NRI

Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

Wait, Men Hold Hands In Kerala?

Wait, Men Hold Hands In Kerala?

February 15, 2011
Barnaby Haszard Morris

Look at those guys! Wow. Are they gay?

For almost every person who comes to Kerala, the first time you see it is unforgettable. Two burly guys saunter down the street, their chest hair exposed, their faces scowling, their muscles bursting out of their one-size-too-small shirts. Everything about their appearance screams ‘I want to kill you with my bare fists and then have sex with lots of women’ – everything, that is, except for the fact that their hands are locked tightly together in an intimate embrace reminiscent of young lovers on the seashore.

This masculine physical intimacy is just something you have to get used to, because there’s no escaping it. One of my now best friends got quite a shock when he first started work in our office: not only was there a saip on the team, but this saip didn’t like to be touched. Ever. To my friend, it was as natural as anything to walk to a nearby hotel for lunch with his arm draped over my shoulder, whereas for me, this guy was 1) definitely lacking an important awareness of personal space and 2) possibly gay.

If it weren’t enough to be accosted by friends and colleagues unexpectedly, strangers get in on the act as well. Before I came to Kerala, a handshake was what I was taught in boarding school: firm, straight-up-and-down and no longer than a couple of shakes. Not so in India’s south. There used to be a character called Mr Shake-Hand-Man on a bizarre British comedy show called Banzai whose mission it was to see how long he could shake celebrities’ hands before they pulled away. Well, in Kerala, Mr Shake-Hand-Man would be the one pulling away. On one occasion, I met a man at a temple festival; he immediately took my hand and didn’t release it for almost ten minutes.

So, what’s the deal with this physical closeness? Where did it come from, and why is it so strong over here in Kerala while it’s almost completely unacceptable in the West? I see two major factors.

The first is that in years past, young men didn’t have the freedom to be physically close with any woman other than their mother. That would have to wait until marriage. Perhaps, then, one way of compensating for this lack of touch could have been to be close to one’s friends, with liberal arm-draping and hand-holding. While the freedom to have contact with women is infinitely greater now than it was a few decades ago, and growing all the time, the relaxed physical intimacy with folks of the same sex has remained strong from decades of being the status quo.

Second, it’s pretty easy to argue that the chief deterrent against male-male hand-holding in the West is fear of being perceived to be homosexual. Even if homosexuality is more accepted than ever, and the sight of it brings no more than passing notice for most Western city dwellers, straight men take great pride in their heterosexuality, and even greater shame in the possibility of being seen to be gay. This has been the case through several decades of social and political persecution of homosexuals: we all know about it, and we all know that the public consequences are generally dire.

That mass awareness just isn’t the same over here. Whether or not there have been a comparable percentage of people who have indulged in homosexual behaviour, there has been no push for acceptance, and consequently (perhaps paradoxically) far less consideration given to it. As such, during the same decades in which Western gays were campaigning for their rights and slowly making ground, in Kerala, homosexuality remained so aberrant as to never even be in question. This resulted in a lack of stigma around something like two guys expressing mutual affection through hand-holding – a stigma which remains alive and well in Western countries.

I’ve been here for long enough now to have at least partly synchronised with many aspects of Malayali culture, and yes, one of those aspects is physical closeness with male friends. It took me a long time to warm up to the friend I mentioned earlier, and while we haven’t quite made that final step to hand-holding, we’re happy to rest with arms around each other’s shoulders and give each other’s cheeks a good tug with thumb and forefinger now and then. I’ve even started touching all my male colleagues on the shoulder as a farewell when I leave the office each day. (Not the women, though. That would be silly.)

Two years ago, I might have been shocked when I saw those two beefy blokes walking hand in hand. Now, I see their male hand-holding and intimacy as simply an open expression of the bonds of friendship, and that’s quite a beautiful, freeing thing. Dare I say it: we Westerners could learn something from Kerala men and their freedom to express themselves with meaningful, platonic, physical gestures

33 Comments

  • Jithin
    By
    Jithin
    07.08.14 10:27 AM
    I feel so sad that you guys cannot do it iny our country.If I can't hold my hand with a close friend of mine because of the society,that means I'm living in a society where people do not value friendship and connects everything with sex.

    Actually I'm proud to say that most of us Keralites(the teens) do this even when we have our girlfriends.One hand for the best friend and another for the girlfriend.
  • Pratyush
    By
    Pratyush
    28.06.13 07:11 PM
    I think it has nothing to do with sexuality. it is very natural, you only need a society where stigma of homosexuality is not present. Hand Holding is not sexual or erotic thing here in india.

