Losing weight, gaining racehorses

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on July 30, 2020 Published on July 30, 2020

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On shedding clothes and kilos at a diet clinic — and gathering flabby skin and marriage tips

The Diet

Ten days before the arrival of the Dutch guests, I had been to see a doctor about losing weight. His name was Dr Shiva Prasad. He had recently opened a diet clinic highly recommended to me by a friend. When I called to make the initial appointment, the doctor asked if I was married. I said ‘no’. He asked if I had any friends or relatives in whose company I regularly ate my meals. I said I had a boyfriend called Prashant with whom I spent most of my spare time, including dinner every day. He was copy chief at an ad agency and his workday usually ended around 6.30 p.m. He would collect me from Palm View on his motorbike and we would spend the rest of the evening either at my married brother’s house or at a movie. If we didn’t eat at my brother’s house we ate at a restaurant. The doctor advised me to bring my friend along for the first ‘briefing’. According to him, the cooperation of regular eating companions was essential to the success of a diet.

Supporting cast : According to the doctor, the cooperation of regular eating companions was essential to the success of one’s diet   -  ISTOCK.COM


So I invited Prashant to accompany me. We spent an hour with the doctor. He was a marvellous advertisement for his clinic: slender as a whip and surrounded by framed portraits of the forty racehorses he owned at his stables in Bangalore. The impression he gave was that if his ‘patients’ followed his instructions they might succeed not only in losing weight but in gaining racehorses too. As he put it, ‘It’s not about becoming thin or fat: it’s about becoming successful.’

He showed us progress slides of his prize patient, a woman who, at the start of the diet, looked like a wrestler dressed in a printed silk sari. ‘The first time she came in here, she couldn’t walk on her own! She had to be supported by her husband!’ She lost 60 kilos in eleven months. The slides, taken from the front, back and sides, were like a time-lapse film of the Michelin Tyre Man being deflated very gradually. Even Prashant, who had come with the intention of scoffing, was impressed. So I signed up.

One day later, when I went back to the clinic for the introductory session, the doctor showed me more slides of his former patients. This time, because Prashant was not with us, I saw them unclothed. They looked terrible. We are so used to seeing pictures of female nudes who look like articulated dolls that when we see the more typical sort of woman without her clothes on, she looks diseased.

One girl had a 16-inch waist and 40-inch hips. Her body was like a cartoon, wildly out of proportion. She must have wanted to reduce her hips, but the record showed that she had lost weight uniformly, including on her waist. The last slide revealed her with her middle dwindled to nothingness and her hips more prominent than ever before. She resembled a giant ant masquerading as a woman.

The prize patient, whose success had seemed so spectacular when she was clothed, looked like a sack of loose brown skin standing to attention when she was naked. Her breasts were like used tea-bags. As the weight loss progressed, the sachets deflated gradually, becoming little more than flaps of skin. There seemed to be no nipples, just two tired points aimed at the floor. The huge mound of her abdomen collapsed slowly across the months, but only the mass of it. The skin remained, hanging from her waist down, covering her pubic area.

When she posed for the frontal view, the folded skin covered that area like an apron. When she posed for the slides in profile, she held up the lower edge of this fold so that you could see the extent of it.

It wasn’t easy to guess her thoughts. Her face was expressionless. Her appearance suggested that she came from a deeply conservative, traditional background, yet here she was, posing naked for a doctor’s unsympathetic camera. Was the lack of expression a sign of diffidence or confidence? Had she agreed out of her own volition or had her husband forced her? Was he in the room with her when these pictures were taken? Had she agreed because she imagined she was making a valuable contribution to a study of weight loss amongst obese Third World women? Had she been convinced on the grounds that she represented that rarest of breeds, a Third World woman who was yet rich enough to have weight to lose? Did she herself want to lose weight or had she done it, all of it, out of deference to her husband’s wish for a slender wife?

She held her head stiffly, her expression opaque, offering no answers.

The flap bothered me. How did she relate to it, I wondered. Did she despise it? Did she pinch and prod it when she had a bath? Did she wash underneath it with revulsion? Did she sigh when she tucked it away under the waistband of her sari petticoat? Or did she regard it with a certain horrified fondness, the way, I imagined, some people regarded extra digits on their hands? I remember meeting a woman who had a second thumb on her right hand. Its nail was as perfectly manicured as the other nails on the hand. I remember thinking well of her for having accepted her irregularity, for celebrating it rather than slicing it off.

Some of the other patients whose slides I saw that day had resorted to plastic surgery to excise the unwanted folds of skin. But they had been left with scars like livid pink zippers, running across their abdomens.

I felt disturbed. I didn’t want to look like a limp balloon or a surgeon’s embroidery sampler. I couldn’t understand why none of the patients actually looked attractive at the end of their ordeal. But I had already committed myself to being a patient. I paid my nonrefundable introductory fee of 500 rupees and meekly produced a urine sample after submitting to having my blood pressure taken and my weight recorded in a clear plastic folder with my name printed smartly on its cover. The initial entry read: 65.8 kg. Height: 5’5”. I wanted to add, Self-image: 0.00 — but didn’t. The doctor was not easily amused, I noticed. Gaining racehorses was a serious business.

The slides were followed by a two-hour ‘psychometric test’. It began with an interview with Dr Prasad’s wife, Mrs Prasad. She told me that she was a practising analyst and that the purpose of the session was to determine my fitness for a course of dieting. ‘Few people realize to what extent their lives can be affected by a change in eating habits,’ she said. ‘We have to know a little about your personality in order to adjust our method to suit your individual type.’

It sounded reasonable. She had pepper-and-salt hair and half-shut eyes which gazed at me with an expression that reduced me to a case number on a shiny plastic folder, cabinet 7b, drawer II.

We began with a résumé of family history. Yes, both my parents were alive. My father had retired from the Foreign Service as Ambassador. He and my mother lived in their own house in Calicut, surrounded by all our extended family of relatives. I had one brother, one sister, both married. Both had children.

She paused in her tracks. ‘How do you feel about that?’ she asked.

Her expression was carefully neutral.

‘About what?’ I asked in return.

She may have sighed. ‘It’s quite normal, you know. Two elder siblings, both married, both with children. You’re twenty-four, so it’s not too late, of course, for you to follow their path but happens. Feelings of inadequacy, a desire to compensate — it could explain your overeating for example...’

As I understood the drift of her enquiry, I started to smile in anticipation. ‘Oh, no!’ I exclaimed. ‘I don’t feel inadequate — I’ve never wanted to marry — ’

She cut me off at once. ‘You mean, you’ve never had an opportunity to marry — ’

No.’ I was very accustomed to arguing this point. It always surprised me that I faced so much resistance. ‘I am opposed to marriage — as an institution. I don’t believe that it’s the best way for men and women to, you know, live together and ...’ I shrugged, ‘raise children, whatever.’ I believed that most people had children because they didn’t realize that they could choose not to. If they knew, I believed, hardly any would bother having them. ‘Marriage is too restrictive — it’s an instrument of patriarchy, after all, a method of ensuring that property is passed from one generation to the next through the paternal line. I mean, obviously that’s important, but it’s only a system, not a law of nature — and it’s used to control women’s sexuality — to define it ...’

She allowed me to carry on for a few moments in this vein. When I paused for breath, she nodded, then asked, ‘Would you call yourself a feminist?’

I said, relieved to be given a chance to reveal my orientation, ‘Oh, yes. Absolutely...’

Getting There / Manjula Padmanabhan / Non-fiction / Hachette India / ₹399


(Excerpted with permission from Getting There by Manjula Padmanabhan, published by Hachette India, July 2020)

Manjula Padmanabhan is an author and artist

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Published on July 30, 2020
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