I was ultimately done in by yoga, although I have been swearing by it for the last three decades. Being part of the team that launched The Telegraph was unforgettable, not the least because sitting long hours at the desk, holding down three functions (we seniors did such things), gave me a bad back.
The feisty new paper, with all the brashness of youth, made us get to know many who were young in mind if not body. Among them was Manatosh Roy, bodybuilder-turned-multidisciplinary teacher who made good use of yoga. He had a strikingly positive way of looking at life. From him I learnt the basics of yoga which, with additions from the occasional good book, have helped me keep my troublesome lower back in working order ever since.
So when I returned to yoga with additional vigour after a small gap and gave a powerful twist to my upper body to do an asana that keeps the sciatica nerve in good shape, something gave way. In a couple of hours, I could barely walk to the loo — such was the pain.
Then followed being laid up in bed for 10 days, popping pain-killers and performing the ridiculously simple exercises prescribed by the orthopedicist, with more than enough time to think things out. I soon realised this was a great preview of life in real old age, when being in bed for long periods would be par for the course.
I understood that lying down and getting up could be a daunting task, walking a few steps an excruciating exercise; but no one had told me to keep away from good jokes and TV sitcoms. God help you if you forget your condition and have a hearty laugh. And the ultimate torture: being seized by a bout of coughing, or letting go of a sneeze or two.
The best way to lighten your mood after such a misadventure is to tell yourself that you have made a discovery — that is, a new way of inflicting torture. After the Indian policeman or the communist commissar has suitably softened up a criminal suspect or an ideological deviant who is lying supine, all that the torturers need to do is tell the victim a good joke or dangle near his nostrils something that brings on a bout of sneezing. If the beating has not worked, this last trick will.
Seven days of rest – lying down – was the doctor’s specific prescription. But try doing that in Kolkata’s humid weather, particularly when turning on your side to air you kurta wet with perspiration is almost as difficult as getting up. How do people live long enough to actually get bed sores, I wondered, with all the impatience of someone who has never been laid up in bed for more than a few days. OK, I got mumps when I was a kid but I can’t remember that.
It is when you are so laid up and the slightest walk is hugely challenging – despite the daily painkiller dose – that you realise the utter folly of being overweight. So that was the second insight I had, after discovering an innovative way of torture. To get somebody to drastically reduce weight, get him a back problem. He will then consider eating a curse, and losing every kilo – making locomotion a wee bit easier – his prime goal. Amazing how those engaged with the challenge of finding motivational aids for the cure of the global obesity epidemic have not thought of this. Engineer an honest-to-goodness backache, and gluttony will go out of the window!
The ultimate disappointment came when I was able to get up and walk a little. Always move around with a belt to support the lower back, the doctor had prescribed. How many times can you put on and take off the cumbersome belt, having to work all its buckles, so as to get up or lie down a bit? And the belt gives you such a comic stance that you feel like a wooden toy soldier wound up and released on the floor to amuse a child.
But there is a bright side to every bad back. Days of eating little and moving less had had their impact on me. This, plus the belt, made our daughter observe after a few days: Baba, your paunch is down and your posture is better; you should use your corset regularly! A bad back and a flatter tummy make strange bedfellows; but what choice do you have when you have your back to the wall — or on the bed?