Unfine fingers

(what finally pushed me to write something was this gorgeous personal essay: do read!)

In ancient Tamil poetry, the flame-lily is a recurring metaphor. The lovestruck male compares his lady’s long and slender fingers closing his eyes to “a fine bunch of fragrant flame lilies”, in the 293rd verse of the Ainkurunuru, an anthology of 500 short poems. In verse 4279 of the Kambaramayana, wilting flame-lily flowers are employed as a metaphor for Lady Earth folding her fingers in wonder at the change of seasons. Folding and closing: performed by fine and nimble fingers, these actions acquire a sensual nature.

Like all fingers, mine are incredibly busy. When they are not scratching hair or running across a phone screen, they are turning pages of books half-read or simply huddled under a blanket as the AC continues slogging through unnervingly hot Chennai afternoons. 

According to my dad, who chanced upon me working late on an essay about Shelley (or was it Blake?) at the dining table, my fingers flew over the keyboard as I typed. According to my best friend, my hands are warm and nice to hold – my fingers fit so very snugly into theirs. According to my grandmothers, my fingers are unnaturally long and thin. 

My fingers are many things to many people; but they are not flame lilies. They are not fine – they are not even handy, a lot of the time. They don’t fold or close or open elegantly and properly; more often, they spill and struggle and feel clumsy and unequipped to deal with the world, this world of locks and surfaces and things. 

During a conversation, a friend told me that science had built a world premised upon fine-motor skills. If there’s one thing I have been sure of in life through these years, it is that I don’t like science. As a science-hating humanities graduate, here are tales of unfine fingers in a world of fine-motor skills: stories where some pieces fall and other pieces refuse to give way. 

Spilling #1: scalding coffee  

Paper is the culprit. Paper is very useful in college: to spread over dusty shelves, to write birthday cards, to pick hair off the drain, to leave sticky notes on your roommate’s wall. The problem started when the college canteen started using paper cups for hot coffee. (Incoming wannabe environmentalists defending paper (mostly paper straws), fuck you. Paper doesn’t always work for disabled people. Go read Pollution is Colonialism, where the author explains how different groups have different obligations to the environment). 

Coffee cost 10 bucks, and came in one of those usual paper cups, the same size as the one used for payasam in weddings. And the coffee was hot. Yes, hot coffee was the best on cold rainy Bangalore days, so I should thank the Annas, but the issue is, in the early days I frequently ended up spilling some of it on the way back from the counter to the table. 

Even steel tumblers filled with hot coffee were slightly panic-inducing, especially because coffee came at the end of the serving counter. Already balancing this plate with hot sambar, and to somehow also carry a tumbler of coffee? Disaster. More bad news: I was a pathologically slow eater. Most days I just skipped coffee at breakfast – thinking back, this fills me with a strange longing for all the coffee I did not have. 

With this state of affairs, I gave up trying with the paper cups. The amount of coffee to number of spills ratio may not have been objectively concerning, but it led to overwhelming levels of what Havi Carel terms “bodily doubt”: the skepticism about your body’s ability to do erstwhile simple tasks when ill. The difference being that this was never simple. Hours of physiotherapy and squeezing yellow balls and just living may have better equipped my fingers, but they still very much felt out of place when carrying things, the grip always somehow unfirm, tentative, imperceptibly skewed. 

There was still coffee, though. I learnt to ask friends to get it for me, and this solution enabled a lot of coffee-moments. Like enjoying coffee with K after a great masala dosa, as we soaked in our South- Indianness. Or asking  J to get me a coffee quickly before the counter closed for the night because I had work, and screaming when she managed to. Or the cute Tuesday-coffee dates with S. 

The first time I went by myself to get coffee, I found nobody I knew in the cafeteria, so I ran back to my room and cried about it. The second time I tried to get my own coffee, I spilled it all over my shirt and took the embarrassing walk to the washbasins to clean myself up. In my very last week of college, I decided that I’d had enough of coffee deficits, and started getting my own whenever I felt up to it – and it didn’t spill.

This is not the story of a miracle. My fingers didn’t suddenly decide to get a grip on themselves (pun intended). Rather, success was an outcome of many calculations: Every time I waited at the counter after handing over my green tokens, I would feel a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. I then took my cup carefully to the table nearest the counter provided it was empty, willing myself to not spill even as every step became a maelstrom of uncertainty. 

The one time that week that coffee did spill was when a guy crashed into my table. Think about it: after so many misses, I finally manage to meticulously bring a whole cup of coffee to the table – and then it spills because of something so frustratingly silly. I told the profusely apologetic guy that it really was okay, then looked at the unseemly stain on my pants, chuckling at the ways of the universe. 

(to be continued in installments…)

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