Musings of a Pioneer: A World Without Touch?

“He touched me, so I live to know… And now, I’m different than before…” wrote Emily Dickinson in one of her poems, almost two centuries earlier.

Human beings are supposed to possess at least five senses which define the way that we perceive our life from birth till death. Nobody yet knows what lies beyond, even though much literature has been written about what happens after death.

Since as of now and here I am in this life and since I have so far not had any afterlife experiences and have not undergone any past-life regression therapy, I will restrict myself to this life – which is severely impacted due to the crisis that we are undergoing in the shape of the novel corona virus.

My earliest memories after my birth were those of my parents or their friends or my other good number of aunts and uncles patting and even pinching my cheeks – which must have been chubby even then and have grown chubbier since. This must have a been a couple of years after I was born, because I do not remember the two years from my birth.

In quite rapid succession came both my younger siblings – one brother and one sister, but I do not remember patting their cheeks. What I do remember is the touch of my parents holding me in case I was in pain. What I also remember is the touch of the slap of my parents in case I was up to any mischief.

As I grew up along the way came other younger cousins – many of them were much younger to me – my father was the eldest in the family by a wide age difference, so was my mother, who was the second born, but her two younger sisters were almost a decade younger than her. I do remember the soft touch of the cheeks of these youngsters as I patted them. They also seemed to like this good touch. Some of them would gurgle with laughter from their crib if I would gently pinch their cheeks and talk to them.

We were children and like all children are wont to do – we also fought – sometime with our siblings and sometime with our friends. The favourite stance when fighting was what in Hindi, we call guttham guttha, which I believe would have been called ‘grappled’ in English. We even had a sport native to our country which involved grappling – kushti or wrestling as it was called by the western world. Both the fight and sport did involve a lot of touching. Believe me – both were fun.

We grew up further and went to college. This was another world all-together. We strutted like grown-ups – yet at the same time looked jealously at any young couple in our midst with their hands clasped – when someone said that the two were having an affair and are expected to marry once they have finished their studies. The feeling of touch of each other’s hands probably gave them a feeling of security.

In due course I got married and I still remember the first time that I held my fiancé’s hand as I put the engagement ring on her dainty finger. It was a touch which gave me a feeling of possessiveness and absolute love – that I now belonged to someone for the rest of my life.

We got married and in time had children of our own. Touch played a very important role in the love that we felt for each other and for our children. As I held my children close to me or I saw my wife holding the children, I could feel the absolute bliss of the time of which I have no memory – because I was too little to remember that time – that my parents must have felt when they must have held me or my younger siblings. It was a rewind.

Television was playing a very important role in our lives. We were able to witness live all the cricket matches including the test matches. We also jumped up in ecstasy when our favourite Indian player took a catch or a wicket or the batsman completed his century and then all the players rushed on the field to hug him. This touch sometimes encouraged him to greater heights and take more wickets or sometime move towards a double or triple century. But most of the times in case of a batsman, the player gave up and came back to the gallery after playing some desultory strokes to sit with his friends.

Those were the times when the fielding team walked out to the field, they walked in a straight line and took their positions. All this changed with one enterprising captain when he realised that touch played a very important role in building a motivated team. So, they started huddling together on the edges of the field as if in a prayer and then taking their positions.

Other sports were also getting more touchy-feely. Soccer was also gaining popularity in those parts of the world which had been typically fed on cricket. This, here, was a very rough game – with all kinds of pushing and shoving the opposing team’s good players. But every player would rush forward to hug his teammate if he scored a goal.

There was a feel-good touch in individual sports like tennis and badminton also – with the player jumping up on winning the match, then shaking the hands of the losing opponent and then hugging the coach and other family members. Probably, the touch of the handshake, was not so welcome by the vanquished player.

The world was now changing and with it a lot of old-world charm was now missing – at least to some of us who were born in the middle of the previous century. But it was an exciting time to be in. I had never even imagined the changes that technology would bring in my life – changes to make my life better.

To name a few of these good changes – ATMs for easy money, mobile connectivity, metro rails for mass transit, more variety in cars, LED television, economical air travel, world wide web (www) and even cuisine from across the world. I still remember an Amitabh Bachchan movie of the mid seventies where Neetu Singh explains to him that a pizza is an Italian paratha. I cannot imagine a scenario where anyone does not know what a pizza is. These are only a few of the changes.

The whole world was now interconnected and livelier. One could search for old friends on the social media and get connected – which might also have included a special boy or girl friend. One could go to malls or cinema halls or night clubs or simply dine out. There was always laughter and gaiety all around. I felt blessed to be surrounded by so much of fun.

In Hindi we have a saying – itna mat hason, nazar lag jayegi. I searched and found the English equivalent of this – ‘don’t laugh so much, you will catch the evil eye’. If someone can suggest a better equivalent, please do let me know. We were now literally catching the evil eye.

Many of the social media platforms were now becoming virulent. Those same friends of my early adulthood were now arguing so violently and in such abusive language that I could not even recognise them from those friends whom I had patted on their shoulders or those who had hugged me – in pleasure or in sorrow – in times which I thought were so much in the distant past as to be almost in a haze. Was the good touch of those years slowly disappearing?

I hope not. The silver lining is that the number of such hate mongers on any group can still be counted on fingers.

Touch, the scientists say, is the first of the senses that humans develop. Scientists say that touch is not a single feeling – it consists of several distinct sensations communicated to the brain through neurons in the skin. Touch is also considered to be very important for human beings – it conveys compassion from one human to other.

People across the globe have always interacted with their leaders wanting to reach them, touch them, shake hands with them. Leaders have also felt a connect with their followers when they are up close with their people. Leaders have also been seen to hug leaders of the other countries – indicating a friendship or a camaraderie. Many deals have been struck through this familiarity.

I also go to the temple – like billions of people across the globe. The name by which I may call my God may be different from the name by which others may call Him. The representative of my God on this earth may be called by a different name than the representative of another faith; but I feel a sense of peace like so many billions, once the priest touches my forehead in blessing. Many a miracle has been encountered by many only by the touch of a saint or even a statue of the saint – across centuries.

But is the world that we have known going to change after the crisis blows over? Is this, the most elementary of our senses which defines our personality – the touch – going to become obsolete for the generations yet to come? Are we going to be born and die in the sterile ‘Don’t Touch Me’ environment of social distancing? And are we going to be dictated by the hatred of a few on the social media?

I for one do not think so. I have always rooted for the strength of the human spirit. In times to come, we will overcome.

I close my argument with a few lines from a poem written by the famous poet Rumi 800 years earlier –

“Become the sky… Walk out like someone suddenly born into colour. Do it now.”


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