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Greetings in these testing times

A firm handshake speaks volumes about the depth of our friendships.

Iqbal Ahmed | New Delhi |

Working in the hospitality industry,one learns over time that one doesn’t usually get a second chance to make a first impression.Therefore it becomes imperative to greet a guest warmly when they arrive. It begins with the shaking of hands of a returning guest. A firm handshake speaks volumes about the depth of our friendships.

In Eastern folklore, when you shake hands with a stranger during your travels and feel no bone in his hand with your thumb, you are said to have met a Good Samaritan. One English schoolmaster in Kashmir used to admonish his pupils for what he liked to call ‘a wet-fish handshake’which is when your fingers limply slip away from the hand of someone who tries to shakehands with you firmly.

I was therefore somewhat puzzled when I heard Morgan Freeman, who played the role of Azeem the Moor in the film Robin Hood,declarethat “the hospitality in this country is as warm as the weather”. It was Robert the Concierge who once told me that the reason for driving on the left side of the road in the UK is because a horseman keeping to the left could easily shake his right hand with a fellow-horseman riding in the opposite direction.

His explanationseems plausible enough to me. It appears to be a different world now, in which the shaking of hands with your fellows has been forbidden because it’s too risky. Thanks to the pandemic, the folding hands gesture known as ‘Namaste’ is nowgaining popularity in the West. It is a dual gesture that, as well as being used as a greeting and a mark of respect, is also used in the Indian subcontinent to ask for forgiveness when someone is accused of any wrongdoing.

However, contact is limited right now as all of us are restricted from roaming the streets or dropping in on old friends. These are despondent times and we can feel guilty even in exchanging glances with strangers lest we spread the contagion. Our world will indeed be a strange place when we reach the end of this crisis. We might have to learn again the ritual of shaking hands with our fellow human beings. ‘Hand’ is an indispensable word in our vocabulary.

Once, when I asked a colleague to give me a hand, he jokingly repliedthat he couldn’t because he only has two of them. The phrase ‘washing one’s hands’ in Kashmiri implies absolving oneself of any responsibility or letting go of a fortune. The ‘Hand of God’metaphor became infamous after it was used by Maradona to describe his illegal goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final.

The hand of God in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is outstretched and doesn’t conform to the proportions of a Vitruvian Man by Da Vinci. When I visited Santa Maria Della Grazie in Milan and saw Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, I was struck by the hand gestures of various apostles in the mural and later related it to Goethe’s comment, printed in my guidebook, on how very Italian the painting was in that so much is conveyed through the expressions of the characters’ hands.

When I boarded buses and trams in Milan I experienced the warmth in the conversations of Italians from their ample use of hand gestures. Sometimes a carriage would resound with the laughter of commuters conversing. Italy is one of my favourite European countries. When I travelled to Venice at the end of October last year I was surprised to see how busy the town was, even though the summer had ended. I still felt bewitched walking along its cobbled streets, itspiazzas brimming with life.

A couple of months prior to this, I had to abandon my trip to Srinagaren route,due to the lockdown of the town. In fact ‘lockdown’ was a new expression to describe the grim reality in Kashmir. Ever since my childhood, we had called it curfew – a medieval word denoting a regulation requiring people to extinguish fires at a fixed hour in the evening.

In Venice, I drifted with hordes of tourists through the narrow streets, and wasstruck bya banner tied to the railing of a bridge that stated ‘May you live in interesting times’, the first of many sightings around the town. Iremembered my editor telling me once that this apparently benignsaying was actually intended as a curse.However, the organisers of the Venice Biennale playfully deployed the saying throughout the festival as a kind of thematic slogan conveying the complex and threatening times we are living in, in particular with reference to the phenomenon of so-called ‘Fake News’.

At the time, what struck me as ‘interesting’ was the fact that I was able to view the art installations that were part of the Biennale both inside and outside two or three buildings, completely free of charge. Now, several months later, in the midst of a pandemic that has emptied the streets, this suggestive sayingmakes sense more than ever.

I tried to get my head around the fact that Venetians were outnumbered many times over by tourists in the town. In effect, Venice was suffering from over-tourism, and Srinagar, which is also known as ‘The Venice of the East’, had been suffering from zero levels of tourism. An Italian acquaintance of mine in London, who had been to Kashmir inthe1970s and stayed in a houseboat on Lake Dal,recently showed me a photograph of her younger self, reclining on the banks of the lake in Srinagar.

She had stayed in Kashmir for 40 days after a 3-month tour of India. She had found the tour exhausting but felt rejuvenated by her sojourn in Kashmir. She told me how much she’denjoyed her stay in a houseboat,doing little else but yoga, accentuating her account with elegant hand gestures. The word ‘quarantine’ is Italian in origin and means ‘forty’.

It was mostly associated with cats and dogs when someone travelled abroad with pets that had to be sequestered for forty days in case of infection. Italy has been unlucky to face one of the worst onslaughts of the coronavirus. One reason for the high number of deaths in Italy is because its people live longer thanthey do in other countries.

Longevity was viewed as a praiseworthyachievementuntil recentlyand the Mediterranean diet was followedby those who wanted to live long and healthy lives. Today it’s a different story. Longevity is a liability. Covid-19 isegalitarian in the way it can infect anybody anywhere, but brutal in its preference for killingthe old and infirm in our population. We are all in this together. Let us hope that a kinder world for everyone will emergewhen thispandemic has run its course.

(The writer is a London-based author. His latest book An Open Book and Empty Cup was published recently)