Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Caveat expatriate

Indulgence in over-consumption is more expensive for Indians abroad than for populations who’ve lived in said countries for ages, e.g., Indian immigrants are worse off healthwise than Americans in the USA, the British in Britain and so on. (Contact me for references to research on this.)
Why? Indians’ genetic gifts translate to a greater inclination to diabetes and heart disease, via an unfavourable biochemical profile (cholesterol etc.) in combination with the adoption of the convenience lifestyle of the developed world. This means that an Indian and an American starting out on a par and following a similar lifestyle – junk food, no exercise, poor sleep, stress, exposure to toxins – are unlikely to end up in the same health mess in time; the Indian will deteriorate further and faster.

Technological and economic development are accompanied by another variety of development that is less welcome – that of chronic diseases. We have evidence of this in the changing demographics of disease in India, especially urban (‘westernised’) India. Disease conditions once put off by youth, to be examined only after retirement, are their early- and mid-career companions these days. The youngish (20s-30s) population with high blood pressure and adverse blood lipid and blood sugar levels, is growing – in more ways than one. Labour-saving devices, inordinately long workdays, uncomfortable public transport, higher-calorie diets, and unavailability of places and conditions in which to exercise are unfortunate fall-outs of the economic progress that India is experiencing. Unfortunately, the Indian body isn’t yet savvy to the growth of the Indian wallet and the changed demands that it engenders.

Consider the Indian professional (even in India, but particularly abroad):
• a slowly, but steadily, burgeoning non-pregnant tummy
• blood pressure inching upwards
• triglycerides shooting through the roof, HDL (‘good’ cholesterol) plummeting, LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) soaring
• hyperacidity, even unto an ulcer
• allergies
• backaches, even sciatica
…the cluster of symptoms clustering around the person sometimes as early as in the late 20s. This, unchecked, goes on to official diabetes and heart disease in a few years. That infertility and autoimmune disease are on the rise hasn't escaped anyone's notice. And cancers are not unheard of either.

Some facilitators of this sorry state:

• higher calorie diets than required
• far more fat, especially trans-fats and saturated fats, than the body needs
• far less fibre than needed
• inadequate physical activity
• work and environmental stress
• substance abuse
• compulsive non-vegetarianism…
Till recently, most families that defined themselves as ‘non-vegetarian’ wouldn’t necessarily consume meat on a daily basis. Cost and constrained availability might have been some factors leading to this, as also the fact that the plethora of vegetarian foods available render it really stupid not to follow a largely vegetarian diet. The biggest change today is that vegetarianism for tradition is squashed. Think of the hordes of sausage-chompers today who come from pucca-vegetarian families. People move out and feel no pressure from home, but plenty of encouragement from contemporary society to eat meat – regularly. This by itself need not be bad, but there is no guarantee that the meat you get has been reared and processed in a healthy manner. And over-emphasis on meat may be accompanied by neglect of plant foods – spinach-dal may well get less custom when malai-chicken screams out to the diner.

Men seem to be worse off than women - not a particularly shocking observation. Women have a sliver of inbuilt biological advantage in their young adulthood, but what stands them in better stead, I believe, is their reluctance to let themselves go as easily as men do. Maybe this distinction comes from the pervading sexist requirement for women to be beautiful and responsible, both incompatible with a life of excess.

Some ways the world has changed:

• Population growth
• Polluted water, air and earth
• Toxins in food, water, cosmetics and synthetic materials all around us
• Greatly reduced connection with nature
• Little physical activity
• Reduced opportunity for rest and recreation

In addition to the largely irreversible changes in the world around us, are changes in the world within us. Damage accumulates. Metabolism inevitably slows beginning in the mid-20s. If you maintain the exact lifestyle in your 30s and 40s that you did in your early 20s, don’t expect to look and feel now exactly as you did then. Fat deposition gets a fillip, and muscle- and bone-loss advance, so you need to step up your exercise level even to stay in place. Unfortunately, people tend to ‘take it easy’ and ‘settle down’ (along with the cobwebs in their minds and the love-handles on their trunks) at about this stage in their lives. Also, don’t wait to burst out of your clothes before you acknowledge your fattening. Seemingly slender people are often ‘obese’ by body fat percentage standards. The simple weighing scale doesn’t give you the information that you need. Analyse your body fat percentage and act on it.

What to do?

Don’t take your body for granted. Don’t measure your aptitude for good health by your ancestors’ – your life has practically no resemblance to theirs. In fact, a good way to approach health would be to copy your ancestors' (grandparents or older) lifestyle with respect to food and physical activity.

