The Sense of Touch
It was a pair of forceps that brought me into the world. The metallic tongs pulled me out of my mother's womb. I don't remember the touch. But every time my mother tells me how she almost died of Eclampsia, I feel the touch of her shivering; I feel the touch of her pain. I feel how close death was; how near life is! Touch has memory; wrote John Keats.
Touches are memory—I learned.
At school, they were vaccinating all the children. I asked my dad to save me from the touch of the syringe. And he wrote a letter to the Principal thanking her for the initiative. I cried as I saw the needle turning hot red inside the candle flame, and then touching the skin of my forearm. I cursed my dad in pain. The medicine stung me as it ran through my veins. And the nurse rubbed my skin with a cotton ball. A blister appeared and was gone. A mark was left behind—a mark of my dad. A mark that affirms: I am protected against a certain disease even after the pain is gone. I touch my forearm, and am touched by my dad.
Touches are comforting—I learned.
There used to be a bookstore at Hatkhola Road. On our way back from school, my friends and I used to drop by to buy stamps that we would collect. I was probably eight or nine. One day, the salesman asked me inside the store to look at some more stamps. He stood behind me and pressed himself against me.
Some touches are disturbing—I learned.
Indeed there are touches that carry bad memories. Since I can't touch yesterday, so why should I let it touch me today? There are touches from which you need to detach—I discerned.
Much later, while visiting my uncle in Berlin, I picked up his copy of the 1981 Nobel winning author-- Elias Canetti's book, Powers and Crowds. The very first sentence reads:
"There is nothing that a man fears more than the touch of the unknown. …It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched" (1961, 15). "As soon as man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. …The man pressed against him is the same as himself" (16).
What did Canetti mean? I wondered!
Crowds grow as they touch each other and form a body out of fear. We have seen it in 1971. The touch of a cause, the touch of hope—can bring together millions. In this sad month of August, we recall how we were touched by a thundering voice that created a roaring crowd. Touches can herd people together.
Because touches can give you hope—I learned.
I guess an individual such a Professor Kaiser Haq would have been afraid of going to the war leaving his pen and poems. But once he was touched by an idea, he became part of a crowd that did not fear the touch of the bullets, the mortars or the shells.
Some touches are golden, I learned.
Isn't it called the Midas touch? : The touch that can turn everything into gold! But, a golden touch can be very tricky. King Midas learned it the hard way by turning his only daughter into a statue. What can the story imply? I see this obscenely rich gentleman offering tribute to his daughter through a newspaper ad—a daughter who slowly died due to the infectious touch of his filthy wealth. The mythical Midas touch--revived.
Touches are not so golden after all —I reckoned.
Anyone who has had a golden handshake will tell you how a simple touch can make you fall.
Some touches are black and blue, I learned.
It was Neruda who said, "We the mortals touch the metals, /the wind, the ocean shores, the stones,/knowing they will go on, inert or burning,/and I was discovering, naming all these things: it was my destiny to love and say goodbye." At the touch of love, everybody becomes a poet. Indeed, how can you love without touch? How can you say goodbye without touch?
Remember Carol Ann Duffy's "Warming her Pearls"? The maid in the poem makes sure that the pearls of her mistress are warm when they are put around her throat: "Next to my own skin, her pearls./My mistress/bids me wear them, warm them… " The pearls hang on to the maid's neck like a collar of desire: "And all day I think of her," she confesses. And when the socialite mistress goes to the party, the maid stays awake thinking of the tall men with whom her mistress was dancing, and she confesses: "All night I feel their absence and I burn."
The pain of not being touched! What glory is there in being a 'cold pastoral'? John Keats makes us reflect on the Grecian Urn, the container of ashes, a museum object out-of-touch, and think of the 'still unravished bride of quietness;' think of the bold lover stopped from being kissed. While it is easy to glorify the chastity of fair youth, the question remains: is it fair for the lovers—not being touched? As John Lennon would have it: "Love is wanting to be loved/Love is touch, touch is love…"
Did the maid in Duffy's poem touch herself while burning in desire? Is that even allowed? Is it a sin? How can it be a sin when one touches oneself? One is not an object in a glasshouse where the sign says, 'do not touch'. I am my own master. And the master shall abate his burning desire. Why do you think Doctor Faustus made his pact with the devil? To be his own master! A mortal becoming immortal, a moral becoming immoral, that too through a touch: "Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. …Her lips suck forth my soul; see where it flies!— "Touches can produce fire—I learned.
The first fire came out of rubbing wood together. So did civilization. Touches can create civilization; destroy it too. Look no further than Helen. Was it the touch of fate? Was it her own doing—being touched by Paris? I guess that's what they call 'butterfly on a wheel' in chaos theory—a simple touch deviating the course of a story.
In a poem called called "Touch", Meena Kardasamy says:
"you may recollect
how a gentle touch, a caress changed
your life multifold, and you were never
the person you should have been."
Meena, the Dalit poet from Chennai...
Dalit, dammit, aren't they supposed to be untouchable? Why? Touch can make you unholy. Just like it can make you holy: you can be blessed with the touch of holy water. But the touch of the unholy can make you unholy. Mulk Raj Anand's novel Untouchable is a case in point. The holy priest Pundit Kalinath can touch Sohini in order to make his manhood alive. Yet the same holy man cannot touch her brother Bakha as it will endanger his brahminhood. Bravo, what a sham! And how sad!
Touch is racial—I learned.
This man with squinted eyes walked into the carriage of a Piccadilly Line train at Kings Cross Station. He had his hands stretched out, trying to find something to hold onto on a moving train. I reached out to help!
"Don't F----' touch me!" he yelled at me, shaking my hand off.
He wasn't blind after all. Maybe his heart was, but not his eyes! He silenced everything mobile and immobile on that train. Everyone was touched by his outbursts. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry – he mumbled!" It was too late; the damage had been done. The touch of a momentary outburst! I got off from the train at the next station, even though I had two more stations to go. Back in my university I washed my hands—like Lady Macbeth did. But the bitter touch refused to go. The touch of a white man on my brown skin felt like acid in the streets of London.
Touch is cultural—I learned.
My friend's professor came to Dhaka for a conference. He went back to the US, and told his class how everyone in Dhaka was gay. He saw guys holding hands and touching each other in public.
Touches can be a big joke—I learned.
The tacit rules of who touches whom, when, why, where, and how, are complex and deeply ingrained social issues. A close analysis of touch can therefore yield much information about a society's most deeply held values. Do you touch the feet of the elders when you see them? Do you touch your own head to show respect to others? Do you shake hands? Do you hug to greet? Do you offer a fake kiss in the cheeks? One cheek-both cheeks?
Margaret Atwood tells us, "touch is the first language, and it always tells the truth." Touch comes before sight, before speech. No wonder the Creator has given touch the largest of organ—the skin. A skin that covers eyes, ears, a nose, or even tongue!
Therefore I am here to cast my vote for touch. Because touch can touch you. Touch from a hand can soothe you. Touch from nature can soother you. A finger touches one, but a rainbow touches many. And it is Shakespeare, who said: "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."
The writer is Professor of English, University of Dhaka. Currently on leave, he is the Head of the Department of English and Humanities, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).