Americans baffled by Modi’s Navratri fasts

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WASHINGTON: When US President Barack Obama greeted India’s new Prime Minister- Narendra Modi at a private dinner hosted in his honour at the Blue Room of the White House on Monday night, the dinner was a delectable spread of dishes, but the main guest only had warm water as he was observing Navratri fasts. 

In a feast fit for a king, the White House rolled out a mouth-watering spread comprising of compressed avocados, crisped halibut, saffron basmati rice and salmon, apart from mango creme brûlée as part of the dinner menu.

“The Prime Minister did not have anything except for warm water,” External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Syed Akabruddin said. 

Five days into his fast, that’s almost 120 hours for Mr. Modi to subsist on only hot water without a morsel of food- not even lemon juice he was initially reported to be drinking. This has obviously baffled many in America with sceptics wondering whether Mr. Modi really is totally off all kinds of food. What about a few Snickers bars at the bottom of his suitcase, joked one American businessman. But aides and officials around Mr. Modi swear they have not seen him have a single bite. One official who has seen him at close quarters for long said he was not surprised. “He has done it for nearly 40 years. Besides, women in India do this all the time. What’s the big deal?” he asked.

Chidanand Rajghatta reporting for the TOI says, how the Prime Minister is pulling off this feat and the physiology involved is something that deserves to be studied, because Narendra Modi has been on a rigorous, almost tear-away schedule in the US that can burn-out a younger, fitter man chowing down good, healthy, regular meals. And he’s doing that after a jet-lag-inducing journey that long-distance flight veterans can tell you fatigues the mind.

Some 36 meetings and events in five days is what was on the original schedule, including energy sapping public rallies like the one in Central Park and Madison Square Garden over the weekend. That did not account for numerous unscheduled meetings. On Saturday, for instance, New Jersey governor Chris Christie dropped by at the hotel, for an unscheduled meeting that lasted over half an hour. Then there were school friends from Mehsana district, Gujarat.

These were not one-way meetings during which he just listens and nods. He engages. Governor Christie and he exchanged notes about disaster management. Mayor Blasio and he discussed crowd control (with Modi talking about Kumbh Mela). With is Gujarati friends, he laughed and joked while posing for photographs. In one half-hour meeting, he wasn’t even seen sipping the water in front of him.

Typically Rajghatta writes, this is the time, experts say, the medical process of ketosis sets in- when the body starts to break down ketones from fatty tissues to use as fuel, instead of the usual glucose from the carbs we consume.

There was a time when ketosis was considered a critical response to fasting, but more recently researchers have said that depending on the individual, the body is resilient enough to subsist on little or nothing, perhaps up to three weeks in cases of water fasting. In fact, in recent years, many low-carb, high protein dieters go on such burn-the-fat binge-fasting- also known as muscle sparing, to lose weight.

What is less well chronicled is the effect of such fasting on the functioning of the mind. As anyone who has skipped a meal or two in a day can attest, an empty stomach is not the best friend of a cool head or clear thinking. Typically, those who undertake fasts go into a low metabolic state, avoiding vigorous activity and quietly settling into a restful state.

However, Narendra Modi has defied convention by simply NOT doing that. Instead he has stretched the limits by going all guns blazing into fifth gear on full throttle with a very ambitious schedule packed with demanding engagements.

Despite his fast, and a breakneck intense schedule, at the UN general assembly, Modi delivered his speech in a voice that was strong and resonant. Ditto Central Park, where he spoke in English, exhibiting impressive clarity and timbre. And by the time he reached the top item on his agenda, the meeting with President Obama, his cabinet members and US lawmakers in Washington DC, Mr. Modi is still carrying on and holding forth on an invisible reserve of energy baffling those unfamiliar with him.

“May the force be with you,” he had wished the Central Park crowd in a charming show of StarWars familiarity last week. The Force is certainly with Narendra Modi.

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