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Something to touch: Beyond Covid

  • Published at 05:14 am June 11th, 2020
Two Untouchables under the Black Sun by Savindra Sawakar
Image: Two Untouchables under the Black Sun by Savindra Sawakar

Personal essay: Almost all kinds of touch are now an anathema, a cause for paranoia and panic

The understanding of touch in my teenage years, that time when everything is mysterious and desirable, came to me through two kinds of musical traditions. Mainly because music is a great influencer in most of what I write, and even falter to write. Growing up in Assam, Bihu songs were an integral part of my life, as was Rabindra sangeet, a handed-down love affair from my parents, especially my mother.

“Tuk dekhi mur gaa keniba laage … (my body tingles on seeing you)” – went one of the popular Bihu numbers. That there was the first tactile sensation conveyed in a most joyous graphic description. To this was added the evocative “Ek tuku chhonwaa laage ek tuku katha shuni (just that utterance of yours touched me)”. In both the songs the sensation conveyed was a precursor to the real touch, of that of lovers primarily. One was already aware of the touch between parents and children, and between compassionate peers and caregivers.

In the age of Covid-19 today, perhaps both the songs would have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Almost all kinds of touch are now an anathema, a cause for paranoia and panic. Many have already pointed out that we Indians are more or less adjusted to this new touch regime because most of us, inherently and in active practice, are deeply discriminatory about human touch if one goes by the history of the subcontinent.

In one of the recent essays I’ve read, writer Mukul Kesavan talks of the present specter of “Covid Brahminism” and growing up witnessing his grandfather’s rigorous caste distancing practices. At that instant, I’m reminded of my mother’s mild warning about accepting an invitation to my Brahmin neighbor’s home. During the Durga puja fanfare in that particular neighbor’s household, little girls were called over to have lunch one afternoon. We kids were excited to eat a communal meal, on banana leaves, while sitting on the floor, old style. “Just don’t touch any utensils or anything there. Just eat and come back,” was my mother’s advice. Perhaps the other kids—lower in the caste pyramid—also carried similar instructions, but I don’t know. The same Brahmin family once asked me smilingly, “Are you people Mishras?” “No, Das,” was my awkward reply. I imagine the little drill here is what happens in many other circles with far more rigor. And once we know what to touch and who to touch and not touch when already young, decades later the novel Coronavirus finds in us a slave to easy discrimination.

In 2010, I wrote a poem titled “Ahalya’s wish” (interestingly, in a handmade chapbook called “Surfaces”) where I aimed to recollect reactions of the people around me regarding a lower caste woman who came over sometimes to do random work at our place and also play with us kids. But now when I read my own poem, I feel I fictionalized a lot in there. The woman in the poem is not just one woman, but several men and women. Our household was slightly different than the others. Hybrid, mixed caste and class, and also one of the progressive ones in a sea of conservative conformists. In the neighborhood, anything to do with touch across caste and class was an elusive subject, nearly absent in its mention. On the other hand, the so-called distancing was practiced with “ancestral” diligence by people around us. The dominant attitude toward the women and men who cleaned the drains and septic tanks, who cut the monsoon grass, who sold eggs and fish, and who collected cow dung for manure as well as fuel, kept “touch” in the realms of “untouchables”.

Because now we are discussing a pandemic instead of just the weather, I read poetry inadvertently “looking” for touch all over. I remember the time when a slightly older teenaged poetry patron near our home would sometime pass on his own poems to me written on chits of paper. His fingers lightly scratched my palm a couple of times, I suppose quite knowingly, and the feeling was more than electric to me, being at the threshold of puberty and unknown emotions. Compare this with how we now accept cash and other objects from a “distanced” hand. My parents confirm that I abhorred being touched as a child. And my parents especially would make it a joke much to my chagrin saying how tough it would be for a lover to love me, a husband to hold my hands. 

In the age of Covid crisis while reading American poet Ada Limon where she urges, “I am asking you to touch me now”, I feel again and again that touch returns to eclipse all material largesse, natural bounties, and social and political one-upmanship. Oddly though, all other objects she omits from her list are those that manifest only under some kind of touch. How would we know unless we touched flowers, bird feathers, handwritten notes, skin, buds, tenderness of shoots and the hardiness of seeds, warmth of a bosom and cruelty of fists, temperatures of light and snowflakes, various surfaces, and so on and so forth?

While the Coronavirus pandemic has restricted human activities and most people state being “out of touch” with friends and even family, like all complicit people safely tucked in their middle-class security, I’m moved to see photographs of “migrant” workers reaching their home state and falling on their knees to kiss and touch the soil. The touch between this inanimate yet symbolic body of the home—home is another tactile concept for me—and the animate, prostrate human body is forged amid new emotions and anxieties.

After all, according to Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, “Touch is the fundamental language of connection.” With the Covid crisis looming large on us, the language of this connection is undergoing sea changes, even acquiring different forms.

With the new rules in, how will then lovers love, babies cuddle, and the compassionate hold hands? Or imagine even how the curious will fare as the narrator in HD’s poem who touches something inside a pool asking, “what are you–banded one?” The hands that are now under surveillance will think twice before venturing into the unknown, whether in love or rejection.

But because I speak of music and songs in the beginning, the haptic space that I visualize in the coming times is one that promises me of more cordial notes among humans as well as the species. A discordant tune doesn’t rob the octaves of their power of rearrangement. This is what plants and animals do.

Yes, I’m hopeful. The beautiful Bihu dancers of my teen years will perhaps still come back next spring to excite their doting partners, to cause their body to tingle with romance which another Bihu number captures in onomatopoetic abundance— “tuk dekhi mur gaa jin jin jaan jan pir pir par par xir xir xar xar koray”—I do not think a translation is very necessary here. Words at times are like birds whose flights need no description. Words will still set afire imaginations of love and longing, just those little, gossamer words, to create the flutter of “ek tuku chhonwa”. And I really hope Anne Sexton’s lament about the hand—“an ordinary hand—just lonely for something to touch”—will turn into a celebration. Months after our hands are sealed off, we will have to reinvent touch as well as the surfaces we touch, some of it metaphorical. Some of it by being loving and forgiving. And most of it by being imaginative. Perhaps the virus challenges us to be more creative than we ever imagine ourselves to be.

The Ahalya of my poem had her choice made long back, being assertive and creative:

“I’d like to be made flesh, don’t know the name,”
 she said. “Feet first, I will touch everything.”

Nabina Das is a poet and writer based in Hyderabad, India. She’s the author of five books. Her most recent poetry collection is Sanskarnama (Red River).

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