Why India remains a 'touchy-feely' society

Because non-consensual, uninvited touch is as much prevalent and practised as consensual, reciprocal touch is censored.

 |  4-minute read |   30-01-2017
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India is a crowd. And the most curious and conflicting feature that this crowd manifests is in its relationship with the sensation of touch.

This is a country which is perennially obsessed with a desire to touch you, pretty much everywhere on your body.

No Indian - irrespective of gender - spending a few hours in a public place and using public transport will come back home untouched.

This is, however, the same country where the practice of untouchability - ordained by Hindu laws of caste - is acutely, religiously followed, despite its constitutional ban.

Touch in India, then, is messed up.

Not many days ago, I was awaiting my train at a station of the Delhi Metro when a gentleman came up to me, grabbed my elbow and inquired something routine and harmless, something on the lines of will this train take me to this station.

I said it would, provided he let go off my arm. Slowly, he unclenched his fist and asked, quietly unamused and matter-of-fact in his tone, "Haath pighal gaya kya? (Did you arms melt?)"

This reminded me of an opinion piece that lamented India's filth, but discussed the Metro stations and trains as a ray of hope towards a cleaner India.

origin_bf0d8b111c3ef_013017063756.jpg Being untouchable is the sensory identity that at least a quarter of the Indian population is born with and lives. Photo: Reuters

But, if you ever board or deboard a train at any station of Delhi Metro - however empty the station is, and the train unhurried - you will rest assured that clean or unclean, India will always remain touchy-feely.

You will feel hands and tummies all over your shoulders and back, if not your buttocks, assisting you to get on and get off the train. Restless verbal encouragements like "chalo chalo (move, move)" even when nobody is really blocking the entry or exit makes the whole exercise even more gallant and chivalrous.

And God forbid, if you actually blocked someone's way, you will find yourself confidently pushed aside without a word uttered. One is not even talking about the railway stations, or the buses, or how women, predictably, are much more prone to be victims of uninvited touch than men.

The word uninvited is very interesting here. In fact, it is central to why touch is a curious case in the country.

Because non-consensual, uninvited, unasked-for touch is as much prevalent and practised in the country as consensual, reciprocal touch is condemned and censored.

Boys and girls holding hands, boys and boys holding hands, girls and girls holding hands - these are rare sights in India.

And when such an action actually happens in public - in select corners or malls in a few cities like Delhi and Mumbai - it still is a spectacle that raises eyebrows, if not always lewd, butch comments from the people around.

Bukowski could be speaking in the voice of an Indian lover when he said, "I loved you like a man loves a woman he never touches, only writes to, keeps little photographs of."

A married couple, as perplexing as it may sound, is dissuaded from any public display of affection even more staunchly.

Live-in is treated as a menace and the students' organisation attached to the ruling party in the country regularly campaigns against it as it "goes against the grain of Indian culture", thereby barring consensual touch even in private.

Being divided and defined on the basis of caste, with the Brahmins at the top of the hierarchy and the Dalits making up the bottom, the Hindu Indian model of society is anyway premised on and retained by the norms and sanctions attached to the sense of touch.

Being untouchable is the sensory identity that at least a quarter of the Indian population is born with and lives.

And if they would ever transgress and dare to touch - some social position of status, and no, not the high-castes as yet - they would be routinely flogged in a developing India, that form of contact being allowed.

Indian society, all said and done, is a touch society.

Writer

Jyotirmoy Talukdar Jyotirmoy Talukdar

The author recently completed an MPhil in English Literature from the University of Delhi, New Delhi. His areas of interest are Dalit studies, sociohistorical linguistics and disability.

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