Drink in hand. Immersed in long political monologue. Insipid small talk to go with finger food. Business card exchanges. Glassy eyes wandering off for the next catch. It could be anywhere, but this time it is Kathmandu's social scene. If I was an alien, dropped-off my saucer, hopping from party to party around the world, it would seem that there is just one breed of humans.
But every place has a distinctive style to socialising. There are the local do's and don'ts, attributed to local cultural norms. And the process of uncovering them is slow and tenacious, nothing less than a fair few trial and errors (some embarrassing errors if you are unlucky). How do I know? Well, I have just uncovered some of these for Kathmandu. And for the sake of the greater common good, I thought I would share them with other newcomers.
Ah it's you!
At a friend's garden party a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of mingling with Kathmandu's who's who: politicians, writers, actors, INGO officials among others. Whenever I reached someone for introduction, I was thrown a bemusedly raised eyebrow. "I have been away for a decade, and before that, in the hinterlands," I would say in reply to everyone's question about my coordinates.
It's expected you should know them. It's a place where everyone is famous, and one is separated not by six, but by two degrees.
Would you like a lemon soda and some compliments?
Compliments and credits are bestowed in such abundance here, it's little wonder people walk around with their noses pointed at the ceiling. Mediocrity is everywhere, but so is the illusion of greatness. To be fair, it is indeed difficult to retain one's unbiased judgement when one knows everyone. After just a few parties, I was convinced I was a gifted engineer, able to solve all problems. In Kathmandu you have to reciprocate everyone's effusive flattery. For those feeling-down days, head to the social events.
In the American film, Groundhog Day, the hero is tortured by reliving the same day over and over. It's a bit like that here. There are 1.5 million people in Kathmandu but you will bump into the same 100 or so everywhere: in the 50th Everest anniversary, book launches, stakeholder forum of electricity consumers, discotheque inaugurations, Volkswagen rallies and national day receptions. And if you were left wondering how everyone knows everyone else in every social affair, here it is: they are the same people.
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
My friend Shital, a smart journalist, works under a similar constraint, the perception that they are pushing the wrong agenda. "Tell them you have to write the truth, even if it is for the sake of the country, for the sake of having well-informed Nepalis," I advised. She says she can't because "Kathmandu is too small and I cannot afford to be ostracised". This analogy applies not just for media, it goes for politics, village, caste, school. You never know who is going to take offence, so it is better to play it safe.
Hello I am Shanti, and I was born here.
Ran into Nicole at another party. She had come with a lovely woman draped in beautiful silk. "Hi, I am Jane, been here 27 years, and I have seen it all," she said by way of introduction. Nicole winked and explained later about the parallel caste system among the expatriates. Apparently, as desperate as we Nepalis are to know about our acquaintance's caste, they want to suss-out how long one has been in the country, the longer the stay, the higher the caste. So, don't be shy in stocking-up numbers, and if you are a Nepali, try "Hello I am Shanti. I was born here."
Now, who did you say you were?
Don't forget people are still curious about how you got invited. I would be interested in the connections myself. While I talk to you, a cocktail in hand and indifference on my face, I will still be ticking the boxes: Xavier product-negative, related to the Gyawalis of Gaushala-negative, Kangresi Bhim Bahadur's son-nah. Who is he, and how did he make it? The more sophisticated ones won't say it out loud, but don't get fooled. They are asking it all the same.
I better circulate. Will see you around.
Neeta Pokhrel is a water and sanitation engineer who is still trying to find her bearings back in Kathmandu.