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.