the lede COMMUNITIES

The Other Side

An Indian left-handers’ club seeks to set prejudice right

By mrunmayi ainapure | 1 February 2017

On a December afternoon, in a classroom of Jai Bhavani Vidya Mandir, a Marathi-medium school in Aurangabad, 19 out of 20 children were shaking their heads. Sandeip Vishnoi had just asked the kids—all left-handed students in classes one through four—if any of them had ever been punished for the way they eat or write. Only one six-year-old boy, Anand, squeaked “yes.” After a fair bit of egging on from his schoolmates, he walked to the front of the room. “My parents don’t like it when I do anything with my left hand,” he confessed. “They say it’s wrong.”

Vishnoi—who, at 39 years old, is also one of more than 100 million left-handers in India—knows Anand’s predicament well. Earlier that day, he told me about how, when he was growing up in Indore, his mother believed he was using his dominant hand “to make mischief.” Once, he recalled, “she even gave me a band to sport around my right wrist, patiently explaining, ‘Beta, always remember to use the hand your band is tied around to carry out important tasks.’” Vishnoi’s mother eventually gave up, but not before pleading with him to stop using his left hand in front of elders, or while performing any religious rituals, because it was considered inauspicious or immoral. He faced worse in school, where he was often thrashed for being a lefty, and “was coerced into learning to write with my right hand,” he said. “Most lefties are. We learn to adjust—we have no choice in the matter.”

Such prejudice, Vishnoi explained, is a way of “labelling anything that shifts even slightly from the conventional—the majority—as wrong.” As he got older, he stopped paying attention to such rebukes, and his left-handedness never hindered his adult life. Still, he felt moved to help his fellow lefties. In 2009, on International Left-Handers’ Day, he started a networking community for lefties in Goa, where he was working. The group, called the Indian Left Hander Club, has since expanded greatly. It now carries out a variety of initiatives in about a dozen regional affiliates across the country, including in Delhi, Hyderabad, Bhopal, Indore, Jalgaon, Raipur and Ujjain, as well as the central Maharashtrian city of Aurangabad, where Vishnoi lives.

Just before we visited Jai Bhavani Vidya Mandir, Vishnoi met me in his office, where he works as the vice president of the Aurangabad edition of the Marathi newspaper Lokmat. He told me about how he was visiting the school as part of Lefty’s Got Talent—a contest of sorts that is one of the club’s current initiatives. Vishnoi, who is the club president, as well as his regional secretaries, have been scouting out left-handed schoolchildren who are gifted in academics, sports or the arts. Profiles and photographs of 5,000 of those students will be featured in a book celebrating their achievements. Jai Bhavani is one of roughly 900 schools around the country that Vishnoi has gotten in touch with—a process that involves asking school administrators for the names of their left-handed students, and often contacting those students’ parents to persuade them to let their children enter the contest.

As Vishnoi did that day, club representatives often visit the schools in person. The teachers at Jai Bhavani had assembled a group of left-handed students in a classroom for Vishnoi to conduct a session—the one during which Anand spoke up. Vishnoi told me he talked with Jai Bhavani’s principal after that happened and asked her to have the boy’s parents call him. As of early January, Vishnoi told me he had not received a call from them, but he said he hoped Anand would participate in Lefty’s Got Talent.

The ongoing contest is not the club’s only initiative for children. “We usually focus on students,” Vishnoi said, “as they are easier to approach, and because most cases of bigotry against lefties happen when they’re younger and more vulnerable.” The organisation also awards scholarships of Rs 11,000 to left-handed students in grades one through 12 who top an IQ test that it administers. In 2014, it held a ceremony where board toppers from several states were awarded certificates and medals by Sumitra Mahajan, the speaker of the Lok Sabha.

The club has also held activities for adults, including an awards ceremony for left-handed media professionals, as well as a marathon for only left-handed participants. The club’s regional outfits hold monthly meetings, in which members socialise and strategise over tea. The sense of community that such gatherings foster is, according to Vishnoi, invaluable. “Finding a fellow lefty in a sea of righties while you’re going about your regular routine is always slightly emotional—much like running into an Indian in a foreign land,” he said.

For a lifetime membership, one must pay a registration fee of Rs 500, which covers entry to all of the club’s events, including its annual gala. Despite the group’s impressive membership of 112,045 people, Vishnoi seemed disappointed that “very few” of those individuals “do their bit for the community.” For instance, he said, “out of our 5,000-odd members in Aurangabad, only about 200 actively attend the meetings or participate in any event.”

Every day, from 6 to 8 pm, the club also runs a telephone helpline, which Vishnoi said receives about 100 calls per month. The calls are all fielded by either him or Nandini Tiwari, an Indore-based psychologist who, Vishnoi said, handles the cases that require professional counselling. “Almost 95 percent of the calls I receive are from worried parents of left-handed kids,” Tiwari told me over the phone. These children, she said, have often gone “into some form of depression after being forced to use their right hands by either a family member or, more often than not, their school teachers—who have even gone so far as to tie up their left hands.”

Vishnoi has taken some heavy phone calls as well. One student from Gujarat, he remembered, called the hotline because his hostel warden had threatened to hit him if he ever conducted aarti with his left hand. Vishnoi told me he then telephoned the warden himself, and “very gently” explained “how it is a known fact that Hanuman retrieved the sanjeevani herb by lifting the entire mountain with his left hand, or Arjuna always drew his bowstring using his left hand.” In light of that, he asked the warden, “How it is then possible for the usage of the left hand to be inauspicious, when these gods were themselves lefties?”

Vishnoi also remembered receiving a call from a young woman in Rajasthan, who wanted to get married but said she couldn’t find a groom because she was a lefty. “I assured her that there was nothing wrong with her being left-handed, and the right man wouldn’t see it as a flaw,” he said. To such callers, Vishnoi often cites “examples of famous people who are left-handers, to boost their self-belief.” In this case, he said, “I told this woman how it is Mary Kom’s left-handed punch that made her a revered boxer.”

In a similar vein, the club has recently been rallying around a left-handed celebrity: Amitabh Bachchan. Since August, the club has collected signatures for a petition that calls for the Bollywood star to be awarded the Bharat Ratna. The campaign will culminate on 15 August 2017, in a march from Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to Rashtrapati Bhavan, where the petition will be submitted to the president. The promotional image for the initiative, on the club’s website, reads, “Ab ki baar, Amitabh Bharat Ratna ke hakdaar.”

The club has even forged partnerships with major businesses. Vishnoi told me that until 2015, the organisation’s scholarships were funded by the trust of the business mogul Ratan Tata—“who, a lefty himself, has promised to soon launch a left-handed car.” Making lefty-friendly products more widely available is one of Vishnoi’s broader goals as well. “Everything in this world is designed for efficient usage by the right-handed, be it pens which we find inconvenient to grip, notebooks, cutlery, and even dangerous tools like scissors, which can lead to injury if used wrongly,” he said. “I wish more manufacturers realised the massive consumer base they can find in the lefty community.” The club, he said, has been “in talks” to encourage the company Titan “to come up with a wristwatch designed for lefties.”

On the surface, Vishnoi acknowledged, the lefty cause may seem petty in the face of other social ills. “But try doing everything using your left hand, and you’ll realise our problems are very real.”

Mrunmayi Ainapure is a Pune-based journalist who writes on art, culture and community. She has contributed to the Times Group, FirstPost, The Quint, EazyDiner and India Today, and spent a year in Goa working with publications including The Goan and Planet-Goa.

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