Hallucinations about death by chocolate
In the week of World Diabetes Day, a former sweet junkie posts a confession about addiction, acceptance, fighting familial pressure and how she flipped to being sugar-free
I have always had an intense and emotional relationship with everything sweet. I blame it on my Bengali genes and socio-cultural conditioning. It probably started with my great grandmother introducing the ritual of placing a bowl of two small roshogolla next to my bed every day. Afternoon naps were meant to end on a sweet note, she reasoned. I was hooked. So much so, that during a family trip to Srinagar, I drove everyone up the wall with my demand for "rosso". My grandfather went all over Srinagar to find a suitable substitute.
If you are a Bengali, such stories earn you the affection and admiration of peers. A sweet tooth is a marker of cultural identity and pride. And denial and defiance are the weapons brandished liberally in the community against diabetes. Walk into any sweet shop, and you are likely to meet exactly the kind of people who are not supposed to be anywhere near a roshogolla.
There was a time when I spent long, stressful hours in a tabloid newsroom. Every day, at a certain time, my body would be wrecked with a sudden and inexplicable craving for something sweet. My genetic memory would mess with my mind, telling me that all I need to stay afloat, meet deadlines and emerge victorious, was a dessert. Just a tiny piece maybe, but a pretty looking one. Every day, I'd call for a Philly cheese cake, a doughnut filled with sweet custard, a strawberry tart or chocolate mousse. The box would sit next to my computer till the end, telling the world all they needed to know about my anxieties. Tougher the day, sweeter the treat inside.
Occasionally it would be a jalebi, laddoo, ghevar, Mysore pak, sandesh. When you work in a city like Mumbai, in a mutli-cultural office with a bunch of the sweetest colleagues, afternoon snacks tend to become a celebration. It was a senior colleague pointed out, that I may be craving a sweet out of emotional dependence. And that untamable sweet craving may have also had something to do with the sweet ritual of my childhood. My body was still looking for a roshogolla at that time of the day. I knew then, I was an addict. Mishti, or sweet, was my crack.
I would have continued living in defiance and denial. Until one day, my mother slipped into coma induced by hypoglycemia. We realised, to our horror, that she was diabetic and the condition had remained undetected. Just like her father who succumbed to diabetes at 65. As I nursed her back from the brink of no return, I began to come to terms with the inevitable. If my genes made me vulnerable to a sweet addiction, I was also the next in line for diabetes.
Despite the few near fatal brushes with hypoglycemia, my mother continued to live in defiance. She still reaches out for jalebis at breakfast. She loves her potatoes. Her refrigerator is always stuffed with chocolates and candies. Her doctor, someone she swears by for obvious reasons, has told her that she can eat everything her heart desires. In moderation. My mother, like the good Bengali, has conveniently edited the caveat from her life.
Late last year, after a particularly nasty health scare with her, I decided to give up the one thing that mattered most to my mother. If my she could not give it up, I had to bear that cross, I told myself.
I got a battery of tests done. And I was diagnosed as pre-diabetic with marginally high cholesterol.
I knew I had to go cold turkey. But I did not know how. In a knee jerk reaction, I severed my lifelong ties with everything sweet. My body cried out in agony—it had been denied of water, oxygen. And it would not let me be. I became cranky, obsessing over food and hallucinated about death by chocolate.
I started training my mind. Every time I passed by a sweet shop, patisserie or had sudden midnight craving, I closed my eyes and revisited that long night when I held my mother's head in my lap and prayed for her life. It was enough to keep me motivated. I knew that if I managed to survive the first month, I would be okay.
Eventually, I began to plan my food intake better. It was not only diabetes that I had to take care of. I was overweight by 12 kilos and needed to get my good cholesterols activated.
"Nothing out of a packet," was the family mantra. No maida biscuits, no sliced bread, no pastries, chocolates and deep fried sweets and savouries. I began to read food labels and realised "no added sugar" was not always what it seemed.
Not just sweets, I had also given up on potatoes, a huge challenge. Culturally, sweets and potatoes play a big part in our lives. Potatoes—boiled, mashed, fried, curried, toasted, is comfort food for us. It is the vada in the pav, the masala in the dosa and the life of the samosa. There is no Bengali dish that is complete without the addition of potatoes, making it all the more difficult to remain on course with my new food life.
But six months of penance later, I began to feel healthier. I made sure I had enough physical exercise for an hour five days a week, started my day with almonds (discovered and relished the inherent sweetness of almonds) and oats (not instant but hand rolled or steel cut), ate one serving of any fruit a day, snacked on apples and walnuts. I have my good carbs in the morning and make sure I balance it all out with enough healthy protein. And I have discovered the power of a good nutritious salad without any of the exotic gourmet ingredients you buy from a posh store.
My sweet tooth also made me particularly fond of gourmet coffees. Ever since I began working from cafés, I had given in to the seduction of creamy, sweet coffees. Since I also had to lower my cholesterol levels, I had to do serious research into the kind of coffee that was permissible.
That's where it got complicated. There are a hundred different ways of brewing coffee, I found out, and not all of them healthy. But I think I have found my cup—pour over with a paper filter, no sugar no dairy. The paper filter and the pour-over technique traps the oils that create bad cholesterol. You can add a dash of cinnamon to make it healthier and more flavourful.
It is an acquired taste. But I like it. And since I have only one cup a day, I want it to be perfect. Just like my tea. A lovely caramel or champagne shade, untouched by milk or sugar.
After being a sugar addict for 44 years, when you decide to go sugar free, it makes you a different person. In some cultures, you will be a social pariah. They will tell you that you have betrayed your roots. You lose the right to call yourself a Bengali, if you give up on sweets. But I have learned to live with that. Especially now that I have managed to knock off nine kilos and some of the bad cholesterol as well, hopefully I will be able to keep diabetes at bay.
On rare occasions, I do give in to the craving or something nice, just as a reward for my efforts. I have begun to appreciate the French way of life. If we dine out as a family, and someone orders a celebratory dessert, I pick up my spoon, scoop up a tiny bit and put it into my mouth gently. I close my eyes and savour every bit of the sweet sensation. I feel deliriously, ridiculously happy and it keeps me going for a long, long time. Going off processed foods and sugars has served to cleanse my palate in many ways. I am now more responsive to natural flavours—yogurt tastes better just as it is, apples are now a favourite snack, green guavas, leafy greens, grilled fish, carrots…there is suddenly a smorgasbord of textures and tastes to be enjoyed.
The only person who is not happy is my mother. Hopefully, one day, she will understand that it is possible to disengage your emotions from your sweets.
Percentage of the world's diabetic population in India according to 2017 statistics
The writer is an independent journalist, author and editor
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