This is how the Upanishads define food—Adyate iti cha bhootani, tasmad annam tad uchayate: That which you consume and in turn consumes you is called as anna or food. And in my 20 years of work, I have learnt that there couldn’t have been a better description of the dichotomous, almost paradoxical, relationship that we share with food. The ones who keep it simple and consume it, dare I say, as and when they feel like it, seem to enjoy not just a great equation with food but also with people. They come across as happy, productive and usually enjoy great health too.
On a recent drive from Manali to Kullu airport, something about my driver caught my attention. He was drop dead gorgeous for one, but he seemed to carry a sense of calm that is not usual for people of his age. He looked very young, 23 or 25 max, but he navigated turns and shifted gears like a pro. ‘Kitne saal se gaadi chala rahe ho,’ I finally asked. ‘Bees saal se,’ he said.
‘Thirty-eight ka hu.’ He had heard my actual question, rare again for a man. ‘Wow!’ I said. ‘Bahut experience hai, bahut accha chalate ho.’ ‘Haan, lekin abhi two saal mein chodd dunga.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Woh dadi kehti hai ki ab bas hogaya.’
His dadi was 85 years old and single-handedly looked after the family farm. For as long as he could remember, she would get up by 4 a.m., milk the cows, take them to the jungle, work at the farm, collect wood, etc., and hadn’t fallen sick a single day of her life. Just a few days back she had told him, ‘Ab bas ho gaya.’ She was only going to work for the next two years and wanted to slow down a bit on turning 87. That meant that he could drive only for the next two years and then take on the mantle passed down by dadi and look after the farm and the cattle. His dadi, like every Himachali, also drank copious amounts of tea; Himachalis drink 1 kg of tea per person per year, quite ahead of the 822 gm and 800 gm of Karnataka and Rajasthan who take the second and third positions respectively in chai consumption.
‘Aap agar pila do toh dadi 55 cups of chai pi legi aur dakaar tak nahi legi. Mujhe toh five cups mein hi gastric ho jata hai,’ he said with remorse.
Wow! I really wanted to meet this woman. Because she is not the kind of person that I usually meet. Mostly, I meet people who are at the other end of the spectrum, the ones consumed by food. But since I wrote Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight in 2009, even the pattern in which we are consumed by food has changed. If earlier it was about intellectualising it, giving it a name or a number (carb, protein, fat, calories, etc.), in the hope to understand it better or eat better or get healthier, now it is about spiritualising it too. ‘A cultural appropriation by the diet industry,’ as my partner GP calls these new-age diet trends.
The weight-loss industry knows that it is the era of empty rhetoric and it’s no longer good enough for a diet to be just a diet; it now needs a cultural spin. And needs to be whipped like a lifestyle. And weight loss may well be their first (and only) plug but it now needs to be dressed as stuff that your ancestors did, will free you from diabetes and cancer, will lead to longevity, etc., etc. ‘Ek nur aadmi, sau nur kapda,’ goes an old saying in Hindi. It means that a person is only taken as seriously as he dresses or that people are taken in more by appearances than the real thing.
Honestly, I shouldn’t be complaining; in a way it keeps me in business. But truth be told, it’s tough to live in my world and not have my heart break at the things people do to squeeze into dresses, shrink in sizes, and just to drop a few kilos. And to watch repeatedly, over the last two decades, the same excruciatingly painful pattern of being convinced that ‘this diet’ is going to work. ‘This diet’ was removing ghee, peanuts, coconut in the ’90s.
‘This diet’ was removing rice, breads, pasta in the mid-2000s. ‘This diet’ is currently just not eating anything for 16-20 hours in the day. Every ‘this diet’ is backed heavily by ‘science’ and has its followers wanting to convert you into a thinner person with the enthusiasm that would put missionaries to shame.
But. This. Diet. Is. Deprivation. Plain and simple. Sometimes deprived of fat, sometimes of carbs, at other times of the joy of eating. All in the name of weight loss. We seem to have forgotten our basics. That we are worthy of food on our plate. That local, seasonal and raditional food is healthy for people, economies and the planet.
That common sense is a science with wide applications to real life. That life is beyond apps, hashtags and social media influencers who juice, cleanse and bullet proof their coffees. Listening to the inner voice was always a difficult task, but with the social media noise and monetisation of your insecurities, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember that you even have a say in all this.
What we should know is that the more we trap ourselves in the obsession of looking a certain way, the more we play into the hands of the weight-loss industry.
And then we lose our connect with the most intimate, intrinsic and instinctive part of our lives—food. And we forget that we can actually stay healthy and look stunning when we eat local foods in sync with the season and in tune with our diverse traditions. That festivals bring us together and that food heals old wounds and bonds us into a social structure that is important for our survival and sanity. That foods with local names are nutritious, delicious and a rare delight. That health comes in all sizes, shapes and weight. And that life must not be spent in looking, speaking and eating like we are clones of each other. That in our diversity lies our strength and stability.
Excerpted with permission from Eating in the Age of Dieting by Rujuta Diwekar, published by Westland, November 2020. The book is available for pre-order.