If there is one thing that defines the innate Tam-ness in me, it is my utter reluctance to publicly hug anyone. You won’t see people folding each other in bear hugs at family gatherings. Usually a beaming smile does the trick. Or if you are quite overcome, then a clasping of hands. An exceptional few can give a sideways hug. But a full-frontal hugassault, complete with planting of kisses on the cheeks is usually left to really old grandmothers.
Of course, there were hugs and kisses aplenty when we were kids. But at some point in time, as we morphed into adults, body contact also became quite limited.
This, compounded with my own personal preference to not invade each other’s body space, meant that I was not prepared in anyway for the north-of-Vindya’s style of greeting people.
A bunch of us from B-School had started getting quite friendly with each other and commemorated it with a meal at a nearby low-budget restaurant. Someone had gotten along a camera to celebrate the occasion and we huddled closer together to fit into the frame. One second, there was I was standing without touching anyone and the next second a friend had me encased in a sideways hug. When the photograph was developed (yes, it was before the ubiquitous digital cameras), the look on my face said it all.
There were occasions when I sensed that some of my Delhi-friends (who seemed to greet even a relative stranger with all-encompassing hugs) were actually getting withdrawal symptoms from having to hold back the hugs.
Over time, I became a bit more relaxed about this strange cultural phenomenon. With friends, it became perfectly natural to greet someone with a hug. And the longer one had gone without seeing a friend, the longer the hug lasted.
Finally I had unlearnt the Tam hugging-etiquette.
Or so I thought, till I began working with a bunch of Europeans.
If American companies taught you all about firm handshakes, the Europeans taught you all about a quick hug and kisses on both cheeks. Of course, one did not do that with perfect strangers/business acquaintances or clients. However, if you had been working with someone for a really long time and got along very well with them on a personal level, then this little ritual was considered quite normal.
My first hint of this happened on a business trip overseas, where a colleague grabbed me and blew what seemed like a never-ending series of air kisses near both ears with a ‘happy new year’. My startled deer-caught-in-the-headlights look did not help matters at all.
So now only was I meant to hug people, I was also supposed to lean in and make these kissing noises near their ears. Besides these were friendly acquaitances, as opposed to friends. The latter you really don't mind hugging after a while.
This was only getting worse and worse.
Frankly, on grounds of hygiene, I much prefer the traditional folding of hands greeting. One did not have to worry about spreading germs with needless hand contact. Still, when in Rome do as the Romans do.
So the next time, I decided to go on the offensive. A chance run-in into a colleague’s wife provided an opportunity to do the air kiss ritual. I went for the hug, leaned in and began the air kisses. Except she withdrew after a couple and my pursed lips were still hovering in the air ready for the third air kiss. One can look pretty foolish and pretentious doing this on Mumbai’s streets.
Time had come to observe when to stop with the air kisses, the way kids learnt when to stop with the ‘na’ while spelling ‘banana’. Careful observation showed that two usually did the trick. The most important thing was to hold the other person in a vice grip till you were done so you would not look terribly foolish with the pursed-lips-in-vacant-air look if the other person withdrew.
This does not mean that I have tried going on the offensive again. I have learnt my lesson and have decided to go back to my old way of only reciprocating these hugs. But atleast now I know how not to look like a jackass while doing the new ritual.
Here is to hoping this is how much I will have to learn about hugging in the name of social etiquette.