As a south Indian, I am used to paying respect to elders by falling at their feet; but the action is ritualised and happens typically inside the home and only on certain occasions — at least in our family. At public places, showing respect by touching the feet is something that I am not used to; hence, it always comes as a surprise to me here in Delhi when I see, for example, in railway stations and corridors — and once even in the Institute — after the final exams, the students thanked the teacher and took leave by touching his feet. RKN, in his My Days, if I remember correct, takes objections to even such displays in the private arena of home leave alone public places.
In the latest column in The Telegraph, Ramachandra Guha writes about the practice (By the way, why is Ram Guha so coy in mentioning the name of what I take to be Amitav Ghosh?):
This is how the story continued, recalled from a distance of 15 years in what I hope is a fair approximation of Sham Lal’s own words:
“I walked towards the cottage. The poet was sitting in an easy chair in the verandah. As he saw me coming he put his feet out about six inches [as he spoke Sham Lal mimed the act — so that I could see, as clear as day, the feet of a handsome bearded man emerging from under the silk dhoti out towards the advancing youngster]. I immediately turned around and walked back. I had come to study with the poet; but, before he had even met me or spoken to me, he was expecting me to touch his feet. In Punjab we are more self-respecting. I took the first train home, did an MA at the Government College, and then became a journalist.”
I was reminded of this story when I recently attended a literary function in Bangalore. Here, prizes were being distributed to the winners of a contest restricted to young and mostly unpublished poets who wrote in English. The chief guest was a much respected and widely travelled Indian writer, who had lived in the Middle East and in North America. However, he was, by birth, a Bengali (a fact whose relevance will soon become apparent). The first of the winners went up to receive her prize and shook the chief guest’s hand. The second winner, a young man, chose to touch his feet instead.
The function was being held in what is unarguably the most cosmopolitan of Indian cities, and the young man had written his poems in English. But he was by ethnic origin a Bengali, albeit a Bengali much younger and of far less distinction than the chief guest. Through that act of homage he was expressing his admiration for the senior writer as well as underlining their common cultural heritage.
Guha himself seems to think that it is a westernised notion to not like paying respects by touching the feet (though, he also records an instance when such a gesture from him was not received in the same spirit:
I have long stopped touching anyone’s feet myself. But recently I found myself reverting to the practice, when being introduced to the great hockey player, Balbir Singh, captain of the gold-medal-winning Indian Olympic team of 1956. I had grown up on stories of his genius, told to me by my uncle, who had once played on a side that lost to Balbir’s Olympians by 18 goals to nil. Confronted with the Great Man in the flesh, I paid tribute to him in the manner that comes naturally to (south) Indians. But as I bent low, Balbir pulled away in disgust. He was, you see, a proud Punjabi; and, as a Sikh, even more self-respecting than the Hindu, Sham Lal.)
Like Guha, I also feel much more comfortable with the practice when it comes to traditional schooling systems like music than with modern systems — and, I think that the feeling of comfort is because the practicse, in those cases, is seen more as part of our tradition and customs than as strictly, payment of respect alone:
As a regular attendee at musical concerts, I find this custom both impressive and endearing. But somehow, I am not prone to view the practice with the same indulgence when it is transferred to the realms of literature and scholarship. I have seen too many young scholars stifled and diminished by their inability to break out of the bonds of disciplehood. And creative writing is a notoriously individualistic craft. How can one develop one’s own style, find one’s own voice, if one is forever in thrall to some Dada or Didi?
I suppose I can be accused of hypocrisy — of allowing that the practice has its uses in the contexts of family and music, but not with regard to scholarship or literature.
However, on the family front, I am more with RKN than Guha; though (unlike RKN) I continue to fall at the feet of elders on the ritual occasions, as far as possible, I try to avoid others falling at my feet. I think, even in family circles, development of one’s own style, thinking and voice, especially in a hierarchical (and very heterogeneous) structure where the words of elders carry so much of weight like ours, can only be improved if, even token showing of respect of these sorts are removed.