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.
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide