Fasting, feasting and the politics of food in India
Fasting, feasting and the politics of food in India
I would have been terribly upset had Anna Hazare starved to death. Of course, each man’s death diminishes me, thanks to John Donne, but Anna’s death would have diminished a great many more.
It would have diminished the 7,000 Indians who died on the same day. It would have diminished the 7,000 Indians who died the day before. And the 7,000 who will die the day after. And the day after, and the day after, till an annual tally of 2.5 million is reached.
All these 2,500,000 men, women and children will die from the very condition Anna Hazare publicly flirted with—starvation. With this cardinal difference: starvation was forced on them. They did not opt for it.
Every year, 2.5 million Indians die of starvation. In the time you take reading this, five more Indians will starve to death.
Their deaths may pass unnoticed, but as a statistic on paper, starvation can still raise a public outcry. No wonder the euphemisms we have invented for it are only exceeded by those we have invented for murder.
But all that is bound to change now. Since Anna Hazare, starvation has cachet. Food isn’t about hunger any more. Food has become attitude.
That isn’t to say people aren’t hungry. There are many many hungry people who stay hungry because they never get close to a meal. With them, food is an atavism. There also are hungry people who stay hungry because they want to. With them, food is attitude.
Anna fasted till Parliament caved in, and set a new high in human concern: Anna’s health was paramount.
Where the deaths of 7,000 citizens from starvation on the same day drew no vestige of concern from the House, the threat of this one man’s demise was enough to break every rule in the book.
Why was Anna’s starvation so special?
Perhaps because it was recognised as the index case in what might soon become an epidemic. It eventually will be called something snappy, like Anshunitis, but right now I’m going to stick with old Latin for ease: Anorexia nervosa.
After Anna, anorexia nervosa will no longer be limited to plump little girls who lust for skinny jeans. It may begin with small outbreaks in select populations, posing as a lifestyle illness, the ultimate decadence of luxury. But it will quickly democratise and go viral as satellites form splinter groups and clubs. When new starvation apps are offered free with every gizmo, the world will know the moment you decide to skip a meal.
This development will have nothing to do with the people who are actually starving because they have nothing to eat. Subsumed by the anorexics, they will now cease to exist as an identifiable group. From time to time they will be reprimanded as party poopers, amoral dodgers who get in the way of the true path to endorphin ecstasy.
All religions endorse fasting as a short cut to bliss. From ananda to zen, you can experience it all by skipping a meal. But it’s time to get real about this. Fasting doesn’t make you a better person, merely a doped one. Its virtue depends upon a hit of opiates mainlining the brain.
Fasting gets the brain an endorphin surge, and it’s worth remembering that endorphin is portmanteau for ‘endogenous morphine.’ The Big O, in the brain, is just a feel-good molecule. The bliss induced by fasting is a chemical high—just like any other form of moral superiority.
Of course there’s more to fasting than the endorphin rush. The hype is also about what fasting does to cerebration. At best, the advantages are marginal. It can make the brain less twitchy (you’ll refuse repartee to ma-behen ki gaali), less scatty (you won’t misplace the car keys), more reminiscent (who wants to hear about your childhood anyway?).
There is one important difference between fasting and starvation. Fasting increases lifespan. Hunger kills you.
In the beginning, hunger was about food.
We ate the stuff, once upon a time. We bit, tasted, masticated, swallowed, digested, absorbed, assimilated and excreted it. That was a lot of work. It left us with almost no time to actually experience it. Almost 2 million years of hunting and gathering and growing and harvesting—all wiped out by the mindless chore of eating. Most days we couldn’t even remember what we had eaten yesterday. That’s 2 million years of irretrievable menus, think of the prime time we could have inveigled out of that!
That was how life began, with biology at its simplest: if you ate, you lived; if you starved, you died. That worked for 4.6 million years.
It is slightly different now.
These days, if you eat, you die.
We’re in the midst of a pandemic of obesity. And India, with 7,000 starvation deaths every day, is paradoxically stricken with fatness. They are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing was Shakespeare’s wry comment in 1605, and he knew not the half of it.
