Left side story

Left side story

Lefties have come a long way from being viewed suspiciously, as people who were ‘ill’, ‘wrong’ or ‘off’ in some sense. So has research on why some of us prefer our left to our right.

Keep to the left

As I begin typing this article, I become aware of a detail that I have never really paid much attention to — my mouse sits to the left of my computer where it is obviously easier for my left hand to operate it. For my family members, it is a mere detail. My left-handed ways do not attract their attention anymore.

But another chilling detail does when I mention it.

This has to do with the redoubtable Joan of Arc who is included in most lists of ‘Famous Left-Handers’ since analysis of her signature by handwriting experts on a couple of documents have tentatively concluded that she was left-handed. Others have countered this by stating that — and this is the chilling detail — it is also likely that she was portrayed as a lefty to pit people against her. If you recall, Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake for heresy. In order to turn public opinion against her, the list of her supposed crimes wasn’t enough. Being left-handed also helped make the case against her. Ah. Now you see it, don’t you?

Sinistral not sinister!

One of the words used to describe lefties is ‘sinistral’ and probing the origin of this word could serve to explain the Joan of Arc matter. ‘Sinistral’ comes from the Medieval Latin ‘sinistralis’, meaning ‘left’, ‘on the left side’ and is closely related to, as you would have no doubt guessed … ‘sinister’ (meaning malicious, evil et al).

‘Left’ being associated with evil is very likely due to the fact that a majority of the population is right handed. Biblical texts describe God saving those on the right on Judgment Day, and a number of images depict Eve on Adam’s left.

We always shake hands with the right hand. This practice has come down to us due to the fact that back in the day, it was some sort of an acknowledgement that the right hand didn’t carry a gun. Shaking hands with the right was a sign that you were alright! Left was not kosher therefore.

The Latin word for ‘right’ (dexter), has found its way into words like ‘dexterous’, and the French word for right (droit) is found in ‘adroit’, all positive words. The French word for left (gauche) in English means ‘awkward’ or ‘ungainly’, which is telling. And herein, one can see how the deep-rooted prejudice against the lefty has manifested itself in many different ways.

Lest we jump to the conclusion that defaming left-handedness is a Western transplant to Indian shores, think again. The subcontinent too harbours its own prejudices against lefties. In India, eating with the left hand is often unacceptable as is handing out money. In the movie, Stanley ka Dabba, a teacher character attempts to get the eponymous left-handed Stanley to write with his right hand since writing, as the teacher states, is the embodiment of ‘Ma Saraswati’ (the goddess of learning) and to do it with an ‘unclean hand’ was just wrong.

Not just India, as an article in The Lancet notes, the Zulus of South Africa too regarded the left hand as reserved for unclean tasks such as scraping away dirt, and believed that it must not be used for other purposes. Like the Zulus, many north and east African people too attempted to ‘cure’ left-handedness. “If a child should eat porridge with its left hand”, wrote British anthropologist Dudley Kidd in 1906, “the people place both of the hands of the child into the hot porridge as an object lesson.”

This association of left-handedness with ‘unclean tasks’ and therefore forbidden, is not universal. Many cultures do not discriminate, indicating that it is very contextual, emanating from the beliefs and histories of certain peoples.

The travails first

When I spoke to Bipinchandra Chaugule, proud and assertive leftie and the founder of the Association of Left-Handed People, a considerable amount of time was spent discussing the association of the left hand with what are termed ‘unclean’ tasks. The prejudice that is loaded against lefties is often spelt out and justified on account of this deep association. Forcing children to change their natural left-handedness, Chaugule states, is almost de rigueur in India and he says most left-handers meekly comply, at least insofar as the more visible aspects of their left-handedness are concerned. Many lefties learn to eat and write with their right hand choosing to exercise their ‘right’ to be left-handed in other not-so-visible tasks.

This proclivity to ‘adjust’ is something Chaugule has set his heart at fixing. His association works to create awareness about the naturalness of left-handedness and is attempting to organise a group, which is termed the ‘world’s largest unorganised minority’ on their website (lefthanders.org).

Chaugule’s attempts to normalise left-handedness is backed by science. Psychiatrists have, for long, drawn attention to the harm caused by forcing left-handed children to use their right hand. The Oscar winning film The King’s Speech cited this as a possible reason for the United Kingdom’s George VI’s (1936-52) stammer.

While allowing the child to remain left-handed is important, what is crucial to understand is that left-handers, who constitute about 10 per cent of the world’s population, have to make do in a world designed, as Chaugule puts it, ‘for right-handers by right-handers’. Given that most things like scissors, pens, rulers, doors and much else are designed for the majority, being left-handed is a struggle and the consequent clumsiness further strengthens the belief that lefties are well … gauche!

In fact, one study very interestingly talks about how the number of lefties in England seem to have waned between 1780 and 1830. The trend, the study concludes, may have something to do with the Industrial Revolution, which took place around that time and resulted in the rise of factory work on machines — designed for righties, of course.

