Understanding Bengali culture: Bad left hand, bad!
To save yourself from embarrassment, the general rule in Kolkata, and pretty much the rest of India and Bangladesh is always use your right hand when eating and when giving to or receiving from another person.
The main reason for this is because Indian society associates the left hand with wiping one’s ass. (Side-note: I’ll address the Eastern bathroom experience in the near future, because I think it deserves its own post) Add the fact that toilet paper is a rare commodity reserved for Western-style hotels and businesses, and more the reason why desis view the left hand with negativity. It is, however, completely acceptable to give and receive things with both hands. Don’t ask me why . . . although I am an ostensible ABCD who asks too many questions, that doesn’t mean I always get answers. Most often people will not say anything if you use your left hand, especially if you are a foreigner, but they will definitely take notice. Using your right hand will give you cred because it shows people that you are “in the know” and respect their culture. To all the lefties, I’m sorry but you are SOL. In India and Bangladesh even lefties are encouraged to eat with their right hand as much as possible.
Examples of things you are allowed to do with your Right Hand (Daan Haath):
2. Pay someone
3. Receive change
4. Give or receive gifts
5. Preening a child or loved one
6. Shake hands (with people of the same sex . . . when greeting the opposite sex, a small bow with Nomoshkar/Salaam or hello is acceptible)
Examples of things you are allowed to do with your Left Hand (Baa Haath):
1. Clean yourself after using the toilet
2. Hit a stray dog who is bothering you
3. Serve food using servings spoons or tongs
4. Umm, well . . . pet the beeral, shuffle the iPod, slam the clam, choke the moorgi
5. Clean your cat’s or your child’s vomit
6. Scooping kitty litter (although most cats you encounter in the subcontinent will be strays and not pets)
The left hand stigma is so prevalent that I remember my friend’s toddler-aged nephew who was just developing his fine motor skills started to use a fork with his left hand and his dad disapprovingly commented on how he had to train him to use his right hand so he doesn’t develop “bad habits.” That situation and countless others like it led me to believe that many South Asians believe that hand-dexterity is a habit, not an innate characteristic. I did a quick Wikipedia search and found that Bengalis aren’t the only people who associate left-handedness negatively. For the record, I absolutely love people of all hand-dominances! In fact, Obama is a lefty. I wonder how he navigates shaking hands with foreign leaders from cultures that discriminate against left-handedness.