The ambush hug
What the full body embrace conveys
By: Ruchir Joshi
One can think of a hug as a floating signifier. There are different kinds of hugs, and these varied human embracements have differing meanings in different societies, meanings which are further complicated when you attach them to the parallel and overlapping vernaculars of the handshake and the formal kiss.
We are introduced to the full body embrace as babies, when parents and other grown-ups and older siblings hug the baby that we are. The baby doesn’t give permission to be hugged, the licence is just taken, and that is one of the defining characteristics of babyhood – it’s the time of your life when you can be hugged by all sorts of people who don’t feel the need to ask for consent. However, babies give or withhold consent in their own (quite universal) language: if they like you they hug you back, if not they turn away, squirm with vim and vigour and howl in outrage at the invasion of their bodily space. At some point the baby learns that the hug can be quite a good thing, bringing endorphinous and other more material rewards (food, sweets, toys) and they start to initiate the manoeuvre themselves. At some point, in many societies but not all, the act of hugging begins to bifurcate according to gender, that is, males hug males in a different way from how females hug females and how females and males hug each other.
Anthropologically we are taught that a hug is both an attack and an invitation, but in this the caveat is that the action is mutually initiated and fulfilled; as you come towards me (attack), I open my arms to receive your body (invitation), but I am also hurtling slowly towards you (attack), and your open arms (invitation). We see this hug-binary in other animals as well, apes of all sorts, penguins, and even dogs and cats. In homo sapiens the hug is also a means of physical interrogation; the open arms usually go with empty, open hands that provide proof that no weapons are being carried; the opening up of oneself to possible deadly assault by the other is a non-verbal way of conveying ‘I trust you fully’ as well as ‘I also expect you to trust me fully’. Besides conveying love, affection or friendship, the aim of the hug then can also be an establishment of this sixty-nining, this yin-yanging, this dovetailing of trust.
Obviously languages use different words for a hug or a full or upper body embrace. In Gujarati, for example, two words stand out, each with a slightly different meaning. The verb ‘ bhetvu’ means to hug, as in ‘ey loko bhetya’, the two of them hugged or embraced. Alternatively, the word ‘ baajhvu’ means to grab-hug, not necessarily with prior consent, literally to throw yourself at someone and cling on to them, as in ‘ey jaii ney Obama ney baajhi valgyo’, he went and wrapped himself around Obama. As opposed to the consensual, potentially happy-making embrace of bhetvu, tigers and illnesses also baajh-o you, the former obviously momentarily, while the latter could be more insidiously long-term. Or you could cling on to a social creed, ‘ey Manuvad ney baajhi rahyo’, he clung on to Manuvad.
Other words and phrases overlap. The Hindi-Urdu ‘ galey lagna’ is also found in Gujarati, ‘galey laagvu’, and ‘ alingan’, which in Bangla apparently has no carnal overtones but in Gujarati denotes passionate embrace. Then there is the Bangla ‘joriye dhora’ the meaning-needle of which pauses somewhere between a mutually welcome hug and the aforementioned baajhvu from Gujarati. Then, of course, there is the Bangla ‘kolakuli’, a neck-based ritual hug that is repeated, deployed by people around Bijoya, and around the year by bauls, Vaishnavs and fakirs.
Whatever label we put on the act at different moments, the hug has mutated and multiplied down the ages in strange ways. For instance, there are two very different examples of what one could call the ‘anti-hug’, meaning a hug that deletes itself even as it is happening. In middle-class India many men will avoid hugging women and older girls frontally; this leads to what one calls the side-hug involving an arm around (usually the female’s) shoulder and full side body contact while displaying to the world and its cameras that no unseemly exchange can take place. In the West, there is what I call the ‘California hug’ (though it might well have originated in New York City) where people will lean forward from the waist, as if out of two passing trains, leaving enough of a gap between their bodies for a scooter to go through, and entwine their arms around each other’s necks, careful not to smudge make-up or upset hair-do. In France, the male embrace is minimized to the face and it is de rigueur for men to kiss, whether they are political leaders or the manager and star player of a football team that has just won the World Cup. In Britain, however, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove would both rather re-join Europe than be caught kissing each other in such a manner. In terms of kiss-hugs between male politicians, the most famous one is of course the lip-smack between Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union and Erich Honecker of the German Democratic Republic, the image of that embrace became iconic both as a decal of the intertwined fascisms of Soviet Russia and East Germany and a bit later as a coffin emblem of the collapsed Warsaw Pact dictatorships.
Sitting where I am, the clips of the most recent political hug to make the headlines in India come to me through strange gateways. An ad unfurls as I click on a link: a close-up of a slab of meat sizzling on a pan, a super-imposed text, ‘Every Tesco steak is matured at least 21 days for tenderness’, a tighter close-up of a dab of fat falling off the side of the beef, ‘No one is watching. You can lick the screen’, immediately followed by Mr Narendra Modi’s glistening face as he rails at Mr Rahul Gandhi for having tried to uproot him from his prime minister’s chair. Another commercial, followed by Mr Gandhi’s trek across to the treasury benches, the ambush hug, Mr Modi’s startled face, the back and forth, inadvertent kolakuli of hands, and then the two men parting, the shocked hubbub of the MPs in the background. There is the Congress leader’s speech, quite sharp, but then there is also the post-hug wink, jejune and schoolboyish. There is Narendra Modi’s startled face, his obvious discomfort at having to swallow his own medicine of aggressive, uninvited hug-attacks and then his churlish comeback about it needing 125 crore Indians to put him in the prime ministerial chair or eject him from it, as if every man, woman and child in the country had voted for him in 2014.
Was the hug an immature act that broke parliamentary decorum and insulted the dignity of the prime minister? Hardly. The Lok Sabha has seen far more indecorous scenes. As for grace and dignity, these are far from being Mr Modi’s strong points, a fact further proven by his gestures about Rahul Gandhi’s wink and by his attempt to mimic Sonia Gandhi’s Italian accent in his riposte to Mr Gandhi’s speech and post-speech actions. Was the hug then a political master stroke? Far from it. It did win this round of the battle of the optics around the otherwise doomed no-confidence motion, it did demonstrate that it’s good to have no fear when confronting or surprising Mr Modi and his colleagues, but it will take a lot more than one physical jumla to overturn the BJP-RSS’s election rath. How does one then look at this moment? Well, one could look at it as a kind of embrace between two unattached men, both of whom, if they were truthful, would fill in the gender preference slot in any form with the same words: ‘Prime Minister’s Office’.