When I was seven I broke my radius, one of the main bones in the forearm. This necessitated a plaster cast and since the arm in question was my right arm I had to learn how to eat and perform right handed functions with my left hand. Some three months later, when my arm had healed and the cast was removed I had already become habituated to doing everything with my left hand.
However, I was told off every time I tried to use my left hand to eat my food. This was perplexing to a young child; why was the left hand not the equal of the right hand? The answer, I was told was that the left hand was considered “unclean” because it was the hand one used to clean themselves with water after using the toilet.
This explanation felt strangely illogical to my precocious brain. “But we wash our hands after going to the toilet, and we can’t wash our hands without rubbing them against each other so what difference does it make, which hand we use?” My logic failed to budge my parents. I continued to be told off until I had fallen back into line and my left hand had been consigned firmly back into the “unclean” corner.
Years later I was attending high school in Malta where my father had a job as Chief Administrator of St Luke’s, the tiny island’s only hospital. Maltese is a mixture of fourteen different languages with Italian being the dominant one in this hodgepodge of tongues. It was then that I discovered that left in Italian was sinistra, sinister. When I asked my friend Anne, who, coincidentally, was also left-handed, about this malign designation, she replied that the left hand was associated with the Devil. “Christianity is right handed” she said, “Christ always blesses with the right hand”
The inauspiciousness of the left hand appeared to be consistent throughout the dominant religions of the world. When I married into a Brahmin family I quickly learned that while there may be a world of difference between monotheism and polytheism, the taboos against the left hand were identical and the priest would insist that you present your right hand to receive prasad.
The rightness or righteousness of the right hand and the implicit or explicit wrongness of the left hand led me to ruminate about how curious it was that within a single body, some parts were held to be inferior than others when it was clear that they were an integral part of the functioning of the human mechanism. I recalled reading in school about the mythological origins of the caste system described in the Rigveda, in which Brahma manifested four groups from his body. Priests and teachers were cast from his mouth, rulers and warriors from his arms, merchants and traders from his thighs, and workers and peasants from his feet.
Thinking about this hierarchy of body parts, I thought it was an interesting psychology of exploitation – to be told that you are an indispensable, integral part of the whole, but yet your position is inferior owing to your location in the body of creation.
Today, when we are in the grip of a pandemic, my social media feed is an interesting medley of videos illustrating the correct method of washing one’s hands. Some are kathakali instructions, others are set to the 12-beat cycle of the tabla known as teental, yet others groove to the nostalgic hit song I Will Survive, provoking laughter.
Our two hands, left and right, inevitably come together to perform the essential, and now lifesaving, function of handwashing, yet as soon as they separate the left hand is relegated to its inferior “unclean “ status in South Asian society.
When I think of the status of the left hand another term that is trending in these apocalyptic times comes to mind. The term is “social distancing”. I am wondering how many people realise what a luxury social distancing is, with its prerequisite of at least six feet of space between yourself and your nearest neighbour. I think Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the Italian polymath’s famous drawing, which depicts a man in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart, taking up as much space as possible, and I think of daily wage labourers and housemaids going home to sleep in a one-room shack, their arms and legs and breath entwined.
I fear that in our current mode of “social distancing” as we confine ourselves to the narrow radius of our homes and the curated feed of our social media streams the economically underprivileged among us will be further invisibilised, left hands used when required and otherwise “left behind” – kept at arm’s length in every sense of the word.
I recall my childhood going to fabric shops with my mother where we bought lengths of fabric by the gaz, measured by the distance between one arm span and the nose. Some say that the width of both your arms stretched out is the length of your whole body. This would translate to “dou gaz” or two arm spans – so no matter who we are, prince or pauper, “dou gaz” or our two arm spans will always be the length of our grave.
We are equal in death, so let’s strive to give each other equal treatment in our brief life span. Washing our hands should not translate into absolving ourselves of this responsibility.
Sophia Naz is the author of Shehnaz: A Tragic True Story Of Royalty, Glamour And Heartbreak.