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


Happy Christmas

Posted in Uncategorized on December 25, 2010 by theajnabee

Wishing all my readers a merry Christmas and a happy and peaceful 2011,

with love,

The Ajnabee xx

Minimalist Nativity Scene

Tara Air Crash

Posted in Uncategorized on December 18, 2010 by theajnabee

Here follows a rather macabre post:

The wreckage of a Tara Airlines plane was found on Thursday morning in the remote Eastern Hills. All 22 people on board had been killed.

The plane was flying from Khotang to Kathmandu when it disappeared off the radar. Most of those on board were pilgrims returning from Halasi, a Hindu holy site. (See news story here)

I actually flew this route myself with Tara Air about three weeks ago for a field trip.

This incident is a sobering reminder of how dangerous air travel can be in Nepal – this is the second air accident on a domestic flight this year (in August an Agni Air plane returning from Lukla crashed near KTM, killing 14).

We all have to take calculated risks in life, and I’ve chosen a profession where risk is something that I have to think about a fair bit. Nevertheless this case did upset me, because it was impossible not to wonder if this couldn’t have been prevented with better (and newer) equipment and more stringent safety precautions. Also, Khotang is so woefully under-developed that the district has no motorable roads, which means that travelers and locals must either walk for days to get in or out, or fly to Kathmandu if they can afford it. If basic infrastructure were developed, then there would be less need to fly planes in such volatile conditions.

My thoughts and prayers are with all those who lost loved ones.

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.



Namaste, Perverts!

Posted in Uncategorized on December 3, 2010 by theajnabee

The other day I had a look at the blog stats for The Ajnabee as I was curious about how people were finding there way here. The results were interesting, and also slightly disturbing.

The top searches have consistently been for things pertaining to ‘gap yaah’, how to wear Southasian clothes, gori/white/caucasian women in Bollywood (the most popular topic of all, it seems), and Nepali/Hindi movies.

There have also been quite a lot for Kanchan Kalan. After the hoards of backpackers descend on this undiscovered gem of a place in Nepal tourism year 2011 to drink tea, eat Marie Gold biscuits and pose for photos next to the column marking the lowest point in Nepal, remember that you read about it here first.

Then there is the weird stuff. Here are a few recent examples:

Bhojpuri bikini scene

Bhojpuri call girls

Without dress Chinese girls

White girl in bar (got to love how that one ended up here…)

And the weirdest one so far:

Nepali girls standing on bathroom throwing urine

I don’t even want to think about what that person was looking for.

So, strangers – for those of you who found what you were looking for here, I am glad to have been of service. And to those of you who did not… well, I’m sure you can find plenty of places on the interweb to indulge your fevered imaginations.

Where the Magic Happens

Posted in Uncategorized on November 30, 2010 by theajnabee

I was in a town in the Eastern Hills a couple of weeks back, in a certain district with no  roads, when I discovered this very cute cinema hall.

It seats about 40 people and even has a little balcony for those who can afford to pay a few rupees more to watch a movie. The theatre runs off a very noisy, smoky generator when the power is out, and that week they were playing gems like Pal Pal Ma and Prashant Tamang Starrer Gorkha PaltanKohi…Mero was showing at the next change. Sadly they were only showing movies in the middle of the day so I didn’t get the chance to get a trashy film fix when I was done with work in the evenings.

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!