Bye handshake, Hi ‘namaste’!

The painful truth about one of the most globally popular and handy forms of greeting is that it can be rather painful and handsy if administered too earnestly.

Updated - August 01, 2020 01:28 am IST

Published - July 31, 2020 11:43 pm IST

Even before the coronavirus showed us that a handshake could lead to a knotty health situation, the greeting has been a naughty slap on many an unsuspecting victim’s face.

Even before the coronavirus showed us that a handshake could lead to a knotty health situation, the greeting has been a naughty slap on many an unsuspecting victim’s face.

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Thanks to COVID-19 and the need for social distancing, the ‘namaste’ has slowly but surely supplanted the handshake as the accepted form of social greeting. Just as well as far as I’m concerned for my scrawny fingers have endured handshakes that are much heartier than necessary for far too long.

No doubt the vigour and forcefulness of some handshakes are determined by the mood of the moment. Jollity and merriment do sometimes spur one to be unintentionally (and impulsively) punishing with one’s handshake. However, the really punitive handshake that seems to come naturally to the well-built defies rational explanation. Is it an unconscious demonstration of strength and physical superiority? Nevertheless, shaking hands when one meets someone has been considered a time-honoured civility until recently. Now that the coronavirus is known to be transmitted through manual contact, the traditional ‘namaste’ has received a much-needed shot in the arm while the ever popular handshake has been dealt the coup de grace.

Why did we shake hands in the first place? Presumably because shaking legs isn’t socially acceptable and our trotters aren’t prehensile. And how did the handshake originate? Maybe it was prehistoric man’s way of ensuring that the stranger he was meeting didn’t try to clobber him; clasping his hand firmly prevented this.

The handshake, of course, has a variety of practitioners who are all too annoyingly familiar to us — the palm-crusher, the arm-loosener, the hand-fondler, the finger-squeezer et al. Some naively interpret a handshake far too literally: a vigorous shaking of one’s hand as if to loosen it from its moorings!

Of course, no one likes to have his palm and digits kneaded like dough by a well-meaning but hard-gripping greeter who fancies he’s squeezing a resilient tennis ball while amiably chatting with you. Indeed, sometimes a handshake is so effusively crushing that it leaves one’s palm numb and one wincing inwardly — while the greeter remains blissfully unaware of one’s discomfort.

Some of my former British bosses were strapping, sausage-fingered six-footers with a vice-like grip for a handshake that sometimes left me literally ‘wringing’ life back into my benumbed fingers after they’d gone. Many a time I had to manfully mask my grimace with a grin as I endured this unwelcome constriction. To me it did seem a mild form of corporal punishment — quite undeserved and unwarranted. But, of course, one couldn’t stand up to one’s boss with impunity; so one just had to stoically grin and bear it.

Then there was Cliff Rice, an American zoologist I knew in the 1980s. A giant of a man, the vigour of his handshake was directly linked to the cheerfulness of his mood — the more effervescent he was, the more punishing was his well-intentioned handshake. Some felt it would be easier to wrench one’s hand out of a crocodile’s jaws than his iron-fisted grip. Once introduced to him, few willingly chose to shake hands with him again, prudently opting for the harmless ‘namaste’ instead. As one of his ‘victims’ wryly observed, “Cliff’s handshake would certainly come in handy as a tourniquet!” Indeed, I was once sorely tempted to wisecrack, “You’re not pumping my hand, buddy. You’re pulverising it!”



Incidentally, I’ve been fortunate to meet Ratan Tata, the patriarch of the Tata conglomerate, on a few occasions. A simple and unassuming man, his hand clasp remains warmly firm despite advancing years. Several years ago, I met Rajnikanth, the dashing Tamil superstar, for the first time. I haven’t met him since then but I still remember his urbane manner and surprisingly gentle handshake that did belie his onscreen image of a swashbuckling hero who bashes up hoodlums!

I also recall an amusing incident from my schooldays involving a handshake. At a prize-distribution function in our school, a venerable retired judge was the chief guest. As he stooped to congratulate and hand over a prize to a winner, his drooping necktie got caught in their hearty handshake. The excited boy reciprocated the warmth and vigour of the elder’s clasp. In the process he unwittingly yanked the judge’s necktie again and again before he finally realised what he was doing! A flurry of apologies soon followed from the boy and the principal.

Then in the 1970s, I remember having seen an English movie, a nail-biting spy thriller, where a Russian agent deftly passes on a micro-tape (containing vital military intelligence) to an accomplice through an innocuous-looking handshake even as American anti-espionage agents keep him under their scrutiny!

Now who ever imagined that the ever popular handshake — the universal symbol of amiability and friendship — would be blacklisted one day as the transmitter of a deadly virus? It was an internationally accepted and widely practised mode of social introduction and interaction. True, now and then it did unconsciously (and unintentionally) turn into a refined form of ‘arm-twisting’ or ‘arm-wrestling’ in the hands of the ebullient.

And talking of wrestling, perhaps one way to rid a palm-crusher of his addiction would be to introduce him to one of those gigantic WWF wrestlers whose bone-crushing stunts we see on TV. Such an introduction will probably leave the palm-gripper wringing his own hands for a change instead of someone else’s!

As for me, should the banned handshake ever stage a come-back, I’ve got an ace up my sleeve to counter its over-exuberant practitioners. When I’m due to meet one, I’m going to grease my own palm (for a change!) quite literally and liberally. Thus, besides disconcerting and disarming my greeter, I’ll be able to slip out of his grasp unscathed!

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