Kalpana Swaminathan lives in Mumbai, a few streets away from her detective, Lalli. Her book, Venus Crossing, a collection of short stories, won the Vodafone Crossword Fiction Award in 2009. She also writes with Ishrat Syed as KalpishRatna. Swaminathan and Syed are both surgeons. Their most recent book is FAT, in which they meld the newest research with their own clinical experience to uncover the links between food and our bodies. Here,
they reveal why we Indians have suddenly become so obese, what we must do and guard against, and how to keep ourselves energised.
You are both paediatric surgeons. How early in your lives did you begin writing?
When we learned to write! It was magic, and you could go anywhere you wanted, be anybody you wanted to be or not to be, and do just about anything. All it took was the blank page and a pencil.
Kalpana, you have mentioned that the character of Lalli came to you “fully formed” on a bus commute. That must have been quite unexpected. How did you capture her before she had a chance to flee? Was there any inkling at that time that you would soon be writing a full-fledged novel or that you would become an author?
My first story, written when I was nine, bailed me out of a boring geography class. I had discovered that lessons could be made exciting by writing a story through the facts. It seemed an exciting way to get through life then—it still is. Characters are like children. If you want to befriend them, you must wait till they approach you. So not just Lalli, but all our characters whether in a Kalpana book or a KalpishRatna book arrive on the page fully formed.
Certainly, when Lalli walked in, I knew there were novels coming, with or without her. I’ve never really ‘become an author.’ Writing is what I do.
Characters are like children. If you want to befriend them, you must wait till they approach you. – Kalpana Swaminathan
The neighbourhood in which you grew up (Vile Parle), the buzz of the local market you frequent, bus and train commutes and the multiculturalism of Mumbai are vital to your stories. Could you elaborate on how you draw from these and what you look for in the bustle?
The sensory impact of a crowd is immediate. Colour, sound, smells bombard you. It takes a while to focus but when I do, one detail stands out in isolation. The moment shifts abruptly from impressionistic to hyper-real, and the narrative begins.
Ishrat does this with his camera, startling the eye into noticing the unseeable and unseen. When we write together, especially our nonfiction, such images direct our attention, deconstructing the subject into its elements. We could write Room 000 about a vanished landscape—Bombay in 1896, simply by trawling the city for such signposts.
Kalpana, from appearing on the back of an old envelope, Lalli is now a favourite amongst readers. What is special about living with her? Considering that you were in your thirties when you met her first and she was already in her sixties, how have time and the number of books you‟ve written with Lalli as the protagonist, influenced the way you‟ve both grown and evolved? How different is the Lalli of today?
Yes, I’m as old as Lalli now! Detectives don’t age, but thankfully, their writers do. Certainly, Lalli has changed me. Living with her is a blast. Her relish for life has encouraged all my madcap enthusiasms—which seem to increase with age. Her energy is infectious, and it is difficult to resist her curiosity for detail. Through her, I can keep my faith in truth and justice, even in these bleak times.
And Lalli? At the moment, she’s not doing too well. You’ll have to wait till year’s end to find out why.
The sensory impact of a crowd is immediate. Colour, sound, smells bombard you. It takes a while to focus but when I do, one detail stands out in isolation. The moment shifts abruptly from impressionistic to hyper-real, and the narrative begins. – Kalpana Swaminathan
Ishrat, describe briefly your childhood, and the people and experiences that nurtured and shaped you. Which books did you read as a child?
My childhood was my destiny; I was birthed in the textbook of the Western Ghats around Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar. Every stone was story and every crag was saga, every plant was magic and every tree was metonymy. And then there were three mystical months of the monsoon which opened up a new library of metamorphosis. I learnt first in nature and then found nomenclature for what I had seen in books. My mother and my father ensured that this magic endured in every aspect of my being. I read everything I could lay my hands on. They ensured I got everything I asked or hoped for.
When did you decide to collaborate on a book and begin writing as KalpishRatna? Are there certain writing pairs you admired? Did you have apprehensions about working as a team? After all, writing is a solitary activity. There are the other factors like plot, characterisation, style that could be perceived so differently by two writers. Did you have to resolve any such disagreements to arrive on the same page?
When we started writing together in 1996, we had been friends for years. We had trained together as paediatric surgeons, and we had worked together. Writing our first piece together was simply a matter of putting down a conversation verbatim. But who would ever want to read it? It appeared as the first piece in a TOI column called Animal Crackers. It was a Sunday column, and we had great fun writing it over lunch on Wednesdays. Disagreements? We disagree all the time! That’s what starts off the conversation.
