Thursday, April 24, 2014

The misgivings of virtual citizens

The part I hated the most about not being in India, was being a part of this group of "virtual citizens". It was a group of people with a lot of concern for India and India's development, expressing it constantly on social networking websites. We witnessed a lot of  "middle class" revolutions in the past five years, the most prominent was the agitation against corruption led by Anna Hazare (calculated and controlled by Arvind Kejriwal). As this revolution degenerated into the chaotic Aam Aadmi Party, it left me wondering if this chaos truly represents the confused supporters of the movement, all the Facebook tigers, spread into different corners of the world and trying to be passionately Indian.

They are the kind of people we really do need back home.
They read a lot. So they have a lot to say in an argument. They instigate debates by posting their political opinion online and then spend a lot of their productive work time in replying to the comments. It is as if they know their country better than people who queue up to exercise their right to vote. And even if close to a billion people bring a leader into power, somehow it is not the right choice, because they didn't make it. They are outraged that the governments that they want to see in power are never elected by the nation. Sometimes, when they actually agree with the ballot, they spend a lot of time justifying the outcome to their opponents. But all of them, however well read and  well established they are, are still virtual citizens who do not vote. I wrote a similar post during my "NRI days". I have done all of this. Towards the end of my stay, I was left with a debilitating sense of hopelessness. Trapped in an eddy of labels and name calling -- radical Hindu, pseudo-liberal, pseudo-secular, communal, left-leaning, newspaper bias, cronyism, nepotism and many others.

Although voting in Loksabha elections 2014 did give me a sense of purpose and usefulness, I have come to realize a much harsher reality. That virtual citizens, with their extremely loud media presence, are still a fractional minority in this giant exercise of voting in a new Prime Minister. The overwhelming majority still, are the people who are voting for concrete roads, water & electricity. Women voting to stop their daily hikes to get clean water for their family, and people who are eager to get out of debt and poverty. We are still not done solving farmers' problems, we are still not finished with the exploitation of the poor by money lenders. We still struggle with educating girls and providing them with better (and safe) sanitation, provided they make it into this world dodging the illegal use of ultrasounds. 

I realized how out-of-place and uprooted I was when I followed the 2012 presidential elections in the United States. I read every single Op-ed written on Romney and Obama. I watched the debates like I used to watch tennis grand slams. I understood what America was seeking as a nation. Healthcare, women's issues, budget crises and all of that! But I couldn't even play a tiny role in choosing the leader of the country of my residence. Then I realized that I am equally well informed about Indian politics, but I haven't really been a "practicing" Indian citizen for more than five years.

I don't really support Modi. I have never agreed with the BJP ideology. But when I see non-resident academics writing "open letters" to convey their apprehension over a Modi victory, it angers me. So does a country like the United States being "concerned" about the rise of a "communal" leader. I think the "War on Terror" was more communal than anything India has ever witnessed. Such condescension comes with an assumption that belonging to a developed country or having high academic credentials gives you a better judgement. But the most important quality you need, to choose your leader, is not intelligence. It is the act of being a present citizen. And if a Modi government comes to power, it would be a result of a billion present citizens queuing up to cast their votes. And in this system, being there is more useful (and respectable) than having a lot to say, from far away.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Men Who Made Us Fat (& Thin)

           I stumbled upon two brilliant documentaries on BBC. The Men Who Made Us Fat, talks about the invasion of the food industry and related corporations into our lives. Men Who Made Us Thin, shows us how these same corporations systematically introduced "diet food" to us.