In this India of 2011, we need neither reports nor statistics: the paradox eyeballs us on every street.
Every morning, a short walk takes me past six schools and a college before I reach the city’s lowest common denominator, the railway station. This gives me a fair random sample of the city’s population. And this is what I see.
Children from the Municipal schools are stick-legged and undernourished. Their accompanying parents (mothers mostly) are young, fit and harried.
Two private schools on the next road have kids of the same size—but only till puberty. Adolescents in these schools look very different. Each group has at least two who are large, pale and puffy, with accompanying moms built to scale.
Air-conditioned buses offload children at the International School. Even the eight-year-olds here are large.
Outside the college, young men and women swarm the carts of the Khao Gali. It’s not yet 9 am, but most have the bleary look of having spent long hungry hours. They probably left home, without breakfast, to make it to the 8 am lecture, but even the fed look worryingly tired.
College couture leaves very little to the imagination, and almost every young man and woman has a cushiony collop at the waist. Adiposity won’t stay this modest for long.
By the time I get to the station, I’m part of a humungous bolster of fat on the move. Almost everyone has a paunch so tense it feels like muscle.
Women, scarcely into their thirties, are compacted slabs of cellulite vacuum-
packed in lycra and hosiery. Sari wearers are more disinhibited: midriffs rise like idli dough, then bulge and overflow. The prevalent style in shalwar qameez leaves a flap hanging dismally between upholstered bulwarks of haunch and thigh. When it comes to jeans, better far to politely look away.
And that’s just the young.
Men and women my age don’t give a damn. Perspiring, plethoric, grim-faced, we plod on out of breath, hips, knees, and spine in varying degrees of decrepitude. People no longer stride. The middle-aged either list or waddle.
The old are much jauntier: their limbs pack titanium, guaranteed indestructible, unlike bone and cartilage.
The young? The young simply sit around, or drive.
By noon, everybody is exhausted.
In the evenings, the malls overflow. Nobody shops unless they have to. Everybody is here for the air-condi- tioning.
This is what we see. Or, is this what we don’t see?
Like the emperor’s famous new clothes, obesity is invisible. No, not invisible. It has different degrees of visibility: I’m cuddly, you’re plump, she’s fat, he’s overweight, they’re obese.
The danger with this genre of invisibility is that it quickly establishes a new norm. The scariest word I know is normal. Who sets the norm?
I faced this question through a strange encounter many years ago. Two anxious villagers brought a boy to my clinic with the embarrassed statement: “There’s something wrong with him.”
The boy himself looked angry, but said nothing. No further history was forthcoming.
The boy was completely healthy, and I was completely foxed.
Finally, they sent the boy out, and confronted me with vehemence: Hadn’t I noticed the boy had no testicles?
I contradicted. They clarified.
Yes, they knew the boy had testicles, but at his age, they should be twenty times as big! If this got about in the village, it would bring them great shame. In their family, they were all real men.
Up went their dhotis to prove the point.
Both men, father and uncle, had huge filarial hydroceles. “Standard size,” they said modestly. Naturally, they expected more of their sons.
So who sets the norm?
Few people will concede to being overweight until they actually tip the scales at OBESITY. At that point, a different argument takes over: Love me, love my bulge. From then on it is an endless whinge. Funny that, because it gets us right back to square one by making obesity something that we see.
That isn’t true.
The cosmetic challenges of obesity—bulge, wobble, jiggle, jounce, circumference, even tonnage—are mere irritations. You wouldn’t think so, would you, from the vast industry devoted to their repair?
The serious aspect of obesity is elsewhere. It is invisible till it announces itself as a disaster.
We have euphemisms for such disasters. We call them lifestyle illnesses. Getting one puts you among the privileged. It upgrades your shopping to an entire new level: from celery and olive oil, Nikes and trackpants and gyms to spas for meditation and massage, bypass, transplant, immortality. It is a brave new world, if you imagine it.
