Archive for the Country life Category

The Enigma of the South Asian ‘Miss Call’

Posted in Country life, Cross-Cultural Issues on January 8, 2011 by theajnabee

It’s amazing what people are doing with mobile phones in South Asia. And I’m not talking about mobile banking or anything as sophisticated as that – I mean the language of the miss call, a means of communication which requires you to spend absolutely no money on your phone whatsoever.

A miss call can be used in a variety of ways – as a pre-arranged signal between two people (i.e. I will miss call you when I’ve finished the work), to get one person to call you back when you don’t have any credit, or as a signal that you are thinking of someone. It can be used in a similar way to the ambiguous facebook ‘poke’. It can also be a means of flirting, especially in cultures where there is a high level of gender segregation, like in parts of Bihar and the Tarai. This type of flirtatious miss call is a close cousin of the prank call/wrong number wallah call, also the preserve of bored young men, but is subtly different (see this post). The former is cheeky and generally harmless, the latter can be genuinely menacing and uncomfortable.

This Bhojpuri song is a nice illustration of a certain type of miss call culture, although in real life I think that frustrated young men are doing a lot more of the miss call-ing than girls. Here, a shameless Bihari girl in leggings is miss call-ing a guy, who knows that when a woman calls and then hangs us, it Can Only Mean One Thing.

The key thing with miss calls is that they have agreed-upon meanings between two people or within a subculture. A problem arises when you’re from outside that subculture and don’t know what the signals mean.

In rural Nepal it seems to be correct phone etiquette to let it ring four or five times before picking up so that you can be sure whether it was a miss call call or one that you should actually answer. But how do you know the difference between a missed call that you are supposed to reply to and one that is just an I’m thinking of you call, or indeed that kind of miss call?  I mean, you wouldn’t want to ignore someone that was actually trying to get hold of you, but you also wouldn’t want to give out the wrong signal to that sleazy guy you once met in an internet cafe in Biratnagar who claims to have his own conflict resolution NGO and keeps calling and hanging up (‘wow! she must be easy- she called me right back!’).

The missed call phenomenon is so widespread in the developing world that there have been numerous academic and commercial studies on it – see this article for one example. There is also a plethora of regional songs about missed calling – like this gem from Punjab. What a naughty kudi


Last night in the Tarai

Posted in Country life on December 5, 2010 by theajnabee

Tonight is my last night in the Tarai. Tomorrow morning I’m off to Kathmandu, and on to other things. I’m not going to try to sum up one and a half years in one blog post as there is far too much to say. There is also a lot to pack up.

It’s been a long haul, I’ve laughed, cried, been struck down with a staph infection (one of my worst travel experiences so far), adapted to small-town life (not always easy for a Londoner), dealt with persistent wrong-number-wallah callers, become addicted to Tarai chai (they just don’t make it the same in the hills, I’m telling you), spent countless evenings watching Bollywood movies on my laptop and learned all manner of things about the Madhes and the people who live here.

'Who's that random gori? And what is she writing in her notebook?'

I think there are some places you connect with/have a feeling for more than others and I have to say that the Tarai is one of those places for me. This strip of territory has to be one of the most fascinating cultural and political faultlines in the region and I’ve been lucky to have had the chance to experience living here.

I’m sad to leave my home in this town somewhere South of Mount Everest and somewhere North of Patna, but excited to see what happens next.

I will leave you with the song ‘Dhadak Dhadak’ from Bunty aur Babli. This sequence is at the beginning of the movie when the hero and heroine are running away from their small-town homes and going off to the big city in search of adventure.



The Kindness of Strangers

Posted in Country life on November 25, 2010 by theajnabee

I arrived back at my base in the Tarai this morning after a long-ish period of absence and was lucky enough to receive not one but two dinner invitations for the evening.

One was an invitation to a big Thanksgiving party being held by American missionaries expatriates in Dharan, from a church friend that I ran into on the plane in the morning. There were promises of turkey (flown in specially from Kathmandu), pumpkin pie and the company of other foreigners. I told my friend I’d find out if I could get out of the office on time and call.

The second invitation came from SH, who runs a small shoe shop in the bazaar where I once bought a pair of sparkly chappals big enough for my foreign-sized feet. SH and his wife said that they had been meaning to invite me over during Eid, and had wondered where I had been. SH is Muslim and had been delighted when he found out that the Ajnabee speaks a bit of Urdu. This is not exactly the first language of most Tarai Muslims, but most of them can read and speak it. It had become our custom to exchange pleasantries and small pieces of news every time I passed his shop. When his son had been in hospital for a stomach operation he even got out the x-rays specially to show me. SH tells me I look like his third daughter, who is now married to a Suzuki motorbike dealer across the border in Bihar and rarely gets the chance to visit home.

