The Assamese have no word for “hug”—but the act is suddenly tying them up in knots

They have a famous mating dance but hugs? Forget it.
They have a famous mating dance but hugs? Forget it.
Image: AP Photo/Anupam Nath
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Surely there cannot be a more culture-specific way of greeting people than with a hug. Just as air-kissing has been perfected by the French, and kissing on the cheeks by the Italians, hugging is also specific to cultures that are not ours.

But first, let us see how we Assamese, as a culture, relate to this practice of hugging. Let us be frank, hugging, as the world knows and practices it, is alien to our Greater Asomiya Culture. It has never been part of our history. No stone panels on ancient temples in our part of the world show two people hugging in quite the same way as people hug these days. Nor do poems commemorate relationships by describing hugs. It is no wonder, therefore, that down the line, today, hugging is not a very commonly seen practice, though it is catching on, especially among the young and the carefree.

In fact, it is true, that we do not, in the Asomiya language, have a word that quite translates into what a hug is about. “Xaboti dhora” sounds weird, as though two people were clasping each other in an agony, rather than in friendship, or compassion, or joy. Then there is the Sanskritised “alingon”, a ponderous and heavy word which fails to describe the spontaneous nature of most hugs. Indeed, “alingon” has a faintly sexual connotation, which is the exact opposite of what a hug, today, is. “Alingon” is more about an embrace, not a hug. For there are, as we know, a lot of differences between an embrace and a hug that makes it imperative to coin a new word in Asomiya for it. One cannot use the word “hug” itself in Asomiya, for it is, unfortunately, similar-sounding to a word in our language that denotes excretory functions.

Here, perhaps, lies the crux of the matter. While much of the rest of the world hugs happily, we lack even a word for it. And as we all know, actions, even thoughts, falter when a vocabulary for a particular object or action is missing.

Hugs between two people of the same gender are more commonly seen than those between a male and a female. Ours is a society that has strict boundaries placed between the genders as far as physical contact is concerned. Even something as casual as a hug, involving a quick interaction is looked at with disapproval. It is seen as a marginally lewd gesture, something that is perceived to be dangerous, since it can lead all the way down to much more “sinful” activity. In any case, in our communities, mingling of the sexes beyond certain strict limits is frowned upon.

All this is actually quite strange, for a hug, proper, has nothing sexual about it. It is more about friendship, and fellow feeling. It is a greeting, like any other, though much more personal than a “Nomoskar” would be, or a handshake. A hug, properly executed, involves, in fact, minimal body contact. A properly executed hug between two people who are familiar with how it is done, is beautiful to behold. It is almost, one can say, like a ballet, a precise dance that is hugely aesthetic as well. The moving forward, the fluid grace of arms as they stretch and bend, the enfolding of the two bodies, the way the bodies meet but are not allowed to merge, the minimal body contact…the sliding forward of the faces …and then the disengagement…all of this, if done properly, is lovely. It is all done very quickly, too, with no lingering over the whole exercise.

Ours is a society that has multiple layers. Economic, social, linguistic, religious, educational…all the differences in these areas add up to different behaviour patterns. So, a person who is comfortable with a more cosmopolitan approach to social interactions will be more likely to hug, than another whose world is limited to a certain kind of behaviour.

All of this is well and good, and there is nothing to complain about here. Problems set in when a “hugger” from Category A, spontaneously and without thinking, in a gesture of pure goodwill, hugs a person from Category B. If the two are of the same gender, then there is perhaps nothing more than a bit of awkwardness as the hugger and the person being hugged (we can call him the “huggee”) collide. The huggee is usually surprised at being thus greeted. Usually he or she does not see the lunge coming, being unexpected.

Things become much more interesting when the hugger and the huggee are of different genders. With all the taboos that we have about physical contact between a man and a woman, it is very rare for a woman to rush forward to hug a man, unless they are really good friends, or the man is much younger than her. However, there are some “natural huggers” who are male. They are usually very friendly, and demonstrative. They think nothing of greeting a woman with an affectionate hug. This is, for them, a friendly gesture, nothing more. But then the woman, coming from a culture and society that frowns upon hugs, shrinks back, and looks away, often with a scowl on her face. She thinks the man is making a pass, when the poor guy is not doing anything remotely like that. In any case, the attempt to hug was taking place in full view of many others. The man, embarrassed because his friendliness has been misconstrued as something much more serious, becomes red in the face. This is a shame, actually, because the man meant well, and in his mind, there was nothing remotely improper about what he was doing.

There are some people who are “natural” huggers. They go about it so spontaneously that there is nothing offensive about it at all. These are the people who often cannot distinguish between people who will reciprocate their hugs, and those who will misunderstand them. Theirs is therefore a difficult life, in a social set up such as ours.

It is also true that there are people who are “unnatural” huggers. These are people for whom hugging is a way of showing an affection that they do not actually feel. Some huggers have decided that to hug is fashionable, and therefore they do it even when they are not naturally spontaneous in their embraces. Or sometimes, they hug people to show others how “close” they are to them. This last category of people usually hugs to impress onlookers, who are meant to think, “Wow, she’s on hugging terms with that celebrity!” These “unnatural huggers” rush up to the unsuspecting victim, arms outstretched stiffly, faces screwed up in a most artificial grin. Even as the huggee recoils, this hugger snatches at her, and pulls her towards herself. It is all quite frightening to watch, and it is no wonder that the huggee remains in a state of shock for quite a while after this.

All things considered, this ongoing engagement between huggers and huggees of different categories is indeed one of the most interesting things to happen at social gatherings in our part of the world these days.

A version of this piece first appeared in Assam Tribune.