How the weight of expectation has changed in India

A paunch is no longer the emblem of prosperity in India, as it used to be earlier, says Soumik Mukherjee. Being healthy is the fad today.

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In my school days, it was quite common for me to eat lunch at a friend’s house. It was mostly a fun experience, barring one aspect of these visits: the constant presence of the host’s mother or grandmother at the table, chiding me and my friend if we picked at our food. To make sure we didn’t, she would not allow us to help ourselves, but dished up enormous portions for each of us at the table. “Health is wealth,” she would say while almost force-feeding us. That was a typical display of affection, part of the conventions of middle-class Indian hospitality.

A child or a young adult who ate moderately, disappointed the elders in the family. A complaint I frequently overheard was that “my son doesn’t eat much”.

You can imagine the outcome of feeding youngsters at this rate, although obesity was less of a concern in those days, in part because a paunch was considered an emblem of prosperity.

A friend once told me that his grandmother had rejected a suitor for his sister because the guy was thin. It sounds incredible today, but it was perfectly normal in those days to use a man’s weight as a yardstick for his income and status.

Such lack of awareness had a deadly effect on the overall health of the population. Thankfully, those days are gone.

If you lose weight today, the worst question you might encounter from friends or relatives is whether or not you are ill.

Parental concerns have reversed as well, with the complaint about a child eating less having been replaced by a sense of satisfaction that “he or she is health-conscious”.

There are reasons behind this shift. Today, poverty is not as rampant as it once was. The net worth of India's billionaire community has risen markedly over the past 15 years. Education and health care have developed in tandem.

I have been away from my country for many years, which is perhaps why I see the differences more clearly than those living there. As someone pointed out to me long ago, in another context, that if you take a long-distance view of certain things, you tend to get a better picture.

A few weeks ago, I went home on a short break and it was then I realised how the common man’s awareness of health and well-being has undergone a radical transformation. The potbelly is no longer in vogue. Nor do women seem to oppose their daughters marrying a lanky fellow.

A confirmation of the shift away from the paunch arrived as soon as I sat for dinner at the house of my childhood friend. No one stood over our heads and forced us to eat this or that. Some of the food was cooked in the same way we relished in our childhood, although it was now prepared without using cupfuls of oil, a hallmark of Bengali delicacies, as well as those of most other regions in India. More interestingly, the plates and utensils used were noticeably smaller.

“You rarely get those big-sized plates in the market, because there is no demand,” my friend’s mother informed me upon my inquiry.

This is merely a small domestic indicator of a growing trend. It’s evident in the selection of food, too. The popular favourites are not so much the roadside food stalls, but fruit vendors who seem to be doing brisk business in Kolkata and other cities.

Market data show a significant increase in the sale of cereals, fruit juices and digestive biscuits. The Changes in Consumer Behaviour and Their Implications on Marketers report reaffirms that Indian consumers are becoming more aware of the importance of healthy eating.

“The new generation is changing us too,” my friend’s mother told me.

This a big leap, one I never thought would happen on this scale, unless there is an economic compulsion. She repeated that old mantra – “health is wealth”. But the proverb has taken a new dimension. It doesn’t mean big size.