Can you guess which invitation I accepted?

I put on my most voluminous and luridly-coloured salwaar kameez for the occasion and set out to meet SH at his shop after work. I was struck by some doubts on the way; I had exhausted all of the Urdu phrases that I knew and wondered if I’d be able to converse with the family at all beyond nodding and smiling. Then I wondered whether it was it really a good idea to go off into the back streets of the town during a power outage with a man that, apart from a few conversations, was a total stranger to me. However, I was in a trusting mood this morning, so I went on gut feeling and accepted.

We criss-crossed the backstreets of the town, behind the vegetable bazaar and the mosque and over a stinking canal until we reached SH’s family home. The begum was there to welcome us at the door. She had been cooking by torchlight in the kitchen, and the whole house smelled delicious. One of their children brought glasses of sprite and candles and SH showed me his daughters’ wedding photos (including those of daughter #3). Mrs SH had prepared a feast; fragrant pilau, cauliflower pakoras, mutter paneer and a variety of pickles including one made with mangoes from their backyard. It was the best meal that I have ever eaten in the Tarai, although I did have to beg her to stop heaping food on to my plate. I was even able to make reasonable conversation (looks like all those crappy Bollywood films I’ve been watching recently have paid off). I went off into the night happy and sated after many invitations to come to visit  again.

The kindness of strangers never ceases to amaze me in Nepal. KhushiyaN!

Hitting New Lows: Kanchan Kalan

Posted in Country life on October 19, 2010 by theajnabee

The other week I hit the lowest point in Nepal. But worry not, readers, my emotional state is fine; I’m talking about topography*

Kanchan Kalan, on the lush, green West Bengal border is  the lowest point in Nepal, at 70m above sea level (compared to the highest point – Mt Everest – 8848m). There is very little to see except for a rice paddy and a rather sad column marking the exact Lowest Point of the country with the highest mountain on earth.

Let's face it, Everest has been done

Maybe this could be marketed as the next off-the-beaten-track tourist destination? An Everest Base Camp to Kanchan Kalan trek, maybe, with a nice cup of locally grown tea at the end of it? Stalls selling t-shirts proclaiming that the wearer has conquered the lowest point of Nepal? I sense that you are unconvinced.

Kanchan Kalan is in one of the most beautiful Tarai villages I’ve seen; acid-green rice paddies, houses on stilts (to keep out snakes and flood water) and sprawling banyan trees. Nothing remarkable about it.

Thanks to technological advances almost anyone can climb Mt Everest (or be dragged up there by Sherpas) if they have enough money. It seems as though we have pushed adventure tourism as far out as it will go, and I think that now it’s time for an anti-adventure tourism movement. Why spend insane amounts of money and risk life and limb to climb the highest mountain or go to the heart of the deepest jungle when there is so much of interest and beauty within arm’s reach?

Why does my house feel like a train station?

Posted in Country life, Cross-Cultural Issues on October 8, 2010 by theajnabee

To say that Nepalis have a different understanding of the concept of ‘personal space’ from the English is a huge understatement, certainly if today was anything to go by. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, I was under siege today. An assortment of (mostly uninvited) people has been popping in and out of my flat since early this morning. First, I opened my bedroom door to find a child from down the road standing in the hallway demanding chocolate. Thinking that I was alone in the house, he scared the living crap out of me, but did introduce himself very politely once I had recovered my composure. Throughout the morning a we had a procession of members of the landlords’ family from downstairs coming up and down the stairs and hallway with ritual objects for a puja on the roof for the first day of Dashain (To be fair, the only way that the family downstairs can get to the roof is by going through our flat). When their kids got bored of the puja the came and played in our hallway and had a good old laugh at the strange foreigners working on their laptops in the living room/office.

The security guard likes to wander in and out too. Actually ‘wander’ is the wrong way to put it; he likes to make an entrance by saluting, stamping his foot and wearing such a serious facial expression that you expect him to deliver some line like ‘the Queen, my lord, is dead’ rather than ‘your new gas cylinder just arrived.’ The guard is like a kid who has been cast in the as a messenger in a school play and wants to make up for being given a meager role by saying his lines with as much gravitas and volume as he can muster. He frequently scares the living crap out of me too and is just one of many reasons why wandering around in my pyjamas is out of the question here.

