It was 1958, my father was still a child, and India was running out of food.
That year’s wheat crop had slumped by 15 percent, the rice harvest by 12 percent, and prices in the markets were soaring. Far from his village in eastern India, ships laden with wheat were steaming toward the country, part of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s plan to sell surplus grains, tobacco and dairy products to friendly countries. All India Radio gave daily updates on the convoys, and the army barricaded ports in Mumbai and Kolkata against the hungry crowds.
“It was this very coarse, red wheat,” said Narsingh Deo Mishra, a childhood friend of my father’s and now a local politician in their home village. “We were told it was meant for American pigs,” said Mishra, who, like my father, grew up listening to stories about the food shipments. “Back then, we weren’t any better than American pigs. So we ate it. We ate it all and we begged for more.”
That year, and the hungry ones that followed, took their toll. At 18, my father, Dinesh, weighed about 40 kilograms -- just under 90 pounds -- and in a photograph taken at the time, his cheeks are sunken, his Adam’s apple prominent and his eyes bulge from a gaunt skull.
India is now a generation removed from those “ship-to-mouth” days, even though those words today still bring back memories of national humiliation. Less than 2 percent of Indians now go without two square meals a day, and far fewer still die of starvation.
And yet, in places like my father’s home village of Auar, an insidious malnourishment has taken the place of empty stomachs. The vast majority of Indians, especially villagers, are suspended in a nutritional purgatory -- they eat enough to fill their stomachs; not enough to stay healthy.
More than five decades after those U.S. deliveries, I returned to the dusty, hot village of my father’s childhood, hoping to understand why.
In the arc of modern India’s elemental struggle to feed its teeming people, my father’s childhood years were among the toughest. After squandering an early opportunity offered by record-low grain prices to build up stockpiles, by the time my father was a child, the country was again falling prey to the vicissitudes of drought and flood that had foreshadowed famines for centuries. India was poor, foreign currency scarce and the fields had yet to be sowed with hybrid seeds and enriched with chemical fertilizers.
As my father grew into his teens and early adulthood, India began to gain the upper hand in that struggle -- a Green Revolution had taken hold in agriculture, enabling the country first to feed itself and, later, to sell its grain on global markets. Masked by those victories, something was going horribly wrong. In the early 1970s, the number of calories the average Indian ate began rolling backward.
In 1973, villagers ate just under 2,300 calories a day, according to the National Sample Survey Office, a branch of the ministry of statistics. By 2010, that number had dropped to about 2,020, compared with the government floor of 2,400 a day to qualify for food aid. The mismatch manifests itself in some of the world’s worst scorecards for health: half of all children under three weigh too little for their age; eight in 10 are anemic.
Some of the causes are clear: corruption, incompetence and official indifference mean a decade-long economic boom and bumper harvests have failed to nourish millions of children doomed to stunted, shortened lives; record stockpiles of grain rot in warehouses; supplies meant for the poor are stolen, sold in local markets, even overseas. As much as $14.5 billion in food was looted by corrupt politicians from my father’s state of Uttar Pradesh alone, according to court documents, interviews with rights workers, government anti-graft investigators and local officials, and testimony from a whistleblower who said he was involved in the scam.
Some causes are more subtle: bureaucratic barriers that stop families getting the free rations they are entitled to; shrinking access to land and forests to grow or gather food; the rising unpredictability of agricultural work.
During months of reporting on India’s malnutrition scourge, I spoke almost daily to my father, who had long since escaped the village and now runs a national scientific research center in Kolkata. His childhood held lessons for me, I suspected, on the habits and mindsets of the rural poor, and the reasons why the bountiful harvests of Indian fields are denied to the very farmers who produce them.
So, this June, I drove about 800 kilometers (500 miles) southeast from New Delhi to Auar, deep in the heart of Uttar Pradesh state. The local district of Pratapgarh is among the poorest 200 of 640 in the country, according to the government.
I’d been to the village before -- first as a child, and again in 2000, when I was getting ready to leave for college in Virginia. My father, who wanted me to remember my family’s origins, stood out from cousins and old friends in his starched white shirt and tailored trousers, no longer comfortable sitting cross-legged in the dust.
