Worrying about weight has become a national obsession

Even as you read this piece, 17 million people across the country are sweating it out in their neighbourhood gyms, another two million are busy practising kapaalabhati kriya (according to Ramdev, each exhalation makes you lose 10-15 gm), about a million are carefully reading the ads of weight-loss clinics and saving their numbers on mobiles, and 0.75 million have just resisted the temptation to have an extra paratha or dosa for breakfast.

I just cooked up these figures – I could be wildly off the mark. Or, who knows, maybe I am not. But there is no denying the big fat truth. Never before in recent history, apart from the struggle for freedom, have urban Indians single-mindedly worked this hard towards a goal. The goal is simple: just losing a few pounds of weight! Achieving it is even simpler: walk as if your life depends on it. But as the wise man once said, the simplest of things are the most difficult to achieve. As a result, weight-loss has today become a multi-million-dollar industry in India.

Wasn't it only the other day when, in our society, being a little overweight was considered a sign of good health and prosperity? In north India, where I grew up, a man was expected to grow a paunch soon after getting married – it was the litmus test for his bride's culinary skills. If the man remained skinny, it reflected poorly on the woman: “She can't even feed her husband properly.” And in cinema-crazy south India, where I live now, men have traditionally been great fans of women who never starved themselves in order to look slim. Even today you have actresses who are worshipped for their girth.

Indians have always been comfortable with the idea of weight. Excess weight, at the most, was an unwelcome guest, but never considered an enemy who needed to be chased out. But the turn of the century, when we were reaping the benefits of economic liberalisation, saw the much-publicised wedding between obesity and illness. Urban Indians suddenly woke up not only to the health benefits of being slim but also the immense social benefits of staying in shape. A recently married man, for example, began to realise that while his newly grown paunch may speak volumes about his wife's cooking skills, it only made him less appealing to other women.

While it is heartening to see more and more Indians sweating it out, it is amusing that the eagerness to lose a few kilos has become an obsession. Weight loss, in fact, is urban India's biggest obsession today. It is threatening to become a disorder in itself. Eavesdrop on the conversation at the next table in a restaurant and chances are you will hear the familiar expressions, ‘calories' and ‘cutting down'. Calories – until 20 years ago, only physics students were familiar with the word. Go to any Page-3 party and you'll find people gushing to each other about their waistlines. And if you happen to detest a woman, you only have to tell her, with a hint of concern, “I think you have put on a little weight since I saw you last time. That time you were very slim.” Your words will play on her mind throughout the evening – the effect will be as disastrous as a doctor breaking to her the news of a terrible disease.

A few weeks ago, returning to Chennai from Bangalore in the early-morning Shatabdi Express, I found myself sitting next to a woman who must have been in her early forties. She was plump. When the attendant who handed newspapers to the passengers offered her a copy, she refused and instead covered her face with a shawl and went to sleep. While I turned the pages of the newspaper, she was woken up for breakfast, and then she busied herself with her mobile phone. Once I was done with the paper and was about to put it away, she spoke: “Excuse me, can I have it for a minute?”

I watched her curiously from the corner of my eye. She did not even throw a glance at the front page, as one does instinctively when picking up a newspaper, but went on turning the pages hurriedly, as if searching for something. She finally paused at page 17 and settled to read an article on top of that page. I peered discreetly. It was a London-datelined report she was reading, that was headlined, “Want to stay in shape? Drink donkey's milk.”