Book Discussion: Reflections on South Asian Culture Through ‘Hygge’

Like you, I assume, I’ve been in lockdown for more than three months. I can’t complain too much, though. Despite unintentionally being stuck overseas, I have a home that’s safe in all senses of the word, a job I’ve been able to do remotely, and a strong-as-hell support system. So, aside from fresh contact lenses and the fifth set of clothes, I have everything I really need for the moment.

Pre-pandemic me used to think a day off was wasted if I couldn’t leave the house to meet a friend, grab a bite, see a movie, take a dance/yoga class, or attend a live performance. That I would never have imagined I could go for three months without seeing someone I wasn’t related to and without ever eating at a restaurant. But here I am. I’ve survived this task, literally the easiest, most-privileged of all challenges right now, as millions battle for their lives or put theirs at the frontlines.

Right at the start, I created a schedule that kept me engaged and productive. Between virtual workouts, a busier-than-usual remote work schedule, checking in with friends, baking, or cooking when I wanted to get brownie points with my family and movie nights (i.e. every single night), I was busy enough to not want to run out of the house screaming of boredom. But I knew that to truly be comfortable being indoors, I couldn’t let home be a backdrop for everything else going on in my life. I knew deep down that there was a joy to being at home. I just had to find it.

I wanted to find new ways to enjoy my time at home more. I also wanted to power through my 2020 Reading Challenge and veer towards light, uplifting books because of everything going on in the world. On a recent weekend, the perfect opportunity to kill two birds presented itself. There it sat on my parents’ bookshelf, a blue and cream hardcover beauty, beckoning with its promise of warmth and fuzzies. It was Meik Wiking’s “The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living.” If you’re not familiar with the book, here’s the basic premise: for reasons related to climate, costs, and culture, people in Denmark spend a lot of time indoors. This, and the fact that they tend to have shorter working hours and more disposable incomes than the rest of us, gives them the time and resources to perfect the art of bringing cosiness to their homes, everyday tasks, social gatherings, and even outdoor activities. This cosiness is hygge, and anything that evokes it is described as being hyggelig.

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That morning, I settled down into a reading nook with my herbal tea and chocolate cake outfitted in my favourite ceramics – could it get more hyggelig? – and got cracking. Overall, the book was pretty much what I expected. I got ideas for how to get your hygge on (some fairly achievable, some less so), a generous helping of lifestyle porn, detailed descriptions of everything enviable about Nordic cultures, and a smattering of cool facts. For example, did you know that Danish people eat twice as much dessert as the rest of the world and miraculously don’t have our obesity and diabetes levels? Or that burning a candle indoors is actually way more polluting than the industry would have you believe? I get why it’s a Times Top Ten Bestseller. For the most part, it gives readers what it promises: charming tips on easy living from very happy people.

With its pearls of cosy wisdom, the book also left me with a harsh realization. I’ve seen a tendency in our society to assign an exalted status to everything White—especially if it’s Scandinavian. While I certainly think we can be awed and inspired by their standards of living, work-life balance, efficient governments, and delicious meatballs, I think we should also remember what our own cultures give us.

As a third-culture kid, I’ve grown up interacting with diverse people and ways of thinking. And I can guess pretty confidently that most, if not all, cultures acknowledge the idea of hygge. They don’t call it hygge, and they might not associate it with animal skin rugs, bulky sweaters, and fruit jams. But it exists. Take my own Indian upbringing. I can think of more than a few examples of hygge being woven into our traditions. Because Wiking highlighted six dimensions of hygge, I will too.

Taste: In the hygge framework, the taste is “familiar, sweet, and comforting.” South Asia’s answer to this is, obviously, chai. Chai is a friendship-cementer, arranged-marriage facilitator, and caffeine-hit-provider. It’s also one of the great joys of my life. Dessert is also very important to us. In India, we love our cake, chocolate, ice cream, and other Western food, for sure. But we also take pride in the fact that every region has its own array of traditional desserts: whether steeped in sugar syrup, sweet milk, coconut milk, ghee, or other heart disease and diabetes-inducing deliciousness. Religious events are punctuated with a sweet treat (halwa prasad at a gurudwara, seviyan at Eid, plum cake at Christmas, boondi laddoo after a puja). Happy occasions, like a promotion at work, a wedding announcement, or the birth of a child, are made all the sweeter with the distribution of mithai.

Sound: Wiking describes the absence of sound as hyggelig because it allows you to appreciate other sounds. I get this. In the early hours of the day, before the household stirs into wakefulness, my grandfather has usually been awake for hours. The newspaper rustles in his hands as birds chirp in the park across the street. During the day, vegetable vendors cycle around the neighbourhood, their loud, musical voices proving they are well-versed in their wares. In the afternoon, while everyone takes their nap, my grandparents’ snoring (loud enough to waft through their bedroom door, gentle enough to not be bothersome) is comforting, as is the white-noise whirr of the ceiling fan. At dusk, the azaan from the nearby mosque is a reminder to wrap up the day and make time for faith, family, and/or food. For us, hyggelig sounds aren’t new. They exist in many pockets of the day, every day.