    I it is not that indians are not aware of men having sex with men. hand holding lacks sexual r erotic flavor
  • lonely192
    By
    lonely192
    07.04.13 07:54 AM
    stigma ...holding hands with a male friend or even just a male....since when that too in India...we hold hands with persons were are close with or with whom we bond...this feeling of stigma being attached to holding hands is from the West and not India...
    Westerns place too much importance to private space so much that they now look EAST for enlightment....!!
    All the people hold hands and bring the World closer!!!
  • julie
    By
    julie
    24.12.12 08:19 PM
    I am from Malayali descent and a woman. I remember thinking one of the big things about hand holding is getting separated from your group and looking for someone, "brown skin, black hair, brown eye" That is everyone! also no sidewalks and the traffic is crazy, you need to hold on to each other. I went back home almost 3 yrs back and held my FIL hand for dear life when we went out.
  • julie
    By
    julie
    24.12.12 08:19 PM
    I am from Malayali descent and a woman. I remember thinking one of the big things about hand holding is getting separated from your group and looking for someone, “brown skin, black hair, brown eye” That is everyone! also no sidewalks and the traffic is crazy, you need to hold on to each other. I went back home almost 3 yrs back and held my FIL hand for dear life when we went out.
  • Klaumpy Westerner
    By
    Klaumpy Westerner
    07.08.12 04:28 AM
    Natural manhood: What you're saying is really interesting. I think you're absolutely right on some points.
    I hate that I have to be called 'homosexual', even though I only prefer men and not women xD
  • Lee
    By
    Lee
    13.07.12 11:52 AM
    And Seriously, I find its quite in matured to think the act of open physical intimacy is gay act. The western society is so narrow minded. Well from ancient civilizations and tribes from South Americas to East all are fools and gays. Only the west are advanced who from ancient time used the east concepts from renaissance to present day.
  • Lee
    By
    Lee
    13.07.12 11:36 AM
    In Western society act of sex is the ultimate gratification and tend to be worse then animals. Pre teen/ teen sex is the norm, teen pregnancy, very high divorce rate etc ... The Alpha male, image is thrust on boys and they are compelled to loose the true natural side of Manhood.
  • Lee
    By
    Lee
    13.07.12 11:26 AM
    Physical male intimacy is common in India, also in most of the South East Asian countries, South Asia, and in Middle East. To some extent you can find it in Spain, Italy and other countries. It is a kind of man bonding, males prefer to spend most of the time with other males in tea stalls, tea shops, theaters, outside, and love to discuss things. It is quite normal and I seriously wonder whats wrong in male bonding. At least it is better then the open showers and open locker rooms in west.
  • Arun
    By
    Arun
    08.02.12 07:16 AM
    Didn't realise we are the only community does this and the rest of the world don't.
    Even when I dd my college in UK and travelled around the world being a sailor never bothered to observe if people of same gender holding hands or not. Because it wasn't an unusual behavier for me. Now I am glad that I'm belongs to a community who values and care friendship along with any other relation.
    I am wondering even I your little brother or your dad holds your hand you think they are gay?? Even if a friend of mine holds my hand I'm glad that they care me.
  • Arun
    By
    Arun
    08.02.12 06:59 AM
    I'm a keralite here. Its true we friends hold hands together and even walk holding each others shoulders . As far as I can remember when I did first I was in kindergarten. Do u think small kids have this crazy idea for sex ?? And I never thought what others think about it until I read this blog and I was shocked. This is kind of restriction imposed on expressing intemecy to your dearest friend. And I am getting a feeling now people born and live just for sex!!!
    And most disturbing thing here is why can't humans let their fellow humans live in their own way of living? Why humans think others have to live on the way he thinks is right ?? Why you wasting your life watching how others live while you have to live a wonderful life ???
  • Natural Manhood
    By
    Natural Manhood
    02.11.11 07:15 PM
    @ Sampada, It's a girl's world in the west(ernised) societies. Girls can hold hands with, kiss, have sex with boys or with each other -- they have all the freedom. Boys must restrict any kind of intimacy -- even social -- to girls, or else be deprived of manhood.
  • sampada
    By
    sampada
    02.11.11 12:47 PM
    hey, even girls hold hands!! me and my friends used to stroll around our college holding hands...it was just like sitting next to your friend in the canteen.. we never thought much about it..
  • noladesi
    By
    noladesi
    26.10.11 12:12 AM
    GTG hit it on the head.
  • Natural Manhood
    By
    Natural Manhood
    31.08.11 02:53 PM
    In my analysis, in the west, personal spaces have become so unnaturally large, that each individiual has become extremely lonely, even in the midst of people.

    In any case, the aversion to hand holding between men in the west is not because of lack of personal spaces (men in the west hardly have a personal space) ... the aversion is because intimacy between men makes western men liable to be labelled as 'gay' (because there is a definite conspiracy to break men from men), ... and 'gay' is nothing but the stigmatized 'third gender' of the non-west redefined, although, its misleadingly defined as 'men desiring men.'