Living it out is tougher. The outrage of it begins to hit. This is illness, dammit. It is making me sick. It feels awful, and I’m long past caring how it looks.
That’s what obesity really is. It is walking around with twenty kilos permanently strapped on you, and perhaps ten of those are visible. But the ten concealed are silently working harm.
Obesity is a lot of suffering, but that isn’t what it’s made out to be. It is not the depressed woman in the ad soon to be transformed into a sex goddess doing the samba. It is the tired mother who wakes up to the news that her exhaustion wasn’t nerves but diabetes, hypertension and a failing heart.
Obesity is the eighteen-year-old with a coronary; the thirty-year-old whizkid with a stroke; the thirtytwo-year-old woman trying, unsuccessfully, for the past six years to conceive. It is the forty-year-old whose joints give him hell; the fifty-year-old with a back shot to pieces; the sixty-year-old who’s waiting for new knees. It is a lot of other things besides, but it isn’t, emphatically not, simply the inability to look good in jeans. It is not a cosmetic aberration, but an illness that needs to be treated before all hell breaks loose within your skin.
Are we so recently obese? What did people look like 10 years ago?
I have a photograph, from 2001, for comparison.
Despite its stillness, the picture is a blur of haste. People seem to hurry more effectively, there is more purpose to the stride. There is more space—wait, I do a hurried head count—there are just as many people in the 2001 photograph, but there is more space between them. They take up less space. Only one or two are noticeably overweight. Not one is obese.
Ten years ago did we walk more? Do more house work? Watch less TV?
Nah. We were slobs then too.
So what’s different? Is it the food? Or the way we eat it?
Both, I’d say.
Certainly, the food looks different. I do have pictures for comparison, but I don’t need them to remind me of this aspect in 2001, memory is synaesthetic enough.
I can still smell the mint in RadheShyam Bhelpuriwala’s verdant chutney. My eyes water at the memory of those onions, crunchy and cruel as crushed glass. Pale globes of batata wada bobbing up in a smoking kadhai, still palpitant at first bite, sear my mouth with steam. Fruit chaat to cool off, pretty like early Kandinsky, and the idliwala’s car horn magically discordant with the traffic.
Proust’s soppy madeleine had nothing to my memory but—This isn’t memory. It is all still here, and, it is different.
The first difference is is MORE. The stack of sandwiches on paper plates is bigger, the bun is more bulgey, the batata wada is jumbo sized, the idlis are rubbery blimps. The tawa that awaits the masala dosai is as big as a tabletop.
All the servings are enormous. [Of course, the place to really appreciate this change is at the movies. A young couple deeply in love can put away four king-sized samosas, two buckets of buttered popcorn, and fizzy drinks by the gallon, all these long before the interval.]
It is also a question of ubiquity: everything is available, all the time, everywhere.
Churchgate Station is the capital of glut at going-home time. Forget our coffee, bananas and biscuits past. Amchi Mumbai won’t be seen dead eating a vada sambar or Punjabi samosa now. Everything edible is Chinese, Thai or Italian. Speak not of breads but of waffles, burgers, wraps, rolls, puffs and patties. Everything is so conveniently packaged. Even a turd will make a delectable snack, if shrink-wrapped.
And who doesn’t want a snack at that hour? Lunch is a dim memory, and dinner is still miles away. As if this weren’t reason enough, one evening, my travelling companions justified their choice between mouthfuls:
“So hygienic! You can be certain you won’t catch anything. This isn’t raaste ka maal in a newspaper cone.”
“Served so decently in aluminium foil, clingfilm, styrofoam. And, they always provide tissues.”
“Hot and fresh, what more can you ask for?”
“It isn’t deep fried, there’s no oil at all.”
“Good value! Really fills you for the price.”
And there’s the swindle.
Hygienic is any snack in disposable wrappings. Hot and fresh is yesterday’s leftovers, microwaved.
That last argument, though, is absolutely flawless.
The snack sits in the stomach like cement. Because, for it to survive all that packaging without turning limp and sour, it needs a helluva lot of fat and sugars. The packaging just raised the food value by 100 calories, probably more.
