By Nisha Susan
Here is a story about a belly dancer. Sort of. A woman in her early 60s told me that the social club she has been part of for decades (think: Rotary, Lions) recently organised a get-together in the basement of a café-cum-bar usually frequented by teenagers. The event began with the familiar speech-giving and small talk and then arrived the slim, young belly dancer. The woman who told me this story and the other women there were appalled. She is no prude but she thought this event, a run-up to the city-wide elections of the club, was no place for a belly dancing performance. She and the other women at the event were visibly fed up. The organiser of the event rolled up again and proceeded to scold the women gathered. He told them that unlike them, backward ladies, he and the other men were up-to-date and modern. He urged them to become modern to attract young members to the club, the way the men did.
The woman who told me the story said that she and a few other women left in protest. She said she couldn’t decide what she found more disgusting, his speech, his smugness, or his paunch sticking into the aisles. I asked her, do you think he thought his paunch was as attractive as the belly-dancer’s flat and muscled belly? She laughed and said that she was sure he did. Then we both fell into a little silence thinking about the relationship Indian men have with their paunches and the very different one Indian women have with theirs.
The men of my father’s generation and the men of my generation really do have modern attitudes to women’s bodies. They like women slim and showing no signs of age or child-bearing. They think the acquisition of new goods and admiration of thin women makes them modern. They trash-talk actors who have had babies and call women who are in their thirties, old. So, last week’s interaction between Venkaiah Naidu and Renuka Chowdhury, as she made her farewell speech in the Rajya Sabha, seemed familiar. As recently as in February, Chowdhury had been called Surpanakha by Prime Minister Modi for laughing during his speech in Parliament. This time around, in what seemed a more collegial atmosphere, Chowdhury said, “he [Naidu] knows me from many kilos before. Sir, many people worry about my weight but in this job, you need to throw your weight around.” Naidu replied, “My simple suggestion is, reduce your weight and make efforts to increase the weight of the party”.
This whole riff is familiar in that it begins with a cross-national fat girl reflex — one of making the fat joke before someone else can make it. In 2015, in an interview with Arnab Goswami, when asked if people were trying to cut her down to size, Smriti Irani responded with, “I don’t think so, I’m too fat for that.” In both cases, I like to think it wasn’t just the fat girl reflex. These two women were also embracing the power of being a fat woman.
Like many other women, it has been my ambition on and off for most of my life to be slim and smooth and beautiful. I have been rather half-hearted about it but this half-heartedness is no sign of my political purity. It is the same half-heartedness I exhibit towards the folding of clothes, despite the fact that I do like them folded. Sometimes I was bothered by my fat, sometimes indifferent to it and sometimes frankly excited by it. Then, a couple years ago, it hit me, that with some work I could be significantly thinner than I was, I could be even objectively thin but I’d never, ever be small. Standing next to women universally admired for their slimness, I could not miss this epiphany — small was what I had really wanted to be, all the time that I had thought I wanted to be thin. Around the time this epiphany hit me, I was also growing into another relationship with my fat body. One of power.
It’s rare in everyday life for women to have an imposing physical presence. One way is to be beautiful, of course. Another way is to be adventurous, up for ‘badass’ things, arm-wrestling and bungee jumping and motorcycle riding. It’s an add-on option for a certain kind of feminine expression that Gillian Flynn memorably described as Cool Girl. But the physical presence I am talking about is simpler. It is to be Big and to take up space. It is the way in which men’s paunches arrive in rooms before they do or when their heads barely clear doorframes or their legs sprawl into the aisles. It is what Chowdhury alluded to when she said “throw your weight around.” That is not an option many of us women hit in the genetic lottery. And what natural sprawl we do have, we are socialised into diminishing as men spread and spread across the surface of the earth.
The classic Malayalam praise for a good girl is one who has adakkam and othukam, the butter and jam of modesty, but also a phrase that comes with constriction, thin little shoulders tucked in, hands that tidy up as they go anywhere and silent feet that don’t have the weight to be noisy. Many years ago, already resigned to a lack of adakkam and othukam I had a brief era of throwing my weight around. In my early teens, I was bigger and often taller than the boys. In a new school, in class 9, I was frequently appalled by my male classmates who had been deranged by puberty and socialisation. When one of them said that I was his or someone else’s din mein sister, raat mein bistar, I threw him into a wall and walked away blind from rage and deaf to the cheers of the boys who enjoyed watching their friend’s humiliation. It took a few more years and a very particular kind of suave fellow for me to make one of my few self-deprecating jokes about being fat.
My hot Sri Lankan classmate (leader of the bad children of class 12 and incorrigibly curious) asked me as if we had a sexy secret, “Nisha, what do you want to become when you become big?” I replied, “no bigger, I hope.” He laughed but was emboldened to say, “I think you will become a porn writer”. I half-smiled and went back to my friends. Really there is no appropriate response to that one. Also somewhere inside I knew that he was responding to something that he sensed about me. Neither of us would have known how quite to articulate it right then. Over time, I have known many men who were caught up in their modernity and didn’t know how to articulate their attraction to fat girls and were ashamed of it. But that wasn’t quite what was going on with Mr Sri Lanka. Right then at age 17, he merely recognised that my fat had the potential of dirty, illicit and unruly in our little faux American world in Muscat.
