The difference between right and left

What Indians get up to with their hands

In all the space and time devoted to Celebrity Big Brother, a fundamental question has been overlooked. It was asked by one of the housemates, Danielle Lloyd: "They eat with their hands in India, don't they - or is that China? You don't know where their hands have been." Many of you see this as a racist gibe. I see it as a natural inquiry.

Most white Britons, I suspect, have no idea what we Indians get up to with our hands. For us, the public and private use of hands can have rather esoteric meaning. Consider what the actress Shilpa Shetty did when she first met the uncouth Jade Goody in the house. She didn't wave her hands about and shout something meaningless like "Hi". Instead, she brought both hands up to her chest, palms touching, and bowed elegantly. Namaste! The gesture says I love and respect you, I greet the place where you and I are one, I rise above our differences. Now, I ask you, can hands communicate anything more profound?

Of course, we Indians also use our hands to eat. But Danielle's confusion between Indians and Chinese is not unusual. Britain seems to have an interminable problem with defining "Indians". We have been located in places as far off as the Americas ("Red Indians") and Indonesia ("Dutch Indians"). Nowadays, all Indians in Britain are seen as "Asians" and Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants are described as Indian. Hobson-Jobson, the bible of Anglo-Indian terms, says that a whole book can be written on the use and abuse of the word Indian. Indeed, quite a few have been written since Hobson-Jobson was first published in 1886. So let us not be too harsh on the poor denizens of Celebrity Big Brother.

It is not strictly correct to say Indians eat with their hands. In fact, we eat only with our right hand. It's a process that requires more grace and skill than holding a knife and fork. To see what I mean, try breaking a piece of nan or chapatti, scooping some generic curry up with it and placing the whole thing in your mouth without making a mess. You will appreciate something else: you are forced to give total attention to the food.

Moreover, it's a much more sensual experience that adds touch to sight, smell and taste. It is thoroughly ecological; and it breaks all social boundaries. That's why the human family has eaten with its fingers throughout history. Knives and forks were introduced for people who didn't realise that they had to wash their hands before eating. Cutlery also emerged to establish class distinction - and to place one culture above all others. So now we look down on the most natural, healthy and enjoyable way of eating.

However, no self-respecting Indian will ever eat with his left hand, because that hand is for another, equally natural function. It is used for washing the anal region after defecation. If eating with the right hand is a sophisticated skill, then washing one's evacuations with the left is a high art. The first thing to realise is that we Indians, unlike most of you, do not use paper. As a civilisation we pre-date the invention of the toilet roll and have continued to use the most natural of all materials - water. The second thing to understand is that water has to be carried to the right region. This task is performed by a special implement, totally Indian in its origins, called the lota. It looks like a teapot and is made of stainless steel, aluminium or plastic, but never ceramic.

Now, you can't wash yourself the Indian way if you are sitting comfortably on the throne. You have to squat. Imagine the dexterity required for you to balance while squatting, holding the lota in your right hand, pouring the exact amount of water on the correct area, and cleaning yourself with the left hand. I don't recommend this for faint-hearted non-Indians. But it does clarify the difference between us and white Britons. You may occasionally be able to eat like us using your fingers, but by God, you can never shit like us.

So I hope Danielle, Jade and the rest of you, working-class chavs and middle-class snots, can see that we do a lot more with our hands than just eat. You can appreciate why yoga comes so easily to us. But above all, you now understand why it is not a good idea to shake an Indian by the left hand. You know where it has been.

Ziauddin Sardar's "Balti Britain: the British Asian experience" will be published by Granta Books in the autumn

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.