politics of the hap

Hugs: A View From India
December 20, 2011, 3:06 pm
Filed under: Happiness | Tags: , , , ,

Amma - India's Hugging Mother

Being in India has caused me to reflect upon the hug in the Indian context.  The hug is a relatively modern addition to Indian etiquette where the Hindu customs of touching the feet, or Namaste – two hands pressed together and bowed head – or the simple handshake are the commonly used means of greeting someone (variable depending on the context). The hug in India is mostly found amongst the younger generation and the socialite set, the Bollywood starlets etc where the hug is adopted as part of a trend or from a desire to adopt Western habits.

The hug is, however, a common greeting in North India amongst all ages. Having lived with a Punjabi family for many years I have attended many functions where I had to greet guests and my right arm barely had rest from embracing multiple backs one after the other.

The idea of free hugs has also been adopted in India, though limited to young people in big cities. A free hugs movement – Free Hugs India – has been set up by Vinit Mehta inspired by Juan Mann’s Free Hug’s campaign. The video below shows Free Hugs being given out in the streets of Mumbai: 

Even A R Rahman – India’s music maestro – was inspired to write a song ‘Jiya Se Jiya’ about the Free Hugs Campaign with an accompanying video.

And indeed India is home to the Hugging Mother, Amma, who is effectively the saint of hugging. Millions from India and abroad journey every year to Amma in Amritapuri to receive a hug from her, a hug that is believed to contain healing or even miraculous qualities. What is perhaps most remarkable about Amma is the  truly indiscriminatory nature of her hugs. Her embrace marks no boundaries between genders, ages, caste or ethnic background.

This is in contrast to how intimacy between men and women male is frowned upon throughout India. The conservatism over male-female contact highlights another of the many paradoxes of India. India is a place where you are constantly being rubbed up against people on public transport and elbowed in the markets; where you will be forced to strip naked in a massage and have all your bodily parts rubbed vigorously but in public (aside from big cities) you cannot show a bare shoulder. In a country where everything is so raw and open; men peeing on every street corner, herds of farm animals sitting/shitting on the highway, litres of mucous and flem being propelled from mouths and noses in every direction, where bodily fluids are so free and unconfined, the shunning (or fear) of intimacy is a curious contradiction.

Though in India, boys and men certainly do not seem to shy away from showing their affection for one another. Everywhere you look boys wander the streets holding hands and grown men embrace one anothers shoulders. This form of male intimacy is bizarre to the western eye, as contact between two men is presumed to have homosexual undertones.

Touch has become so intertwined with sex, almost to the point that touch becomes graphic – it feels invasive to our sense of personal space. Perhaps in a country like India that suffers from over population and where privacy is a luxury, not hugging is a means of defense against the fact people are up in your face all the time. Whereas the West adopted the hug as a way to free individuals from the cold, unfriendly nature of modern life, in India hugs are almost unnecessary – at least not a requirement to prove oneself as an emotionally mature person. When life is lived out in the open there is nothing left to hide, or to be freed from. Or at least what is deemed as necessary to individual well-being may be far more immediate and essential than a hug.

The meaning of the hug is still controversial in India. But this leaves the hug in an ambiguous space that allows possibility for the hug to become more than merely a social obligation. India has the foresight to see the hug is not a remedy to the world’s ills. This could be due to the fact that individual subjectivity is considered differently than the ‘I’ centred self prominent in the West. The hug is something to be desired when one’s sense of self is constructed in competition with others, when the self is only after satisfying one’s own interests. Yet when the self is considered as one of many, the self is always tied to others, so there is no need to demonstrate closeness – (closeness is always there).

But as India continues to develop rapidly into a capitalist power it may not be long before we see the spread of an individual centred self – no doubt already prevalent in India’s cities. In turn India may then undergo a similar process of emancipation from emotional and psychological repression as experienced in the West and the hug, along with cognitive behavioral therapy and happiness babble, will rise in popularity, falsely promising to liberate the Indian population from their psychological misery and relieve them of their craving for intimacy.

Regrettably as a consequence this may cause India to lose its delightfully grotesque openness and boundaries will be placed on desires; eradicating India’s contradictions leaving only formality and a one-dimensional sense of self in its place.


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