It is of much concern now in US. Every third program on NPR and on television seems to be about fat kids unable to frolic. A depth of reasons and repercussions are provided for this growing obesity pandemic. I wonder where all these reporters and columnists were, when I was growing up.
In Kolkata, during my years of growing up (and sideways), no one made a hullabaloo about childhood obesity. The thinking of a Bengali parent was different. Take for example, Mrs. Bose, Bomba's mother (the son's name has been disclosed to reveal his true identity). She firmly believed in the merits of a well-fed son.
"My Bomba is damn strong. It looks chubby but in reality he is muscular. He is just too young to sprout the right triceps. And he works so hard! So many Math problems he solves in a day - where will he get nourishment from if not from Rosogollas ?"
Bomba was growing up to live and love sweets. His breakfast, lunch and dinner had high refined-sugar contents. Added to that was the Bengali lifestyle. He was a sedentary good student. The longer he sat, the more assignments he completed, and the better grades he got. This meant his parents pushed him to sit longer. Playing outside was banished. To fulfill his need for fun, Mrs. Bose supplied an unending array of snacks, delivered directly to his desk. The vicious cycle of sit-n-eat, had Bomba entrenched in its grips.
I wasn't much unlike Bomba. My mother (over)fed us. Aside from breakfast in the morning we had two rounds of snacks. The lunch boxes we carried, overflowed with food. A side box was created to hold our deserts. Evenings meant snacking more and the snacks ended with full course dinner. Dawdling to school, coaching classes, and completing home works, left us lazy and lethargic. I remember sleeping being our favorite past time. "Physical Training" classes became Physical Torture at school.
The results were obvious. I became fatter and greedier.
My sister was always thinner than me. Set against my backdrop, she was proclaimed thin! It was on a relative scale, but soon people forgot the relativity and started accepting her as thin and me as fat. It boosted her morals and lowered mine.
Soon my classmates held a classroom Fat-Pageantry Contest. I was declared the unanimous winner. When my class teacher found out, she hid her giggle without much success and said, " At least you are first in this category!"
My sadness on being the "Baby Elephant" grew until my mother became concerned.
One fine Friday evening, she dragged me to a pediatrician.
The middle-aged doctor, looked up from his heavy glasses at me and then glanced at my mother. My mom began without a preamble.
"Arrey, take a good look at my daughter, Doctor. For some unknown reason she has become a little plump. But I would have thought nothing of it if my daughter did not mention that she was being called names at school. That is affecting her - mentally and physically. She seems to have lost some appetite. I did speak to her teacher to reprimand her naughty classmates. But I don't know what else to do - help!"
I twiddled my fat thumbs together, while my mom went about her monologue. Every doctor's visit was the same. My mother assumed she was the ultimate authority on my condition and gave me no chance to answer any questions. Any of doctor's incumbent queries were deftly fielded by her, so that I became a mute spectator to my plight.
Some docs didn't approve of this behavior. They would unceremoniously brush aside her comments and say,
"Arrey apni thamun toh! Ekey boltey din! Ma...bolo toh tomar ki hoyeche?"
["Why don't you stop? Let her speak. Dear, why don't you tell me what happened?"]
This time, the doctor listened to my mom, with complete attention. When she finished, he asked her,
"What do you feed her?"
My mother smiled broadly.
"Well, I try to be a good mother, but not always do I succeed. I make sure she gets all the nutrients in one meal or next. The list is not very long, for example, today, I made Chocolate Complan, Sabudana Khichdi for breakfast, for lunch I gave her a box of shrimp chowmein, sondesh, an apple, in the evening we are planning to have dosa for snacks and fish curry, dal, rice for dinner!"
The doctor ogled his eyes out.
"Orey Baba! Are you kidding me? Your daughter eats all this on a daily basis and yet managed to get through my chamber door! That's a miracle!"
My mother's face fell.
The doctor went out detailing a strict quarter diet plan for me. Basically everything I ate was cut into quarter portions. I thought to myself, "How am I going to live through this starvation?" I didn't have to. My mother discarded the doctor's advice as being unnecessarily cruel.
My childhood obesity did not get eradicated in my childhood. When I reached high school, my mother suddenly decided to enroll us in swimming classes. Every day for two years we went for forty minutes of water splashing. That did it! I went from "baby elephant" to "healthy" in a year. The rest of the body fat was lost during board exams results week.
The idea of a Bengali family to force feed every child in the name of care, might have had something to do with the obesity I saw around myself. With changing times and "Zero Sizes", parents have become less forceful. In fact, my mother has taken onto this generation pretty well. When I had returned home for the first time from US, she welcomed me in the airport arrival with a shocked gasp,
"Eeeshhh! Ki mutki hoye gechhis!" [ Oh! How fat you have become!"]
It was difficult for me to gobble the Bengali goodies after that, but my mother redeemed herself by offering me third and fourth helpings, insistently.
All those children struggling to deal with peer slim pressure would have had a better time in Kolkata. Their peers would seldom be slim. When something is in majority, it stops being questioned. Hardly anyone gave their super stout son a second glance and said, "This kid eats too much!" It was always, "My son comes from well-fed family!"