Like Bryan Adams before me, my talent, wealth and international fame bring me much attention when in Nepal, but unless my fans speak English our conversations struggle to go beyond their names, how they are and if they know the way to the nearest emergency diarrhea clinic. And so it is I’ve started to learn Nepali. It serves as another example of how anything in life can be turned into a moral dilemma if you’re principled, determined to live ethically and short of ideas for blog entries.
It’s a hell of a language to get to grips with, its 11 vowels, 33 consonants and 442 syllable characters requiring a little effort, particularly as they’re written in Devanagari script. The ethics kick in around the point of the low, middle and high forms of address, used according to the quality of the people you’re talking to. The book what I’m reading suggests using the high forms for equals and superiors or for a wife addressing her new husband, the middle forms for friends or those slightly beneath me, and the lower forms for the likes of children, animals and junior servants. Now, I’m all up for a bit of cultural relativity but on the other hand: nuts to that.
No doubt my French speaking readers (Jacques Chirac, Madame Cholet, that guy from Allo Allo) think I’m making a fuss about nothing, waving around their ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ forms as examples of how common this kind of thing is. But it feels different here, representing a caste system that ranks its people and sticks ‘the untouchables’ at the bottom. We’re talking lives rigidly defined by birth, the way they once were in Britain. Here we have inter-caste relationships frowned upon. Here we have people in their places, little hope for change or improvement or social mobility. I’m not up for that at all.
This isn’t the whole picture, obviously. It’s hard to generalise about an entire country, its people, culture and identity without missing the odd bit of detail. I’ve met plenty of Nepalis who reject this kind of thing either with a casual indifference or righteous anger, plenty of Nepalis who say nuts to it. All of which brings us to the do-gooding bit: I’m not going to use the middle forms and I won’t bother learning the low forms. I’ll stick with the high stuff, figuring it’s better to come off like an over-polite, excessively formal toff to some guy who’s been told he’s beneath me than to come off like I think there’s anyone walking the earth who’s beneath me or anyone else walking on it.
And with that, the caste system and its many associated problems have been abolished.
Photo credit: The Zero