INDIANS ARE STRESSED AND UNHEALTHY
Manmohan Singh had his arteries bypassed some months back,
a procedure that increasing numbers of Indians are having. Last year,
medical journal Lancet reported a study of 20,000 Indian patients and
found that 60 per cent of the world's heart disease patients are
in India, which has 15 per cent of the world's population.
This number is surprising because reports of obesity and heart
disease focus on fat Americans and their food. What could
account for Indians being so susceptible -- more even than
Four things: diet, culture, stress and lack of fitness.
There is no doctrinal prescription for vegetarianism in Hindu diet,
and some texts explicitly sanction the eating of meat. But
vegetarianism has become dogma.
Indian food is assumed to be strongly vegetarian, but it is actually
lacking in vegetables. Our diet is centred around wheat, in the north,
and rice, in the south. The second most important element is daal
in its various forms. By weight, vegetables are not consumed much.
You could have an entire South Indian vegetarian meal without
encountering a vegetable. The most important vegetable is the
starchy aloo. Greens are not cooked flash-fried in the healthy
manner of the Chinese, but boiled or fried till much of the nutrient
value is killed.
Gujaratis and Punjabis are the two Indian communities most
susceptible to heart disease. Their vulnerability is recent. Both have
a large peasant population -- Patels and Jats -- who in the last few
decades have moved from an agrarian life to an urban one. They have
retained their diet and if anything made it richer, but their bodies do
not work as much. This transition from a physical life to a sedentary
one has made them vulnerable..
Gujaratis lead the toll for diabetes as well, and the dietary aspect
of this is really the fallout of the state's economic success. Unlike
most Indian states, Gujarat has a rich and developed urban culture
because of the mercantile nature of its society. Gujaratis have been
living in cities for centuries.
His prosperity has given the Gujarati surplus money and, importantly,
surplus time. These in turn have led to snacky foods, some deep
fried, some steamed and some, uniquely in India, baked with yeast.
Most Indians are familiar with the Gujarati family on holiday, pulling
out vast quantities of snacks the moment the train pushes off.
Gujarati peasant food -- bajra (millet) roti, a lightly cooked green,
garlic and red chilli chutney, and buttermilk -- is actually supremely
healthy. But the peasant Patel has succumbed to the food of the
'higher' trader and now prefers the oily and the sweet.
Marathi peasant food is similar, but not as wholesome with a thick
and pasty porridge called zunka replacing the green.
Bombay's junk food was invented in the 19th century to service
Gujarati traders leaving Fort's business district late in the evening
after a long day. Pao bhaji, mashed leftover vegetables in a tomato
gravy served with shallow-fried buns of bread, was one such
The most popular snack in Bombay is vada pao, which has a
batter-fried potato ball stuck in a bun. The bun -- yeast bread -- is
not native to India and gets its name pao from the Portuguese who
brought it in the 16th century. Bal Thackeray encouraged Bombay's
unemployed Marathi boys to set up vada pao stalls in the 60s, which
they did and still do.
The travelling chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain called vada pao
the best Indian thing he had ever eaten, but it is heart attack food..
Though Jains are a very small part (one per cent or thereabouts)
of the Gujarati population, such is their cultural dominance through
trade that many South Bombay restaurants have a 'Jain' option on
the menu. This is food without garlic and ginger. Since they are
both tubers (as also are potatoes), Jains do not eat them, because
in uprooting them from the soil, living organisms may be killed
(no religious restriction on butter and cheese, however!).
Even in Bombay, this intolerance prevails. Domino's, the famous
pizza chain, has a vegetarian-only pizza outlet on Malabar Hill
(Jinnah's neighbourhood). Foreigners like Indian food, and it is very
popular in England, but they find our sweets too sweet. This taste
for excess sugar extends also to beverage: Maulana Azad called
Indian tea 'liquid halwa'. Only in the last decade have cafes begun
offering sugar on the side, as diabetes has spread..
India's culture encourages swift consumption. There is no
conversation at meal-time, as there is in Europe. Because there
are no courses, the eating is relentless. You can be seated, served
and be finished eating at a Gujarati or Marathi or South Indian thali
restaurant in 15 minutes. It is eating in the manner of animals:
for pure nourishment.
We eat with fingers, as opposed to knives and forks, or chopsticks,
resulting in the scooping up of bigger mouthfuls. Because the nature
of the food does not allow for leisurely eating, Indians do not have
a drink with their meals. We drink before and then stagger to the
As is the case in societies of scarcity, rich food is considered
good -- and ghee is a sacred word in all Indian languages. There is
no escape from fat. In India, advertising for healthy eating also
shows food deep fried, but in lower-cholesterol oil.
The insistence by family - 'thoda aur le lo' -- at the table is part
of our culture of hospitality, as is the offering of tea and perhaps
also a snack to visiting guests and strangers.
Middle class Indians, even families that earn Rs10,000 a month,
will have servants. Work that the European and American does,
the Indian does not want to do: cooking, cleaning, washing up.
Painting the house, changing tyres, tinkering in the garage, moving
things around, getting a cup of tea at the office, these are things
the Indian gets someone else to do for him.. There is no sense
of private space and the constant presence of the servant is
Gandhi's value to India was not on his political side, but through
his religious and cultural reforms. What Gandhi attempted to drill
into Indians through living a life of action was a change in our
culture of lethargy and dependence. Gandhi stressed physical
self-sufficiency, and even cleaned his toilet out himself.
But he wasn't successful in making us change, and most Indians
will not associate Gandhi with physical self-sufficiency though
that was his principal message. Indian men do no work around
the house. Middle class women do little, especially after childbirth.
Many cook, but the cutting and cleaning is done by the servant.
Slim in their teens, they turn thick-waisted in their 20s, within a
few years of marriage.
Since we are dependent on other people, we have less control over
events. The Indian is under stress and is anxious. This is bad for his
health. He must be on constant guard against the world, which takes
advantage of him: the servant's perfidy, encroachment by his
neighbours, cars cutting in front of him in traffic, the vendor's rate
that must be haggled down. Almost nothing is orderly and everything
must be worried about.
In the Indian office, the payroll is a secret, and nobody is told what
the other makes. Knowledge causes great stress, though the lack
of information is also stressful, leading to spy games and office gossip.
Because there is no individualism in India, merit comes from seniority
and the talented but young executive is stressed by the knowledge
that he's not holding the position he deserves. Indians are peerless
detectors of social standing and the vertical hierarchy of the Indian
office is sacrosanct.
Dennis Kux pointed out that Indian diplomats do not engage officially
with an American of lower rank, even if the American was authorised
to decide the matter. In the last decade, when Indians began owning
companies abroad, the Wall Street Journal reported on cultural
problems that arose. Their foreign employees learnt quickly that
saying 'no' would cause their Indian bosses great offence, so they
learnt to communicate with them as with children.
Indians shine in the west where their culture doesn't hold them
back. In India honour is high and the individual is alert to slights
from those below him, which discomfort him greatly.
LACK OF FITNESS
There is no culture of physical fitness, and because of this Indians
don't have an active old age.
Past 60, they crumble. Within society they must step back and
play their scripted role. Widows at that age, even younger, have
no hope of remarriage because sacrifice is expected of them.
Widowers at 60 must also reconcile to singlehood, and the family
would be aghast if they showed interest in the opposite sex at
that age, even though this would be normal in another culture.
Elders are cared for within the family, but are defanged when they
pass on their wealth to their son in the joint family. They lose their
self-esteem as they understand their irrelevance, and wither.
The writer is a former newspaper editor who lives in Bombay