I grew up observing my mother cut vegetables with her left hand and write with her right hand. Later, she told me that she was born left-handed, but was forced to become right handed, because it was considered a taboo. Over a period of time, she became ambidextrous – equally proficient with both hands. Statistics show that around10 per cent of the world’s population is born left handed (men being around 12 per cent and women 8 per cent) but the number reduces drastically in the same population over a period of time (primarily because they switch under pressure). The number of left handed people in any population depends on C genes and social pressure.
There is predominantly a negative narrative around being left handed. Left, left hand, and left-handed are connected to derogatory meanings. In Roget’s Thesaurus, the word unskilled has left-handed, equivocal, and sinister as synonyms. The English word sinister, for example, is derived from the Latin for left-hand side. In Hindi, the left hand is called ulta haath, which simply means the wrong hand. In French, gauche means left and, of course, awkward, clumsy and socially unrefined. In German, recht means right handed, the law and also correct. In English, people are right and have rights, while others are left behind! Left-handedness has long been associated with Satanic influences and witchcraft. Having two left feet is considered not good. In the Bible, the blessed are always sitting at the right hand of God, never the left.
Most recently, in American politics, those leaning politically to the Left are called “bad”, “evil”, “anarchist” or generally viewed with suspicion The terms left-wing and right-wing in politics originated in the French revolutionary era, interestingly, with the seating of the ancient regime of France at the time. The aristocrats sat on the right, and the commoners sat on the left.
There seems to be no good answer as to why people are left-handed. Logic would seem to dictate that the cause lies in the genes, yet simple genetics does not explain why left-handers are born in completely right-handed families. Studies have shown that the left and right side of the brain have different cognitive functions. The left side of the body is controlled by right side of the brain. Hence, left handers are right hemisphere dominant.
However, left handers seem to be highly successful. Leonardo Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Isaac Newton, Napoleon Bonaparte, Beethoven, Henry Ford, Marie Curie, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney and Bill Gates were all left handers (Note: There is a common misconception that Einstein and Picasso were left handers!) Interestingly, six of the last 12 US presidents were left handers (and so were many of the losing presidential candidates!). If you add famous Indians like Gandhi, Amitabh Bachan, Narendra Modi, Sachin Tendulkar, Ratan Tata, Rajinikanth, Mary Kom, Asha Bhosle, Hariprasad Chaurasia, and Karan Johar to the list, you may be forced to think that left handers are disproportionately higher in the list of successful people. The only criteria to be called a left hander, is when you write with your left hand. For example, Sachin Tendulkar bats and bowls with his right hand but writes with his left. It is also interesting to look at famous left-handed writers. Mark Twain, Franz Kafka, Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Anderson, lyricist Bob Dylan, James Baldwin, and Douglas Adams are some of the famous left-handed writers.
Left-handed people are natural risk takers. They are also very good at lateral thinking and have superior visual-spatial perception. Most of the great left handers have become agents of change primarily because of their ability to see things differently.
Interestingly, when NASA needed imaginative, reliable, multitalented astronauts to explore the moon, it turned out that one out of every four of the Apollo astronauts were left-handed, which is 250 per cent greater than statistical probability. Some scientists believe that left-handed people are capable of “a wider scope of thinking,” a theory that explains the high percentage of Nobel Prize winners, writers and painters who are left-handed.
There is an interesting term called southpaw in sports. Originally the term was used for a left-handed baseball player but is more popularly used in boxing (who leads with his right hand and right foot forward, and following with a left cross right hook). Tennis is a sport where the left hander has had disproportionate success. John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova and Rafael Nadal are a few examples. According to tennis experts, the left handers forehand serve is to the right handers backhand, and that is an advantage.
I reached out to some of my friends who are left handed to get their perspectives. Kalyani Khona, founder of Inclov, says her biggest challenge is using scissors and the keyboard. Prem Pavan, a business executive based in Singapore was forced to eat with his right hand at a very young age, which even caused stammering for a couple of years, before he switched back to his natural left hand. His message to left-handed kids who face pressure to be right-handed would be to “take pride in being left-handed, thank God for being different and know that one day you will realize that the very things that make you stand out, make you outstanding”. While many of the challenges are minor and not life altering, some like the constant clash of hands while sitting next to a right-handed person at a table could be irritating. Finding guitar tutors or golf trainers could be a difficult task for left handers. Pavan sums up on an optimistic note, “Growing up I hated being left handed, I hated being noticed for being left handed, only to realize much later that there are many right handed folks in the world who would love to have been left handed.”
Left-Hander Syndrome is an eye-opening book by phycologist Stanley Corenon the causes and consequences of Left-Handedness. A Left-Handed History of the World by Ed Wright carries the profile of some of the most famous left-handed men and women in the history of the world. The Puzzle of Left-handedness by Rik Smits is an enlightening odyssey through the puzzles and paradoxes, theories and myths of left-handed lore. However, the best book on this subject is Right Hand, Left Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms and Cultures by Chris McManus. He uses sources as diverse as the paintings of Rembrandt, the sculpture of Michelangelo, the behaviour of Canadian cichlid fish, the story of early cartography, modern cognitive science, the history of the Wimbledon tennis championship and the biographies of great musicians to explain the vast repertoire of ‘left-right’ symbolism that permeates our everyday lives.
While walking on Pier 39 Street in San Francisco I was pleasantly surprised to see an entire store called “Lefty’s” dedicated to left handers! The store is a left-handed haven for quirky kitchen tools, basic school supplies, musical instruments and more. We probably need more of these for one of society’s most neglected minority group!
*To bring spotlight to the uniqueness and differences of left-handed people, 13 August was designated as International Left Handers Day.