Tue 30th Dec 2003Tulo
I haven't seen Raju for nearly five years, and when we meet in the garden of the guest house I notice that he hasn't changed much: he's grown a beard; he seems a little more self confident.
"How are you? You've grown a beard!" I say redundantly.
"And you have grown fat!" he cries with delight. I take it in my stride:
"It's good to see y-" I begin, but Raju's not finished,
"Last time I saw you, you were like bamboo pole, and now look at you! You are fat!"
I've filled out a little, I'll admit. Still, twelve-and-a-half stone isn't exactly obese. But then obesity is not a Nepalese issue. This is the third poorest country in the world - something it's easy to forget surrounded by the convincing North Face fakes in the trekking shops in Thamel, or whilst sipping a latte in the Chimney Room at the Yak and Yeti. It's estimated that over 50% of Nepali children are malnourished, and a national diet that consists almost exclusively of rice, lentil daal and whatever vegetable is in season doesn't lead to much excessive weight gain.
So in this country, being fat is good. The Nepali word 'tulo' actually has a meaning closer to 'big', and that reflects the increased status that comes with increased size. After all, you only get fat by eating a lot, and if you eat a lot you must be rich, and if you're rich, you have more status - no one in Nepal is poor and fat.
It's something that's difficult for Westerners to get used to - particularly women, who feel the pressure to be rich and thin the most. It's completely acceptable in Nepal to comment on someone's weight, in fact it's a compliment. Anyone even slightly overweight can expect to be given tulo (ie. 'fatty) as a nickname, and it's not unusual to have your flab poked by curious villagers ("Wow! Just look how far I can push my finger in!").
The Nepali national diet of daal baht (lentils and rice) is in itself a real obesity cure. But what's really astonishing is how much Nepalis like it. Around 90% of the population chooses to eat daal baht with tarkari (a small portion of vegetable curry) twice a day. Every day. It's a predominately Hindu country, so a large majority of the population is vegetarian, although widespread poverty means that not all are necessarily vegetarian by choice. The daal baht diet contains virtually no protein, only seasonally available vitamins and minerals, and a tiny quantity of fat. It's pretty much carbohydrates all the way. When combined with levels of exercise that would be unthinkable in the West it's almost impossible to put on excess weight. Imagine taking on a rice and lentils-only diet, that included carrying every sack of rice and each sack of lentils for two hours up steep mountain tracks just to get them to the kitchen.
It worked for me. After just two months of the two-meal-a-day regimen combined with unlimited stale biscuits and frequent ten-mile walks I had reverted to my previous 'bamboo pole' figure. But what might form a fantastic celebrity detox diet for fat Westerners often doesn't provide enough calories or vitamins and minerals for growing children in Nepal. Add to this the fact that most people in Nepal (as many as 80%) have some kind of chronic gastric disorder, picked up repeatedly from dirty water and unhygienic food, and it's easy to see why most people here would rather be fat. When Nepalis have money they often choose to eat unhealthily, as evidenced by the rapid rise in diabetes in urban areas, which rivals levels in some Western countries. Those foods which we're told are the ingredients of an unhealthy diet - fat, processed sugars, dairy products - are precisely those that the vast majority of Nepalis can't afford.
Diet is only one of the factors contributing to Nepal's shocking average life expectancy of 55 years (this figure falls to a horrifying 38 years in the poorest villages of the far West) but it is a factor. And it's why Nepalis don't view food with the same skewed mixture of love and hate that's found in the West. Instead I think obesity is something that Nepalis would love to have the chance to share.