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When a hug makes headlines

Some political analysts tweeted that the Rahul Gandhi-Narendra Modi hug was a defining moment for the Congress president

Rahul Gandhi gives Prime Minister Narendra Modi a hug during the no-confidence motion in Parliament on Friday. Photo: PTI
Rahul Gandhi gives Prime Minister Narendra Modi a hug during the no-confidence motion in Parliament on Friday. Photo: PTI

Bharatiya Janata Party minister Ananth Kumar called it a ghatna (incident), a television anchor declared it was completely against the spirit of parliamentary democracy, and some political analysts tweeted this was a defining moment for Congress president Rahul Gandhi. They were all reacting to the hug Gandhi gave Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha.

Some powerful stories and images around hugging have been in the news recently.

There was the two-week-long wait for a hug—that might easily not have been—for parents who stood by helplessly as rescuers worked to save their children trapped in a cave in Thailand. And the curly-haired Honduran two-year-old in a red top and matching shoes, whose wailing image came to represent the 2,300 children separated from their parents in April and May and detained in shelters along the US-Mexico border where caregivers are not allowed to hug their wards.

It’s not the first time in recent weeks that a hug has elicited divided reactions.

In which camp were you when you saw Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović hand out cuddly, cosy, extremely maternal embraces to the French and Croatian players after their World Cup final? When her head nestled comfortably on the receiver’s left shoulder, and both arms wound tightly around his neck, did you immediately think, “I’d like one of those please?" Or did you feel awkward/uncomfortable with the length and familiarity of her hugs?

I’m not a big fan of workplace hugs (except if it’s a sports field and you just scored a goal or won Wimbledon), even if your hugs have Oprah Winfrey’s capacity to “end wars, solve world peace", as actor Reese Witherspoon put it earlier this year. But I understand the importance of this rainbow-coloured activity—I’m bringing up my daughter as a hugger.

When a girlfriend recently asked her if it was okay to hug her, she replied matter-of-factly: “Sure, I’m used to it. My mother demands hugs and kisses through the day."

Our best hugs usually occur before I have ingested any caffeine, when the bright little morning person in my life leaps on the bed, flings the entire length of her eight-year-old self on me, holds me tight, and watches as my sleepy hands rise slowly to encircle her and grab her tight. “Stop mama, I can’t breathe," she says and giggles exasperatedly. I release her reluctantly, then I finally open my eyes and look at her. That’s her cue to sit astride me and ask with her most winning smile, “May I take cake to school today?"

Every family has at least half-a-dozen stories about the way they hug. That awkward hug between fathers and sons; the I-better-see-you-soon-all-is-forgiven hug between daughters and mothers; the cousin who won’t let you enter or exit a room until you have hugged her; the grandmother who smells of talcum powder and coconut oil and whom you hug with extra love because her children are not huggers or because you don’t know if you’ll see her again or simply because she is your living history; the I-don’t-want-to-let-you-go hug for those important people in your life whom you meet only once every year or two; that greedy hugger who never lets go before you do; and the poignant story of the family that doesn’t hug.

I mostly have one hugging style—grab and hold—rather than an extensive set of rules encompassing side hugs, half hugs (where only the upper halves of both bodies connect), bend down and surprise him hug or polite, light hugs which are over before they even start.

“Hugging is not a physical act. It’s a feeling that stays with you," says my friend and college student Arushi Thapar. “For me, when I’m away from home, yellow Thai curry or fish curry remind me of my father’s hugs." As children, whenever her dad came home, he would stand in the doorway and say, “Who’s coming to hug papa?" That was the cue for his two daughters to run to him and hold him tightly. That memory comes with a feeling they’ll carry forever.

Lovers’ hugs need a column of their own but at least three deserve special mention. The need of lovers who meet after long and who will only breathe after they have consumed, devoured each other, and for whom a hug is just a gateway to more urgent needs. Later, there will be time for languorous embraces, nestling in each other’s bodies, the lightest caresses.

The comforting warmth of old love, that has survived births, deaths, and the messy innards of everyday living where, sometimes, sleep can break on a hug, as Thom Gunn put it in his poem titled The Hug: Suddenly, from behind, In which the full length of our bodies pressed: Your instep to my heel, My shoulder-blades against your chest. It was not sex, but I could feel The whole strength of your body set, Or braced, to mine, And locking me to you As if we were still twenty-two When our grand passion had not yet Become familial. Fitting perfectly into each other when you hug is an important component of love, if you ask me.

Sometimes, if you must relinquish a love that you know has slipped away even before it can be alerted to your passion, that perfect hug gnaws at your imagination, as in the case of the widow Kamala in Amitabha Bagchi’s new book Half The Night Is Gone: “...she could not throw her arms around his neck and sway like a garland of flowers till her body found the perfect resting place against his, looking up at his beautiful face, drinking in with her eyes that one errant forelock, his intoxicating lips, those long, curved eyelashes, that strong but unassuming nose."

But the hug that holds most value for me is the one when words fail. When someone—friend, family, acquaintance or stranger—who has lost a child or a parent or a partner looks at you, foggy with grief, and you know that the only way to pause their pain for a few seconds is to give them a long, tight hug.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets @priyaramani

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