“The true profession of man is finding his way to himself.” — Hermann Hesse
Do you stand on a balcony and stop yourself from jumping? While waiting to cross the street, do you imagine stepping into the oncoming traffic? When walking behind someone down the stairs, do you ever get the urge to push them?
(Okay, the last one, it turns out, is not so common, but I have it all the time, as do a few of my cousins. If you see us on staircases, you may feel better walking behind us.)
These are impulses – spontaneous and unreflective urges. While I haven’t done any of the above (yet), I have acted compulsively in ways I can’t reasonably justify. Like the New Year’s I spent alone at home watching several series of Grey’s Anatomy back to back on Netflix, ignoring all calls – for days. Like continuing to work when my body’s screaming from tiredness. Like eating a large volume of fried/salty/sweet foods even though my taste buds are overwhelmed, yet not stopping until I get to the last bite.
The last is by far the hardest. Sometimes it felt as if there was a monster inside of me, directing me to act against all better judgement. The shame of compulsive eating haunts me, and makes me feel like I am deficient and broken in some fundamental way. I have owned up to plenty of regrettable behaviour, but this one I kept secret. (Of course, while this is possible for many vices, emotional eating announces itself to the world from our hips and tummies and thighs.)
There wasn’t necessarily a correlation between my moods and reaching for comfort foods. Sometimes being really buoyant would make me feel invincible and that I “deserved treats”. When I was more fragile or self-pitying, I would bury myself in it, thinking that at least here was one thing guaranteed to make me feel better.
Of course it never did. Every blowout was followed by self-loathing and shame.
What perhaps confuses me most is that in all other ways, I feel well adjusted, strong and capable. I am not someone who makes excuses or blames other people for my problems. I can put my efforts towards something and generally accomplish it. Yet this felt out of my control.
Sometimes for a stretch, I’d be determined to treat myself better, and steel myself against the impulse to binge. But then, seemingly inevitably, I’d cave in. If I followed a prescriptive diet (especially a low-carb one), it would be like trying to keep a lid on a pressure cooker – one wobble and I’d explode. Like a convict breaking from prison and running as fast as possible in the other direction.
Then would come the resignation: this is the way it is. This is what I am. I will be faulty always.
There was nobody more surprised than me when I chose to go from committed carnivore to vegetarian. One day I was eating meat, and the next day I stopped. The reasons, as I explained in this post, were primarily motivated by health. I want to minimise my chances of getting what has sadly become normalised in our societies – diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure. I also dread a lifelong commitment to pharmaceutical prescriptions, when my desire to live freely and unencumbered is perhaps the single strongest force that drives my life.
This didn’t stop me from making unhealthy eating choices (there’s a fat-sugar-salt combo to fit every diet) but I was – boast alert – proud of myself for making this decision and not looking back. I told myself I’d make an exception for old favourites, like crispy duck pancakes. But some switch turned off inside, and none of it appeals to me any more. I told myself if I had no choice, then of course I’d eat meat. But I went without food on a long flight when the only options were fish or chicken (Saudi Arabian Airlines: boo).
Four months into my vegetarian life, I wanted to also stop eating eggs and dairy. Quitting eggs was mostly easy: I know they would have become chickens if I didn’t cook them and stuff them in my mouth. (Interesting to note that most Western vegetarian diets include eggs, while Indian vegetarians exclude them.)
But dairy proved more difficult. I psychotically adored cheese. I also loved chocolate. Not the chic, sophisticated dark kind as much as the sugary creamy milky variety. Chocolate ice cream too. I was blunt about my chocolate addiction: it was something I simply could never keep at home because it would be gone before bedtime, never mind the quantity.
I read all the books. I knew all about dairy cows kept in appalling living conditions, with enforced serial pregnancies to keep them permanently lactating, their udders monstrously gargantuan, their babies taken away from them at birth and killed for veal (male) or pumped with hormones and antibiotics to become more dairy cows (female).
Even cows raised ethically (there are not many these days) don’t avoid the fundamental problem of how unhealthy dairy milk is. Even meat enthusiasts today warn against consuming dairy for its cocktail of hormones that promote allergies, inflammation (causing autoimmune diseases) and cancer, and for its calcium-leaching (not adding) qualities.
And yet I loved cheese pizza. And fried halloumi in my salads. And chocolate truffles for dessert. This one was a toughie.
My friend Annie in Delhi is responsible for introducing me to many friends in India. She’s sorted out an incalculable number of problems for me both in and out of film productions for 20 years. And she knows everyone. When I have a question, it’s simpler to ask Annie to provide the answer.
So while staying with her last month, I asked her – as I dislike cooking so intensely – how I could arrange for a vegan dabba (lunchboxes that come freshly cooked every weekday to the home or office). She instantly forwarded me the name and number of her friend Anju in Bombay who offers the best one. But, Annie warned me, I would need to participate in one of their health workshops to order the dabba, as Anju was keen for people to understand why it was healthy.