Products for lefties

Sandeep Pavittar Singh, a natural right-hander, did not want to take the left-handed disadvantage lying down. When she noticed her left-handed son struggle with right-handed products, she looked around for left-handed ones. There were hardly any and those that were available were extremely expensive. This prompted her to set up The Left Hand Shop online, which sells products oriented towards the left hand. Besides having designed and developed their own products in association with manufacturers, The Left Hand Shop has also been able to persuade foreign brands to not only sell products in India, but also, as she puts it, sell them at ‘Indian prices’, so that more people could access them. Awareness is lacking, but in time, she hopes more and more people will flock to her store.

What’s the advantage?

Given that it appears that the dice is loaded against lefties, are there any advantages they enjoy at all? One study linked left-handedness with better verbal skills and with a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease. Studies have also claimed that left-handers are better at multi-tasking since the conversations between their right and left hemispheres seem to get processed faster. There is also a tendency to think that lefties are good at art. Both Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo were left-handed, for instance. Lefties also enjoy advantages in sports like tennis and badminton, but the reasons there are more prosaic (see anchor). Since most people are right-handed, their limited experience of playing against left-handers handicaps them.

And then there is the ‘curse of QWERTY’, which is actually a ‘boon for the lefty’. More than 3,000 English words use the left hand alone (try ‘exaggerated’ and ‘greatest’, for instance) whereas only about 300 are ‘right hand’ words (‘million’ and ‘monopoly’ are a couple). It is not clear why this is so. One unconfirmed explanation is that early typewriters were a lot slower and tended to jam when the typist’s fingers flew too fast on the keypad. Orienting it to the left-hand slowed most people down and allowed the machine to function more efficiently. By the time technology caught up, people had become far too used to QWERTY to be able to adapt to any other keyboard arrangement.

The famous and the infamous

Besides Da Vinci, Michelangelo and perhaps, Joan of Arc, there have been several other famous lefties. Charlie Chaplin was one and when actor Robert Downey Jr. played him in the movie Chaplin, he actually took lessons to be able to play the violin and tennis with his left hand. For the last four decades or so, most American presidents, by some remarkable coincidence, have been left-handed. Between 1981 and 2001, all the three presidents —Ronald Reagan, George H W Bush and Bill Clinton — were left-handed as was Barack Obama who was president between 2009 and 2017. Mozart, Beethoven, Mark Twain, Neil Armstrong, Bill Gates, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix and Lady Gaga are a few other famous ones.

On the flip side, while we do not know his exact identity, forensics has determined that the serial killer who terrorised London in the late 19th century, known as ‘Jack the Ripper’, was most likely a left-hander. Osama Bin Laden was too as was Billy the Kid.

India, with its difficult relationship with the left hand, has also produced its fair share of lefties. For a long time, though, the Indian men’s cricket team rarely produced any left-handed batsman, a phase that is well and truly over after the emergence of Saurav Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh. 

Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan are left-handed as was Mother Teresa. There have been claims that Gandhi was too, though some suggest that he was right-handed and went about making himself ambidextrous in a workman-like manner. Rajnikanth, Ratan Tata and Sachin Tendulkar (in his non-cricketing avatar) are some others.

So with all its aches and pains and slips and gains, the bottom line is that left-handedness is as normal as everything else. August 13, which since 1976, has been celebrated as International Lefthanders Day, is an attempt to raise awareness about southpaws and their relatively marginalised place in the world. Just suffice to know that it is alright now to be left!

The left-hander’s brain    

One of the more persistent myths about left-handedness is that it occurs due to their being right-brained. Experts now say that this is not so.

While it is true that the brain’s right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere the right side, the hemispheres do have specialties. Language is processed more within the left hemisphere, and recognition of faces more within the right hemisphere. However, the halves do not work in isolation — nerve fibres, called the corpus callosum, connect the two sides.

Also, it is often stated that around 95 per cent of right-handers are ‘left hemisphere dominant’. This is not the same as the ‘left brain’ claim. It actually refers to the finding that most right-handers depend more on the left hemisphere for speech and language. It was assumed that the opposite held true for lefties. But that is not the case. In fact, 70 per cent of left-handers also process language more in the left hemisphere. Why this number is lower, rather than reversed, is as yet unknown.

Is it all in the genes?

Is left-handedness hereditary? Like other complex traits, handedness does not fit into a simple pattern of inheritance. Children of left-handed parents are more likely to be left-handed than those born to right-handed parents. However, because the overall chance of being left-handed is relatively low, most children of left-handed parents are actually, right-handed. Identical twins are more likely than non-identical twins (or other siblings) to be either right-handed or left-handed, but many twins have opposite hand preferences.

As for the connection between genes and handedness, things get curiouser and curiouser. While scientists know that genetics plays a big part in which hand a person prefers, it has not been easy to identify the exact genes responsible. One study that analysed the DNA of more than 1.7 million people, discovered 41 regions of the genome associated with being left handed!

The author is a publishing professional who writes on literature, language and history.