Friday, 23 December 2005

 

Weighty Issues

We’re all obsessed with weight. The west is obsessed with losing it. On the subcontinent, we’re obsessed with commenting on it. It’s a national pastime.

As someone who has his feet planted in both the US and India, it’s always hilarious to encounter these cultural differences.

In America, casual acquaintances, and often even total strangers, will happily initiate discussion about the most intimate aspects of their lives. They’re passionate about identity and anything that falls under that very wide umbrella demands immediate declaration and dialogue. They will proudly proclaim and discuss details of their ethnic heritage, political affiliation, sexuality, medical issues and even mental or emotional disorders. Details that most Indians would reveal only to their most trusted confidante. Nothing, it seems, is off limits. But one would never remark on someone else’s weight.

An elderly neighbour of mine in New York got on the elevator with me one morning and, after announcing the fact that she was incontinent, described, in vivid detail, the internal exercises her doctor had prescribed to combat it -- you get the picture -- all the way down 28 floors. But I’m certain if I’d made a remark about her weight, she’d have been appalled at my rudeness. That’s too personal and it’s just not done.

In India, it’s the exact opposite. Etiquette dictates you comment on a person’s weight, if not immediately, then definitely within 5 minutes of meeting them. The standard greeting is, “Hi! You’ve (insert: put on/ lost) weight?” It’s more of an implication in the form of a question than an outright statement. Very often the “hi” is skipped in the rush to get out the weight verdict.

I was once having dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen in a few months and soon into the evening I noticed she seemed anxious. Eventually, she blurted out irately, “What’s wrong with you? It’s been half an hour and you haven’t told me I’ve lost or put on weight!” I think people see it as a measure of how much you care for them. That you’re concerned enough to have remembered how they looked when you last saw them and have noticed how things have changed since then.

For added effect, and to show-off your astute perception skills, you can also be more specific in your weight assessment. Whenever I need a chuckle, I think back to the day a co-star of mine, a particularly gorgeous and glamourous actress (who’d perhaps been unconditioned to this phenomenon because of her many years abroad) walked onto the set and was greeted effusively by the producer of the film who loudly asked her, in front of the entire cast and crew, whether she’d “gained some weight?” The actress visibly paled and the producer, oblivious to her mortification, added insult to injury, by enthusiastically proclaiming it was her cheeks that looked particularly “chubby”. Only in India would he get away with it.

In our culture of weight commentary, weighing scales are technically redundant. Why step on a machine when all you need to do is step into a social situation? The other day, when my personal trainer wanted to put me on the scales, I suggested that, since I was going to a reception that evening, I’d get a far more accurate reading there.

At social gatherings, before you’ve even crossed the room, several people will tell you you’ve lost weight and several others will swear you’ve gained some. I tally up the “put ons” and the “losts” and depending on which is more, I decide whether to hit or skip the dessert table.

Sometimes, just to stir the pot, I will come-back with, “Really? Is that good or bad?” It can go two ways. The more entertaining outcome is when the person freezes like a deer caught in headlights, tries to think up some sort of response and then, out of frustration, just shrugs their shoulders as if to say, “Dude, I don’t know -- it’s just something you say. Don’t make me think!” and scurries away. Other times, it could back-fire and the person could go into a 30 minute discourse thoroughly explaining the implications of their proclamation.


Punjabis (I’m half one) have their own unique weight dialect. If your relatives say you look “healthy”, they’re calling you chunky. And if you look “weak”, it means you’ve become too skinny to plow a field. To me, the most unique is, “You’ve really reduced.” It always makes me feel like a sauce.

And then, there’s that one cousin who, every single time we meet, tells me I’ve lost weight. According to his estimation, I’m surprised I haven’t disappeared completely by now.

7 comments:

  1. Hi Rahul, interesting blog! You have ability to translate your observations into words very well. I have lived in New York for 11 years now. And I agree with you partially. I think weight in USA is also a somewhat self-esteem issue. I have come across women who are often fishing for some form of assurance through various unrelated comments. For example: A- that's a gorgeous dress B- Oh please! I look so fat A- Naah!!don't be silly.. you are barely even chubby. A person who is genuinely commenting on the dress is pulled into an unnecessary conversation.

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  2. It's true. We are all obsessed with weight.. & you're right, it's a cultural concept. Where one culture looks at it like 'health', another looks at it from a 'marriage eligibility' pov. That's one of the many reasons I love Italy so much. There are no rules, no discrimination, you dress how you want to, oh! I love Italy. Maybe you should buy yourself a magnificent penthouse by Positano there, closer to Clooney. :-)

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  3. "...depending on which is more, I decide whether to hit or skip the dessert table. "...come on....it's dessert!!! You don't need to decide on it :). I am so glad I took the time out today to take a peak at your blog and read your posts and I am just going through each one of them right now...they are amazing!! I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future....please please don't stop writing....

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  4. It always makes me feel like a sauce - this one made me laugh my ass off ;)

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  5. It's true.I endorse.I stand guilty of saying it too:/

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  6. It's true.I endorse.I stand guilty of saying it too:/

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  7. This blog post is hillarious and spot on (having lived half my life in the US and half in India). I'm fully Punjabi and can associate with the 'healthy' remark.

    http://sonalthinks.blogspot.com/

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