Sure, it isn’t deep fried. Even if baked it still is a walking coronary. That dry flaky pastry encasement has enough fat to make a deep-fried samosa look like a sanyasi.
This is just us commuters at the end of a hard day, and god knows, we need some energy to work our way home through the seven o’clock traffic once we get off that train.
Let’s detour and walk into a coffee shop.
Most of the customers here are regulars at that gym round the corner. They just drop by here between work-outs. They do not caffeinate. They opt instead for ‘healthy’ smoothies and wholegrain cookies—which earns them enough Brownie points to pig out on chocolate cake later.
Chocolate is good for you, everyone knows that, and that delicious double Dutch truffle is so light! Just air with a bit of cream.
Sure. One wedge has enough calories for a family of four to lunch on.
Certainly, you could argue that a bare twenty per cent snack on their way home, and a minimal ten indulge in baked goods. The rest grow obese on ghar ka khana, and now that should be enough to tell us that we aren’t bursting our belts because of the food we eat.
‘Ghar ka Khana’, no matter which corner of the Subcontinent you come from, is the holiest of holies, the one constant in a changing universe, the one standard of perfection nothing can ever challenge or impeach.
Yesterday, I was held up at the checking counter in the supermarket by a couple shopping for ghar ka khana. They were young, they would confess to forty in a year or two. A double-income nuclear family, with two kids between five and ten, judging from the shopping that was taking more than half an hour to bill. The mountain of tinsel in their trolley took forever to dislodge, there was always one packet more to add to the pile. Everything crisp and crunchy was represented. Many of the packets, I noticed carried the triumphant label ‘baked, not fried’. There was a small hillock of high-fibre stuff for the parents, the many sorts of bhoosa-biscuit that are all the rage. Three large consignments of cheese: blocks, wedges, slices, in addition to jars of spread. Several gigantic bottles of fizzy drinks. Presumably this was not the rice, atta, vegetables jaunt, but they had made minuscule purchases of pulses and dal. A five litre can of ‘heart-healthy’ cooking oil, a kilo of butter, and one of ghee hid behind a wall of many kinds of pasta. They had one more trolley waiting, this one full of toiletries.
Both husband and wife peered anxiously around, scanning the shelves to see what they had forgotten to pick. From their conversation it was obvious they were loving and concerned parents, responsible householders, pleasant people—And yet, they were going home with this.
Sadly, I reminded myself this had nothing to do with convenience or economy. I learned that a few years ago one morning in a classroom full of six-year-olds.
My question, “What did you have for breakfast today?” was greeted with an uncomfortable silence.
After some frantic whispering and nudging, one young lady got up. She was still tongue-tied, but the rest of them made up for it.
“She has Chocos!” they yelled.
Obviously, the rest of them didn’t.
It slowly came out that the usual breakfast at home was chai-chapati.
“But we don’t eat that stuff!” one boy explained, “we like to eat our tiffin here.”
They opened their tiffins by and by. Each kid had a tinsel packet of either something crisp and salty, or else, biscuits. The Chocos lady had lost status by the time they were through. Those packets were enough to restore democracy.
Behind their happy faces I could see their parents’ anxiety to do the best by their children. The Rs 10 that went into each tiffin meant more skimping on the household budget. They couldn’t afford milk and eggs, but this stuff was what their child wanted, and what was life if they couldn’t afford that?
If you don’t yet know what dictates these choices, all you need do is watch TV. Any channel, any hour. The solutions to all our miseries are to be found in the commercials. We learn the best defence against an impending coronary is a five litre can of oil. The smartest kids go to school crammed with sugarcoated cereal. Tall and strong kids OD on malted drinks. A tetrapak has better fruit than a tree. Everybody loves the kid with potato chips. Crisis of any kind can be addressed with instant noodles, but for a permanent solution, it is pasta you must look to. Every food that America regrets is being offloaded on the Subcontinent: cookies that are a byword for transfats, peanut butter, potato paste, syrups and chocolates thick with corn syrup, sugarsaturated cereal, fried chicken, breaded bites of all sorts, thickeners, sauces, mayo. Everything gloopy and creamy and glutinous and smooth, it’s all there on our supermarket shelves.
