhaps the only people we should pity in this otherwise positive development are the young Nepali men and women studying in the States whose mothers will now be phoning every day to remind them to wear warm clothes and to tell them to eat more!