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Last week, I had to go to the hospital as Plantar Fasciitis had struck yet again with a vengeance incapacitating me.  The doctor suggested a cortisone injection.  As he got busy with a couple of other patients, the nursing attendant walked in with the necessary paraphernalia to get my foot ready and asked me,

Ethu kaal ma’am?” (Which foot)

I pointed to my left leg and told him unhesitatingly and confidently,

”Valathu..” (right)

Who is not familiar with the old Hindi song? ‘Kahi pe nigahein kahi pe nishana’?? (Loose translation: looking one way while aiming elsewhere) Sigh. My action was a slight variant of the situation expounded in the song. I had pointed correctly, but said it all wrong.

Nonplussed, the man paused.  What was he to do under the circumstance? The pause though had been only for a moment. Most probably taking my action, which we are told speak louder than words and which probably the man had heard too to be the true indicator (bless him) of facts, he very efficiently made me lie down with the right (in this case the left) foot on the right side for the doctor to administer the injection.

If you think this is one odd occurrence, think again.

Once I was returning to my son’s apartment in Allalasandra from an outing to the city. When the last turning to the apartment block came into sight to the right, I waved my right hand correctly to the right (I always wave my hands) in a gentle arc and told the cabbie

“To the left….in front of that apartment block!”

Unlike the nursing assistant who was able to take his decision from visual cues, the cab driver, quite naturally since he was driving and had his eyes on the road, did not notice my right hand that I was waving to the right in such an expressive manner. The disadvantage with ‘actions’ is that, if not seen, they end up being practically useless as regards their  ability to ‘speak louder than words’ and the spoken word ends up taking the lead.

Thus the cabbie giving due importance to the words spoken, turned to the left. No, not the cab. Fortunately for everyone concerned, it was just his head that he swiveled to the left.  Finding the left side of the road devoid of apartment blocks as far as the eye could see, the puzzled cabbie glanced backwards at his lone passenger in the back seat. I bet he is not going to forget what met his eye for a long, long time to come. The said passenger was now frantically making determined arcs, and in between pointing too, doing a better job than any pointer dog could ever have done, conveying correctly, that she wanted him to turn to the right.

Kya memsaab?!´ the justifiably aggrieved man asked and added, “Aap ‘left’ kyon bol rahe ho jab ‘right’  ko jaana hai?!” (What Ma’am? Why are you saying ‘left’ when you want to go to the right?)

Inside the cab I turned a beetroot red hearing him, which was mercifully hidden from human eyes by the fact that it was night and the light which came on inside the cab as it stopped and the door was opened, was a dull yellow. But still, I would gladly have had Mother Earth open her jaws right then and swallow me whole. But I knew she did not oblige one for such minor (to her) matters and so forbore to put in a request to the effect, making do with a mere wish.

Sigh. On the wrong side of fifty, I end up making bloopers about left and right. Somebody please change my name to Confused Shail please, because if truth were known there are more things that confuse me than merely left and right. But I will keep those for another day to elaborate on.

Imagine this ‘confusion’ happening after all the trouble my very strict parents went into teaching the siblings and I the left from right! Draconian would be how I’d describe the efforts made by parents of my generation to instill the rights of using the right hand for the right purposes and leaving out the left. Giving and receiving were only done with the right hand. You ate with your right hand. You wrote with your right hand. The left-handed and the ambidextrous just had no place in their scheme of things. They were scolded, shamed and forced into complying with the staunch believers in Only-Right-Is-Right. Growing up, I had noticed the severe repercussions when my younger brother, who seemed ambidextrous, thoughtlessly stretched his left hand to accept or give something or other. Anti-Left(hand) feelings ran pretty high those days. Amitabh Bachhan with his left-handed ways hadn’t yet happened.

The reason given us for the unambiguous leaning towards right was pretty simple and straightforward. The following scene from the Mallu movie Godfather illustrates it very clearly.

The villain a fisherman, tells the ‘good’ people in the movie, that they cannot rescue the woman he is holding hostage. Look at this hand, he says exhibiting an excellent specimen in working condition, a fisherman’s hand! It smells of fish. Don’t mess with me or else you’ll end up smelling of fish. Wah wah! Poor fellow must have been extremely proud of the piece of dialogue he was allotted by the script writers.  But everyone knows, the ‘good’ people in the movie end up with the punch lines.

So Thilakan (a great actor by the way), one of the ‘good’ guys in the movie, takes a step forward, shows his left hand and asks, “Do you see this left hand of mine? I wash my bum with it after I have done my business.” The inherent ‘don’t you mess with me or you will smell to high heaven of solid crap’ did not need any elaboration at all for the audience to go clap, clap, clap.

Well, therein lay the problem as to why the left hands of the world (or just India?) are condemned to ignominy:  they are the crap-washers and hence considered very lowly in the scheme of things indeed. Stupid, if you ask me. One would think they would be revered for the noble work they do. Imagine the chaos if they refused?!  As kids we were yelled at a lot if we used the left hand by mistake to not use the hand that washed the bum!!!!!!!!! The way the adults made it sound, one would think we hadn’t used soap and water to clean our hands, and everyone knows one cannot take soap and water lightly.

Whenever I heard these recriminations, a niggling doubt used to present itself to me. If your left hand was still dirty (germs!!! Germs!!! GERMS!!!!!) not clean enough to be used the same way as the right hand, even after washing, errrr… ummm…. what about your bum which was still attached to your body? Germs could very easily be crawling out and all over, contaminating you by its very proximity to you, isn’t it??  Besides, what when the left hand by force had to meet its counterpart, the much prized right one, when we did a Namaste? What happened when we clapped? Was the right one polluted as well? Did that touching not contaminate Mr Approved-By-All-Right-Hand? Yeah, I had a wild imagination and wilder questions running through my mind. In case you are wondering I still have.

Anyways… let me come back to my confusion regarding left and right which is the res of the post. I have noticed this about myself that, whenever I have to give directions over the phone or while travelling, I first take a look at my hands, verify it is right/left and then, only THEN, say it out loud. Its like: “Take the first turn to the (looks down at her hands, verifies which is the right one and then…) right. Go about a hundred yards, here take a (looks down at hands to see which side is left and then..) left.”  You get the picture? If I don’t check by looking at my hands first, I inevitably go wrong. Sigh. In case anyone has a name for this peculiar condition, please let me know so that I can get help at the earliest. What the heck, it is already too late. But better late than never!

Let me wind up with what happened when my sis and I with our respective spouses had gone to meet our cousin Shashi and his wife Yvonne.  It was the usual banter, the wives vs husbands, men vs women sort of conversation, with some good-natured ribbing going on when continuing something she was saying, Yvonne in a mock serious tone protested to her husband that she had always stood by him.

“Come on Sashi, I have always held hands!”

Cousin Shashi, the prankster as ever replied,

“Yes, you held hands. But…”

He paused dramatically and looked at each of us in turn before continuing,

“But… was it the right hand you held….?”

“Shashi!!!!!!” went Yvonne.

She was looking around for something harder than the soft cushions that littered the sofas to throw at him no doubt, when Cousin Shashi who hadn’t finished, said with a straight face,

“Or was it the left?”

Thereafter only laughter could be heard for a while.

Updated to add:

GV’s take on Left and Right

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