But do we have to eat it?
Actually, we do.
It is cheaper, that’s why.
Milk Rs 40/litre, eggs Rs 2.50/per, daal Rs 80/kg, bread Rs 20/loaf, rice Rs 40/kg, cooking oil Rs 100/litre, sugar Rs 40/kg, atta Rs 30/kg.
Fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, astronomical.
Speak not of fuel and transport charges.
Cheaper far, to pick a packet off the shelf.
The reason is evident.
Take milk. How many Indian children have even tasted milk? A lower middle class family in Bombay will buy just enough milk for the parents’ tea. The kids will get a tinsel packed treat instead. Two glasses of milk a day is more than the budget can cover.
What else do you expect when butter, cheese, flavoured milk, ice-creams are marketed like mad? The people who buy these don’t need milk. But children in primary school do, adolescents do, pregnant women do, and they don’t get it.
Fruit is expensive because it has a better career when tetrapacked. Potatoes and bananas, two staples that can stave off starvation, are never going to reach the hungry. They are on their way to feeding the overfed.
It is not wrong to say that the 2.5 million Indians who die of starvation every year are killed by the 2.5 million Indians who eat more than they need.
Again, obesity is a disease of visibility. Those who eat more than they need cannot see hunger around them. It is a form of blindness prevalent on every road. Children stuffing themselves at a food cart will turn a glazed look at a hungry urchin. Adults pontificate about the evils of handing out free meals. All the failures of independent India will be blamed on that frail ten-year-old who hasn’t eaten a full meal in days.
It is almost impossible to see anybody share a meal with the hungry. And yet the hungry are everywhere. Every street has a dozen who could use even a twentieth of the sandwich or burger on that overloaded tray.
“They’re around just to make us feel guilty.”
“I’d rather throw what I can’t eat.”
“They don’t work because they can blackmail us.”
“I’m paying for this.”
Hunger simply doesn’t hurt any more. Other people’s, that is.
So forget feeding the hungry, but how about sharing, just sharing?
Sharing is difficult, these days. Everything is customised, neatly packaged. You don’t want that messed up. Besides, who has the time? Lunch we just grab and run.
After 3.8 billion years, food is an evolutionary hoax. It is no longer something that permits you to live. It has become something you live for. We did expect the upgrade from need to luxury, but this is something else.
Food has become an object of desire. Lust is no longer pelvic, it is the hi-def image of spaghetti squirming in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar glaring down at you from the nearest billboard or the side of a bus. How else can you explain the addiction to cooking on prime time television? The entire family is glued to the idiot box while a man they won’t let within a mile of their kitchen blunders around with stuff they won’t be seen dead buying to eventually dish up something they’ll never—
Oh yes, they will, next Sunday afternoon.
They’ll use all it takes, slugs, barnacles, sheep’s barf, diamond dust, liquid nitrogen. They’ll nuke it with fifty-seven kinds of cheese and stick it in the particle accelerator, and, when it emerges, you know what, it will be a masterpiece.
That’s us all over. Show us a Ferrari and we’ll have one ready, assembled at the pavement garage, within the week. Between yesterday’s sambar and tomorrow’s qeema, we can take on anything, from inter-planetary to molecular cuisine.
But at what cost?
Right now, it’s costing us half a lifespan. Besides bankrupting us, that is. Because food has a twin hoax: the wellness industry.
Just pick up the Sunday paper and check out what you need to eat to stay healthy this weekend.
Yes, I know, you won’t be buying those white truffles or even the Beluga that complements the aloo ka raita, but you might fall for the bowl of walnuts your arteries need, or fresh-pressed cranberry juice to protect your kidneys, Manchurian mushrooms to power your manic Monday, or, how about that one glass of wheatgrass juice to chill?