Exercise: Insinuate movement into your daily life if you ‘don’t have the time to exercise’. Exercise is a multi-pronged salubrious strategy – build muscle and bone, lose excess fat, improve posture and balance, achieve better blood sugar and blood lipid control (increase HDl, reduce LDL etc.) and stave off diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, minimize stress, sleep better, think better, and of course, look better.
Very few of us Indians have a positive, enthusiastic stance towards physical activity. Most of us who kept up our levels of activity beyond teenage have heard offhand remarks or even earnest queries about why we need to exercise when we aren’t ‘fat’. Difficult as it may be, we need to break out of that philosophy and work for fitness, not just to banish visible rolls of fat.

Eat: Stock up on fibre. Choose fats wisely and conservatively. Rather than spending all your talent on churning out meat dishes chock-full of saturated fat, flavouring agents and added colours, turn your genius to sprouts, vegetables, fruit and whole-grains.

Sleep: Even a week of poor sleep leads to hormonal changes that age you by years.

Be merry: Use your intelligence, not strong chemicals, to this end.

Avoid toxins: Stick to natural fibres for wear and use. Let plants rather than chemicals clear air. Closely examine every single thing you use – food, cleaners, cosmetics, stationery, decor. Don't treat yourself as a hazardous waste disposal bin. Shun disposables – they are, without exception, toxic (this includes disposable diapers, tampons, styrofoam, many plastics, plywood, many glues, most dry-cleaned garments, many inks...the list is too long for me to know, let alone repeat). White is not necessarily clean. In fact, having been bleached, it is usually worse than its non-white counterpart.

Monitor your health: Examine your family history. Check yourself at intervals for the development of disease-conditions that you are susceptible to. If everyone in your family exits the earth after a heart-attack at 50, it is ridiculous for you to avoid blood tests and hog fats between cigarette-puffs or tequila-shots like there’s no tomorrow (or then, you may be right, there will be no tomorrow if you progress like that). That said, don’t ignore conditions that do not feature in your family history – you may be the pioneer in your family. Try and be one of health.

Bald facts

– main baal baal bach gayee

Why would someone shave her head – her perfectly, okay imperfectly, hirsute head? Disease? Heroic treatment? Preparation for brain surgery? In return for a favour from God? Because a loved one died (although to my knowledge, it’s males who shave at this)? A protest against some atrocity?... These are the stimuli for voluntary baldness that spring to people’s minds, especially Indians’ minds. Glamour? Please! What’s glamorous about a shaven head followed by a stubble and a golliwogesque look for a while afterwards? It is extremely difficult to visualise a healthy bald woman not trying to make a statement.

I shaved my head simply to go through, and savour if possible, the experience in my adult life. And I’m doing just that.

Shaving my head has been a fairly eye-opening experience. The value of hair became sharply clear to me just seconds after the depilatory expedition concluded. My head felt so cold that I had to wrap it up in a knitted cap, even indoors. I am able to examine my scalp at a hitherto impossible level of detail now, and note, right away, that the shape of my head is very different from that of other frequently bald persons such as my brother.

Nobody has reacted neutrally to my shaven head yet. Once the initial hesitation, generated by the unpleasant conjectures ibid., passes – eliminated by assurances from me or someone else with the facts – people begin applauding me for the move. Some go so far as to compliment my appearance, and certainly my ‘guts’ or ‘daring’ to embark on such an undertaking. Many go on to eulogise my spouse for his broadmindedness, declaring that their own would’ve booted them out and only hair regrowth could’ve ensured reunion. And he, far from being a passive proponent, actively aided and abetted me - he was the one who executed the hair-trimming and not-so-close shave. I followed up with the close shave!

I don’t feel embarrassed. I don’t feel very different, except when I look in a mirror, of course. My weight hasn’t decreased. My head doesn’t feel lighter, and neither does my heart! Washing practices have changed – I’ve put away my shower-cap for the future. I have used separate towels for my hair and body for all my adult life; I’m down to one now. Hair accessories are hibernating.

