There is one way to test whether a nation-state has a future, and that is by gauging its comfort level with condom ads. Flagrant unapologetic advertisements asking people (men, actually) to use condoms, as opposed to the ‘coy’ ones that hide their product either behind intertwined bodies (promoted by the private sector manufacturers of rubbers) or the message of government-backed red-triangled (in the case of India, two kids or one, basss) population control campaigns, usually indicate a country that has a bright future. Such as Nepal, believe you me.
What I refer to is a society’s ability to stomach brazen reference in public to the use of the condom, including having the word ‘condom’ in common employ in mass media. This means much more than simply that the messages of family planning, child spacing and AIDS/STD prevention are being conveyed with directness. It shows that a society is flexible and healthily ‘modern’ in its response to changing times and mores. It indicates that prudery and middle-class morality has been kept at bay. It also reveals that such a society, despite all present-day evidence to the contrary, will surge ahead of others less inclined to shout, “Look, condom!” in public.
In Nepal these days, there is a condom advertising invasion under way; foreign-funded, and taking advantage of the total anarchy extant in the country, as a result of which the social and cultural conservatives have not been able to get their act together to utter even a word in protest of the ads, billboards and commercials.
On television, 12,000 times a day, a couple is seen prancing around in the pine forest that is often used by Kollywood (Kathmandu + ‘ollywood) stars for in-the-woods numbers. This time, it is a virginal-looking hero who peeps out from behind a trunk. The lady, a petite, fresh-faced lass in hill peasant attire (which, with no dupatta or scarf to cover the blouse, is such a bonanza for film directors), comes swaying up-slope towards the hero. (The dialogue is in singsong.)
Lass: Hello, have you got on you a cundum-aaa?”
Virginal Lad: Why do you need a cundum when I am around? [Lastpage: what?!]
Lass (snuggling close to VL, and waving an instructive finger at the audience): Use a cundum and the AIDS rog goes right out the window.
Or words to that effect.
There is a particular beauty to the Nepali encounter with the condom. The word already existed in the language (as ‘cundum’) before the prophylactic arrived, and it was synonymous with ‘worthless’. A prominent Nepali lexicographer explains: “The term ‘cundum’ entered the Nepali language before the ‘condom’ was actually popularised by the USAID-funded family planning programme, in the pre-HIV era. But the link is to the condom, with someone (or some people), who had presumably tried rubbers in the outside world – Nepal still having been a forbidden kingdom in the late 1940s – having decided that they were worthless, for whatever reason either having to do with his (or their) personal preference, or the undesirability of the ultimate outcome, or perhaps having to do with misplaced prudery”.
Boy, that is a mouthful from said lexicographer, but you get the idea.
But then, what have we here? Another lexicographer, who claims that ‘cundum’ entered the language, as in Hindi, as a corruption of the English word ‘condemned’, meaning worthless. That, too, seems plausible. Whatever. The point being made is that the existing usage made the job easier when the time came to popularise them.
The beauty in all of this is how Nepalis have claimed ownership of the condom by Nepaliising the pronunciation. The American ‘Khandaam’ or the Anglo ‘Khond’m’ is converted to the ‘cundum’ or ‘kundum’. The familiarity is so complete that in verse, they will even casually throw in the ‘aaaa’ after the last vowel, as and when required to fit verse and metre (see commercial segment above).
The upshot of all this is that the entire Nepali family – from mountain, hill, valley or plain – can sit around the radio or watch television together without being distracted by the thought of unmentionables popping out of the airwaves. It takes no more than two exposures to a condemn ad to become blasé, and no one is putting earplugs on their children even, it seems, in the most ritualistically traditional of bahun (Brahmin) families. By the third time they hear the spot on radio or see it on TV, they are ready to sing along, “Tell me, do you or do you not have on you a cundum-aaa!”
As you will hear at focus group meetings, it is a short hop from singing a cundum ditty to actually using a condom. Or so the development agencies say. And that is why one can presume that Nepal is ahead of its South Asian neighbours. Many of said neighbours would not be caught dead airing male contraceptive commercials (rather a failed state than one that calls a cundum a condom), and others have to use the family planning cover or revert to the sexuality theme. None of the straightforwardness of the Nepali condom ads, where Mr Condom stands tall, erect and upright.
A country that openly talks of using the cundum, progresses rapidly. Just check out Thailand, which takes nothing lying down …