Monday, December 28, 2020

On touching, un-touching and segregation

From my essay on learning from the lockdown and the new normal, published in The Indian Express:

In the new millennium, I saw new kinds of informal touch: air-kissing, fist-bumps, high-fives. By early 2020, the casual half-hug had little emotional significance. It remained, however, a significant social contract. Hugs assured participants of a certain peerdom for, always, there were others, people bricked off from your affection. You could always tell which social class you belonged to based on who gave you a hug while leaving the room, who would merely nod, and who didn’t feel the need to acknowledge you at all.

Now that separateness is the norm, now that we hesitate at thresholds and elevators and are constantly alert to each body’s proximity, I see clearly what was always there, but not easy to acknowledge. Casual social hugging had become one of those tools that affirmed class distinctions.

Indians are not new to social and physical distancing. Long before the pandemic, there were separate lifts and staircases for ‘service’ staff. Private gardens restricted access to “non-residents”. It is no secret that most upper caste households keep separate cups and plates for domestic workers. There are apartment complexes where Muslims or Dalits may not reside even if they can afford to. Public parks charge entrance fees, effectively barring the poor and the homeless. Kids are routinely segregated via food with certain schools insisting on vegetarian tiffin, and many states refusing to allow eggs or meat in school lunches.

Read the whole essay here:

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