MARK TURIN How to make A Nepali phone call


© Mark Turin, 2000

Each and every culture has its own complicated rules of telephonic communication,usually impossible for outsiders to understand. In Italy, for example, you answer the phone with the single word pronto, which literally means ‘I’m ready’, all the more ironic because you wonder whether they are ever really ready in Italy. It must be one of the few languages in the world in which the first word you utter as you pick up the phone when it rings, is not something like hello. In Holland, you have to introduce yourself when you phone someone, anyone, even a total stranger at the bank. I remember once when I phoned a shop in Amsterdam to see whether or not they were open on Saturdays, and the owner was insulted that I hadn’t introduced myself. Only after I had told him my name, which of course he immediately forgot, would he answer my query.

When it comes to telephonic introductions, Nepal is a law unto itself. It is of course possible that Nepali phone manners of today date back to a time when there were few phones in Kathmandu and even fewer outside. Seen historically, this would explain certain idiosyncratic habits of an archetypal Nepali phone conversation. Here are a few typical examples of possible phone scenarios in Nepal.

1. "Where Have I Called?" or kahaa paryo?

On the face of it, when you pick up the phone, say "hello", and the person calling asks where they have called, you have good reason for being thoroughly confused. This existential-sounding question may well come from an era in which phone lines were often crossed and you ended up in Kirtipur when you phoned Thimi. In this situation, it would make a lot of sense to double check that your phone call has indeed arrived at its designated destination. However, in this day and age of mobile cell phones and email, asking where you have called when you yourself are the caller verges on the surreal. There are a range of answers to the question. The most common and most reasonable one is to reply with the name of the area in which you, the recipient of the call, are to be found. Some phone users like to embellish their answers with something on the lines of: "Haandi Gaun, and from that big tree with the Krishna Mandir in it, well from there, walk down the hill and round the corner and then the third gate on the left with the sleeping dog outside." And then there are the real jokers of the phone world, who, when asked: "Where have I called?", reply kaan-maa paryo ("You have reached my ear!"). Another group worth mentioning are those who reply with a psychologically combative answer on the lines of: "You have reached wherever it is that you dialed." The possibilities are endless.

2. "Who Are You?" or tapaai ko bolnu bhaeko?

Aside from Nepal, in all other countries where I have had phone conversations, the above question is asked by the recipient of the call to establish to whom it is that he is speaking. If the caller fails to identify him or herself, the person answering the phone is perfectly entitled to ask "And may I ask to whom am I speaking?". In Nepal, this entitlement falls to the caller. Having established that he has indeed reached Lazimpat, he then proceeds to question the very identity of the person he has phoned. Speaking from personal experience, I must add that it can get a little tiresome to be asked where I am and who I am each time I answer the phone. When asked: "Who is speaking?", if feeling a little confrontational, you can always answer simply "me".

3. The Telephone Child

"Hello" says the little voice, and when you hear that, in many cases you might as well give up trying to salvage a normal phone call. All over Nepal, in the most unlikely places, are children whose favourite game is answering the telephone. Children aged three to five, I might add, not nine to twelve. Sometimes they sit so close to the phone and answer it with such speed that no adult in earshot has any idea that the phone has even rung. Once they have answered it, the callers are their captives and have no choice but to speak to the child until he or she gets bored or decides that the caller has indeed answered sufficient questions to be permitted to speak to the parents. A close friend living in Pokhara has a telephone-fixated four-year old son. He is always the first to answer the phone when it rings, and goes through all the established Nepali phone rituals, describing where he is and who he is, and then concludes with a little invention of his own. "Mama" he growls, "khaanaa khaayau ki khaaeko chaina?" (Uncle, have you eaten or not?). It is simply impossible to speak to his parents without first answering his questions, quite a bother when phoning from Europe. On the other hand, there is something to be said for giving the little man the freedom to express himself, even if it does lead to higher telephone bills.

Above then, a few of the most frequently occurring features of Nepali phone calls. Remember: next time you call someone, don’t forget to ask who and where they are.