He pointed out the few reminders from his childhood -- the elementary school built, according to family legend, with the proceeds from a single gold coin saved by a great-granduncle during years of toil in Burma in the 1920s; the brick additions made to the mud house that belonged to my grandfather. By then, the house was falling apart, emptied of family now living in cities and scattered across India.
This time, I set up camp outside, sleeping on a borrowed cot under the mango trees my father climbed as a child. For the next two weeks, I walked the dry, barren fields of the village, parched and expectant for the rains that this year, at least, never fully came.
And for those two weeks I ate what the average poor and landless Indian villager could afford.
In some ways, Auar has kept pace with modern India.
About 400 of the village’s 2,000-or-so residents carry mobile phones, according to the local merchant who offered a recharging service for the equivalent of about 20 cents, using car batteries he carried on the back of his bicycle. Some 60 motorbikes could be seen parked outside houses.
Auar is also connected to the power grid, and every other day the electricity poles would hum and spark for a couple of hours, bringing life to the television in the small village store and to a handful of tube-wells that irrigate the fields of wealthier farmers. It was a luxury, nonetheless, since about 400 million Indians have no access to electricity at all.
In other ways, Auar is unchanged from my father’s time. It took dozens of agonizing cranks on a hand pump to fill each bucket of water; every act of nature required a 15-minute walk to a field where pigs rooted around weeks-old feces.
In 38 of the 40 households I visited, I could count the ribs of the teenagers and note the distended bellies and loose, stretchy skin on the toddlers, the first and most obvious symptoms of a diet sufficient in calories but lacking in protein. Doctors called this form of malnourishment kwashiorkor when it was first reported in 1935 from Ghana, taking the local word for the illness a child gets when it is weaned too early because of the arrival of a new baby.
In Auar, the villagers had no name for it.
Ninety-two percent of Indian mothers hadn’t heard or didn’t understand the Hindi or local-language terms for malnourishment, a 2011 survey of 100 districts with the worst child development indicators found. If every child in a village is malnourished, the survey concluded, then every mother assumes her own child is normal.
I tracked down Ghanshyam, the son of a laborer who had worked about 2 acres (0.8 hectare) of land my grandfather owned. My father remembers that the laborer’s wife would pick up the rare scraps of food left behind from our family’s dinner, and take them home for her sons.
‘Never Left Enough’
“She would whisper to me to take larger servings and leave something for her children,” said my father recently, when I was prodding him for buried memories. “Even now, I feel guilty -- I never left enough.”
Rakesh, my oldest uncle, would leave as much as he could, my father told me. “But I was young, I didn’t really think.”
When I first met Ghanshyam, he took me to his one-roomed mud and straw hut in the center of the village. Dressed in a torn shirt and lungi -- a cloth wrapped around his waist -- and barefoot, it was unclear whether he was from the same brood of children who grew up with my father. He couldn’t tell me his age -- too young to recall, as my father did, the school holiday to commemorate a visit by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1956; not too young to remember the short-lived friendship of India and China turning into a border dispute six years later.
Ghanshyam, to me, embodied India’s poor and malnourished -- he owned no land, except for the plot on which his hut stood. His body racked with the tuberculosis that infects 2 million Indians every year, he scrabbled for work on the fields of those who did own their land, making between $2.50 and $3.50 a day.
When strong enough, he told me, he would hitch a ride from a passing truck and head for Pratapgarh city in search of construction work paying as much as $3.75 a day. On other days, Ghanshyam would wait for villagers to come find him for odd-jobs. One afternoon, a neighbor paid him $1.50 to build a small roof. Once, he spent four or five hours helping to clear a field of weeds and stones. He made 80 cents that day.
In recent weeks, Ghanshyam had found only a few days’ work in total: the monsoon was late, so there was little to be done in the fields; construction had slowed in anticipation of those same rains that are the life-force of rural India.
Left for City
With that meager income, Ghanshyam supported his wife, Urmila, two teenaged sons and the wife of an older son who I never saw. When I asked what happened to his eldest, Ghanshyam looked away. Urmila, a quiet woman who rarely spoke to me unless her husband was nearby, later told me the son had gone to a city to look for work and never returned. He left behind two infant boys -- more mouths to feed on the days they didn’t spend at their maternal grandparents.
