Sinistral. Dextral. Two terms that describe handedness. Those on the left, sinistral. Dextral, to the right. These are terms one learns along the way, sometimes when one is paying attention in science class; other times, like myself, when someone describes you using the adjectival form. Sinister! ‘You are sinister!’
I was labelled this by a former tuition master as I copied out reams of his notes. He came four days a week to home tutor me in the sciences. To his credit he did his best to make the money my parents were paying him worth it.
To my credit, I lent him a more than willing ear (since one of my parents was always within supervisory distance) and in this way, the lot of us managed to get me the forty per cent needed to pass to the next grade where, magically, science was not such a threat — or let’s say it suddenly assumed a lesser ‘threat’ status than mathematics which required us to make calculations via a new slim book called the algorithm table.
The very mention of algorithms turned 80 per cent of us pupils pale while the other 20 per cent looked like they couldn’t get enough of it, always finishing their work with time to spare.
Seated in a restaurant, I ordered the standard breakfast fare of dosa, idli, vaday, and when it arrived commenced to tackle the dish with my fingers
The one thing I feared not at all was English. So it was in this way that I had already heard of the word sinister but only in the sense of ‘His behaviour could be described as sinister, the way he creeps around shadowy corners.’ So when ye old science tuition master of yore, watching me write out reams of stuff, said, ‘You are sinister’, I felt a sense of prickly annoyance at first.
How dare this so-called genius, who knew by heart the distance of each planet to earth, as well as the complicated botanical terms of flowers and trees, how dare he judge me without actually knowing me properly? Sinister! I prickled and it in turn tickled him, for he knew exactly what was going through my mind.
So like a benevolent uncle he assured me he was only commenting on my handedness. In later years, while growing up in a small town, whenever visiting a restaurant with friends, I would ask the waiter to bring a spoon so that I may eat my dosa, or idli.
The waiter would look quizzically but oblige. My friends would chuckle, but I’d press on, spoon in left hand, tackling my rice-based meal. The reason for this of course is a societal one. For years, the left hand has been perceived to be the ‘dirty hand’.
Parents have been known to force children to alter their handedness so that at one time I think my hometown had an entire phalanx of right handers. My parents, of course, did no such thing. So I ended up the lone ‘lefty’ among my other dextral mates.
All this was brought home to me recently on a trip to India, including a visit to my hometown. Seated in a restaurant, I ordered the standard breakfast fare of dosa, idli, vaday, and when it arrived commenced to tackle the dish with my fingers.
Seated right opposite was a mustachioed man attired in a singlet and the customary checked wraparound called a lungi, who watched me curiously.
Trying to read his thoughts, I explained in seriously fractured Tamil, that I was left handed. He shook his head vigorously left, right, up and down — the typical Indian nod — and replied, ‘Ah ha, my son is like you. Lefty. Cricket. Very good batsman. Trying to get to IPL.’ And it dawned on me that those former perceptions may have undergone a sea change. Seems like it’s OK now to be sinister.
— Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.