Food is a compulsion more visual than gastric. We eat with our eyes, and assimilate long before we taste. Science has the human brain under constant surveillance, and informs us that madly hedonistic foods like pizza and chocolate drench our neurons with endorphins.
Mad hedonism? Chocolate—dark, dangerous, aromatic with a velvet sweetness? Yes.
But if a failed chapati with squished tomato and a smear of clotted dahi can do that to my brain, I seriously need to rethink my life.
As do we all, if we face up to the hurtful truth that what’s cooking in the kitchen is not so much personal as political.
Ghar ka khana may be more manipulative than we imagine. Fasting or feasting, we’ve always abjured free choice. What if the present epidemic of obesity has nothing to do with what we eat now, but with the way we’ve always eaten? What if it reflects rebellion, not effect?
Traditional. The adjective is a mask of superiority. It convinces you the noun it qualifies can be nothing less than perfect. With us, in particular.
Tradition is our national brand of opium, and we’re all hooked on it. And when it comes to traditional foods—we know life does not get better than that.
Unmasked, traditional foods are simply the convenience foods of yesteryear. They represent the same set of misadventures in a different timeframe.
Our ancestors were practical people surely: they chose foods convenient to the place they lived in, and cooking methods that were efficient in their time.
Some may still work for us—far removed in time and space from them.
Many are inapt.
A high-fat diet perfect for an intensely cold winter in the mountains is madly inappropriate for today’s metropolis. Slow cooking is simply stupid in a modern fuel-efficient kitchen.
And how traditional are our foods, anyway? We had neither chillies nor tomatoes nor potatoes five hundred years ago. So how old is tradition?
No older than the family album, probably. Which means traditional foods are really family foods. Putting aside vasudhaiva kutumbakam for the moment, what’s the family menu got to do with a national disaster?
Perhaps it is not the menu we are kicking against, but the traditional idea of food.
Food has defined us for aeons. It has been our best defence against the outside world. It has kept us exclusive, insular, xenophobic. Hell is other people’s food.
A restaurant signboard encapsulates the entire story. Shuddh shakahari is invariably translated as Pure Vegetarian. The correct translation would be purely vegetarian as shuddh here only means only.
But it is always pure vegetarian, displayed as a hallmark of superior virtues.
Exclusivity is all about being better than the next guy, and we’ve traditionally used food to pull this off. I’m better than you because I don’t eat beef, but you’re better than him because you don’t eat pork, and she’s better than all of us because she doesn’t eat any number of things, and so on, till the übermensch who eats nothing at all.
Eventually, fasting is no more than extremely exclusive feasting.
Food has put down every barrier we recognise—social, linguistic, religious, even individual.
Dalit writers have bled their hearts out in book after book, poem after poem, and yet somewhere, not too far from the surface, these barriers continue to operate. Not just in remote villages but in cities, in households that are otherwise enlightened.
The traditional meal is a carry-over of this groupism. We rebel against it by dragging the world in by its ear into our kitchens. Historically food has fragmented us, and the quickest way to democratise is to eat the same stuff as the next guy.
It is a great idea. It could become tomorrow’s tradition. Why is it going so perfectly wrong?
Simply because… we’ve stopped thinking. We’re doing the same thing now as we did centuries ago when we buckled under the tyranny of food barriers. We’re merely exchanging one form of control for another.
So who makes the rules now? Don’t go looking for rishis and prophets. The adman is today’s sutradhar.
Don’t believe me? Good. That means you’ll have to test it out.
Begin by pulling all food and fitness advertisements from television, hoardings, newspapers and magazines for one year, and observe what happens.
We’ll be forced to grow up. We’ll have to go back to the primitive concept of food as nourishment. We’ll have to drop attitude. We’ll start questioning and deciding. We’ll stop following.
We’ll eat less.
We might even begin to feel the hunger of others, and work out ways in which the food we don’t need to eat can reach those who need to eat it.
Maybe every child we know will have eaten a meal that day. Now that isn’t too much to wish for, is it?