             The core argument in the first documentary is whether the food industry should take any responsibility for the bulging waistlines all over the world. For that, the industry has a simple answer. Weight gain is caused when the intake of calories is significantly more than the consumption of calories in human body. Therefore, it is completely under a person's control what size he or she wants to be. However, it is interesting to see how the opinions of current food industry employees and the ex-employees differ in their attitudes towards this same issue. The problem is not just that people are consuming more. It is also the fact that they are being bombarded with unnecessary sugar. In burger buns, in preserved meat, in ketchup and in seemingly benign food stuffs such as yogurts and breakfast cereals. The rampant use of sugar and salt is not because it is nutritionally necessary, but to enhance taste, and add an element of addiction to the food. Sugar and salt are also cheap substitutes for ingredients that need special care and expense during transportation such as, fresh vegetables & fruit. Sugar and salt are easy to buy and store. They do not rot and neither do they need too much attention. It is ultimately an "industry" we are dealing with. Their final goal is never "nutrition for all", it is always profit. Taking your food into your own hands, literally, is the only lasting solution.

                   The Men Who Made Us Thin, on the other hand, left me a bit pissed off! I can deal with not eating fast food as a personal responsibility. But the diet industry, which is selling us thousands of low-fat products, has actually actively manipulated with our understanding of how these products work. In one of the parts of this documentary, you can see how when the federal government ordered a probe into the diets of the average American, their findings were recklessly suppressed. The report squarely put the blame on too much fat & sugar (as it should be). However, the sugar lobby pressured the government to exclude sugar from the conclusion and a new breed of "low fat" products was born. Products which contained no fat, but a crazy load of sugar. Also amusing are the findings of the experts who have proved that diets don't work. Especially diets that are crazy or extreme. They work short term and people get back to what they used to eat. Invariably, people who diet for short periods of time tend to gain back all they lost (&more), in the next two years. This yo-yo effect is exactly what the diet industry feeds off. There is tempting fast food on one hand and then there are diets. People are thrown from one to the other and that's how both industries are thriving.

                 The third and perhaps the most disturbing factor that comes into play when our bodies are under scrutiny, is the media. The perception of what is considered attractive has been shoved down our throats. And somehow, fat is an unnecessary synonym for poor health as well as unattractiveness. Both are extremely harsh and uneducated conclusions. Yes, morbidly obese people do face a significant health risk. But people who are between 25 and 27 BMI (which includes about 2/3rds of the US population, and very likely, about 25 % of the Indian population) are not always susceptible to the same risks. Being overweight is not necessarily risking poor health. Neither is being overweight equal to being ugly or unattractive. The above clip is especially infuriating. Venice A. Fulton, has published a notoriously famous book titled, "six weeks to OMG - get skinnier than all your friends", targeted at teenage girls. Before we start becoming health conscious and change our diets, it is also important to understand that being overweight is okay. It is not the end of the world. And our identities cannot be linked to our BMIs.

                  I have always been overweight. I was an overweight teenager and for most of my adult life, I have been overweight for a longer time than I was the right weight. The only negative effect I have suffered of being around six to ten kilos overweight has been emotional. I am a perfectly healthy person, who exercises daily and who is mindful of what she eats. The only weak link between my body and my confidence is how I  feel about it. I wasted a lot of my early twenties trying to match up to the Western standard of "bikini beauty". That goal was not just unreachable for someone who was trying to work on a PhD, it was also unsustainable and completely stupid. It is not until I went to the U.S., and met one of my very close friends Elodie, that I realized that I was chasing the wrong dream. Every continent comes with a body type. While Indian women might worry about not having washboard abs, white women worry about premature ageing. African women want to have better hair and Asian women waste a lot of time with eye make up. The truth is, all of us, all countries included are just fine.

               For inspiration, I always run to the art of the famous Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma. His paintings of Indian women from different regions are exquisite. And the best thing about his art is that these women are  not photoshopped. Here's my favorite: Maharashtrian Lady. 

Sometimes, I overwhelm myself by reading too much "love-your-body" stuff. But in my constant self-therapy, I have learned one thing - that people very rarely see us as objectively as we see ourselves. And if there is anyone in this world who makes you feel sorry for your face or your body, you should first stand up to them and then kick them our of your life. It is not just a body or a face. It is vehicle for your spirit, your energy, your creativity and all the knowledge you have gathered walking through life. We should all always keep that in mind and nourish ourselves, body & soul!