The itch behind the ear

Ever since humans evolved into… humans, there has been only one conclusion to draw when they raise their hands to their ears. They are scratching their ears. But visual cues are all mixed up in these modern times. Now, when people seem to be scratching or massaging their ears, chances are they are conversing on their mobiles. Cellphones have become progressively smaller, so that they are invisible as the hand covers the ear.

But Nepal is a country where people still by and large scratch their ears, and, more importantly, behind their ears. Actually, this phenomenon that seems peculiar (but may not be) to the to the general region of the central Himalayan mid-hills is a physiological quirk that has gone unnoticed and unremarked by geneticists and scientists.

In Nepal, the condition is endemic. A bodily posture that is abjectly obsequious, head slightly bent, the eyes shiftily looking downwards, only occasionally willing to meet those of the protagonist. Then, and let us have this in slow motion, the right hand begins to move upwards, reaching up past the chest and cheek. The forefinger extends and reaches for a spot behind the right ear, a little above the earlobe. And there, the subject will begin a continuous scratching, head held slightly to the side all along.

This is not overall a posture and specific gesture of humility, but one of mediocrity married to inadequacy. It says to you, "What to do, we are Nepali? This is the best we can do. Kyarney?" It also can mean a host of other similarly confessional and embarrassed sentiments, such as:

"Sorry Mamu, I messed up the test because I went to the mela".
"Yes boss, I faked the sick leave to go to my sister's wedding".
"Yes Mr Commissioner, I rigged the tendering process".
"Your Majesty, I just could not run this cabinet".
"Err, God, we sure have screwed up this country".

But mostly, the scratch-behind-the-ear gesture is utilised to express this sentiment: "This is Nepal, so second rate was good enough, I thought".

And so when conferences are organised, papers are researched, classes are taught, development projects are implemented, the nth five-year-plan is drafted, and columns are written for the last pages of magazines that have a needlessly superior sense of self, the tendency is to take refuge ab initio in the expectation of not making top grade. "Because we happen to be Nepali, never colonised yes, but backward nonetheless, please do not have expectations of us being world class".

This tendency to use mediocrity as a means to get ahead in the world does not interest us at this juncture, but what is with the scratching?! What is it that generates a desire in the average Nepali to reach behind his right ear and begin to scrape? Specifically, is this a cultural trait or physiological reaction to nerve-related stimuli behind the right earlobe?

If it is a cultural trait, then behavioralists must go straight to its origins, trying to seek the particular combination of historical and sociological factors that generated this habit. Do we know if King Prithvi Narayan Shah scratched behind his ears when he was defeated on Kirtipur hill?

If it is a physiological proclivity, then the need of the minute is to create a task force consisting of the ablest South Asian neurosurgeons and neurologists to dig into the skull behind the right ear to locate the source of all this scratching.

It could not just be that all Nepalis are dirty behind the ears, for we have documentary proof that Nepalis take baths. It is most likely that there are indeed some nerve endings in this part of the scalp that help those who scratch get over feelings of inadequacy by giving them the momentary ability to overcome embarrassment. It is logical to conclude that the way for the nation to proceed in its development drive now is for surgeons to neutralise the offending spot. Having thus done away with the need to exhibit abject subservience, Nepalis of all walks, castes, creeds, ethnicities and regions will once again stand tall, talk back to authority and donors, and begin to lift their country out of its continuously sorry state.

Meanwhile, do note that mediocrity is not a Nepali monopoly in South Asia. Every SAARC country's population, particularly its political classes, exhibits similar tendencies of accepting that second rate is good enough. It would be important to know which part of the body they scratch.

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Himal Southasian