Every evening, I would give Ghanshyam about 50 cents --last year the government set that amount as the daily poverty line above which Indians no longer qualify for food aid. In exchange, his wife included me in their meals the next day.
In the mornings, we drank small cups of watery tea with milk, sweetened with a nugget of jaggery -- made from unrefined cane sugar. In the afternoons, we each ate three rotis, a heavy, unleavened bread, dipping them into a thin gruel of lentils and spice called dal. At night, before walking over to their home, I used a stick to shake a few sour mangoes from the trees. Urmila boiled them in the dal to add flavor, pouring the mixture over some boiled rice.
Meat, Fish, Eggs
It had been a year, at least, since Ghanshyam last ate meat, eight months since he was able to catch fish in the village river, and six since he had had an egg, he told me.
Later, when I showed photographs of the meals to Rachita Singh, a nutritionist at the Saket Max Hospital in New Delhi, she estimated they would provide about 1,700 to 1,800 calories a day.
This diet, heavy in cereals and other carbohydrate-based calories, is what most rural Indians eat. In 2010, 64 percent of the calories consumed by villagers came from cereals, about 9 percent from oils and fats, less than 5 percent each from sugar and pulses like the lentils we ate. Fruit and vegetables, meat, eggs and fish together made up about 2.5 percent, according to studies of meals across rural India by the statistics ministry.
So far, experts have mostly argued over possible reasons for India’s worsening diet, without reaching a conclusion; Abhijit Banerjee, an economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Poverty Action Lab once described it to me as the “million-dollar question.”
‘Slice of Mango’
Life in an Indian village has always been hard, even though my father remains nostalgic for childhood there. Over the past decade he wrote and published short stories about his childhood, mostly in the literary section of Kolkata’s English-language newspaper, The Statesman. He scoured his memory -- and his fantasies -- for details and, in a story dedicated to the family mango trees I now found myself sleeping under, described his dinners:
“The stories would continue till mother was ready with thick chapatis of bajra (millet) and a curry of new potatoes and urad dal (dark lentils) with a lot of ghee (clarified butter) and saag of either mustard or bathua (a leafy vegetable), and of course two or three types of mango pickles,” he wrote in a “A Slice of Mango.”
That description of a rich and varied diet always felt at odds to me with the reality of what Indians in his era ate. When I finally asked if that was really a true picture, his answer was the saddest thing he ever told me.
“That is how it ought to have been.”
Auar, like most Indian villages I have visited, is actually a collection of hamlets scattered around a central body of water, usually a deep well or two. In Auar, life centered on what the villagers generously called the river. More of a rivulet, it was too small to show up on my maps.
Sluggish and dirty when I visited at the end of the dry season, it served a multitude of purposes along the narrow stretch that ran past the village. Upriver, where the water was thought to be cleaner, children would do back flips and women brought their laundry, the gentle slapping of wet cloth on stones filling the air. Early in the mornings, the few households that owned a buffalo or cow would bring them for a bath. Downriver from the village, past a quick bend, the bank was a squelching, stinking open toilet.
The hamlets, called bastis, were segregated mostly by caste or religion. Others were settlements of five or six huts belonging to members of the same family. Sixty-two years after India’s first constitution declared caste discrimination illegal, the system still dictates the daily lives and constrains opportunities for hundreds of millions of people.
My first day in the village, I was taken to the upper-caste basti to meet the village headman, a tall, broad-chested Brahmin named Vinod Upadhyay. I wanted him to know I would be living in the village, and asking questions. He offered me a plastic chair outside his two-story brick house, where a shiny motorcycle stood next to an electric water pump. A servant brought out tea and biscuits.
After my first sip, I asked Upadhyay why he wasn’t joining me.
“When I eat with lower castes, it disagrees with my stomach,” he answered nonchalantly in Hindi.
My father’s family, of a middling caste called the Kayastha, was perched somewhere in the center -- we had neither the land nor privileges of the Brahmins, but were spared the humiliating poverty of the lowest castes. Our hamlet reflected that; in old photographs my father took during trips back to his village, the mud hut has started to take the shape of a house -- a small brick addition in the early 1970s, another expansion in the early 1980s. Our neighbor was a distant cousin, his neighbor another cousin, and our hamlet about a 10-minute walk from Ghanshyam’s, where the huts were smaller, packed closer together, sharing a single hand-pumped well.
