Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

To Be Fit And Dull

Navtej Sarna

IT has not yet assumed the ravaging proportions that it can but the symptoms are clear. And once the rot stems in it will be difficult to control, resulting ultimately in a storm, which would take away not only our good sense but also the best things in life. I am of course talking about the syndrome that is already encircling the more ‘with it’ social circles – the masochistic desire to deny one all that gives pleasure in the belief that this would lead to peak physical fitness and hence to a longer life.

Already the garden city of Delhi has developed a new function. Every morning it has to provide miles of good green grass for a motley bunch of fitness freaks made up of paunchy executives, fatigued bureaucrats and the frail arty types. These are the new pundits of jogging who get together and don imported tracksuits with studied modesty. Soon there will be group sessions for jogging, jogging quartets, jogging ladies clubs, friends of jogging, lunch-time joggers…. All of them parading under the banners of – “ No sugar, we’re fit “ or – “We don’t smoke, we don’t drink, we jog”…. Yes, the signs are there for all to read. We are not far from the day that health consciousness will become as powerful a fad as one-day bell – bottoms or Beatles were. This fad will cut into everything that is yet a source of joy and pleasure, leaving one wondering whether the extra two and a half months of life that may ultimately be gained are really worth it.

The first great pleasure of the hedonist that gets the axe is of course alcohol. For the fitness buff, there is nothing like a healthy man who partakes of the spirits. An impossibility and a contradiction in terms, he will tell you. He discounts quickly the theory that an occasional whisky or glass of beer may actually be beneficial for health as the weak-minded figment of the imagination of those who do not have enough self-control. The old-fashioned waiters and barmen in places where the disease is already a menace are a heartbroken lot. As one of them told me tearfully, they get together to bemoan the days when men were men.

With a far away look in the eye, they talk of the days when lunch meant three Bloody Marys at the bar and the regulars began to gather as soon as the sun gave the first indication that it was about to call it a day. At parties the guest had to be almost physically kept away from the bar lest they hit the bottle directly.

Nowadays the cocktail trays do repeated rounds of the room bulging with whisky-sodas, gin-tonics, campari and martini. But the favourite is orange juice or what is infinitely worse, mineral water (you must be a happy man, Gussie Fink-Nottle). Mineral water is the reserve of those who are really in the know. The ones who can afford it will drink spring or spa water, preferably with curative qualities. Time may come when to ease your difficulties, you will not have to slip across a bottle of scotch whisky wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper but instead will have to deliver a case of some internationally recognized brand of spring water. One pities also the Omar Khayyams and poets of the future making desperate attempts to get inspired over goblets of bubbling water from the nearest spring….

The crusade, of course, does not stop at alcohol. As a quick second step, smoking gets the boots. Years of somber statements by surgeon- generals have not had an adverse effect on this habit. People continue to revel behind smokescreens or blow contemptuous smoke rings in the face of medical men. If you can offer your business partner a long or extra long foreign cigarette and also flash a slim gold lighter in the bargain, you have no doubt made a great impression. But not so if the fitness freaks have their way. What will matter is not what you smoke but you don’t smoke. Those who give up smoking will only be social upstarts, those who never started will be the blue blood. If the day comes, then advertisements may well show the archetypal harried executive not smoking a relaxing cigarette but peeling a healthy and no doubt relaxing orange.

But the fitness pundits can go ahead and have their swipe at alcohol and smoking and I for one will not really stand in their way except by way of putting in technical objections. Where things really get too close for comfort is when the idea begins to crack down on the simple wholesome pleasures of the palate. There are some of those (and let them stand up and be counted) who have long relished the sight of a well laid out table and the sights and smells of good cooking. We believe, in the old fashioned way, that a good meal is a ceremony. The table should be done justice to and not left with merely a passing glance. When like-minded souls get together in our circles, there is only the steady sound of chomping jaws with only an occasional – “Pass me the tandoori, will you.”

But those who are the neophytes (or neofiits) of fitness have different ideas. They slink around the table with hangdog expressions, mentally calculating the calorie content of each dish. And then they all leap for the green salad in a manner which leaves one with the impression that one is among rabbits. If one dares to fill a plate with all that it deserves, one gets looks indicating pity rather than censure and oblique questions are asked about the insurance policies. The man who takes a second helping is of course well on his way to becoming a social drop out.

Sweet toothers like me have a particularly bad time in fit company. One waits due to sheer course of habit, eagerly for the dessert. More often than not, it turns out to be fruit with watery syrup providing the sweet element. No longer the hefty pie or the generous pudding. If it is indeed served by an old fashioned hostess, then all the guests glanced pointedly at their slim waists and wave away the mouth-watering dish with depreciating gestures.

At such times the mind goes back to the days of the birthday parties where we used to hold gulab-jamun eating contests and the winner swelled with pride (and not only) if he downed twenty-three. Now it is the day of the yogurt, salad and cereal. The choice is clear. You can either be “ with it” or enjoy life and I at least have made the decision to waive those two and a half months of extra existence.