Touch, like love, reveals itself more fully once it is in retreat
Nine months of not touching anyone except my mother, and I am down a mineshaft of memories about touch: what was permissible for whom, the shock of implied touch where none existed, sanguine touch, and touch that inverts all presumption.
During the long months of self-isolating, my childhood stepped out of its shadows, bemused at the social-media hoo-ha about not being able to hug friends. Despite growing up in a family where hugs were the norm and a culture that emphasised embracing as a form of greeting, I grew up not hugging friends. Where I was growing up in Rajasthan in the 1980s and early ’90s, I never saw others hug in public. Classmates shook hands formally occasionally, say, when you first met someone, or when you wanted to say “Congrats” or “Happy Birthday”. Violent touch was a different matter. I recall plenty of beatings and other kinds of assaults on students in school.
Kids touched each other, of course, during sports or stage performances. We danced socially a couple of times a year, but even that was something my mother initiated at the birthday parties she hosted. Grown-ups gathered at dinners, pujas, club fetes, orchestra-party nights; I didn’t see them hugging.
It wasn’t until I joined a girls’ hostel that hugging became a more constant demonstration of friendship. Once I moved to metropolises like Mumbai, I observed new social rules. Friends, colleagues, even acquaintances reached out for hugs. In the new millennium, I saw new kinds of informal touch: air-kissing, fist-bumps, high-fives. By early 2020, the casual half-hug had little emotional significance. It remained, however, a significant social contract. Hugs assured participants of a certain peerdom for, always, there were others, people bricked off from your affection. You could always tell which social class you belonged to based on who gave you a hug while leaving the room, who would merely nod, and who didn’t feel the need to acknowledge you at all.
Now that separateness is the norm, now that we hesitate at thresholds, constantly alert to each body’s proximity, I see clearly what was always there, but not easy to acknowledge. Casual social hugging had become one of those tools that affirmed class distinctions.
Indians are not new to social and physical distancing. Long before the pandemic, there were separate lifts and staircases for “service” staff. Private gardens restricted access to “non-residents”. It is no secret that most upper-caste households keep separate cups and plates for domestic workers. There are apartment complexes where Muslims or Dalits may not reside even if they can afford to. Public parks charge entrance fees, effectively barring the poor and the homeless. Kids are routinely segregated via food with certain schools insisting on vegetarian tiffin, and many states refusing to allow eggs or meat in school lunches.
Many work organisations have separate eating areas for different classes of employees. One of the offices I worked at would serve the bosses fancier lunches on nicer trays. They did not come to the canteen to eat the subsidised, vegetarian meals the rest of us ate. In passing, I had glanced at those top-management trays: china and cutlery, bowls filled with neatly cubed fruit, served discreetly in conference rooms or their opaque offices.
I used to wonder why this separateness was necessary. Why could bosses not share tables with clerks and secretaries? It wasn’t as if healthy or expensive foods were forbidden in the canteen. Now, I am starting to wonder if it wasn’t because even the fanciest lunch requires that suits turn into men. Men and women, with hands that are ageing and mouths that make chewing sounds and bellies that have to be filled. Eating at the same table would expose them as human, no more and no less than the guy who swept the floors or the woman who sat up half the night fixing other people’s grammar for wages that didn’t allow her to retire.
It is harder to yell at, bully or render jobless the people you eat with. Proximity to another human body allows you to look beyond clothes, designations and clan affiliations. It forces you to acknowledge that vast privilege is rarely earned. This is, naturally, a terrifying proposition for those who have unearned privilege, and, so, they must hold themselves separate, pretending they are superior or more deserving of calmer, prettier environments.
More than once over these nine months we have woken up to brute reminders that touch is constantly policed. One recent story was about a Dalit youth beaten to death because he had touched the food that had been served at a feast. The victim had been called to the venue to “clean up”. Two upper-caste men saw that he had served himself some of the food and reacted by beating him senseless.
In an attempt to verify the report, I Googled “Dalit beaten to death”. An unconscionable list unfurled. In May 2019, a 21-year-old Dalit man was beaten to death at a wedding. He had offended his upper-caste assailants because he’d occupied a chair. One story from November this year mentioned a Dalit farm worker in Guna, Madhya Pradesh,who was beaten to death for refusing to hand over a matchbox. In September, two Dalit children — a 12-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy — were beaten to death in Madhya Pradesh, apparently for defecating in the open. Another story from June was about a Dalit college student in Pune who had fallen in love with an upper-caste woman.
Chairs. Food. Utensils. Love and sex. Of all things, this last touch is feared the most for it erodes, and eventually, erases hierarchies written in blood. Touch signals acceptance, respect, solidarity. While the mixing of bloodlines is its ultimate frontier, living in mixed neighbourhoods and eating at the same table is the very brickwork of a functional, healthy society. The transformative power of touch is greatly diminished if you refuse to share space. Various degrees of segregation, on the other hand, ensure that we are not forced to confront each other as equal citizens. The true opposite of untouchability is, thus, not a legally defensible touchability but de-segregation, which is resisted fiercely in our country.
It wasn’t surprising that, in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, we began to hear a few excuses for the practise of untouchability — the fear of infection. Stringent social-physical distancing rules have not cut both ways though. Could people higher up in the caste and class hierarchy be asked to take turns to do dangerous and “polluting” work, and be subject to the ancient “untouchable” rules in the bargain, including being denied access to common water resources and being forced to live on the fringes of all villages and towns? Could the upper and middle classes, even now, just be asked to deal with their own waste, making sure to dispose it of only within the narrow periphery of their own apartment complex, and not create pollution in other parts of the city, where the poor live?
Our relentless segregation, so ferociously guarded, is it treatable? I don’t know, but I place my hope in education and empathy, which are a kind of spiritual touch. In liberating ourselves from ignorance and falsehood, we may find that exclusions via touch only handicap our society. We gain nothing except a bloated sense of self and a mindless fear of losing what we have. Through science and history we may learn that all the segregations in the world cannot prevent changes to our way of life and to our DNA.
We can expend our strength clinging to the hands of the clock, straining to prevent a mix of food habits, blood, faith. We will slow down the wheel of time for a minute, no more. Or, we could reach out the way poet Manglesh Dabral, snatched from our midst by the coronavirus this year, had written: “Touch you must even though it makes things topsy turvy”. We could reject those “Do not touch” injunctions, and marvel at what we have gained: the great peace of not having to worry about who and what is denied to us. The endless relief!
Annie Zaidi is a writer and short-film maker. She’s the winner of the 2020 Tata Literature Live Book of the Year (Fiction) Award for her Prelude to a Riot
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