The Namaste Returns

When international travellers did the namaste, we Indians tried to shake hands with them. No longer so

Usha Rajagopalan Updated: Jun 19, 2020 20:50:40 IST
The Namaste Returns Photo: Shutterstock

A namaste, I used to think, was a hotline to God. As a child, looking up at the folded hands of my parents and of the adults standing across, held back by the gleaming brass barricade from the doorway of the temple sanctum sanctorum, how could I think otherwise? Then and now, everybody except me, would be the perfect picture of piety. Some would mutter under their breath, open their eyes and look towards the idol with upturned palms as if to reinforce their prayer. Others would be lost in a trance and stand like statues until the priest’s assistant sounded the big metal bell to bring everyone back to earth for arati. All hands would be together while the main priest waved the lamp before the idol, his deft rotation making the little flames dance.

I could never make such a deep connection with the divine because my eyelids would always flicker and fingers twitch. In my early years, I was ignored as too young and thus spared the embarrassment of receiving or reciprocating any respectful gesture. Entering my 20s, I was sure I didn’t want to belittle myself by supplicating to another human, whoever it may be, with folded hands. By the time I corrected my misplaced arrogance, this namaskar was replaced with a smile, a nod or a handshake.

Only our politicians and international visitors, who read up about our tradition and customs before leaving their homes, continue with the namaste. They first prefer to hold their hands high in the air and turn around so that their greeting would fall on all their followers.

shutterstock_1754977040_061920082450.jpgIs the namaste here to stay? Only time will tell. (Photo: Shutterstock)

International visitors occasionally throw in a head bow as well. This is how they miss the native’s stretched out hand. Embarrassed with this reminder, I would quickly withdraw mine to do a namaste, when they would remember that they were in modern India and offer theirs. Laughing at our clumsiness, we would get on with the catching up, hands firmly on the side.

With the world shrinking, the handshake combined with a hug. Even our leaders have taken to this hug and pat-the-back routine, especially when on foreign soil. It shows that they are with the times. If they are not careful though, the hug could become an awkward body embrace that would get commented upon by the press and social media.

But, the clock has now turned back with the COVID-19 pandemic and an emphasis on social distancing. Everyone and their doctors, all over the world, are trying to avoid physical contact. This is best done by greeting people with folded hands from a safe distance.

Our humble namaste has united the world.

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