I realise, with an inward chuckle, how used I am to my hair, when my hands involuntarily reach up to move my hair off my neck and onto my pillow, and when on rising, I find my fingers ascending to comb through it. The current softish stubble (like ‘firm velvet’) is not a bad substitute for the nondescript strands that it has replaced. I run my palms over it, like a gunda, now and then!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Living in and leaving rented apartments in the U.S.
– a collection of tips for impecunious students

  1. Find out at the outset if your apartment policy allows nails to be hammered into the wall, or only poster mounts. Nails and push-pins are far easier to introduce and extract, and apartment complexes that allow them typically do not require that the holes be filled in. If nails are not allowed, or not possible to hammer in (owing to the impenetrable nature of the wall), adhesive strips like poster mounts will need to be used. These strips are the devil to peel off, and the residue will need to be scraped off with a table knife.
  2. Line all shelves with plastic/rubberized/cloth/newspaper liners as appropriate to the contents. It makes them far easier to keep clean, and to clean up after accidental spills.
  3. Cover the refrigerator top with a layer of cling-wrap. The refrigerator top is practically impossible to clean thoroughly. Dust and grime collecting on it over the months will be captured beautifully by the cling-wrap, which, at the end of your stay, can be peeled off and recycled.
  4. Keep baking soda and vinegar handy. The combination is a non-toxic way to clear most slow drains, and to clean a range of surfaces from the refrigerator gasket and shelves to the stove. Baking soda is also an excellent deodorizer and cleansing aid. Vinegar is an almost miraculous residue-remover – use it to clean glass containers and metal fixtures clouded with deposits.
  5. Clean often, preferably every week. If the only reason you clean is to vacate an apartment, God help you! – you are avoiding the pleasure of the fruits of your labour. If you clean only when you invite patently decent persons or delectable girls/boys over, invite said persons over every week. A clean dwelling is no worse than a filthy one; in fact, it is almost universally considered vastly better!
  6. Keep a pair of rubber gloves to use for cleaning tasks. Cleaning supplies and constant washing, esp. in hot water, can torture your skin. Armed (p.i.) with gloves, you can raise the temperature of the water to otherwise unbearable levels and achieve a clean that’s a few notches higher.
  7. Air-fresheners are a scam – air is fresher. Open a window for a while and let air circulate. Indoor air tends to be worse than outdoor, unless your home is in an industrial effluent flume. Use a screen to keep marauders out, and air out the room in your absence if you find it too cold to do so in your presence. If your room actually stinks, get to the bottom of it. Wash your clothes and self. Clean the floors and furniture. Keep your bedroom and closets closed, and your exhaust fan on, when you cook. Stop smoking, unless you want a virtual corpse in an air-‘freshener’ed room. Keep a bowl (not the same bowl) of baking soda in places you want to deodorize, e.g., the bathroom, the refrigerator, the shoe rack.
  8. (Metal, preferably stainless steel, scrubber + moderate effort) > (plastic/cloth scrubber + Herculean effort). Use metal scrubbers to clean sinks – metal and ceramic – and metal pots and pans, esp. those stained with tea/coffee/cooking.
  9. Use a cleaner like Comet, once in a while, to scrub dingy sinks to dazzling cleanliness. Use gloves and the faithful metal scrubber for best results.
  10. Use a mild bleach solution like Chlorox spray bleach to clean abused bathtubs. Two or three runs will do a lot to eliminate mould and accumulated grime. Bleach is by no means benign. Use vinegar for regular cleaning after you get the bathtub to a semblance of cleanliness. Clean bathtubs at least every fortnight. Frequent cleaning ensures that the job itself gets done quickly and without taxing you too much – not much can build up in two weeks. And so, you will not find yourself in a situation where you pass out on the bathroom floor in a haze of cleaner fumes and your own sweat because you had to spray and scrub ad nauseum without making much headway.
  11. Install a shower curtain liner as well as the curtain. Wash the liner every few weeks, in the company of bath mats, cleaning rags and rugs, all of which also, give evidence of doing well for occasional laundering. Use a fistful of baking soda with the detergent to achieve superior cleansing.
  12. Do not use cleaners for surfaces that they are not designed to clean, e.g., a heavy-duty toilet bowl cleaner on a kitchen counter or refrigerator shelf. If you cannot deal with designated cleaners for each surface, get a broad-spectrum cleaner and use it blithely. Better still, use substances like baking soda, vinegar, borax, hot water and rags for your cleaning jobs.
  13. Newspaper, with glass-cleaner, polishes glass to a streak-free sparkle. Vinegar does the same. Tissue, in contrast, tends to disintegrate and leave miniscule crumbs all over its path - yet another reason to steer clear of disposable eco-unfriendly products which promise a pinnacle of hygiene quite superfluous for normal life.
  14. Turmeric, for all its wonderful qualities, leaves persistent stains not appreciated by landlords. This lack of appreciation expresses itself as disappearing chunks of your security deposit. Cover the vicinity of your stove with foil (if allowed by your apartment policy), and counters with shelf-liners or other non-inflammable sheets so that spices and gravies don’t spill or drip onto them and leave permanent marks.
  15. Use a wet rag to wipe down stoves, cabinet sides, and walls above and adjacent to stoves, following tumultuous cooking sessions. Stains and deposits allowed to get comfortable on counters and walls are not as easy to dislodge as those wiped off immediately.
  16. Cooking ranges can be unplugged and rolled out of their crevices to permit wiping down and sweeping every now and then to obviate frenzied chiselling on the eve of apartment-evacuation. So with refrigerators.
  17. If you’re unfortunate enough to live in a carpeted apartment, especially one with a light-coloured carpet, exercise extreme caution about the kinds of substances you use (Actually, this caution is well exercised even if you don’t live in a carpeted apartment!). Don’t make the blunder of playing holi indoors, else you will pay for it with a holey wallet in due course.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Atithi devo bhava

