Save the hugs for now

Social distancing is the new norm; hence physical demonstration of love is verboten now

“Not so hard!” My older daughter reminds me when I hug her too tight. I repeat the same words when my younger one has me in her vice-like grip. We are a family that believes in hugging. We save our kisses for little children. We hug when we meet, part, celebrate, mourn and sometimes for no reason at all. The longer the hug, the more emotional we are in the moment.

And in one fell swoop, the novel coronavirus has snatched away our hugs. What was normal yesterday seems downright irresponsible today. Physical distancing is the new norm, and hugs are now verboten, clubbed with socially unacceptable activities such as coughs and sneezes even at home. In the early onset of the outbreak, when things did not seem catastrophic, I had attended my regular Toastmasters meeting. Nobody was shaking hands and the proposed “elbow bump” seemed strange like an awkward dance move (something that my two left feet objected to vehemently). I resorted to putting my palms together in a namaste, and my fellow Toastmasters, bless their hearts, followed suit.

“Wash your hands, stock up, avoid crowds!” The mantra is repeated by family and friends from across the world. A friend from California emailed me that her local grocery had run out of wheat flour. Her family consumed rotis at every mealtime. That got me taking a hard look at my pantry. I worried if I had enough rice, lentils and spices for the next couple of weeks. Alas, it wasn’t just my friend but all of social media was bombarding me with endless dos and don’ts. Messages ranged from the meaningful, what-to-do to the bizarre. While one thread declared homoeopathy as the magic cure, another proclaimed that garlic will prevent infections. Certainly, the garlic theory would keep other humans away.

My younger daughter who is in graduate school in Boston called every day, presumably to allay our fears rather than hers. She complained about young students attending COVID-19 parties, rather than isolating themselves. I wasn’t sure how to respond. She didn’t wait for me. “What if I can’t see my grandparents this summer,” she whispered as though not wanting to tempt fate.

Even before I could keep up with the change in topic, she asked, “How old is dad?” It appeared that she was as worried about her nearly 60-year-old father as she was about my nonagenarian father. The question was simple yet I sensed it was important that I weigh my reply carefully. The statistics on age groups at risk were not helping.

My daughter is plagued with fears, and if this were just another day, I would have given her a hug and no further response would have been necessary.

Dry hands

Her questions are not just about other people. She continues grilling me every day with “Are you washing your hands?” I almost snap back that my hands are beginning to resemble dried prunes. Growing up in the early 1970s meant following my parents’ diktats on being careful and watching out for every calamity, natural or man-made.

Today, my parents live alone in Chennai. They have always been uncomfortable with physical demonstrations of love. When I call them, my mother who shies away from hugs does not refrain from saying, “I told you so!” Our conversation is peppered with prayers and dietary tips. “Drink lots of green tea,” she says.

We drink tea at all times — after a celebratory meal or to perk up flagging spirits. We love our tea as much as our hugs.

We believe it is a panacea for many of our ailments, real or imaginary. While sipping my umpteenth cup of tea, I look for virtual alternatives to hugging.

And the next time my daughter hugs me tight, I will never complain.


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Printable version | May 26, 2020 6:58:40 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/save-the-hugs-for-now/article31192144.ece

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