Nepali Times Asian Paints
Phone chat, Nepali style


In Nepal, I have a love-hate relationship with my phone. After finding my own place with my own line, I honoured my prize possession. I didn't cover it with a doily or apply sindur on it during puja, but it commanded centre stage on the office desk.

But then I saw the downside of a phone. The dreaded incoming call. Like Pavlov's dog, the ringing phone soon began to trigger an automatic autonomic reaction-the quickening pulse, sweating, pupil dilation, and most importantly, the priming of the ear drum. It would start with a meek "Hello" as I kept my hopes up for a successful phone encounter. If I were lucky, it would be a friend or a hang-up at the sound of my bideshi voice. Otherwise, the onslaught would begin. "Kaha paryo?", "Ko bolnubhaeko?", "Yo office ki ghar ho?" all came hurling at me while I tried, in limited Nepali, to answer their questions and fought for an opportunity to get a few of my own in. Sometimes I felt like I had given out all basic information on myself except passport number and clothing size. Shouldn't the caller, the disturber, identify him/herself prior to drilling me, the receiver, the person being disturbed?

Then I found out that "Kaha paryo?" is a remnant from the advent of phone systems in Kathmandu when calls placed often went through to incorrect locations. Many callers were abrupt and demanding almost to the point of rudeness. I found this irritating but also fascinating, and in complete contrast to the warmth, politeness and leisurely introductions and civilities in most face-to-face encounters here.

I developed and attempted different strategies for tackling callers. I tried identifying myself and our office when answering the phone. Sometimes I tried unsuccessfully, to sideswipe the interrogation and not divulge information on myself by asking "Where or what number are you trying to reach?" Or, "Whom would you like to speak to?", though initially with my poor Nepali, who knows what I did ask. Some frustrated callers, hung up and redialled, only to realise their fate of having to have another painful phone exchange with me. A few callers got high marks for persistence for demanding me take a message for so-and-so. While I thought my repeated "chhaina" response to their demand to give the phone to so-and-so clarified it was a wrong number, many assumed it meant so-and-so was just temporarily out. Other times, when feeling cantankerous, I got into a repeated "Hello?", "Hello?" stalemate with the caller.

Finally, I confessed my phone fears to my tutor. We practised phone scenarios. However the clear pronunciation, slow delivery, and set-ups for incorporating our practised phrases occurred only in our simulated calls never in reality.
My confidence and phone skills only marginally improved and I resorted to eavesdropping. I felt no guilt, as this was part of the homework assignment in my language course. I started carefully monitoring my assistant's phone skills when she was in the office. I began dilly-dallying in the busy but dreaded communication centre of my former existence. I became a lingering showcase-shopper at stationery shops with phones that were patronised by Nepali rather than bideshi clientele.

I am still not 10 out of 10 for those incoming calls, they are slightly less stressful now. The phone rings. I count my blessings for having it. I rally up a light-hearted attitude. I arm myself with those key phone phrases, and once again enter the world of phoneko kura garni.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)