- on the presumably well-intentioned but often painful, forceful, even self-righteous, 'hostliness' of many, resulting in praise from parties not in the direct line of the fire of their hospitality, and to a sort of terror in some of their guests

Never may it be said of you
That a visitor came and departed your scope,
Without meandering out like a sated python,
Or tottering out in the manner of a dope.
If a guest tries to adhere to a diet,
Perish the attempt with a hostly frown.
They should need to be shaken not stirred
To settle all the victuals you hospitably shove down.

If someone’s already eaten and so politely declines
Rely on strong arm tactics to ensure your win.
Let them pay the price for visiting you;
Persevere and shovel food in.
Their personal health plans? Not on your time;
It is only meet to render them replete.
Cuss at the parsimony of the host
Who respects a guest’s wish not to overeat.

Fie upon the host whose torrent of hospitality,
The ingenuous guest can contrive to ford.
If the spread features simple, “healthy” fare,
Smirk at the absence of grease on the board.
Scoff at people’s concerns over their bulk, and
Offer them your own shapelessness to ponder.
“Entertain” away sparing neither kith nor kin.
Plaques might make the heart grow fonder.

When, stuffed to capacity with your largesse,
Hapless victims take on an aura porcine,
Dismiss their protestations, unveil your motto –
“Once in a while” is perfectly fine -
For delicacies, with nothing delicate about them,
And mind-numbingly sweet somethings slithering in ghee,
As well as for lipid profile tests and gall stones,
Diabetes, and the occasional bypass surgery.

That it’s called Hospitality is no coincidence;
The indication towards Hospital is clear.
Your acquaintances can make do with digestive pills;
But naught less than the ICU for your near and dear.
Why confine them to human life when the heavens beckon?
From their mortal existence grant them liberation.
Live by the maxim “Atithi devo bhava”
Accelerate your guests’ divine transformation.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Neither here* nor there

(*Punjaabbi accent)

- on the tightrope that one is forced to walk with difficult friends, too affectionate to be eradicated, and too unreasonable to be endured; supportive and nurturing in many situations, but possessive and trying when another enters the picture… The fat dashes into the fire when they fall in love!

Attend classes; write a paper or two –
Opposition to this will be rarer than rare.
Play a game – as long as it’s a sport
You will not need to yank out your hair.

Hunger, greed or faithful gluttony beckons?
Your chum may serve up lip-smacking fare.
Out of laundered raiment some day?
Your amigo’s apparel is quite yours to wear.

Have an opinion on mediaeval painting?
Go ahead, put your views on air.
Need to dissect another’s character?
You may proceed to lay your soul bare.

In a trough for causes extraneous?
There’s ever a couch in your friend’s lair.
A clash of opinions come your way?
Present (il)logical arguments, if you dare.

Pay a tint more attention to person X or Y -
Your y’kno’what’ll get kicked; who said it’s fair?
But if your friend falls in the … l-word,
Aaaaah! Don’t even go there!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008



This link will take you to a brief and anonymous health survey that forms part of my PhD research. Please participate in it. It will take no more (and quite possibly much less) than 10 minutes to complete. After you take it, please forward it to associates of yours, anywhere in the world, who are 18 years or more of age. I would like this survey to be taken by as diverse a group as is possible as it is a cross-cultural comparison of attitudes towards certain aspects of health.
At the end of the survey, you will have the opportunity to enter a lucky draw to win a gift certificate.
As you will be informed when you follow the link and are poised to begin the survey, this study seeks to examine an area of knowledge that is relatively uncharted. This is your opportunity to be the voice of your people! Your responses to this survey will contribute to the understanding of health attitudes of several populations.

