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Letter from India

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March 2007
Letter from India

It looked like Mardi Gras in Mumbai, but it was more an event that was a telling sign how fitness is the new rage in urban India.

Mardi Gras in Mumbai? Almost. It is the annual Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. Dressed in bizarre costumes, colorful saris, and spandex, Maximum City has poured into the streets. Seven, twenty-one, or forty-two kilometers, thousands surge towards their personal goals.

Navigating through the jamboree are a surprising number of serious runners. Over seven thousand people signed up for the half marathon (21 km). Weeks leading up to D-day you would have spotted many of them jogging along Marine Drive at dawn. Corporate kingpin Anil Ambani, a regular on the promenade, has built up the endurance of a professional athlete. Like India's economy, its people are shaping up. Arteries are coming clean and energy levels are up. Olive oil is bidding to take over desi ghee's domain.

A decade ago, as a stewardess with an international airline, I never exercised. Neither did any of my colleagues. Asanas were for the aged, weight training for body builders. Working-out amounted to nothing more than a leisurely stroll in a park followed by cursory stretching. Only those who aspired to strut on the ramp, or be a photographer's muse visited a health spa. Or perhaps a bride-to-be would enroll in a short-term boot camp. Any attempt at load shedding usually involved starvation, not step aerobics.

Eating disorders like obesity and anorexia are no longer dismissed or disguised. The Times Of India recently carried a report on anorexic models getting flak. Internationally designers are being urged not to work with emaciated body types. Back home calcium shortage torments rawboned beauty queens.

Never before has the Indian male been goaded to burn off excess fat. There is a realization that an expansive midriff is self-made and not a by-product of aging. Nor is it a salubrious sign of prosperity. At a champagne brunch last Sunday I heard much chatter about muscle mass and land acquisition. Baked instead of fried, lettuce wrap over kathi roll—if Pavlov's dog salivated to a bell, palates can be conditioned to favor soy snacks over samosas.

Street vendors hold up countless lifestyle magazines where muscle meets mode. Replete with training and nutrition regimens, they attempt to make exercising hip and accessible for everyone. Pilates, tai chi, kick boxing and e-trainers are all gaining currency. Even senior citizens and teenagers are bench-pressing their way to good health! Given the presence of returned expatriates among metropolitans, holistic healing techniques are in vogue. Forgotten yoga and mediation centers are breathing afresh.

I've seen hole-in-the-wall health clubs in smaller cities like Lucknow and Meerut. My mother's domestic helper in Dehra Dun frequents a nukkad ‘gym'! Mega cities like Chennai and Mumbai have been graced by the arrival of the legendary Gold's Gym. Complete with top-of-the-line cardio and strength training equipment, it is a mecca for fitness enthusiasts with very deep pockets.

Will India continue to flourish and tone up vital stats or will she run out of steam?

By REETIKA NIJHAWAN KHANNA


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