    Imagine, if Indian men could be labelled 'Hijra' for holding hands, they would never ever do it, but instead would compete to prove how much they like holding hands with women -- just like men do in the west.

    The truth, though is, that in a more natural and man-friendly society like India, its the feminine males (or even Hijras) that don't hold hands with men, so, its actually 'gay' to be shy of holding hands with men.
    --------------------------------------

    @ Ginu, the real problem is westernization of Indian spaces, and their heterosexualization -- that has been inevitably enforced upon India as part and parcel of 'globalization' and 'modernization,' esp. in after the western media were allowed into India.
  • Pedro
    By
    Pedro
    23.06.11 08:41 AM
    I guess I was born in the wrong society; I like touching people, hugging, but it seems everyone is untouchable (even here in Brazil). I'm 31 and I've never even hugged my own brother (he doesn't like hugs; but I understand that and respect).
  • tys
    By
    tys
    21.06.11 10:17 AM
    :) ... yeah that cud have summed it up, if it wasnt for the violence involved..
  • Ginu Tharakan George
    By
    Ginu Tharakan George
    21.06.11 07:43 AM
    @tys..clash of the titans, huh? 6"3, 140 kgs vs 6"2, 160kgs.. Yeah! Guess that about sums it up right. Clash of the Titans it is then. But I wouldn't put your case in the midget wrestling label. More like Ripley's Believe it or Not program's prize winning entry :)
  • Ginu Tharakan George
    By
    Ginu Tharakan George
    21.06.11 07:40 AM
    Well, this ludicrous affliction that is affecting certain individuals, causing them to obsess about personal space is the cause for such a thinking. Western societies have that effect. I mean out there, even marriages have distances set out in the name of 'personal space'. Surely the concept of being united in everything for all time is too high a concept for them to aspire to. Mighty vexing for them then, this concept of 'physical closeness'. Expected!
    But the examples are way off base. Cramming in an auto or in the Bombay metro trains is not out of choice but more out of necessity. Everybody will do so if they have no choice but to travel.
  • Cutting Kahlua
    By
    Cutting Kahlua
    21.06.11 12:43 AM
    Hilarious! I remember two large middle aged men strolling the park here in Bombay with a radio. And the two men were holding hands, and it looked really funny. But I think one reason is the absence of the sense of personal space in India. Like, have you seen people cram into a rickshaw? Or people in a crowded local train in Bombay?
  • tys
    By
    tys
    20.06.11 09:42 AM
    @ginu : damn that wud be like clash of the titans..in our case its like midget wrestling...
  • Ginu Tharakan George
    By
    Ginu Tharakan George
    20.06.11 03:35 AM
    Oh btw, my disgust earlier was in regards to the part where you reasoned that lack of physical intimacy with women except one's mother when you are young led to the physical expressions with men. But that again is indicative of a sexual line of thinking. Physical intimacy with women at a young age??? Why does one need that? There is no need for it, absolutely none. Remove sexuality from the picture.
  • Ginu Tharakan George
    By
    Ginu Tharakan George
    20.06.11 03:30 AM
    Barnaby, when you claim that it is happening in India, you must be referring to the westernized parts of the country. The rapid degradation of these north Indian metros runs in tandem with its westernization. However, what one must also understand is the underlying cultural affinity of the people in these areas. Sadly, the youth of these places do not possess the same affinity towards traditional Indian ethos which is and has always been a part of South India.
    It is this reality which has kept South India more attuned to Indian traditions and value structures despite the fact that the British began their rule of India from the South.
    By implication, it suggests that traditional Indian culture and the affinity towards it is stronger in the south. In other words, cultural resistance is more evident in the South where the various cultural artifacts that have been passed down from generation to generation have resisted foreign infiltration.
    There are several reasons for this that go beyond 4000 years of history. But that happens to be out of the scope of this project.
    But I still have problems wrapping my head around what TYS said. Wrestling with your brothers at age 40? I doubt I would play-wrestle with my brother but that could be because he is 6"2 and 160kgs.
  • tys
    By
    tys
    19.06.11 11:47 AM
    u bet...but considering ur height, its going to get people talking...
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    19.06.11 09:41 AM
    Natural manhood - I'd simply like to draw your attention to the fact - as stated in the article - that I support hand-holding/physical contact between men, and now consider it to be completely normal, and even think that Western men could learn something from Mallu men in this regard.

    Ginu - I'm sorry to hear that you were disgusted. I wrote my experience, which I think a lot of outsiders have. As I say, the longer I stay here the more normal physical becomes. Also, please note that 'physical intimacy' need not imply sexual contact, and I definitely didn't intend for that to come across when I wrote it in the article. All that said, I agree that Western media communication is often far too sexualised, and this has had a dangerous impact on a lot of people's thought patterns - myself included. The same thing appears to be happening in India now, which is sad.

