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Namaste London

By Nickunj Malik - Apr 25,2018 - Last updated at Apr 25,2018

When my generation was growing up, our parents took great efforts in imparting good manners to the children, and immense time was spent on instilling the traditional Indian greeting ritual into each of us. This involved folding the hands together with the palms touching, lowering the head a bit, and with a smile saying  “Namaste”  to the person who was being greeted.

There was never a chance of avoiding it because our elders always prompted with a “do Namaste” the minute we spotted any relatives, friends or acquaintances. I am told that I mastered the smiling and joining hands bit quite easily but used to lisp out “Manaste”, instead. In my enthusiasm I would mix up the consonants, which lead to a lot of laughter at my expense. I had no idea of the comic slipup and thought that all the people who laughed were just happy to see me. 

I don’t remember exactly when I switched to the correct form of the salutation but I can recall our grandmother describing the significance of the term, in patient detail. It was derived from the Sanskrit word “Namaskar” that meant “I bow to you”, she explained. There was a spiritual divinity within each of us, our grandma would clarify, and by doing this prayer-like gesture towards another person, you are acknowledging the divinity in them, she used to say.

By using “Namaste” as a way to say hello or goodbye, one makes an effort to actively connect to others. It does not have any spiritual connotation though interestingly, a related word, namazlik, meaning “prayer rug”, was entered in Merriam-Webster’s 1934 Unabridged edition, Webster’s Second. It comes from the Turkish word namaz meaning “worship ritual or prayer” and goes back to Middle Persian and Avestan (the oldest Iranian language) to nemahya- (“honour, pay homage to”), a derivative of nem- (“bend”), which is exactly cognate with Sanskrit namati, thereby connecting the ancient gesture and the ancient tradition of prayer rugs through the earliest roots of distantly related languages, according to merriam-webster.com

So, once I understood that there was so much of culture and conventional wisdom associated with this simple gesture, I taught it to our daughter too. She grasped it almost immediately and did not need too much prompting in public, as reinforcement. The minute she met any friend or relative of mine, she was ready with a “Namaste Uncle” or “Namaste Aunty”, as the case may be. But once she went off to college, she switched to greeting everyone with a short and truncated “hello”. When I protested, she smilingly opted for the “how do you do” followed by a handshake.

Nobody could find fault with that and her doting father insisted that it was a very well mannered thing to do. As a last resort I told her that the reason she fell sick so often was because each time she shook hands with a person suffering from influenza, the germs got transferred to her. Like most mothers, after putting this idea in her head I promptly forgot about it. 

“Mom, I met your friend in London recently,” our daughter said on the phone. 

“Yes, she wrote to me,” I said. 

“You greeted her with a Namaste?” I asked. 

“I am so proud of you,” I exclaimed. 

“She was very impressed,” I gushed. 

“Oh! That was because Aunty had a cold,” our daughter justified. 

There was a moment’s pause. 

“Mum?” our daughter prompted. 

“I’m still proud of you,” I answered.

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Comments

A beautiful treatise on one facet of great culture, an emphasis on humility. The meek, even Christ had said, shall inherit the Earth. Etymological connections to other words from different languages from disparate places is also so cogently put together. Brings another great facet of Indian culture forward - vasudhaiva kutumbakam or the world seen as a family,in use much before "globalisation" was turned into a dirty word by human greed.

When you bend, you make the guy in front feel humble too, usually.

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