Of Poori and Potbellies

This summer, Indian food has risen to claim its place among my top three favorite cuisines. However, I must admit that Indian attitudes toward diet and exercise have been the most difficult differences in lifestyle to get used to in India. I’m definitely not someone to harp on nutrition and dieting (my general rule is that if it’s healthy, it’s not delicious), but many of the conversations Sam, Sindhu, and I have here deal with the deep-fried, carb-heavy Indian diet. We eat nearly all of our meals in the hostel dining hall, with the exception of lunch and dinner on Sundays.

Each morning for breakfast, we have a choice between toast, oats, an Indian breakfast food like idli (steamed cake) or vadai (deep-fried fritter), chutney, lentils, eggs, and papaya.

For lunch, chapati (Indian flatbread), rice, curry, two types of vegetables (usually root vegetables), curd, dessert, and really concentrated sugary juice.

For dinner, chapati or another fried Indian bread like puri or dosa, rice, lentils, a deep-fried vegetable dish, curd, and bananas.

For weeks, I loved the food offered at Inspiration. I still enjoy it quite a bit. Sometimes it can get repetitive, and often lacks the spicy kick that makes me love the Indian cuisine, likely because many of the other foreign guests can’t handle it. However, my major complaint is that it makes it very difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle.

It seems as if everything in Indian cuisine is either extremely flavorful or completely void of taste—it’s often hard to find a happy medium between the two. This makes it necessary for me to accompany every dish with a plain carb to offset the strong flavor/saltiness. Due to this habit and the tendency for everything to be fried and dripping with grease, my diet has become oversaturated with carbs and oil, both of which I tend to lay off while in America. I frequently find myself overeating because if I want more vegetables, I have to pair it with filling breads or rice. Indian desserts are incredibly sweet but very tempting, and to me, they often don’t feel like dessert because they’re in liquid form or contain carrot (yes, I realize carrot halwa is terribly unhealthy). So basically what I’m saying is that I have little self-control and the options we’re given makes it very easy for me to rationalize why I’m eating it.

During the first few weeks, Sindhu and I were extremely concerned for the states of our health. We led very sedentary lifestyles, sitting in our offices all day and walking a maximum of five minutes to get anywhere—five minutes that were already incredibly draining due to the Madurai heat. To help combat our unhealthy lifestyles, Sindhu and I tried to instate a set of rules: no elevators, only one carb allowed per meal, and lay off the Dark Fantasy cookies (India’s version of Oreos). Unfortunately, sometimes, you spend your entire workday looking forward to that next meal, and to eat only a tablespoon of rice feels really unsatisfying. And some days, your stomach is in a precarious situation, and other days, your sari is, and the thought of you getting sick or having your sari fall off is enough to convince you to break the no-elevator rule. Luckily, we quickly stopped purchasing Dark Fantasy cookies, and thank goodness we at least did that.

But the best change we made was in finding a great gym to join. We started the summer taking yoga classes, but after observing all the pot-bellied men beside us in class, we were convinced we needed an opportunity for cardio to counteract the high-carb diet. At first, we ventured into an awful gym above the local grocery store, a hot and sweaty room complete with tacky neon painted walls, club music blasting at high volume, and one lone treadmill. Soon after, we found out about another gym called Talwalkars, which was a forty-rupee rickshaw ride away. With three floors, including one floor dedicated exclusively to cardio machines and another to lockers and massage rooms, Talwalkars was everything we had ever dreamed of for a gym in India. They were offering a 50% discount for the month of July, so we immediately signed up.

Because Sam and I were amidst our data collection period in the retina clinic, the only time I could feasibly go to the gym was before work. Dr. Kim, the chief medical officer of the hospital and the chief of the retina clinic, told me that if I am considering a career in medicine, I have to start practicing the lifestyle now and go to the gym at 5:30am like all the other doctors. I must say, Sindhu is the absolute best gym partner ever for accepting this ludicrous proposition, even if just for a week before she switched to evenings. Each morning, we would wake up before the crack of dawn, walk to the end of the street and sleepily squint through the darkness in hopes of spotting a glimmer of yellow signifying a rickshaw coming towards us. We’d run on treadmills on the second level, overlooking the superstar cataract surgeon couple of Aravind, as they efficiently worked out every morning before performing hundreds of surgeries that day. So accustomed to tracking patient entry and exit from the clinic, I would carefully observe their workout patterns, impressed and inspired by the regimen they had established to maintain balanced lives—something I definitely need to learn and apply. And by the way, I finally met the husband of the superstar couple at work a few days ago–he was pretty awesome.

Aside from observing the surgeon couple, I found many other aspects of my gym experience interesting to study as well. First of all, it doesn’t seem common for Indians to go running. In order to snag a treadmill, you have to get to the gym right when it opens, otherwise the first people who get them will be slowly walking on them until the end of time. The first time I went to the gym, I had no idea what the mile to kilometer conversion was, and the people on either side of me were both walking so I couldn’t even base my speed off of them. Recently, I was running 5k on the day that a young doctor from the retina clinic came to join the gym, and he repeatedly remarked that if I kept running at that speed, I would soon reach my hometown in America. At first I thought he was being cheeky, since 3.2 miles is a very normal length for a run in the U.S., but I soon realized he was genuinely confused why I was running that distance. Today, he referred to me as a marathon runner. All because I ran 3.2 miles.

Similarly, when you mention going to the gym to sisters at the hospital, they express mild confusion. Why do you go to the gym? Do you think you’re fat? The idea of working out for the sake of being fit is a relatively novel idea in India. More people at my gym seem to be there for weight loss rather than for general fitness, and very few people are well-built. My retina doctor gym buddy explained to me that a lot of people think that if you’re slim, then there’s no need for you to exercise, which is very concerning given the fact that India bears the highest burden of diabetes in the world. He told me that, last year, all the doctors in the clinic had their lipid profiles examined, and everyone was in disbelief when the thinnest doctors had high levels of cholesterol.

Which brings me back to diet. Even the men with bulging biceps who have clearly been pumping iron for quite some time sport generous potbellies, inevitably due to their diets. Interestingly enough, the ideal body images of the muscular male and the slim but toned female that are pervasive in Western media and popular culture don’t seem to apply here. Perhaps it’s due to the lack of dating culture, perhaps it’s due to a popular media industry that arguably emphasizes talent over looks. But Western notions of beauty have increasingly impacted the Bollywood industry and a fit body has become a status symbol, driving Indian men to the gym in pursuit of six-pack abs. In the past week, three other middle-aged retina doctors joined my gym, one of which expressed to me his desire to trade his potbelly for a six-pack.

Unfortunately, my gym membership expired today, so in the coming two weeks, I’ll have to bid farewell to my fitness and hello to my Indian potbelly.

One thought on “Of Poori and Potbellies

  1. I trained for the mumbai half marathon on a treadmill and used to jump rope in my bedroom! Yiikes. Playing hockey in Mumbai with the teenage boys was way more fun. It takes a lot of creativity to stay fit and glad you figured out something that works! West River Drive is waiting for you!

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About Christina Wu

Graduated in 2014 with a B.A. in Health & Societies at the University of Pennsylvania. Interned at Aravind Eye Care System in Madurai, Tamilnadu in summer of 2012. Awarded a 2014-15 Fulbright fellowship in China to conduct research on dementia care in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.