MARK TURIN How to write a Nepali letter


© Mark Turin, 2000

I remember quite clearly as a schoolboy being fascinated by the regulations which govern letter-writing in English. Our teacher spent many an hour trying to convey to her pupils the subtleties of certain openings over other ones and the seemingly abstract set of rules which determined whether you should sign off with yours sincerely, yours faithfully or simply do-it-yourself. My friends and I would experiment with variations on the theme, such as insincerely yours and your humble servant, as ever. The possibilities, although not endless, were vast. This was before I had encountered The Nepali Letter.

When I returned home after a period as a volunteer teacher in a government school in Nepal, I would occasionally correspond by letter with ex-students. They would write in English and I would be suitably impressed: the spelling was decent and the grammar was good, far better than I would have managed in any foreign language. The stumbling point was the content. An archetypal letter would run something like this: “Dear Mr. Mark Sir, Thank You, I am fine here. You are also fine there. My mother and father and all my family are fine here also and your family are all fine there. I am studying very hard here. You are working very hard there. Please remember me for good studies. Please come again to Nepal. You have forgotten us. Please write me one letter. You have written me no letter. Do not forget us. I close my pen here. Your student, xxx.”

Of course I loved to receive letters from students, and I always wrote back. What surprised me was that there seemed to be a template for how to write a letter in Nepal. Not just guidelines for the opening and closing sections, but actually for the content of the whole letter. Much as I was glad to have news of my students and their families, I yearned for more information. What were they thinking about? Did they want to study in College? Had grandfather finally bought the land he was always talking about? It was not until many years later, when I finally learned enough Devanagari to be able to read and write a simple letter in Nepali, that I realised the beauty of it all: the medium is the message and the message is the medium.

There are certain openings in Nepali letters which impress me every time. One of my favourites, which I translate here most literally, flows like this: “I pray to the Lord Pashupatinath that your body is soft and warm, that you are restful and comfortable, and that your family are all in good health.” Sometimes I try and invent new and impressive openings in Nepali, and I test them out on friends before I send them. They are universally rejected and I inevitably have to resort to old favourites. On occasion I even write a letter in Nepali the way I would in English, more chatty, less formal, sacrificing form for content. These letters are not well received. The recipients feel cheated out of a arboreal letter.

The biggest challenge of a Nepali letter, at least to me, is in finding the hidden content. Many letters thankfully don¹t have any, and I come away feeling relieved and happy that there have been no family tragedies. Sometimes though, I have found important news secretly tucked away somewhere in an otherwise standard letter. It often takes me very much by surprise, and I have to reread the whole letter to make sure that I have understood it. I remember a letter I received a year ago which ran: “Elder brother Chandra is fine and healthy. His wife and two sons are also well. Elder sister Indra is fine and healthy too. Cousin Shyam is doing well, so too cousin Bimala and her whole family. Cousin Ram has died. Cousin Purna Prasad is working hard, and his wife has a new baby. Great uncle down the road is feeling much better than before” Being a non-native speaker of Nepali and very much a beginner when it comes to writing letters, I had no idea of how to express my condolences or even whether it would be appropriate.

Some things are notoriously difficult to learn in foreign languages, in the case of Nepali letters, this would apply to both the words themselves as well as the way in which they should be used to express the right sentiments. Over time though, I have come to appreciate the beauty of Nepali letters and how so much can be expressed in so few and such formal-sounding phrases. In fact, these days I even want to use some of those half-page Nepali greetings in letters I write in English.

Anyway, that is all for today, let us talk about the rest when we meet. My pen is tired. Your brother, Mark.