Writing our first piece together was simply a matter of putting down a conversation verbatim. But who would ever want to read it? – Ishrat Syed
Your writing always starts out as a question. Do conversations and discussions follow? How do you know what idea you want to pursue next? Has it happened that a particular subject hasn’t resonated with one of you? What is the most challenging aspect of co-authoring a book?
There are lots of ideas we want to pursue all at once: priorities are circumstantial. There are books that simmer for years and jhatpat ones as well. Writing together is not challenging at all—dealing with publishers is!
Your book FAT takes a close look at the rising cases of obesity in the country. With a deluge of books on fad diets, quick fixes for weight loss and a rather cosmetic look at obesity, what were your thoughts when you decided to uncover the links between food and our bodies, especially in the Indian context?
It was a very practical need. We see patients who discount their suffering. There’s nothing enjoyable about obesity. It is an illness, not a dress size. It is India’s most threatening epidemic. Yet, the science behind obesity—and this is growing every minute—remains a closed book not just to patients, but to doctors as well. No wonder the guy who sells karela juice in the park is a nutritional consultant.
We think science is a democratic right—it has to reach the people. Not dumbed down platitudes or pseudoscience but honest-to-goodness science. We learned, long ago, that illiteracy is no barrier to understanding science. Everybody deserves the truth. And so we wrote FAT.
The Indian context is important to Indian readers. Whatever their geographical location, most urban Indians live in Los Angeles.
The science behind obesity—and this is growing every minute—remains a closed book not just to patients, but to doctors as well. No wonder the guy who sells karela juice in the park is a nutritional consultant.
What was your vision when you decided to write FAT? What did you hope to achieve through it? How is it different from other books on obesity?
Our vision was a reader who responds to the book by walking into her kitchen and taking a fresh look, by revising her shopping list and by generally cleaning out the fridge! We didn’t set out to tell the reader what to do. We wanted her to get curious about what she’s eating and how it’s processed by her body. That’s enough information to equip her to make better choices.
This book is about the science behind obesity. It does not offer a quick fix. It is meant to deliver two messages: 1. Obesity is not a cosmetic problem, but an illness. 2. Indian standards are different from American norms. If you’re obese, you’re likely to have Metabolic Syndrome. See your doctor.
Do you think people are in denial about their health? Chronic exhaustion is considered the new normal. Does FAT aim to shake people up and face the truth about their lifestyles? How will the book affect this change?
Yes, that’s one of the aims of FAT. If you’ll pardon the pun, the book is food for thought. If you’ve read it, you’ll think about it. Your own intelligence will do the rest. We live in hope!
We stand now at the end of the antibiotic era, facing up to the bitter truth that there are new diseases with no therapies in sight. Luckily, new science offers a solution.
FAT aims to break the myth that healthy food and taste don‟t go together. You have been working on nutritional medicine and devising delectable ways of cooking healthy food. Could you elaborate on that?
There are two questions in that, so we’ll take them separately. We stand now at the end of the antibiotic era, facing up to the bitter truth that there are new diseases with no therapies in sight. Luckily, new science offers a solution. Today, the microbiome, the body’s own bacterial population, is recognised as the prime determinant of health. And the microbiome is largely controlled by what we eat. Nutritional medicine looks at the demands of the body in
changing circumstances, and it may hold therapeutic answers.
Science is good, but the food should be even better—why else would anyone eat it? Surgery is a practical science, you can’t simply theorise about it—and so we carried those skills to the kitchen and worked on a cuisine that’s as delicious as it is nutritious. Its principal strength is that it always has the taste of home—your home! It is an exciting exploration, especially as it ends delectably!
Our relationship with food changed. We look at food as fattening, as ‘a cheat meal’, as something to be dreaded rather than as something nourishing and energising. We look at food with suspicion. How do you think we can have a healthier relationship with food, especially in times when fast food and two-minute fillers are so much more convenient?
Haste makes waste—that corny old saw summarises our present relationship with food. We eat too quickly, and too much. Too much, because the meal has failed to deliver both energy and satisfaction. And that’s a waste.
The joy has gone out of food. The sensuous experience of food is sadly limited to the gastroporn purveyed by the media. That sensuousness should be on our plate instead. The key to stay clear of obesity is the hearty enjoyment of food.
