“Left-handers are wired into the artistic half of the brain, which makes them imaginative, creative, surprising, ambiguous, exasperating, stubborn, emotional, witty, obsessive, infuriating, delightful, original, but never, never, dull.”
James T deKay and Sandy Huffaker from The World’s Greatest Left-Handers: Why Left-Handers are Just Plain Better than Everybody Else.
How many times have you heard an aunt or grandparent gasp and ask incredibly concerned, “Why are you eating with the wrong hand?” or proclaim loudly “You shouldn’t be putting your opposite hand forward for prasad“? Being left handed seems to be a cardinal sin of desi culture. It’s a culture that’s otherwise so diverse and usually adopts a nonchalant attitude towards a lot of strange customs. But if you’re left handed, well, you’ve just crossed the line.
August 13 marked International Left-Handers’ Day. It came and went without any news headlines, parades, or a heartfelt pledge by the UN for the betterment of southpaw lives. The unfortunate left-handed people of the world – the “sinister” few – went on about their day, just another day, in a right-handed world.
Yet within this global tribe is an even smaller group. A group that’s been struggling against a cultural persecution of sorts – the South Asian leftie. Regularly at the mercy of centuries of traditions and cultural taboos that tell us we’re wrong, we desi lefties have been growled at one too many times for using the “wrong” hand. A left hand exists, its sole purpose we’re told, for the unmentionable business that transpires over the porcelain throne (or porcelain hole, depending on your preference).
Much like our attitudes towards poverty, sex, and Rakhi Sawant, we choose to pretend that what we do in the bathroom doesn’t really exist. What’s the need to even talk about it? But when that bathroom unmentionable affects the lives of innocent left-handed folk in weird, ghostly ways, that’s when we bring that s**t out in the open (oops!).
Thus enters one of the crowning achievements of the subcontinental culture – the lota. It’s a common custom in most of South Asia to use one’s hand and a lota-full of water instead of toilet paper. We can deny it, claim it’s a ghastly assumption, or awkwardly change topic. Truth is, it still happens. And without going into the science and mechanics of the system, let’s just say it’s actually supposed to be a better clean.
Even those who now swear by toilet paper end up using their left hand as an instinctive choice. But why must these glorious customs forever tarnish one hand and those who are hardwired from birth to use it?
This puts the lefties in a strange situation. That thing that no one speaks about is somehow still subconsciously on everyone’s mind when it comes to eating.
Many tourist guidebooks and blogs for India faithfully state that visitors should avoid doing several things with their left hands – shake hands, exchange money, serve food, and eat. It’s not only the devil’s hand (as in Western mythology), it’s also just plain dirty. Thus, the ever respectful tourist perpetuates the taboo even more. The same taboo the desi lefties have been facing from as far back as we can remember.
It’s happened to the brownest of us. You’re at a family gathering, among a group of people digging into a delicious platter of food, and suddenly a heavy hand smacks yours as you pick up a ladle full of dal makhani. Shaking it off, you sit down to eat and just as you put the first spoonful – or even worse, handful – into your mouth, there’s a collective gasp around the room. Pin drop silence. You just did the unthinkable with your left hand and must now forever be branded as “that person who uses the ‘wrong’ hand.”
The cultural prejudices against the “other” hand run far and deep. In the Hindi language, despite the existence of a perfectly official word for “left” – baaya – the colloquial terminology used is more along the lines of “wrong” or “opposite” – ulta. Parents, for time immemorial, have tried to convert their faulty kids to the right side, like a birth defect that must be corrected. Many have succeeded. Girls were often considered unfit for marriage until they were made to switch to the right hand. And many kids were either hit on the left hand or had chilli powder rubbed on as a deterrent. Yet we still don’t call this a form of oppression.
And if you thought you were safe at least in the spiritual and intimate realm of worship, there’s no escape there either. I’ve stopped counting the number of times I’ve been told by priests, elders or family to only extend the right hand when giving or receiving prasad (offering). Dhagas (religious threads) and karas (steel bracelets) can only grace the right wrist.
Even God knows what you do with your left hand. And he wants none of it.
The world around us has evolved comfortably into a right-centric existence. Even the most basic of daily activities are tailored for those who don’t depend on the hand that’s been elsewhere. Think scissors, computer mouse, fridge doors, can openers, cheque book stubs, trouser zips, ATMs. The list could go on. And if you ever wanted to play polo as a leftie, it’s not even allowed. Being left-handed means living with the daily pressure to adapt. Yet all hope isn’t flushed down the toilet.
Fortunately, the worst of our global persecution is over. Lefties are being recognized for greater creative inclinations, and heavier use of the right side of the brain (i.e. the more fun side).
While the right-handed world was busy enjoying their perfectly contoured scissors, lefties have slowly but steadily crept into almost every area of influence. Our hall of fame is vast, whether it’s legends of history like Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, or current icons Barack Obama, Angelina Jolie, or Oprah Winfrey. Even Justin Bieber’s part of the club (hey, we’ll take whoever we can get).
The South Asian cultural attitudes towards the left hand won’t go away anytime soon. And neither will the preferred use of the hand for bathroom rituals. But why must those two be so closely intertwined? The only way to overcome is to defend the right to be left. It’ll probably invite more frowning from the uncles and aunties, but soon they will go back to watching their TV serials and you can go on fighting the daily battle against the can opener.
And the rest of the right-handers out there, beware, there may be a leftie near you when you least expect it.
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