To Fold or Not To Fold – One’s Conundrum in Saying ‘Namaste’

As a researcher working in the interface of environment and society, I had to interact with people to collect data during my fieldwork. To initiate any conversation with a new person in the field, I used to introduce myself with the folded hand gesture to say ‘namaste’ (vanakkam in Tamil). I did that by thinking that the folded hand gesture would give me an easy approach to people. Beyond that, it was the generic idea embedded in our mind that it is a common thing to do when we meet someone, as well as the sense of ‘Indian-ness attached to the word ‘namaste’ and the concomitant folded hand gesture.

With the ongoing pandemic, the folded hand gesture has moved beyond its geographical limitation as Indian or South Asian tradition and become universal as the perfect pandemic greeting. At the same time, this gesture enjoys reverence among the international community for the embedded ‘Indian-ness’ in it, thereby invoking a refreshed enthusiasm among the masses in India.

I continued to use the folded hand gesture for my introduction in the field until I met Balaji, a Dalit pastoralist, living in a village near a private university that funded the research project I was involved in. When I did the folded hands gesture initially and said vanakkam, he replied politely, “You people should not fold hands in front of us.’

Over time, I also noticed that people in the field are a bit restless, reserved (but not strikingly shocked) when I made the folded hand gesture to say ‘vanakkam’ or ‘nandri’ (thank you). When I brought it up over a breakfast conversation among our colleagues at the university, different intricacies behind the gesture came to light.

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Some discussed the traditional values and religious connotations that are embedded in the folded hand gesture, thereby reflecting the popular perception of ‘Indian-ness’ in it. Some speculated that the reason for such hesitation among people in the field would be due to their position in the persisting caste structure in the village. Because people from the lower caste are expected to fold hands in front of the upper caste historically and this might be the reason for them denying us doing the folded hand gesture.

Also, this can be an act of resistance – them saying that they don’t want to fold hands in front of others. For some, the former might seem like a relic of the past, but in many places, it is very much a reality of the present; and the latter entails a sense of empowerment in a way that they don’t want to fold hands in front of anyone. No matter the reason, it was clear that people in the field are not comfortable with me doing the folded hand gesture. When we asked Balaji, how should I then address him, he replied with a smile and said, “Just wave, that’s enough.”

Where the folded hand gesture entails different meanings and symbolisms for different people/places cutting across the caste and class factors in India, waving in its simplest form here expresses one’s sense of an approach to the other initially, and later over time, it embodies the sense of familiarity and acknowledgement towards each other.

There is a need to contextualise and historicise such symbolisms. And forming an opinion that the folding hand is kind of an Indian thing to do is again homogenising these nuances without considering the embedded social intricacies and power hierarchies. In short, waving makes it simple and informal, and as Balaji said, “That’s enough.”

Vadivel Chinnadurai is an independent researcher working at the interface of Environment, Society and Development.

Featured Image: Interacting with Balaji on a sunny day in an open pasture/Ovee Thorat