The Rise of Dr Strange Lovehandles: How I Learned to Love My Paunch

Humour

The Rise of Dr Strange Lovehandles: How I Learned to Love My Paunch

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I made the cardinal mistake of visiting Italy for my honeymoon. The timing of this visit is important – I was 25 and just married. That’s a dangerous cocktail of the prime of youth combined with the incessant need to win over your partner, topped with slowly-infused male chauvinism through years of patriarchal upbringing. The upshot of these peculiar conditions was that we spent an inordinate amount of time appreciating art.

Now, I don’t hate art. Quite the opposite, art hates me. My worst memory of school is of the art teacher who was perpetually upset with me because he didn’t believe anyone could be that bad unless it was an intentional insult directed at him. In truth, I was that bad.

And while I can appreciate art in moderation, these Italians seem to have gone a bit overboard with something called the Renaissance, which was basically our childhood game of statues taken a little too literally.

Specifically, the sculptors of the era seemed to be obsessed with the heroic, nude, gorgeous male statues that served a blatant blow to an Indian boy’s long-held idea of what the “heroic male nude” should be on one’s honeymoon. The most opprobrious of these specimens was Michelangelo’s David – perfectly proportioned, and more importantly flaunting his six packs with no shame whatsoever. And as it turned out, we stayed in a hotel that was just a short walk away from this finely crafted marble sculpture designed with the express purpose of puncturing my ego a little bit more each time we passed it.

“Hey, have you considered changing the name of this hotel to Goliath,” I asked the manager-cum-owner of this small establishment in an attempt to gain some validation from this country.

I grew up as the skinniest boy in class, and my parents could never find clothes that fit both my girth (or lack thereof) and length simultaneously.

“Huh? What? Why?”

“Because, it’s only a stone’s throw away from David,” I said laughing at my own cleverness.

“No. When are you checking out?”

“Oh um tomorrow morning…”

“Good.”

What kind of impossibly good-looking art appreciators were these people who didn’t even get wordplay?

I’ve never been much of a looker. I grew up as the skinniest boy in class, and my parents could never find clothes that fit both my girth (or lack thereof) and length simultaneously. This meant that for the longest period of my life I wore ill-fitting clothes and appeared as an inflated skydancer in human form. But the lack of visual appeal aside, there were some upsides – I could eat anything I wanted without having to worry about putting on weight.

This was the case until my early 20s, but then we are all bound by the same universal truth: Time slows down all metabolism. Throw in the discovery of alcohol and a sedentary job to the mix, and we’re cooking with gas. This was a blessing at the outset, because clothes magically fit better and I stopped avoiding mirrors like a rich capitalist evades tax. But then, before I knew it I had popped over to the other side. I was blessed with the sign of middle-class Indian prosperity – the paunch. Infinitely blessed. I hadn’t realised how bad it had gotten until I met up with some friends from college seven years later and I was made fun of as the fat one.

I’m sure we take different routes and arrive at this point where a paunch makes you less than attractive. It’s called sub-cute-aneous fat after all. Indian men have been cursed by genetics. Umm, not remotely in the same ballpark as Indian women who have to put up with ridiculous societal standards by any measure – in comparison we’ve won the biggest ovarian lottery of all. But still, the needless obsession with the six pack has put us firmly in the ugly corner. Then there is of course, the myth that men look better with age. Nonsense. Have you seen Ravi Shastri? But it’s a compelling myth. Throw in the Warren Harding error and a casual look at successful men who are also better-looking and you begin to wonder if the correlation is not in fact causation.

And so, I fought valiantly. Out went potatoes and other sugars, in came annoying workout routines. I calorie-counted like Matt Damon in any of his movies, where he is stuck somewhere and awaiting rescue with resources running out. When I dropped 10 kilos, my diet and routine were all I could talk about. I mean, what is the point of losing weight if you can’t even act smug and brag about it to everyone around you?

I can’t forever fight my Malayali body that has been designed to eat kappa with meen curry, washed down with some toddy.

Two and a half years passed. My relationship with fitness had entered the cold comfort zone. Maintaining your weight was not as sexy as the novel excitement of losing weight. Finally, I strayed. A fry here, some chocolate ice cream there, several towers of beer everywhere. And before I knew it, I was back to square one in six months. And when the weighing scale pointed to “Bro, what’s wrong with you?”, I sighed and decided to try again. This time perhaps, I’d take it all the way to David. Every long journey starts with a small step, and I began with a post-lunch walk along Mumbai’s Vidhan Bhawan Marg.

The street was lined with statues of great leaders, the ones who shaped our destiny. There was one other distinct feature that stood out, a common trait that united the great minds of our nation – they all had paunches! That’s when it struck me, I was obsessing over the wrong statue. Here was a statue that I could look up to and maybe achieve (mostly in body shape). Smiling happy statues of well-fed Indians, not the grumpy looking David who clearly had to go 10 days without salt or water before he sat down for his statue to be made.

I can’t forever fight my Malayali body that has been designed to eat kappa with meen curry, washed down with some toddy. But what of a healthier lifestyle, you ask? Pssh, my rationalisation abilities are stronger than your rationale. I will double down by googling “Why dad bods are sexy” and drink in the comfort of confirmation bias along with an extra cold pint of beer. Ah the world seems brighter already.

I remember now that at some point during our honeymoon, while standing in line to enter the 37th museum, both of us looked at each other and simultaneously walked away to get some freshly made pizza followed by the best gelato. It was a glorious afternoon with less obsession over perfect bodies and more happiness through great food. And, as it turns out, that’s a perfect template for life.

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