What We Need: Anuradha Roy on Animals and Touch in Lockdown
"The longer we are denied what we took for granted, the more intensely we yearn for it."
At the hour when, in pandemic times, sleep tends to thin or spin into nightmares, I felt one of my dogs climb into my bed last night. She placed herself against me so that she found the curve of my neck where she knows she can rest her head. This dog has trained me for five years, and not for nothing: although I was half-asleep, my hand reached out as if it had a life independent of my drowsiness, and my fingers began to run through her fur. With each movement of my fingers, her breathing deepened. So did mine. The nightmares receded, and we fell asleep together.
Not long ago, we used to hug, kiss, stroke. We touched the feet of the elderly to show respect. They blessed us by resting their hands on our heads. Today, scenes in films that show people flying into each other’s arms at airports or sharing the same spoon at a café bring about a deep, desperate sense of nostalgia. We used to live in that world. We may never live there again. And the longer we are denied what we took for granted, the more intensely we yearn for it.
It is almost a year since the meaning of touch contracted and then changed. When you say “let’s stay in touch,” you now mean “over a touch screen.” At times I find my fingers reaching out as if the smooth plastic of the phone’s screen were a curtain I could push aside, or water into which I could plunge and emerge at the other end to actually smell and feel what I am seeing during a video call. The screen remains unmoved. You can run your fingers over it all you like, but it won’t change pixellating images into real people with skin that is warm or cool or sticky with sweat. You can see on-screen that your friend’s hair has grown wild and long through the barberless lockdown but you can’t bunch it in your hand and tug it.
The more distant the familiar human world becomes, the more I retreat for comfort to the earth. My hands are soil-stained from the garden or from making pots. Though they are fundamentally the same substance, the earth in the garden has a very different feel from the clay with which pots get made. Far removed from the dense silkiness of clay, garden soil is friable and unpredictable. It has pebbles, pine needles, insects, old roots. It is not always kind. As my fingers try and avoid sharp stones while seeking out the round shapes of the flower bulbs my wrist brushes against a nettle that is just poking its way up, so green and new and soft that I pay it no attention. But nettles are born to be hardy survivors: even as infants they have their armour on and daggers out. For at least a whole day my wrist will tingle, red and inflamed from its brush with the nettle.
The clay with which I make pots harbours no such malevolence. To pick a ball of it out from the bucket and wedge it is to feel the world slow down and settle into place. Midway through the lockdown I started running out of clay and one of my potter friends wrote anxiously, “Can’t you get some from your hillside? Being without clay is like being without food or water.”
Only those who work with clay will understand that this is no exaggeration nor a figure of speech, not really. If you are a potter you remember and need the touch of clay with your whole body—your fingers, shoulders, skin. When I open out a ball of clay on the wheel and it moves between my fingers to grow into a tall vase or a wide, shallow bowl, it does not feel as if there is lifeless matter in my hands, spinning on a dead metal wheel. Clay is not inert like the screen of a phone. It’s alive. It is soft and firm and changeable and volatile. Some days it rebels and I can’t make anything; on others it falls into shapes I hadn’t thought my fingers could persuade it into. It almost breathes.
In far-off wealthy worlds, the start of the pandemic did not bring worries of the kind we had—there were few anxieties about food or shelter. In their already isolated lives in big cities, it was companionship that people in the West knew they would be starved of. Especially if they were single, the loneliness could seem as vast and eternal as the sky. After a phone call one evening with a friend in San Francisco, I woke up to a message the next morning saying, “You’re the only person I spoke to all of yesterday.”
Some dog trainers and animal behaviourists say it is bad to hold or cuddle your dog. It suppresses the dog’s natural instinct to run from danger and the confinement brought about by your loving arms might scare it enough to bite you. Nobody discussed the possible scientific veracity of these strictures with our three big dogs. Oblivious of their bulk and weight, they climb all over me and my husband, demanding absolute physical dissolution of their Self into our Other. Every morning they rumple our bed and us, a glorious heap of furry limbs, as if they are still puppies who love to sleep somehow simultaneously on top of and under the other. When they see each other after even brief absences, they—unless guarding food or territory—touch noses, wag tails, lick, roll over and nuzzle each other. They do this to us as well, seeing us as strangely unfurry, half-limbed dogs who smell odd and seem handicapped in not possessing that most expressive of appendages, a tail.
