When Covid-19 first hit, many around the world switched from the handshake to the Indian namaste. But the contact-less form of greeting stands in contrast to several other Indian traditions and practices, be they religious, cultural or social, that find themselves out of favour because they rely on physical touch with another human being.
India is a country where coming into physical contact with others is practically a given — be it a quick stop at a gol gappa cart, sharing a cigarette on a smoke break at the office or being shoved and jostled during a crowded metro or suburban train ride. As social scientist Arun Kali said, Indians “have a different concept of public spaces as compared to Europeans or Americans”.
But now, with the coronavirus pandemic raging across the country, the rules are being rewritten. Whether by government authorities or by individuals in their personal lives, social distancing is the new normal. In a country like India, this could mean a complete overhaul of certain traditions.
Saunf & mishri in plastic packets, hookah finds few takers
The restaurant industry is among the worst-hit in this pandemic, but while it will be a slow, painful process, it is likely that people will, at some point, start to feel more comfortable going out to eat. And there are many steps restaurants can take, and have taken, to build confidence in their hygiene measures. For some, this means no more communal bowls of saunf (fennel), mishri (rock sugar) and other mouth freshener-digestives that have long been a ubiquitous sight at many Indian restaurants.
Bengaluru-based chef Aditya Fatepuria, co-founder of the Sattvam chain of restaurants in the city, tells ThePrint that while they won’t stop serving it, the physical contact aspect will certainly no longer be acceptable. “We will surely continue serving saunf, roasted ajwain (carom), sattvic paan (as we call it) and other mukhwas,” he explains. “These have been an essential end to a wholesome Indian meal for ages! But post-Covid, they will be served in a more individualistic and hygienic packaging. We have already started doing that, now many other restaurants will follow suit.”
Keerthan Shetty, who owns two Darshini fast-food outlets in Bengaluru, concurs. He says that while most of the Darshinis don’t serve saunf and mishri, he has noticed that at other restaurants in the city, the post-prandial digestives are now handed over to diners in plastic packages.
Smoking hookah, or sheesha, is another communal activity that will find few takers now, given that one pipe is shared by multiple people. Naveen Antil, owner of a paan shop in Haryana’s Asawarpur tells ThePrint, “Not many people come to shops like mine to smoke anymore. They’re still smoking but it’s in small groups at their homes”.
A Delhi-based entrepreneur in her 30s says that she and most of her hookah-smoking friends had anyway started using individual plastic filters for parties with large groups of people that they didn’t feel comfortable sharing a mouthpiece with. But that doesn’t take away the fact that everyone would exhale onto the same pipe. Given that the virus is a respiratory one, she says, she doesn’t see the culture continuing as it did pre-Covid.
Even at home, thanks to regular sanitisation drives in apartment complexes, certain traditions have literally been swept under the rug. Nithyashree Naganathan, a resident of Orchards Apartments in Chennai, says her entire apartment complex has stopped the practice of kolum. “Most of the families used to draw kolum outside their front doors — it’s like rangoli with rice flour. But since the floors get cleaned many times a day, there’s no point,” she tells ThePrint. Naganathan adds that fear of the virus has only increased since lockdown was reinstated in the city last week.
Places of worship open, but devotees are wary of prasad & holy dips
Although the famous rath yatra to Puri’s Jagannath temple recently got the Supreme Court’s nod, most places of worship in India are restricted by the Ministry of Home Affairs’ guidelines to avoid distributing prasad or sprinkling holy water.
However, some places of worship have openly defied certain norms. For example, in early June, Amritsar’s Golden Temple and other gurdwaras served prasad and langar, after which the Punjab government revised its earlier guidelines and allowed them, but with caveats on strict hygiene and physical norms.
Still, many who regularly visit the Golden Temple say they would not feel comfortable accepting these offerings now. “A restaurant can remodel to include an open kitchen, which will instill confidence in diners. But kada prasad at Harmandir Sahib isn’t like that. If I can’t see where and how it’s being made, I am not sure I’ll be okay accepting it, at least not for a while,” says Delhi-based Nisha Ghumman. She also says that the rule of dipping one’s feet into the water before ascending the steps to the main area of the temple is one she would like to avoid.
In Bengaluru’s famous Shivoham Shiva Temple, all bells have been removed, so that devotees don’t ring them, thus eliminating that contact with other devotees before and after them. “We’ve stopped theertha, kumkum and prasad too,” a temple caretaker tells ThePrint. “What we have preserved is milk abhishekam, but it’s contactless. Basically, a devotee picks a disposable bamboo cup, the panditji pours the milk into the cup, then the devotee pours it on the linga and immediately disposes the cup in a trashcan.”
Last month’s Eid celebrations were overshadowed by the pandemic, so mosques, idgahs and markets were devoid of the regular festive buzz. Now, after Saudi Arabia barred international pilgrims from performing the Hajj this year, India’s Union Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has announced that no Indian will travel for the pilgrimage, in another blow to the community’s deeply entrenched traditions.
Meanwhile, devout Christians, especially of the elderly sections, are adapting to online mass. 73-year-old Patsy Daly, who used to regularly attend St. Patrick’s Church in Bengaluru, tells ThePrint that she misses Communion. “Churches are open, but I can’t attend as I’m in the age-risk category and I’m also asthmatic. I attend mass online and it helps keep my morale up, but I truly miss Communion. I now have no choice but to take it spiritually.”
While physical distancing is certainly the need of the hour, for many Indians, it means the loss of a way of life.