Almost every woman of my grandmother’s generation that I know fasts at least once a week. Until the doctor forbade her from ever skipping a meal, my grandmother was a dedicated faster (if there’s such a word). My mother used to fast once in a while but this was a long time ago.
I have, for the most part, even less rigour and dedication than my mother though there was a one-year period in my life when I actually fasted and kept to it faithfully. I ate one meal a day, eliminating grain after mid-day and allowing myself only fruit or curd. At the time, I didn’t know that I had made myself an honorary American and if I had heard the name Atkins, it meant very little to me. For that one year, hunger sharpened my senses: I deeply enjoyed the little that I ate and I worked better than I ever had. I gave it up eventually, of course, and looking back, I see I must have been a little weird in those days.
People fast for different, often religious reasons. Denying the body certain kinds of food, sometimes between certain times of the day, on specified days of the week or month signify different things – it could be a simple act of prayer or remembrance; a penance of some kind, with the expectations of results; or simply a cleansing of the body.
Since I have very little of the kind of faith that demands any kind of sacrifice, I have recently been interested in fasting as an act of cleansing, while simultaneously being a little suspicious of it – not least because of the obsession with ‘purity’ that it seems to indicate. I am reminded of what a doctor said to me once, in total bewilderment when I went to him with an ENT infection after a jal neti gone wrong, “The body cleanses itself. Why do you need to do all this? Let your body be, no?”
Excellent advice, of course, but I know that if I let my body be, it would constantly demand to be fed chocolate and ice cream or even chocolate ice cream (with chocolate sauce). So I have decided to, only occasionally, put restraints on my body.
I take inspiration from the group of French writers, including Raymond Queneau, François Le Lionnais and Georges Perec among others, collectively called the Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop of potential literature). What these writers did was to set themselves random creative constraints – such as the replacing of every noun with the seventh word from it in a dictionary of the writer’s choice; or by writing in palindromes and so on. What this resulted in was a fascinating kind of writing that yet managed to escape being gimmicky. (In India, Charu Nivedita’s Zero Degree is an example of writing with severe and several constraints).
Adapted to my fast, which I see as Oulipo for the body, this opens the doors of constraint and I can choose between all kinds of temporary eating taboos. The ‘no salt’, ‘no grain’, ‘no dairy’ fasts are all old hat, as are the ‘only juices’ or ‘only single vegetables a day’ ones. What if I considered a green day fast (only green vegetables, moong dal, peas, etc. If someone could really produce green eggs and ham without artificial food colouring, I could consider that permissible) or one where I’m allowed to eat only what I have grown in my garden?
In fact, combined with Ayurvedic or other alternative medicines’ theories about food and the body, there are infinite variations that could make fasting as much an art as cooking and certainly a better one than salad-carving.
I see my Oulipo Fast as non-discriminatory in all matters except that of food, though if someone wanted to fast only, for instance, on major festival days, I would consider it an entirely reasonable constraint.
There is a caveat, though: a fast is not the same as a diet. It is effective precisely because it is short-lived, and has nothing to do with result-oriented motivations such as losing weight, gaining a spouse or attaining the lotus feet of one’s chosen god.
(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)