Do you think that the disconnect with our bodies has led to the rise in lifestyle diseases and obesity? How should an average person begin to have a conversation with the body, considering that we are far more engaged with social networking and various electronic screens?
The joy has gone out of food. The sensuous experience of food is sadly limited to the gastroporn purveyed by the media. That sensuousness should be on our plate instead.
Your body is more than your selfie. Here’s a simple exercise to prove our point: Look away from the screen. Now get comfortable.
What did you do to get comfortable? You responded to body prompts. You noticed discomfort. That is the first sign of life: the response to pain and discomfort.
It is as simple as that. The more you notice the body’s signals, the quicker you respond to them, the greater your degree of ease. Why not enjoy life instead of simply enduring it? It is too short to be wasted on screen time.
Your book suggests having a relook at home-cooked food, the ghar ka khana, which has always been perceived as way healthier than ‘outside’ food. There is a prevalent belief that what our grandmothers practised in their kitchens is what we should return to, and that they were a sturdier lot. Do you agree?
Of course NOT! Our methods of cooking and eating should be grounded in our reality, not in the myth of fabled ancestors. Good for grandmother if she was a whiz, but how about you? Get a life!
And OUCH, they were not a sturdier lot, our poor grandmothers. Women’s health is better now than it was 50 years ago. Menopause is not the end of life scenario it was projected as being. Women today work much harder than their grandmothers ever did. Just because we have kitchen gadgets it does not mean we’re lazy.
As doctors and authors who have to be glued to their chairs when they write, what is your fitness regimen? What‟s your fuel? Coffee/tea? Do you ever indulge?
Walking! It is for both mental and physical fitness. Books begin on long walks, books are rescued, trashed or completed on walks. Idleness is another great way to stay fit. We indulge all the time, simply because we get a thrill out of making the simplest foods more delicious. Less is more—not in quantity, but in enhancing flavour and taste.
Coffee is our brew, yes!
Writing for children makes you a better listener, and as children are very expressive, this strengthens communication.
You inhabit two different worlds, distinct yet complementary, as doctors and authors. That’s a remarkable life. What are the high points of being storytelling paediatric surgeons?
We’ll start by disagreeing. Most people do a lot of things! And writing and medicine have a lot in common. Surgery, in particular, is excellent training for a writer—and vice versa. Writing for children makes you a better listener, and as children are very expressive, this strengthens communication. The high point comes when a child tells you a story, draws a picture for you—and most thrilling of all—tells her friends about what she’s learned from you.
It must bother you to see kids being raised on chips and burgers, and stuff that clogs their intestines. In a world where peer pressure is high, how do you get a child to eat healthy when all around they are lured by ads, fast food and places selling unhealthy food?
On their own, children are intelligent decision makers. But they are seldom permitted to make food decisions—their parents do that. Childhood obesity is alarming today. India doesn’t care about it. Children are invisible to policymakers. The market exploits children by loading them with trashy food.
The only way out of this problem is first to educate the parents–we would love to involve schools too. Once parents understand that their child will not be deprived of joy, that there will be no restrictions, they are enthusiastic in addressing the problem. The parent-child bond is the strongest in the world, and it is our best weapon against childhood obesity.
What’s a day in your life like? Is it possible or necessary for you to write every day, as most authors advise? Do you maintain a diary/notebook?
Yes, it is necessary to write every day, like musical riyaz, like eating lunch. No diaries!
Kalpana, you have said that you don’t need a room to be able to write and that if you really want to, you can write anywhere. How do you manage to focus on writing with the kind of busy schedule you must be having?
I haven’t really thought about it—perhaps only because nothing or nobody has got in the way. I hope I never have to find out!
Ishrat, is your approach to writing similar? Or do you find yourself at your desk at a particular time? Describe your workplace.
My workplace is within me. I write and revise all the time. It is the transcription that demands a desk. But my MacBook Air has liberated me from that tyranny too.
What books are you reading now? Who are your favourite authors?
Favourite author? Alas, it is always the one I’m reading. And Ghalib and Shakespeare are always in season. Right now, elections and all, I’ve fled back to P. G. Wodehouse, my sanctuary in troubled times.
What are you working on next?
Our next work of fiction is a book of stories Synapse (due from Speaking Tiger next month). These stories revolve around thought, memory and the field of neurology. We are also at work on a book about Dholavira, about how civilisations die. Lalli is due to make her musical debut later this year in Ragam Tanam Pallavi.
What is the most valuable piece of advice would you give aspiring writers.
Cease to aspire—just write.
Picture Credit: Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed