A weight off our chests

Veena Venugopal | Updated on August 14, 2014

When did our political discourse take a turn towards anatomical bragging

I find myself, helplessly, drawn to Narendra Modi’s chest. All alleged 56 inches of it. Like the Rambo-esque rescue of 15,000 people from Uttarakhand last year, it seems to me that Modi while amply chested, has inflated its dimensions just that little bit. Fifty-six inches, as anyone who has ever measured anything anatomical knows, is a lot.

I spent the better part of the fortnight pondering about the Modi-isation of men’s chests. My best sources were the personal trainers in Gurgaon gyms, a human sub-species entirely devoted to their bodies and the rare possessors of Greco-Roman physiques on khap-approved genetics. Even their aspiration, they tell me, is for a chest that is between 42 and 46 inches. The only person they could think of who possibly had a 56-inch chest was The Great Khali.

The average size of a man’s chest, I am given to understand, is 38 to 42 inches. The largest commonly available shirt size is XXL, which is cut to fit a person with a 46-inch chest. The Great Khali, who is 7 feet 1 inch tall, has a chest measurement of about 60 inches (4 inches more than my personal trainer’s estimation). Modi wears custom-tailored clothes and so it is difficult for even internet shopping companies (who know everything about everyone) to tell us what his chest size is. But we can safely conclude that while it is not impossible that his chest size is 56 inches, it is highly improbable.

All of this is a long, but perfectly rational, way to arrive at my actual question. When did men’s chests become a thing? Here we are. It’s 2014. A major election is upon us, one that will apparently determine whether our EMIs will go up or down in the foreseeable future, and our Prime Ministerial candidate who is “riding a wave of hope” is talking about the size of his chest. Not the smoothness of his face or the tautness of his abs. There hasn’t been a word about how tall he is or how much he weighs. There hasn’t even been a discussion on the difference of opinion that our PM candidates seem to be having about facial hair. But the chappan inch ki chaati is all over the place.

As someone who grew up in the 1980s with therapy-demanding visuals of Anil Kapoor’s chest, I can’t help but wonder when chests became cool. Even if you think of Anil Kapoor’s chest — which looked like his scalp slipped downwards — as an aberration, nowhere in the 1980s or even the early 1990s were there any clues at all to the possibility that the male chest would, one day, be all the rage. Even when Salman Khan decided that a shirt was a cumbersome thing, I assumed it was to better show the biceps he had curled into the size of lhassa apsos. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, it is perhaps right to think that the early peep into a male cleavage indeed started with Khan.

Sadly, even hindsight is not helpful in understanding when it was exactly that politicians jumped on the chestwagon. Up until the time that I was reeling under the trauma of Anil Kapoor’s chest and was oblivious to Salman’s, I had only ever seen two politicians. The first was Zail Singh, who rode through the streets of Cochin, in a white Contessa car. Forget a chest, it was difficult to know for sure if he had even a chin or a neck. The other was Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, also on a visit deep south, who had buttoned up his bandhgala so tightly, I was too busy wondering how he breathed to worry about where his lungs were hidden.

It is, creditably, only with John Abraham that the Indian chest came to prominence. For even in the cooler movies of the noughties, like say Dil Chahta Hai, the visible chests were both puny and hirsute. In the seven years between Dil Chahta Hai and Dostana, the male Indian chest was forced to take a giant lunge forward. John Abraham did not just walk with his shoulders thrown back like his chest was something he was wearing; not something he had; but he also waxed it and polished it to a shine. Bronzed, radiant and glowing, it was a chest that made everyone, including those whose stomachs spilled over to their knees, sit up and take notice. From Hoshiarpur to Thrissur, dumbbells were dusted off and protein shakes were mixed. It wasn’t enough then to call it a chest. “Pecs” became a thing.

I am not sure how Rahul Gandhi managed to stay out of pecs mania. It is entirely possible that his brother-in-law Robert Vadra was overworking his, so Gandhi decided that was enough pecs for one family. The chest that worries me is Arvind Kejriwal’s. He hacked and coughed right through the stinging Delhi winter. It’s spring now, high season for allergic rhinitis and asthma. And mindful of the temperature, the man has also lost his muffler. If ever a chest should be in your prayers, let it be his.

As for Modi, I am convinced he walked out of a screening of Dostana, looked down at himself and decided that bench press he must. And to that, as a person who adores hard work and determination in others, I say, more power to him. Let’s allow him his 56.

(Veena Venugopal is editor BLink and author of Would You Like Some Bread with that Book. Follow her on Twitter >@veenavenugopal)

Published on March 21, 2014

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