On a recent trip to Bangkok I couldn’t help but be struck by how gracefully the Thais greet their visitors. No matter where you go, everyone always bows down graciously in a wai – their version of our Namaste – palms pressed together as they dip slightly from the waist. Checking into a hotel, shopping at a department store, visiting a tourist site, no matter where you go, you can see Thais performing their wais as a matter of course.
There is such charm and inherent grace in the gesture that it made me feel quite nostalgic for the times when the Namaste (or Namaskar) used to be the common way to greet family, friends and even strangers in India. Growing up, whenever we had guests at home, a Namaste was always the standard greeting. And even though as children we didn’t understand what it signified – the word in Sanskrit roughly transliterates as “I bow to the divinity in you which is also within me” – in retrospect it was the perfect salutation to bestow to anyone.
Which is why it makes me so sad to see that we – the proud citizens of urban India – have jettisoned the Namaste in both our personal and professional lives. We have cheerfully abandoned that traditional greeting in favour of the more modern Hi or Hello. The poor, forgotten Namaste is only pulled out on rare occasions like a family wedding when you have to greet the in-laws. And in the world of business we prefer to shake hands with the person we are meeting instead of folding our hands together in the more traditional way.
About the only people who still use the Namaste on a regular basis are our netas and the employees of five-star hotels. And I have a sneaking suspicion that both groups embrace the gesture as a nod to political correctness – and happily junk it once they’re no longer on public display.
Well, more’s the pity. I, for one, can’t think of a more gracious, or even graceful, way to greet people. The gesture has a certain old-world charm to it. On a more practical note, it is the perfect way to avoid shaking the clammy, sweaty hands of people in our tropical climate – or ducking all those social kisses that are flying around with a vengeance these days.
So, rather than restrict the use of the Namaste to the most formal occasions, wouldn’t it be great if we used it routinely in our lives as a way to reclaim our Indian identity?
In fact, now that I think about it, there are several other ‘Indian’ traits that I would love to see make a comeback.
The first among those is our tradition of taking our shoes off whenever we enter someone’s house so that we don’t carry the dirt and the muck of the outside indoors. Nobody does that any more and how I wish they would! Never more so than when I can see big great dirt marks being tracked on to my pristine pastel carpet – and can’t say or do anything about it for fear of seeming impolite.
Sometimes when the scent of aromatic candles tends to overwhelm me in the drawing rooms of my resolutely trendy friends, I wonder what happened to our love for the home-grown agarbatti. It has been pretty much relegated to the puja room, its use being considered somewhat infra dig in the rest of the house. But hey, it can perfume a room just as well, and sometimes even more effectively.
And then, there’s the small matter of flowers. For some reason, our traditional Indian blooms are quite out of fashion these days. Never mind the humble marigold, nobody is even interested in the aromatic chameli which can scent the very air we breathe with its subtle fragrance. Instead we flood our rooms with exotic flowers flown in from foreign shores, even if they don’t look or smell half as good.
Over the years, we have abandoned many of our Indian traditions and ways as we tried to embrace the modern world and conquer it. But now that we have established ourselves as full-fledged citizens of a global superpower, there can be no shame in reclaiming our Indian heritage as our own.
So, how about we start with the humble Namaste and then take it from there? And please, no letters about how this is a ‘Hindu’ greeting and how we shouldn’t impose it on other religions. The Namaste may have its origins in Sanskrit but it is now a cultural rather than religious construct. It is universally recognised as an Indian greeting and there is no reason why all of us can’t embrace it.
After all, when it comes to recognising the divinity that lies within each of us, why should it matter which God we pray to?