Yeah, yeah, I said. I’m mostly there, I know all the stuff already, I don’t need a workshop.
Annie had grumbled volubly about my vegetarian diet, saying it would be a pain to feed me (it was, but she taught herself how to make veggie khow suey from scratch, so it all worked out beautifully). Yet I wasn’t surprised that she knows the best vegan expert in Bombay. Of course she does.
A door opens
I came to Bombay and contacted Anju. She told me about The Health Awareness Centre’s upcoming courses. There was a nine-week one starting that Friday. Its timing coincided perfectly with my stay in the city, but my impulse was to ignore it. I could write my own book with all the health data I’ve researched for several years. Why spend money going across the Sea Link once a week to listen to the same information?
But my gut told me to sign up anyway. I learnt some time ago to always listen to my gut. So I did.
Other friends told me that Anju Venkat and her mother, Dr Vijaya Venkat, were legendary for helping people with cancer. I heard stories from people in immense pain who were told surgery was the only option they had left, until the Venkats changed their diets, making symptoms and illnesses disappear. Even progressive diseases regressed, reducing the need for lifelong medications. All through nutrition.
I started attending the classes – three hours, once a week – three weeks ago. The first thing that struck me about the Venkats was that they are intensely sane and intelligent people, not at all wacky or culty.
Their version of vegan (because there are many ways to eat while avoiding animal products) is the kind I aspire to: low-fat plant-based, respecting nature, avoiding processed foodstuff, and following our bodies’ instincts rather than the latest medical reports.
But as so many of us are now used to eating denatured foodlike substances and hearing conflicting medical advice, we require re-education to obtain optimum health.
They spoke to us about our bodies’ circadian rhythms. About digestion, cleansing and repair. About the effect of different foods on our systems. So far, so good – and nothing I didn’t know. Ah, but the way they presented the information has changed everything. Everything. Shall I say it again? Everything.
The beauty of an interactive workshop is the way we incorporate their advice in increments and monitor it through food diaries. I have the evidence in front of me.
The first week, I added fruit to my diet. After a few days of feeling tired (Anju: “increase your fruit intake!”), my energy rose. I can now keep up with the rigorous demands of my trainer at the gym, whereas previously the thought of exercising would exhaust me.
The second week, I read their booklet on milk (after studying, not joking, probably twelve tomes dealing with the subject) and something finally clicked. Up until then, my daily routine was waking up sneezing exhaustively until I took a couple of antihistamines, and then spent the whole day being drowsy. I stopped having dairy and within two days, my incessant sneezing stopped.
Last week, listening to Anju explain about enzymes in our bodies, I began to see food from the perspective of my body. With the food I’d been eating, it was working overtime, like trying to walk through mud. With the right foods, there’s little stress, it’s all efficiency.
I had been seeing my eating struggles as a battle – with my cravings often winning. Eating, that very basic and fundamental need, would often provoke confusion and panic. Food had become something to conquer, and the self-discipline required to do it was exhausting me.
My perspective, at last, changed: food, my body and I are all on the same side. There’s nothing to fear.
As if to further convince me, some days ago I had a painful infection and messaged Anju. She sent a simple list of what to eat. Three hours later, all the symptoms were gone.
I’m even gingerly exploring my least favourite activity: cooking. (Dr Vijaya Venkat: “Spend your time in the kitchen or spend it in the hospital.”)
I’m learning to rediscover my body’s instincts that already know what I need for sustenance and nourishment. My body wants to be healthy. My body wants to help me. I just need to get out of my own way.
My mind is impulsive. It prompts me towards wild thoughts and irrational behaviour. But instinct comes from somewhere else – my core, I like to believe; some higher noble part that wants the best for me.
I’m only a third way into the course, but I know there are more gems to come. I have plans for the coming months that may well change my outlook on life; I hadn’t expected this workshop to be another genuine one.
I’m glad I decided against my impulse to skip this. I thank my instinct for showing me the way. And Annie too, of course.
The Health Awareness Centre telephone: +91-22-2498-0005/6
“When you realise how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.” — Buddha (apocryphal)
A young couple are driving through France on their holiday. The woman stops as a gas station snack shop and never comes back. Watch the original Dutch-French version of The Vanishing, directed by George Sluzier and see what happens when someone acts on that “what if I jumped off this balcony” impulse. It’s chilling, it’s haunting, it’s brilliant. By all means possible, avoid seeing the Hollywood remake (by the same director!), which is deeply disappointing, as these remakes often are.
Is all of life printed in nature? Read Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things, about 19th-century botanist Alma Whittaker as she unravels the mysteries of life and evolution. “Why was the material world not sufficient for people such as Jacob Boehme? Was it not wonderful enough, what one could see and touch and know to be real?”