Not so long ago I was engaged in a flirtation with a man who had a robustly desi aesthetic in all things which included an admiration for my kajal and sari-gone-to-hell days. But during the period of our flirtation, I also noticed his steadily growing addiction for petite and pale women with gym memberships. Because sometimes the heart wants what the intellect is saying nahin nahin to. This doomed our flirtation, of course. I knew the end was nigh and the end could be kept afar only by this never remembering that I was the fleshpot he should resist.
It was with the devil-may-care abandon of a firewalker that I began a phone conversation with him about Kung Fu Panda and how thrilled I was by Po’s self-deprecation and worry he was not eating to his full potential. I didn’t even get into how superb Mei Mei, Po’s fat love interest was. My friend became audibly antsy through this phone conversation. He quarrelled with me mildly about how he didn’t see the attraction and so on. Then I said the word aloud. Fat. I said: I like how Po is fat. That’s it. I almost heard the brittle surface of our romance crack like the top of a crème brulee. Desi Boy said to me: Never mind all that. I actually called you to tell you I am getting married.
As an adult, I have had few occasions when I have exercised the power of being a big woman. Here is one I feel gleeful about. I was in the top berth of a train. After nightfall, half a dozen jolly young men boarded the same compartment and were quickly engaged in ‘Saraswati ye mera berth, ye tera berth’. A skinny fellow climbed into the middle berth and looked up at me and asked with a sly smirk, “Jab hum so rahein honge, aap mere upar gir jayengi toh kya hoga? [What will happen if you fall on me while we are sleeping?]” I smiled and said, “Aap toh mar jayenge. Aap mujhe apne mummy ka address deydo. Main chitti bhej dungi. [You will die for sure so why don’t you give me your mother’s address? I will write to her.]”
Last year I read in several accounts by Harvey Weinstein’s victims that they were terrorised by the weight of his fat body. Now every time I look at that iconic picture of Weinstein and Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars I am astonished by how thin Paltrow was and how thin she needed to be. She was what we’d call a kuchi in Tamil, a stick. Weinstein was already fat. In Hollywood, centre of the fat-loathing world, a man is still able to wield his fat as a superpower. Much like male politicians are able to in India. Observe Modi’s applause-worthy repackaging of his soft granddadbod as a 56-inch chest (which, for context, is two inches short of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chest in his prime). I was trying to imagine any female politician drawing attention to her fat, not making jokes about it and getting away with it. Or lying about her stats and getting away with it.
Here is another fat power moment. After strength-training one morning in the park with a friend in Delhi I waited and waited for an auto. When I couldn’t get one I did that thing I reserve for Bangalore, jump into a bus that had slowed down in traffic. At 21 I had often become psychological and physical chutney in DTC buses. A decade later, looking down the aisle for an empty seat, I met the terrorised glances of neatly dressed office and college-going men. Any who had empty seats next to them quickly put down their bags to ward me off. I then realised what they were seeing. A fat woman whose thighs were visible in shorts, whose waist length hair was covered in leaves and kuchis from rolling in the park. Seeing their pale faces, I put my arms akimbo and laughed aloud, making the men turn even paler.
When I heard Renuka Chowdhury’s remarks last week, I thought again about the power of the fat woman. It’s akin but not quite the same as the unruly, laughing woman, the one who is allowed the classical attahasa because she is a rakshasi, (the Surpanakha that Modi referred to without realising what he was revealing of himself.) Else the boom of a true attahasa is only reserved for kings and archvillains.
If we embrace our truly desi selves (unlike Mr Desi Boy) we know that the fat woman doesn’t have to be funny. She can be silent and terrorising. In Kolkata, I once interviewed a pair of teenage boxers. As I spoke to the big, husky girls in their small house, their enormous mother lay like an odalisque on the bed behind them. She spoke not a word but stared into the middle-distance with a tiny smile. Later, my friend who had taken me to meet the boxers told me with a visible shiver that she was supposed to have killed her policeman husband. The next morning when I went to hang out with the girls during training in Salt Lake, several adult male boxers told me that they found the girls scary. The girls smiled more than their mother but not much more. The lack of smiling among women boxers – from Haryana to Kerala to West Bengal to Manipur – is one of the things that attracted me to them. They had the chilly calm of J Jayalalithaa, a woman who would have killed a fat joke with a tray. They were not trying to pack themselves into smaller and smaller boxes like the elephants in my favourite non-jokes (eg. How do you know there is an elephant in your fridge. There will be footprints in the butter.).
Anatomy is destiny, ladies. So let us change our destinies. Let us stop folding ourselves into origami dolls and let us eat. Let us eat, drink and grow gloriously fat. Let us laugh and allow our paunches to enter halls to announce us. Let our black eyes buried in our round, unsmiling faces make men worry that we have killed before and may kill again.
Now I know there are some folks reading this, smiling good-naturedly and saying, Nisha, you are so funny yaar, but you need to get realistic. To them I say, tum yaar, you get realistic. I am gonna get fatter.
In the words of some unsung genius on the Internet: eat cake and if anyone objects, eat them too.