Kathmandu in Three Tongues

by Sanjena Sathian:

(Sanjena Sathian ’13 is in Morse College. She is spending her summer researching and working on gender equity and development policy while doing an independent writing project in Nepal.)

Everywhere I go in Nepal, I negotiate. With cab drivers, with store owners, even with beggars. Being a slightly competitive person, I sometimes enjoy the act of negotiating too much. I begin bargaining with shopkeepers as I pass, just for practice, though I have no intention of buying a large mahogany carved loveseat or a red and gold wedding sari. That makes me feel powerful. But what makes me feel invincible in Kathmandu – where foreigners are immediately obvious, since they all wear the same uniform of slightly tanned skin, dreadlocks, loose flowing pants and a kurta top, maybe with an additional layer of prayer beads or bracelets with peace signs on it – what makes me distinct from their masses is that the store owners, the cab drivers, even the staff at my hotel, cannot quite figure me out. They first speak to me in Hindi, but I answer in Nepali. I get called at in Tamil, in Kannada, in Urdu, in every conceivable South Asian language, and I smile and nod, responding in a bit of Hindi or Nepali … and then running as fast as I can before they realize that I’ve used up all the words I know.

The shops on the streets in Nepal cater to foreigners and locals alike. (Sathian/TYG)

Traveling in Nepal for me is a negotiation across three tongues – and I can even feel myself speaking differently, with a different lilt or head nods or hand gestures depending on who I talk to. Sometimes I play the Nepali – a charade of being local that is not sustainable, because my ignorance of streets and the bus system soon becomes apparent – but I tend to use a lot of vigorous nodding and either saying “Tikh cha” (OK) or “Chaina” (don’t have). Other times, I claim to be Indian, mainly to get discounted rates at entering temples or museums. When my Hindi runs out, I add that I’m from Chennai, in south India, which is why I don’t speak Hindi so well. And when I end up, inevitably, bouncing around in the bustling expat and tourist hub of Thamel, the area that was literally built to accommodate the hippie masses flooding Nepal in the 70s and 80s, I find myself eager to talk to the confused Americans and Europeans, to explain to them what little I know about Hindu gods and Buddhist monasteries, to teach them a few words of Nepali and Hindi, and to bask in my momentary status as local expert. And of course, when I met a crowd of Texans, I was quick to drop the word “y’all” into conversation as soon as possible.

I’m playing dress-up here in Kathmandu, shifting between who I feel like being at what time. Being a reporter abroad is just this: it’s taking on an identity depending on the context you’re in. It’s exhausting, but enthralling and freeing at first, and I’m eager to see what skin fits best. I’m just hoping that by the end of summer, it’s Nepali that will slide most easily out of my mouth, that I won’t have to think for a second before saying “huncha” instead of “sure.”

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