    Tys - I hope that when we someday meet, you'll be gracious enough to honour me with a crushing Mallu hug!
  • tys
    By
    tys
    19.06.11 09:07 AM
    iam a hugger...a serial hugger...i hug any person i meet...this is something which i do..theres no sexual context here...its something i do ...

    even i have made taken a few pot shot at the mallu holding hands phenomenon, untill one day i was with a group of friends and we were walking by the corniche , early morning , walking and discussing pranayamamma ( go figure)...suddenly i realized that we had our hands on each others shoulders and we were walking...it was most natural thing ever...

    i think physical intimacy is part of the culture...iam 42, yet sometimes , given a chance, i will sleep with my head on my mothers lap...she will stroke my hair like when i was 5...i still wrestle with my brothers when we meet...we are 45, 42 and 39...we must look ridiculous to someone who doesnt know us...but wudnt have it any other way...

    from what was told to me, it is prevelant thru out india..

    i actually love it...

    yep...all my western friends are by now used to my exhuberant display of my affection..i think we need to go and hug more people out there..
  • Ginu Tharakan George
    By
    Ginu Tharakan George
    19.06.11 08:59 AM
    Aargh! Disgusted at this article and some of its comments. Ridiculous appraisal of a cultural artefact. The very mention of any sexual theme to the Keralite physical contact is purely illogical and reeks of ignorance. I can understand that from an outsider especially one from the West where every event is look upon through the lens of sexuality.
    However this ignorance from Indians is appalling and disgusting. The actual reason for this lies in the fact that traditional India has high context communication patterns. In other words, body language is far more lucid a means of communication than in the West.
    Thinking that lack of physical intimacy with women at an early age is a reason for seeking physical intimacy with men is a sign of a degenerate western conditioning that is depraved, degraded, derogatory and diseased. Everything in life is not about sexuality. This ridiculous fascination with sexualizing every possible thing is downright irritating.
  • Natural manhood
    By
    Natural manhood
    09.06.11 04:21 PM
    Major objection:

    We're not a repressive society -- you're a repressive society -- and the extent to which you police the socio-sexual behavior of men in your society is clear from the fact that you make such a great deal about men holding hands.
    Hand holding hands is definitely one of the most basic natural need/ tendency of men — which is subverted only in the western societies, where men hold hands with women instead.
    However, before men in the west were psycho-socially trained to do that (one way was to stigmatize hand holding between men), men in the west routinely held hands, like they do in every part of the world, in every age and century.
    And although, hand holding between men in non-western, non artificially heterosexualized societies (west is heavily/ artificially heterosexualized), doesn’t necessarily convey that they’re sexually involved — sexual attraction between men is held to be a universal male quality — and rightly so, and nearly all men have had sexual relations with other men (some of it is even openly acknowledged within men’s spaces as ‘masti’ or ’sexual fun between men).
    Too bad that western males have been broken from their own nature, and from other men by a conspiracy of the western third genders (who call themselves ‘homosexual,’ thus stigmatizing intimacy between men) through the wierd concept of ’sexual orientation.’
  • jowai
    By
    jowai
    21.05.11 09:19 PM
    Its very common in Delhi!I can only imagine what they'd do to their household goats and sheep,once home from their same sex pinky-finger hand holding sojourn.Aaah..!The perks of a repressive society!
  • Noel
    By
    Noel
    23.02.11 06:36 AM
    I grew up in the gulf and had been away from kerala for a really long time and when I had gone there in my teens, it was really disturbing for me when one of my dad's friends shook my hand and held it for a long time. but soon I realised that this was only natural for them (it was still a little uncomfortable though).Your right you know... most people are unaware of the stigma.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    20.02.11 03:25 PM
    @Amropali - the mundu is an inherently fascinating garment, isn't it? And do men not hold hands where you're from? I've been wondering whether this was more common in Kerala than it is elsewhere in India.

    @Pooja - OK, thank you very much for the info. It's hard to imagine that in Mumbai, to be honest. I certainly never saw it in the week I spent there!
  • Pooja
    By
    Pooja
    16.02.11 11:51 AM
    It is not only Kerala, I've seen men holding hands here in Mumbai too. It is quite amusing, and you are right that they are unaware of the stigma.
  • Amropali
    By
    Amropali
    15.02.11 09:33 AM
    I am from the northern part of the country. I visited Kerela the past december. The first thing I noticed is how everyone looked so angry (maybe because of the way they pull up their 'mund'; the movies always make the bad-guys do it with certain panache) and how grown men, grown-angry-looking men hold each other's pinkies and chat away.
    It was hilarious, but my Terelite friends did not seem to find this funny though.

Leave a comment