The third time I visited Nepal, it was with my family when the children were young. My husband’s work took us to live on Rajapur Island for a couple of years. I’m no linguist but recognised I’d need to learn Nepali if I was to have any kind of social life as not many the local women spoke English and few had even gone to primary school.
We employed help in the house and Guliya Tharu, mother to eight children, joined us. She had never had the opportunity to go to school but shared her maternal skills and mothered me too. She had already explained that if I used the word phul
, I must distinguish the word for flowers from eggs by mentioning chickens or ducks. One day I asked her to buy six chicken’s eggs (kukhura ko phul
). Or at least that’s what I thought I’d asked her to buy.
She started to snigger. ‘Buy what, madam?’ She’d heard ‘dogs’ eggs’ (kukur ko phul
) and exploded with merriment. When she told her eldest daughter, Sita, she too joined in uncontrolled hysterics.
I am a medical doctor and also have a degree in zoology but illiterate Guliya decided that she should give me a lesson in anatomy and linguistics. Conveniently, a male dog trotted by. Guliya said, ‘See madam? Under the dog there are two eggs, and also one banana that he uses to make more dogs.’ Then I understood that dogs’ eggs could only be testicles. No wonder the women had been so amused!
After that, even when I pronounced chicken’s eggs correctly, Guliya’s face would crease up, she’d start to quake and she’d run off with her hand over her mouth as she failed to stifle her laughter. Any mention of bananas gave Guliya and Sita the opportunity to tease me and when I discovered that oranges were a euphemism for breasts I began to feel insecure whenever I talked about food. I was delighted that my idiocy made the women more relaxed with me, but I continued to struggle with the pronunciation of the strange unfamiliar consonants in Nepali. In particular, I couldn’t make clear the difference between char
, four, and chha
, six. Often I’d approach a vendor and slightly nervously try to say, ‘Please give me six chickens eggs.’ They’d pick out four. ‘No, I’d like six.’
‘But I have
given you four, memsahib
‘I need two more.’
‘Why did you ask for four, then?’
I started asking for five instead.
I loved the straightforwardness of my neighbours on Rajapur. I never was quite sure whether they were laughing with me or at me but we laughed a great deal and it was good to know that they would put me right if, inadvertently, I was being rude.
This snippet is an abstract adapted from Jane’s memoir A Glimpse of Eternal Snows
which is available as an audiobook (from Audible), an e-book (from Bradt Travel Guides) or in paperback (from Speaking Tiger).
This edited excerpt first appeared in the Kathmandu Tribune KtmTribune
on 21st April 2021 thanks to writer Arun Budhathoki.