A few weeks into the pandemic there were reports of dolphins showing up in search of humans. Workers at the Barnacles Café and Feeding Centre at Tin Can Bay, Queensland said that a 29-year-old male humpbacked dolphin named Mystique has begun to bring corals and shells on his rostrum or beak and “carefully” presents it to them. The workers give him a fish in return. This exchange was not a trick, they said. “We haven’t trained him, but he has trained us to do this.” Our dogs are not alone in working out how to train humans.
All kinds of animals appear to seek out human contact and affection. Walking around a farm in Australia once, I saw how the farmer’s barrel-shaped truffle-hunting pig waddled to him as fast as her absurdly disproportionate legs could carry her when he called out: “Clementine!” She reached the fence, buried her head in his shirt as he held her and cooed her name, a different endearment prefixed each time. Here in the hills, our neighbour had a billy goat named Michael who came when called and regarded us with a calm, professorial gaze. He was not the only one. Each of my neighbour’s goats have names and bleat with touching longing when she calls, ignorant of the fact that their affectionate goatherd is feeding them to help the butcher feed others. Michael long ago turned into mutton stew.
Touch. The word unfurls like a flower bud as soon as it is uttered, evoking images of sensuality. The tenderness of parents caressing for the first time their new baby’s miraculously soft, unworn feet. Lovers, their forbidden limbs. The way certain mimosas fold into themselves when stroked.
Still, even as we yearn for lost and longed-for touch we know there are other kinds. To alter the shape and texture of the word, you only have to turn it over and look at it again, from other angles. I remember the way one of my aunts used to drop food from a slight height onto the plate of the woman who cleaned the house. The woman had a demarcated aluminium plate, the kind that no scrubbing can improve, and after eating she washed it at the outside tap and put it back along with her glass into a niche in the veranda. Her plate and glass became untouchable the moment she had touched them, a practice routine enough in India for my aunt never to think of herself as perpetrator and the woman as victim.
I think of yesterday, when an arm-thick, three-foot-long snake slithered across the road, or another time when a lizard plopped down from the ceiling onto the floor next to me. Neither snake nor lizard were within touching distance, and yet I had felt my skin crawl. I have a friend who loves reptiles. She goes to the zoo to be closer to pythons and crocodiles. I think of her locked up in her apartment in Brooklyn, longing for the rubbery chill of a lizard.
I think how nauseous I used to be for hours after journeys in packed city buses on which anonymous men used an immobilising crowd to press their erections into the backs of young girls. Every girl who has used Indian public transport understands with an immediacy that has registered not only in her brain but on her body why some men are absolute pricks.
When memories of this kind return, it seems to me that plagues may have upsides. Although there may be no plague on God’s earth that will ever stop a man in an Indian bus, maybe no man would dare come close just yet. Perhaps a new kind of untouchability has taken root: a powerful blend of fear and disgust that will not easily leave us.
In the third volume of Between Three Plagues, an Estonian masterpiece by Jaan Kross set in the 16th century (forthcoming, translated by Merike L Beecher), a housewife surrounded by dying friends and neighbours daydreams of the day she was first touched by her husband. In her mind she contrasts the bliss of that touch with the ferocity of another—the touch of bubonic plague:
“And even now, worn out though she is with the day’s tasks and the ache in her head from the heat, Elsbet feels her heart quicken and her knees go weak at the memory, recalling the intensity of the encounter . . . And afterwards, having recovered, she found herself in a state of sweetly sinful, blissful excitement, harbouring a longing for it to occur again, and God knows what else . . . And then she is the wife of this strange man who makes her knees feel weak . . . Her sense of how different, unfamiliar, and strange her husband is diminished and soon vanishes—a feeling of distance, of bleakness. And all around her now, only the plague . . .”
Shortly after this scene, the plague infects Elsbet and her children. With her last drops of energy, as she feels the fever and pain overcome her, she goes around her house searching for things to destroy:
“That’s the rule—everything I have touched must be quickly buried . . . She feels, as if from a great distance and with a sense of unreality, a kind of horror that she herself is doing this.” Her husband arrives, presses his face against hers. “Lord God,” she thinks feverishly, “if only he would keep his distance—so as not to catch this disease…”
The only comfort possible from this account is that, despite the horror of Elsbet’s death, what remains is the tenderness and beauty of her memory of that first touch.
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