Smell: The smell of hygge is often nostalgic. For me, that’s the scent of fresh flowers: marigolds for a puja, jasmine in some Indian women’s hair, or a bouquet of roses lingering around after a birthday. It’s the smell of petrichor as a monsoon shower batters into the soil. It’s the sulphuric smell of a black salt-laden nimbu pani; a smell that most non-Indians will describe as vile, but one we associate with a refreshing, electrolyte-rich summer drink. It’s the comforting aroma of samosas being deep-fried (or air-fried because my family pretends we’re healthy like that). It’s the sneaky smell of a simmering meat masala that makes its presence felt all through the house, in our clothes, and our hair, as my Dad kicks off the multiple-hour process of cooking the perfect mutton curry.

Feel: Old, handmade things apparently offer the most hyggelig tactile experiences. Is there anything more timeless and hand-produced than getting a champi? This vigorous head massage is pretty universal across South Asian cultures. With good reason too – it works miracles for hair lustre, growth, and nourishment. It’s also nostalgic, invigorating, relaxing, and — according to the urban myth — stimulates brain cells and makes you smarter. Peeling, biting into, and slicing up a ripe mango in the summertime is another classic tactile experience evoking hygge. As is running your hand over a saree passed down through generations. The saree’s old silk is smooth to the touch, the gilded embroidery is cooling, and the daydream of how you’d look wearing it one day, positively giddying.

Sight: Hygge visuals are characterized by soft, warm lighting and slowly moving things. For me, that’s easiest seen in the flickering flames from an oil lamp during Diwali. It’s watching an artisan at a market carefully embroider a piece of fabric. It’s peering at chai bubbling in a pan, waiting for it to be just the right shade of brown before taking it off the heat. It’s looking at mehendi being put on your hands (that one also scores points for smell and touch – nothing quite compares).

Sixth sense: Wiking tells us that hygge is also about intangible feelings of safety. I’m lucky that for me, the examples are too many to recount. Putting my head in my grandmother’s lap at the end of a long, tiring day (even as a real adult with a real job, this is one of my favourite stress-busters); having my grandfather break me off a piece of his Kit-Kat bar after dinner; my dad popping his head into my room to ask me if I want a cup of tea. And even though India changes every day, and my parents’ and grandparents’ lives were so different from mine, the hygge Sixth Sense is inter-generational for Brown people. My grandmother belts out the folk songs she learned as a child, and I find myself transported into her past, feeling the tingling of her childhood dreams and aspirations. My dad tells me how his family used to sleep under the stars in their garden while growing up, and I can hear the crickets chirping in the bushes, the mosquito net tickling my legs. My mom tells me how she rode her motorbike down highways to visit my dad while they were dating, and I can sense her exhilaration, her anticipation, course through my own veins. For me, my hygge Sixth Sense is an instant connection to my family, my traditions, and my family’s traditions. I don’t need to have been there or felt them in real-time. But when someone I love and feel safe around brings up a memory or feeling from their past, it becomes a part of me. It reminds me of who I am, where I’ve come from, and all the intangibles I’ve inherited from my family’s collective experiences.

All this to say that hygge exists outside of Denmark and the handful of countries the author chose to mention. It exists in the forgotten parts of the world that burst with linguistic richness and diversity. It exists in the ignored cultures where family and social ties mean everything. It exists beyond the White-washed picture presented by authors like Wiking and certainly exists outside of fireplaces, ski lodges, and pork-centric feasts. For people who live in the climates and societies that make the Danish version of hygge possible, I understand the charm and convenience of submitting to that lifestyle. I even get the temptation of believing it’s the best – and only – way to live. But I don’t think the rest of us necessarily need to adopt elements of the “original” hygge. My love for hot cocoa, cake, and fancy ceramics will happily coexist with my fondness for chai, rasmalai, and clay kulhads. My hygge won’t be limited by the blinders of a monoculture.

Reading, reacting to, and thinking about this book made me realize something. In a way, my goal had been accomplished. I’d wanted to learn how to create cosiness and joy in my home. While Wiking’s suggestions didn’t offer up much in that respect, his blatant omissions nagged at me and drove me to search for aspects of hygge in my own beautiful culture. I want to recreate these moments in my today, and maybe even take them with me to a post-lockdown tomorrow. Eventually, when and if we return to life as we know it, I may not mind staying in more.

I guess, no matter where we come from, hygge isn’t something outside of us. It isn’t something we can only feel if we follow the “right” steps and create the “right” atmosphere. We just have to give some love to the hygge we already have in our lives and our cultures. Once we do that, we’re home.

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By Saumya Sudhir

Saumya is an innovation consultant, digital strategist, and mentor. As a woman-of-colour who's grown up in seven different countries and … Read more ›

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