To repeat, ACT!


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Pariah in Paris

Paris – everyone raves about it, even those who’ve never been there, perhaps especially those who’ve never been there! A must-do for the romantic tripster… the City of Lights… fashion capital… and a score of other complimentary handles. What did I think of it? Overrated, vastly overrated.

The city is not very clean…no, this is not the NRI in me speaking. I am perfectly used to filth in the streets, dust in the air, slime in waterbodies etc. – but in India, not in a “developed” European nation.

Cigarette smoke – all over the place. The stereotypes that I nurtured about “healthy-looking” types fell apart pretty soon. Absolutely anyone could be a candidate for a cigarette. As a sight-hungry tourist, I found myself in queues every day, and unfortunately for the smoke-intolerant me, more often than not, my fellow queuers would light up several times each before the queue achieved its aim.

Prices – exorbitant. People may be missing one factor (besides wine, walking, vegetables and garlic) contributing to the celebrated French slimness, vide all the hype about French women never getting fat etc.– food is bloody expensive. This goes for raw and prepared foods. Portion sizes in restaurants are modest – actually sensible, except that they’re overpriced. I can’t think of a more effective deterrent to overeating. Add smoking, and the utter stupidity of driving yourself in the crowded, parking space-deficient city, and the mystery of the French figure is considerably demystified.

Thieves – unethical by definition, I know, but the extreme sadism required to steal from freshly arrived tourists in a train (train, not taxi, read not people who can afford to blow money) boggles the mind. If you must thieve, and have the sophisticated skills called for by the occupation, how about being as considerate as possible under the circumstances, and sticking to locals or blatantly rich tourists who have a base in the place or wouldn’t be deranged by material losses? Thieving is almost traditional in Paris, and the police force (who ought to be outraged, chafe and finally take decisive steps to monitor favoured thief-zones and contain the menace) talk of it with the same ease as they would of the Louvre or escargot or champagne. I wonder why people think of Paris as a good option for a honeymoon spot – it is poorly endowed with unspoilt topographical beauty, for one thing, and for another, with the high level of petty crime, could you entirely discount the possibility that your spouse may get stolen along with a piece of luggage?

Who might find Paris romantic? Someone with loads of money and a chauffeured vehicle, preferably someone white and slender (i.e., with European looks, to sidestep the shades and tints of racism/suspicion/hostility that clearly different looking people stimulate), someone supplied with a knowledgeable, even omniscient, tourist guide to direct one through the ill-organised museum routes and procedures, someone with a hawkeyed bodyguard to deter or deal with the ubiquitous thieves that the city literally boasts, someone who needs to have no interaction with the lackadaisical police force, and someone who is immune to inclement weather. Or then someone whose idea of romance includes hunger, poverty, air-pollution, some dirt, winds in combination with downpours that whip poorly made (French, by the way!) umbrellas out of shape and puddles that allow you to squelch your way to an overpriced (surprise, surprise!) hotel. Would I call Paris romantic? Not with a ten-foot pole!! I’m a comfort-lover myself, and failed to detect romance in the travails alluded to ibid.

Saving graces? (a) I could guess at the contents of signs because I can read the script even if I find the spoken language inaccessible, and English has borrowed a colossal lot from French (one notices that this transaction is not mutual). (b) Public transport is good; the metro is expensive (nothing new there) but remarkably well planned with very, very frequent and timely trains. (c) The physical structures that characterise Paris are beautiful – churches, objects d’art, the Seine, the Eiffel Tower, and so on. (d)Toilets were clean, or at least I was lucky!

Go to Paris if you must. But follow these bits of advice: Staple your valuables to your body from the moment you get there till you reach your hotel. Entrust said valuables to the safe deposit locker in your hotel as soon as you get there. Buy foods from grocery stores if possible. Eat crepes (mildly boring pancakes) to keep body and soul together. Learn some French, or at least carry a phrasebook around with you. Watch your companions so as to intercept pickpockets making off with their good(ie)s. And well before you embark upon your trip there, scan your passport and visa and email it to yourself, and for added precaution, keep a hard copy in each piece of luggage as well. If you lose your passport, you will find yourself in the Embassy, which need not be a place staffed by geniuses. The Indian Embassy certainly isn’t.