I had the good fortune of attending an international conference a couple of days ago being held in Kathmandu. What I immediately noticed was how all the Nepali faces seemed grim and not particularly happy. The reason perhaps was that the conference was being held in Nepal, depriving them of the getaway that conferences held abroad offer. To add to their misery, this conference was taking place on a Saturday and perhaps, they would not have been as dejected had it been on a working day.
A lot of Nepalis end up attending conferences in foreign locales. The only criteria is that one has to be either engaged in some specific department of the Nepal government or working with an NGOs/INGOs to get an opportunity to travel abroad, often culminating in nothing more than a paid vacation.
Meanwhile, for me this conference was special because I was not attending it as a mere participant but was also presenting a paper. However, in the beginning of the conference during the formal inaugural ceremony, my mind wandered to the manner in which we conduct these kinds of events.
The planning begins with the selection of who is to be invited to inaugurate the event as that would determine not just the gravity of the topic to be discussed but also the extent of press coverage. Dealing with the inauguration ceremony is a task in itself. First, there is the customary ritual of lighting the ceremonial lamp and welcoming the main guests, for which all sorts of arrangements have to be made. Maintaining protocol and hierarchy is of utmost important and we have heard stories of how some chief guests felt they were called on to the dais in an ‘unsavory’ manner, prompting them to threaten to walk out.
Even though the conference began with the MC requesting all speakers to stay within their time limits, nothing in the world could stop them from stretching their time by a huge margin once they started speaking. It might sound rude but the audience does get frustrated listening to long speeches, especially as the first few paragraphs of each of the speakers are almost similar.
The speakers often begin by addressing all gathered before proceeding on to say “Today we all have gathered here…”, despite the fact that everyone present would anyway know why they have gathered in that room. The invitation that each receives clearly mention the objective of the conference. Gradually, however, the MC gets over the hesitation of reminding the presenter when his time is up and almost forces the presenter to stop.
As I was observing this entire sequence of events, I was reminded of one such event that had taken place at a hospital meeting room in Dhankuta a couple of years back. I was there with a group of American doctors from Hawaii, a team comprising of almost 30 medical specialists. They had flown down from the US to carry a free surgical mission. The mission went off well, much to the satisfaction of both the service recipients and the organizers.
Since that was a district level event and more importantly, a first of its kind, it was very essential for us to take everybody into confidence. No matter how clichéd it might have sounded, we were trying very hard to stress upon the fact that this was more of ‘their event’ and making it successful was everyone’s responsibility.
If one asks around about the ‘ritualistic’ part of seminars and conferences, everyone will say how much they dislike this long drawn custom. And yet, we continue with this outdated pattern.
A meeting was convened on day the team arrived. In this high level meeting, the mission in-charge was an American surgeon and I had to play the role of interpreter for the benefit of both nationalities. Each person present was asked to stick to the time limit of two minutes. The formal session of the meeting was officially declared open with the late arrival of the chief guest who was caught up in some other important meeting as if he ran the entire nation and not just one single district.
Anyway, as I was assigned the task of interpreting what each speaker had said for the benefit of the American guest, I was trying my best to ensure things didn’t get lost in translation. As soon as the first speaker spoke, I tried stopping him after two minutes as I needed time to translate. To my surprise, he almost took off like an air-plane – fast and elaborate, before glancing at me to say it was my turn now. All he had done in his two minutes by then was mention names of everyone in the room without missing out on anybody and also, interestingly maintaining the precise protocol and hierarchy while taking their names. However, when it was my turn to translate that portion of the speech, I was left with no option but to condense everything into merely two words, ‘dear all’, perhaps prudently so.
If one asks around about the ‘ritualistic’ part of seminars and conferences, everyone will say how much they dislike this long drawn custom. And yet, for inexplicable reasons, we continue with this outdated pattern. Next time, if you are invited as a chief guest or speaker to any conference, try keeping an eye on your watch. Rest assured, two minutes into your speech and you wouldn’t even be close to talking about the topic at hand!