By Purnima Coontoor
Shy, undemonstrative India has discovered the hug, and things will never be the same again
India’s youth made it trendy. Socialites made it etiquette. Munnabhai made it therapeutic. Sunderlal Bahuguna made it activism and Mata Amritanandamayi made it spiritual.
We are talking of the western ‘hug’, which has made deep inroads into the Indian way of life. The hug, as a form of greeting, has almost replaced the humble namaste, and the reverential touching-of-feet. It is even edging out the formal handshake and the casual hi in all circles. What’s more, it brings along with it, its cousin, the peck-on-the-cheek, to a country which abhorred public display of affection of any sort not so long ago!
The next time you have an occasion to observe people greet each other, do. College youth seem to know of no other way of greeting. As a teacher in an undergrad college, I have received hugs from my students at the smallest excuse – sometimes even ‘Good morning Ma’am’ to ‘See you Ma’am’! At family dos, you will notice that everybody, from the favourite Dadaji to the nose-in-the air aunt being subjected to the hug by enthusiastic youngsters of the family. The quick dive at the feet of elders continues to precede or follow the act though, and a loving kiss on the forehead unfailingly bestowed by the said elder. At parties, the hug is more careful so that it does not upset women’s pallu/ hair-do/ make-up/ lipstick and the peck-on-the cheek more of a peck-in-the-air. And if you happen to take part in a personal growth event in one of those star hotels during weekends, you will find yourself being hugged half a dozen times in one single session by complete strangers! What’s more, people regularly sign off e-mails with ‘big hugs’ or just ‘hugs’. A sign of the times?
The hug, it seems, is here to stay. How and why this became a common and accepted phenomenon is not understood, but I guess we can safely put it down to globalisation and liberalisation in the past decade. People now have lesser hang ups, are more open and loving, and are not afraid to show it. It doesn’t need a psychologist to say that a hug is a wonderful way to make somebody feel loved and wanted. Children love hugging, why should adults be otherwise?
While North Indians have always been comfortable with hugging, people down south are exploring it only now. The older generation especially is considered to be conservative, and is left out of hugs. “I am guilty as charged,” says Lalitha, a banker from Bangalore. “While my daughter and I happily exchange hugs when we meet or leave, it never occurred to me to hug my 75-year-old mother as I felt she would be uncomfortable with the gesture. However, hugging is a regular way of greeting at our Sunday satsang group, irrespective of age and status. I can see my mother literally glow when she is hugged by ashramites, and reciprocates enthusiastically!”
It is amazing, if you think a bout it, that the Indian spiritual movement has driven this western phenomenon of hugging in recent times. I once underwent the basic Art of Living course, where hugging on the last day was more or less de rigeur!
While hugging strangers is otherwise an absolute no no as a form of greeting, not many know the nuances of a social hug either. Delivered inappropriately, it becomes ‘ugh’! Says Sumukh, an architect who has recently moved to India from US, “Most Indians deliver a full frontal hug, and sometimes let it linger. Also, a man should wait for the woman to initiate the hug, unless the woman is very close to him.” The right way to execute a social hug, apparently, goes sideways, where the man bends at the waist and gently grasps the arm or shoulders and avoids frontal contact. The latter, called the bear hug, is allowed only for people below seven and above 70!
Thus, there are several variants of the hug – based on comfort levels and gender. You will see that guys often combine the hug with a hearty slap-on-the-back or a handshake, and even precede the hug with special code. All in all, a hug is a warm and welcome way of being greeted. “All of us can do with a little more love,” says Lata Ramalingam. “A hug is supposed to lower blood pressure and increase oxytocin levels in the body. This could be the rationale behind Munnabhai’s ‘jaadu ki jhappi’!” And the jhappi, we can safely say, never fails, if one keeps at it relentlessly a la Munnabhai. Imagine, it might make it a trifle difficult for a saas to be mean to her bahu who breezes in brightly and delivers a heartfelt hug to her all the time!
Usha Sudhi, an ex-AOL enthusiast says that everybody in her family hugs. “Thanks to my exposure to spiritual organisations, when I hug, I really mean it– I wish the best for the person and transfer this blessing to him/her,” she says. Dr. Mahadevan, president of the Divine Society of Shri Nimishananda Malaysia (DSSNM) says that he hugs people because it is his life’s mission to share the love in his heart with the entire world.
Mata Amritanandamayi or Amma has raised the act of hugging to divine levels. She became famous as the Hugging Saint of India for precisely this reason – till date she has apparently transferred her grace and healing to 20 million people in 40 years by hugging them. She is often known to have hugged 50,000 people in a single day. People queue up for hours to be wrapped up in the bosom of this living saint, with the bonus of a mantra whispered in the ear, and come back for more.
So whether you want to greet a friend or cheer the sick or save a tree, go all out and hug. If you can’t find anyone to hug you, give yourself a ‘me-hug’. Now is the perfect time to shed inhibitions and express your love publicly – the hug is on a roll and there is no stopping it!
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