Sorry but our hands are tied

Here in Chickasaw County, a deal ain’t done until the two parties have shook hands. Even after all that paper signing… It don’t mean shit if you don’t shake my hand.” Mississippi slave owner Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DeCaprio in Django Unchained, spoke his mind out while sealing a deal. But that ain’t a pandemic time.
In 2020, Candie could have been beaten up for demanding a handshake that has been forsaken globally all thanks to the new strain of corona virus. It is advisable not to touch any individual, stranger or otherwise, if we have to stop the virus from spreading.
Though handshake is not a norm in most parts of India, it is the way of greeting in the North East, including Meghalaya. Shaking hands, hugging and cheek kiss are the common ways of greeting each other and now these are off the list. But it is easier said than done as old habits cannot be discarded so abruptly.
“It feels different and empty,” was what Roikupar Mawrie had to say. He is not the only person to feel the void. Most of the people whom Sunday Shillong spoke to shared Mawrie’s emptiness.
“It is true that people here have a predilection for handshake and it is not easy to overcome it but the situation demands that we follow safety protocols, one of which is no handshaking,” said 19-year-old Mawrie, who lives in Laitkor.
Handshake is centuries-old custom that originated in Europe. It is believed that the gesture started as a way of conveying peace and friendly intentions. The mention of handshake is also found in Greek poet Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. With time, the formal handshake has evolved into other informal gestures.
In today’s world, handshake is essential after sealing diplomatic, defense or business deals. Strangers shake hands to the new friendship or acquaintance, friends shake hands and hug as a gesture of love and sportsmen do the same in good spirit.
Besides the common board room handshake, bone crusher shake, wet fish shake, lobster claw, a peck on the cheek, high five, a bear hug and a hug-and-kiss are some of the other ways to greet loved ones.
Sadly, these gestures of love and camaraderie have stopped. Even our prime minister had to give up his bear hug. Somewhere in Japan, Shinzo Abe must be regretting why the pandemic did not hit before February 2017 while bitterly remembering Donald Trump’s 19-second handshake, or rather torture. Sometimes things might get out of hand during handshaking but that is not important.
Shillongites are definitely missing the custom and many confessed that they often forget about the pandemic.
Margaret Soanes, who runs a toy shop in Laitumkhrah, was fumbling for words when asked how she felt without the usual greeting custom. “I do not know what to say. It feels different but what can we do,” she smiled.
Some women told Sunday Shillong on condition of anonymity that they still practise the old custom of hugging and peck on the cheek “but strictly with the closest friends and family members”.
“Due to the lockdown, I could not meet my best friend and the closest cousins. After the restrictions were eased, we planned to meet and the emotions were running high. How could I have withheld myself from giving a big hug to them,” said a 26-year-old professional. The emotions were still oozing from her animated expressions.
Arang Awung Chihui and his friends try to avoid high-fives and resort to a wave or “hello” for greeting. “Sometimes it (handshake and high-five) happens but definitely not with strangers,” said the 22-year-old student from Ukhrul.
This is not the first time that the age-old practice of handshake or any form of greeting that involves physical contact has taken a beating. Every time the world faced a health crisis owing to a highly contagious virus, citizens were asked to control their emotions. The practice of la bise, a customary French greeting by pecking on both cheeks, believed to have stopped in 14th century after the occurrence of a severe plague and it did not start again until 400 years later, after the French Revolution.

Again in 2009, la bise was temporarily stopped owing to swine flu. By February end this year, the peck-on-cheek was again stopped as coronavirus cases increased in the country. In fact, all western countries are abstaining from this custom and handshake too. The desi ‘namaste’ is now the popular practice. A bow, like in South Korea, is also an option.
“We do not find the change abrupt as our way of greeting, even here, has always been namaste,” said Swami Purnobratananda of Bharat Sevasram Sangha.
The custom of namaste is practised not only in India but other south-east Asian countries like Cambodia and Thailand.
In Meghalaya, more citizens are becoming aware of the dangers of physical contact in the time of pandemic. Even public figures here are diligently following the ‘no-touch’ norm. Many of them fold their hands and say apologetically, “Sorry, now no handshake, only namaste.”
WR Kharlukhi, a public figure, strictly avoids handshakes and advises others to do so. “I never extend my hand even forgetfully. But when I won the Rajya Sabha election, all my colleagues came and hugged me and well, how could I stop them,” he laughed.
Some like Clarence Kharshiing do not want to worry all the time. Even if someone shakes their hands by mistake, they make sure they use sanitiser thereafter.

“I cannot help because I have to deal with customers. So I strictly follow the sanitising procedure. More than the infection, I am worried about my business that has been terribly affected and there is no chance of revival this year. I started the shop only last August and now I do not know how to pay my loan,” Kharshiing, the young shoe-shop owner with bright eyes, said with a meek smile.
Handshake is only a negligible part of the great loss that the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have caused. Small-time traders across India are finding it extremely difficult to survive even as markets have been opened. But as we speak about the human connect today and keep the economic tribulations aside, it is in no way to belittle the troubles of thousands of people in the country.
In the sports world too, the team spirit expressed through hugging, firm handshakes or a handshake-and-peck is missing. Several sports enthusiasts admitted that “the mood of the game will not be the same, at least not till a vaccine is found”.
Chihui, like many others, does not like the change but he is hopeful that the custom is not going to die with the pandemic. “This is temporary and none will forget the old custom of handshake. Once we find a solution to this healthcare problem, the good old handshake and hug will be popular again,” he said.
There is nothing that we can do till the pandemic ends. So let’s just hope that handshake does not meet the fate of la bise and take 400 years before it is revived.

~ NM

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