Thursday, July 18, 2013

My Left / Right Hand Dilemma

    There’s a certain type of anxiety I get when I eat in public.  In India, people generally do not use silverware, and it is customary to eat with the right hand.  The use of the left-hand to perform certain actions like eating or giving money is considered taboo.  From an anthropological standpoint, this concept serves both religious and social norms in Indian society.  In relation to ancient Hindu belief, right-handedness is associated with the sahaj /dakshin marg, or the yogic way – essentially the light path.  While left-handedness is associated with the vaam marg, or the path of the Aghori – essentially the dark path.  (Think of Star Wars for a serious simplification).  Children are taught from an early age to write, eat, and perform every activity with the right hand.  It is rare in Indian society to find a left-hander. 

     But the left-hand taboo isn’t all about religion, at least according to my best attempt at understanding this behavior.  The need to eat right-handed is primarily influenced by the need to maintain proper hygiene.  Due to other factors I need not discuss here, Indians don’t use toilet paper when they go to the bathroom; they use water.  Now to an American, this act may be considered perplexing if not downright insane. (I just happen to know an Indian who will defend to the death the advantages of using water).  Judgments aside, wiping oneself is done with the left hand.  Thus, for sanitary reasons, it’s essential to eat with the right hand.

     As a left-hander myself, I find it difficult to abide by the right-hander rule in India.  I can adequately feed myself with my right hand, but using a cutlery is a lot easier that making spoons out of rotis (wheat bread) or using your thumb as a sort of food forklift.  Whenever I am at a special function like a puja, I will consciously eat only with my right hand, as a sign of my utmost respect and understanding of the taboo.  However, eating dosa at a stand-and-eat restaurant where the ultimate goal is to consume your food as fast as possible and move aside for the next dozen people to do the same is not where I want to practice my ambidexterity.  For the sake of avoiding any further bouts of food poisoning on my part, and the desire to actually enjoy a meal, my husband and I typically eat only in the enclosed, we-have-seats-for-you restaurants.  Even in these places though, I feel somewhat perturbed by the left / right hander dilemma.  I am after all, a proud leftie, and I do prefer to eat with some semblance of sophistication, even if I am eating with my hand.  But people don’t know that, nor do they care that I am one of the rare lefties.  As a white woman in India, my skin apparently screams “look at me!!” (Sounds vain but it's true).  Thus, my act of eating with my tabooed and dirty left hand is put on display for all to witness.  All I think that they are thinking is that I am eating with my ass-wiping hand, committing a social faux pas, and bypassing all rules of sanitary behavior.  It all reminds me of this stupid joke told to me long ago.  Someone asks you what hand you use to wipe your ass.  After you reply and return their question, they, so quick-witted, tell you neither, they use toilet paper.  

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