Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

It had never occurred to me that India might have an obesity problem, but apparently it does. Just before leaving India this month to return to Britain, where I found an obesity panic going on, I chanced upon a story in the Times of India headlined 'Obesity costs India dear'. According to the article, 27 per cent of Delhi schoolchildren are obese, and the country has spent over £43 billion on treating obesity-related health problems over the past five years. Since we know that millions of Indians suffer from malnutrition, this seems very odd. But then it turned out, further on in the article, that the problem was confined to 'affluent families' in the cities, which contained only about 5 per cent of the country's population but consumed 40 per cent of its available fat. Since India has more than one billion people, the vast majority of whom are very poor and couldn't get fat even if they wanted to, obesity affects only a tiny proportion of Indians. But in India this 'tiny proportion' is equivalent to the entire population of a medium-sized European country, so the scale of India's obesity crisis may not be so very different from our own. It's a sign of the country's growing wealth and sophistication that it worries about this kind of health problem and even possesses a Centre for Obesity Research. But it is still a long way from the point that has been reached in the United States, where thinness indicates wealth and obesity suggests poverty. In India the opposite still applies. One thing that is clear is that hardly anybody anywhere manages to achieve his ideal weight. Studies by the United Nations find people all over the world to be either overfed or underfed, but seldom normal. I think we should just concentrate on feeding the starving and stop worrying about people who choose to stuff themselves too much.

I went to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal and was not disappointed. It didn't 'look like a biscuit box', as Amanda, the heroine of Noël Coward's Private Lives, suspected that it might, but was everything and more than it is cracked up to be. The Taj Mahal is one of those rare sights that conform precisely to expectations, but also somehow exceed them. Others that fall into this category are Venice and the Manhattan skyline. It was, of course, built in the first half of the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan ('King of the World') as a monument to his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who had died in 1631 after bearing him their 14th child. Shah Jahan is said to have been heartbroken by her death and decided to make her tomb the most beautiful and magnificent in the world - a purpose in which he may very well have succeeded. It is seen as one of the world's great shrines to romantic love, which is why such poignancy surrounded the famous photograph of Diana, Princess of Wales, seated alone in front of it during a visit to India with her husband when their marriage was disintegrating. (When I passed by the stone bench on which Diana once posed, it was being occupied for the camera by an obese Indian gentleman.)

While the evidence is that Shah Jahan was genuinely very fond of his favourite wife and much distressed by her death, not everyone shares the heartbreak theory. The historian John Keay, for example, says in his history of India that the Taj Mahal was inspired by 'dynastic pride and Islamic symbolism, not romantic heartbreak'. And it is true that Shah Jahan was an obsessive builder who scattered across northern India many of its most glorious architectural monuments. …

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