Touch my Manolos

December 15, 2008

East India Dancer's Feet

In North India, greeting a person includes touching his/her feet. Oddly enough, I quite like it.

I like the physical display of respect.

The truth is, when parents-children relationships are concerned,  I don’t mind some Public Display of Respect. It is nice. Am I a reborn Conservative ? What happened to the wild teenager I used to be ?

I like the dramatic, deeply symbolic weight of it : the whole act of lowering yourself to someone’s feet makes you appear, if not feel, respectful.

Ok, but now, does everyone in India wish everyone by touching their feet?

That’s what I tried to make my baby sister believe when she first visited me here, age sixteen. I was having a party at home the very night she arrived, and she asked me how she should greet the Indians.

“Well, I said very casually, I suppose it is a little odd, but you have to touch their feet.”

All while laying glasses and plates on the terrace’s table.

She was equally casual, in her own sweet way:

“I’m not freaking touching anyone’s feet, man”.

And indeed, a white girl touching anyone’s feet would look extremely stupid. I am not enough of an expert to be claiming I have mastered the Indian etiquette, but here is what I have gathered.

Touching feet is mostly a North Indian custom. It happens in South India, but only on very formal occasions.

Unmarried girls don’t touch anyone’s feet (there might be an exception for older family members but I am not sure). Instead, they fold hands and, bowing down slightly, say the traditional respectful greeting.

However, once they are married the happy times are over and they are on for a lifetime of feet-touching, or, for married Rajput women,  sit-ups – in some other communities they even have to lie down completely.

Men are supposed to touch any older family member’s feet. They should also do it to non-related older acquaintances and by extension to whomever they need to show respect to. Again, as with everything in India, such customs tend to disappear in big cities. Living in Jaipur, I witness a part of India that is still extremely conservative.

However, nobody really touches anybody’s feet, except maybe poor people asking for favors, very orthodox people, or rural staff to their masters.

Otherwise, you just dive down and reach for the person’s feet, your left hand on your chest. The person will always pull you up, not allowing you to finish.

That’s what I also like in this custom: the fact that it is completely acted. The wisher knows he is not going to really touch these feet, and the greeted knows he is expected to not let this happen. As a result, nobody really puts any effort into the whole move: like a perfectly synced couple of dancers, they know the other person’s next move and anticipate it. It is a smooth, well-oiled, age-old little dance. It is, to me, the epitomy of custom: both persons are telling each other I know we are just pretending here, and I am glad you are pretending along. It makes them belong to a same community, bound together by ritual.

Marcel Mauss, get out of my body.

Unfortunately, nobody touches my feet here. If a white girl touching an Indian person’s feet would look stupid, then for an Indian person to touch a white girl’s feet would be plain humiliating.

Too bad, I’ll never know what it feels like.