The younger cousins bent down and touched my feet as their hands then quickly touched the middle of their foreheads and then made a swift move towards the center of their chests. It is very similar to the sign of the cross only there is no Holy Spirit gesture. All four of them did this, one by one, gracefully, naturally, with no apprehension. It’s a common Indian etiquette. Delicate. Beautiful. Divine. Unfortunately, I didn’t always perceive it this way. The first time I was introduced to this common Indian gesture was through a conversation with my husband.
He was lying down on our sofa as his legs and feet rested on my lap. “It’s a sign of respect for the elders,” he said. People are inoculated with this custom as kids. Many children are expected to greet their parents this way in the mornings and before going to bed in the evenings. “It’s the way I always greet my parents after not seeing them for so long.” He looked up at the ceiling as if regressing back to some secret memory he shared with them. I let him escape on his own. I’m not a fan of disturbing those in the middle of a thought or while recollecting a memory long forgotten. Sometimes we need to get lost in those memories, to preserve some sanity. I looked at him admiring his high standards of decorum.“How do you greet your mother?” He asked as he got up and poured us some more wine. He returned. I guess he wasn’t that far away. “I give her a hug and a kiss.” There’s nothing really special about our hello as far as making a marked distinction between generations. We hug and kiss anyone and just about everyone. Parents, Grandparents, Siblings, Friends, even absolute strangers. It’s a co-ed thing as well. Men hug and kiss women and women in return hug and kiss men. There is no gender or age divide here when it comes to that at least. It’s a sign of affection more than respect. Perhaps affection and respect can be interchangeable in this case. I’m not sure. “Show me,” he says with his boy-like smirk. I walked towards the edge of our sofa where he stood ready to learn how people can invade other people’s space with such ease. I got on my toes (we’re talking about a man who is 6’1) and placed my cheek against his, put my lips together and kissed the air. “What’s the noise your lips just made?” he asked a bit dumbfounded but still with as much intrigue. We went on for several minutes as he practiced his much awkward hug and kiss on me. “Here’s a tip,” I said trying hard not to laugh, “Be subtle when you stick out your butt. It’s a hug and a kiss. Not sex.”
I took another sip of the Cotes du Rhone as we both remained standing, smiling. “I’m going to suck at this. I just know it.” “Well, why don’t you teach me how you touch people’s feet and then perhaps we can both suck together,” I said, trying to console him as he gets lost in what he perceived as a future flop. (His fear stems from several months ago, while meeting a friend of mine, he placed his wet lips right smack on her cheek. He felt disgusted and needless to say he was humiliated. My friend and I laughed it off as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hands.)
“What do you mean? Just touch the person’s feet,” he said as if this was not the obvious part to me. That much I understood. What puzzled me was how this is done? For all I knew, these people were going to swing their feet up in the air. Did they have to be seated first? If so, if there is a man and a woman who gets to have their feet touched first? Do I kneel down on both knees? Was it one foot at a time? Both feet simultaneously? Was it a brushing of the hands to the feet or was it my entire hand, meaning my fingers and palm wrapped around their feet for a certain duration which would then proceed by a nod from them letting me know, ok, times up, you may go now. I was very confused by this and no, I have never seen it in any movie either. So you can safely conclude I was sadly ignorant to the entire concept.
He was laughing by this point, those deep heartfelt chuckles. The one where your breathing stops for sometime, your mouth is wide open, and your stomach hurts. I’m glad he found my questions amusing. “You’re a horrible teacher. Teachers are not supposed to laugh at their students. It can cause irreparable self-esteem issues.” I gave him a soft nudge with my elbow as he placed his hands on his stomach, “Ok. Ok,” catching his breath, “Let me show you. There really is nothing to it.” He bends down and barely touches my feet, as the same hand met his forehead and lastly his chest. “That’s it? ” I asked somewhat perplexed. “You barely even touched my feet.” I felt cheated. I expected some high almighty ceremony, something of grandeur. If you sneezed, you would have missed it. “Yes that’s all there is to it. Now you give it a try.” I was looking at him nervously now. I looked down at his feet and then back up at him while his boy-like smirk gave me that extra vote of confidence. I bent down in haste, hand to the forehead, then chest and ta-da. Steps 1, 2, and 3 were done. I did it. – And although that may sound like a feat, I felt like an absolute idiot. When you take someone out of his or her comfort zone, it takes a while to acclimate. It takes time for the behavior engaged in to process in your mind and then there’s another step. Your mind then has to analyze the behavior. Is this normal? Can I actually touch people’s feet? I loathe feet. I associate feet with odor and sweat. In a nutshell, they disgust me, unless you’re my sister. She has the cutest feet in the world. “I don’t think I can do it, “ I said with undisguised dread. Me touch feet? No way. He responds with calmness, “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”
I wish we didn’t have to learn our lessons in retrospect, but damn what a great teacher Hindsight can be. If only though we had more foresight or at least applied it more often to our daily lives. Perhaps then we wouldn’t have to feel so crappy about ourselves when we flip through those dusty pages of our past.
I was in and out of sleep on the plane to Raipur and my conscience was digging through my memory bank until it reached the night we spoke about the first lesson in manners all children in India are taught. There was something unsettling for me as my thoughts took a long pause on that particular night. It was like a film I was watching in my mind. It was our last flight for the next couple of days. My husband was asleep next to me. The contours of his face reflected peace and I envied him for that. I have to take a fistful of Valium so I can duplicate that level of tranquility. I shifted my body weight from one butt cheek to another and stretched one leg across my husbands lap. I had traveler’s fatigue. I wanted to sleep in a bed and place my head against a pillow. I missed my sister as she had arrived on a much earlier flight than we. I was concerned about her too. She was feeling ill, and I desperately wanted to be by her side. Was it the big sister instinct that was troubling me?
We arrived at Raipur airport on time. It was evening and I was experiencing a mixture of emotions. Rarely does one ever experience just one emotion. Right? First it was anxiety due to my phobia of flying, which the Valium tends to wane off a bit and then a combination of the following: mental and physical exhaustion, unease as I was about to immerse myself blindly into foreign land and customs. In addition, let us not forget I was an Indian Bride and with that came a lot of responsibilities. I was accountable for the name of this family. I knew that much going in. I also knew I was going to be under microscopic lens for the next five days and I didn’t even know where to begin. I was snapped out of my thoughts when from a far I saw two figures waving frantically. My husband and I looked at each other with a warm smile and we knew it was Maa and Baba. They were like two kids who caught a glimpse of Mr. and Mrs. Clause. We eagerly started waving our hands, with big smiles and as we started to get closer to them (yes it was a lengthy walk) I leaned in to my husband and whispered, “I’ll touch your parents feet.” He looked at me startled as the boy-like smile gradually forms across his lips. He squeezed my hand and picked up the pace. “Of course, you’ll have to take the lead,” I said jokingly as we both kneeled down to pay our respects.