Nepaliketi seems to be a bit bemused by Nepali attitudes to private/public too:

In Nepal the public is public and the private too is public….Texting my mom in the micro I can feel the heavy breathing of a random man as he pores over what I am writing. Trying on shirts in a store the clerk feels the need to comment on the texture of my hair and even recommend possible remedies. Paying the bill at Saleways and the guy behind me is also counting how much cash I have left in my wallet. Threading my eyebrows and the beautician forces me to play 20-questions – about my life, love, trials and tribulations.

In the early evening, thinking I was alone (which you’d think I’d have guessed by now is never a wise assumption) I was starting to write this blog post when a little voice whispered in my ear ‘please give me chocolate’, and this time I didn’t nearly have a heart attack when I found the kid from down the road standing right behind me. I’ve gradually come to accept that ideas of personal space are just different, and that there is no point fighting a losing battle against the surprise visitors in the house during my remaining months in the Tarai. It would be nice if some of them could use the doorbell, but ke garne…?

How Not to Stay Cool in the Tarai

Posted in And in other news, Country life on September 8, 2010 by theajnabee

I’ve just moved back to the Tarai after a period of absence, and am living in the same house I was based in last year. Re-adjusting to the heat is a bit of a challenge after several months in the hills.

When I first moved into the house, I inherited a giant, gecko shit-encrusted air cooling machine from the landlord. At first I had no idea what this thing was, having come from a country known for its temperate weather. It looked like a cross between a washing machine and the Large Hadron Collider. Perplexed, I just used it as a place to stack newspapers.

This is what my air cooling machine looks like. Sort of

Anyhow, I switched it on today, and have concluded that it’s just about the most counter-productive piece of equipment in the world. All it does is to blast the house with warm air that smells like wet socks and potatoes, make a roaring sound like a light aircraft taking off, and create a vortex in the middle of the living room into which interview notes rapidly disappear. Sitting in the same room as the air cooler made me think of those Bollywood song sequences where wind is blowing on the actors from no discernable source.

Anyway, field ko jindagi yestai ho. My life is not quite as glamorous as previous blog entries might have suggested, and air coolers are rubbish. Just as well that the fridge (which I am tempted to climb into) has a nice bottle of Everest beer waiting in it.

Sita’s Side of the Story

Posted in Country life on August 23, 2010 by theajnabee

I was introduced to the wonderful animated film Sita Sings the Blues by some friends a couple of weeks ago. The film is a retelling of the Ramayan, with a perspective sympathetic to Sita’s. Sita Sings the Blues won me over with its gorgeous artwork, inventive narrative techniques and borderline-irreverent unpicking of the Rama-Sita story.

Animator Nina Paley retells the story with a mixture of documentary-style personal reflections from shadow-puppet figures and music sequences set to songs by 1920’s jazz singer Annette Henshaw. There are also a number of little songs like this one:

It’s catchy, no?

I had Sita on the brain this past week because work took me to Janakpur, which is known as the birthplace of Sita (also known as Janaki) and the site of her marriage to Rama. The Janaki Temple is a popular pilgrimage site for Nepalis and Indians alike. Janakpur is a rather oppressive town for the female traveler, where you will see few women out and about on the streets and bazaars, but the Janaki Mandir is one of the only places where you can see groups of women out in public.

I visited the temple one evening during the nightly aarti (fire) ceremony and found throngs of women pushing and shoving to get close to the inner sanctum of the temple where Sita’s idol is housed. Judging from the enthusiastic level of elbowing going on, females seem to make more ardent devotees to the goddess than males. She clearly evokes an enormous devotion and affection in women round here. From my side I find Sita, and the example that she holds up for Hindu women, to be rather unsettling. On one level she is the archetype of female passivity, suffering in silence to preserve the patriarchal status quo. After she is captured by the demon Raavan, she is initially welcomed back by her husband, but is then exiled into the forest to preserve Rama’s reputation when rumours start to circulate about a liaison between her and her captor. Sita can be read as an example of female stoicism to be emulated, or as a figure of quiet but persistent female strength in a male-dominated world.

Rama and Sita’s wedding is a popular theme in Mithila painting, which Janakpur is famous for. These paintings are normally executed by groups of women and can be found on the walls of homes and public places -such as this mural at Janakpur airport

There’s certainly no getting away from Rama and Sita in these parts, which is why, for me, Sita Sings the Blues was such an engaging take on their story.