In India, where we have a deeply entrenched caste system, certain castes have been subjected to an odious practice called untouchability. My grandmother (father’s mother), a pious woman belonging to the elite Brahmin caste, was known for not allowing members of the "lower castes" to enter the house. She’d dowse herself in water from the holy river Ganga if she accidentally touched one of them. All the linen in the house would be washed if one of them sat down where they were not supposed to. Separate utensils were maintained for the household help. As a child, I read in storybooks and magazines that particularly devout Brahmins would take a bath even if they crossed the shadow of a person from a "nichu jati".
Touch is an intensely political matter. Touch is about power. About showing you your place in the world. There is a world of difference between the warm caress of a lover and the cold tap on the back by the invigilator in the exam hall. One tells you that you are in a timeless bond. The other tells you your time’s up.
I have been having all sorts of thoughts about touch as we live out a nationwide lockdown in my country, and the idea of social distancing – some prefer "physical distancing" – grows like a weed all over our lives and our minds. In my country, distance between people used to be an absurd idea just weeks back. There are 1.3 billion of us, and jostling for space inside our homes and public spaces is a permanent feature of our lives. Suddenly, we are told to partly neuter the one sense organ that is used to the most stimulus.
I miss touching people. I mean I still get to touch my wife and my child of course, but what I miss is shaking hands with the security guards in my building, with the newspaper vendor, with the drugstore guy. Touch was the primary way for me to say "thank you". And now that’s gone.
Plus with the constant soaping and scrubbing, the niggling suspicion that one is "dirty" all the time, touch is becoming a kind of taboo. I don’t like it one bit. It makes me angry and sad and confused.
Are you touch-deprived? Now you can find out
Science says touch deprivation is a serious issue. I read a great article the other day which said:
"Losing out on workplace handshakes, friendly hugs, or pats on the back can result in feelings of touch starvation. Of course, it does relate to sensual touching, such as holding hands, back scratching, and foot rubbing, too. But scientists have found that a nerve ending, called C-tactile afferents, exists to recognise any form of gentle touch.
In fact, according to a 2017 study, the ideal touching speed is between 3 and 5 centimetres per second. This releases oxytocin, also known as the ‘love hormone’... Even gentle touch from a stranger has been shown to reduce feelings of social exclusion."
The article also said that you know you are touch-deprived if, among other things, you find yourself subconsciously doing things to simulate touch, such as taking long, hot baths or showers, wrapping up in blankets, or holding on to a pet.
Are you exhibiting any of these behaviours? Don’t worry. You have company.
Should I write about touch? What can I absolutely not miss?
So here’s my question to you: would you like me to write an article about what’s going on with us as together — as a species — we forget and relearn so many things about the sense of touch?
Can you point me to great articles, podcasts or videos on this subject that I just can’t miss?
Also, tell me if you live alone and have no one to hug or cuddle, how are you compensating for the loss of human touch?
For whatever it is worth, here’s a picture of my outstretched palm. I will imagine myself shaking hands with all of you tonight. To thank you for reading me and sharing your stories with me week after week.
Knowing that you are all out there somewhere is helping me get through this. Know that I am here for you too.
Stay safe, and see you next week.