At the bottom of the pile was the basti for the lowest caste Hindus and Muslim washermen. The houses were sometimes no more than straw and wood held together by rope; a thick, sludgy open sewer -- more a rut in the land, filled with dirty water and feces -- oozed past them.
A paved road, built in the past five years or so, ran alongside the hamlets, connecting them to a small highway town called Shankarganj, a blink-and-you-miss-it highway pit stop with a few shops selling bottled soft drinks and stale biscuits. On Saturdays, a vegetable bazaar would set up around 3 p.m. and appeared to be the social highlight of the week.
My life in the village quickly fell into a pattern that in many ways has remained unchanged for centuries.
Rising with the sun, my stomach already growling with hunger, I would seek a secluded spot in which to empty my slowly cramping bowels. With little running water, and almost no indoor toilets, entire fields were open latrines. Women rose earlier still, defecating in the dark in the hopes of some privacy. Open defecation is a national crisis for some 665 million Indians, soiling water and food supplies, and a major contributor to the spread of pathogens that kill about 1,000 children a day from diarrhea, hepatitis and other diseases.
I’d bathe under a tube-well pipe, pumping with one hand while trying to rub myself clean. At Ghanshyam’s home, his wife would already be burning some dry twigs to boil our morning tea. Before the sun rose too high, I would accompany Ghanshyam on his search for work.
One morning, we hitched a ride to Pratapgarh city, joining a group of day laborers waiting at a traffic intersection to be picked for work. Those with obvious skills -- the painters with their brushes and cans of turpentine, the carpenters and their tools -- were chosen first. Last were people like Ghanshyam, who had little to offer but their strength. I followed him to where about 20 men were working on the foundations for a family home. My offer to labor was refused -- my city clothes, tinted glasses and well-fed frame betrayed me as an outsider.
I watched Ghanshyam carry bricks for an hour, his pace slacking as the sun climbed. By 10 a.m., the temperature was 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.9 degrees Celsius). When the foreman yelled at Ghanshyam for being too slow, I took his place. We dug ditches and broke bricks to mix in the mortar. It had been a week since I had migrated to the village diet, and by noon, I was exhausted. The men around me had withered too, their movements slower, their ribs glistening in the sun.
Ghanshyam opened a lunch box, and we ate onions and rotis. We had drunk the dal while waiting to be picked for work.
The temperature had climbed to 118, and the workers talked the foreman -- cursing and complaining -- into letting them rest in the shade a half-hour longer. For two more hours, Ghanshyam and I took turns laboring. Finally, at 4 p.m., the foreman handed out the wages: Ghanshyam pocketed $1.75 for both of us; the other men earned $2.20. Ghanshyam’s tuberculosis had slowed him down too much; I had done little to help.
Working with Ghanshyam reminded me of a home-building project I’d volunteered for a few months ago in Delhi organized by non-profit Habitat for Humanity. I’d started off my day enthusiastically passing bricks in a human chain to colleagues. Within hours, back aching and tired, I abandoned the effort, soaking up the New Delhi metro’s air conditioning on the ride back home.
My diet in India’s capital and the sedentary lifestyle of a financial journalist hadn’t prepared me for building houses -- not for Habitat for Humanity and not to help Ghanshyam. As a member of the small, urban middle class, I ate close to what the average American does -- more than 2,500 calories on most days, close to 3,000 when I ordered in pizza, washed down with Coca-Cola.
In the village, the cereal-laden meals sat heavy in my stomach, and I felt less hungry than I had imagined I would. The most obvious impact was a constant sense of lethargy -- I moved more slowly and took longer to recover from short bursts of labor, like at the construction site. My weight dropped by about 5 pounds in the two weeks I lived there.
In the evenings, my phone would light up around 7 with a text message from Papa John’s, the U.S. pizza chain that had recently opened a branch in Delhi. For $11 -- or 22 times the government’s poverty line -- I could order the medium pepperoni and cheese pizza I’d been dreaming about, except Papa John’s would deliver it to my air-conditioned apartment in a posh Delhi suburb, not to this sweaty, hungry corner of India.
In 2009, economists Angus Deaton and Jean Dreze wrote a paper arguing that the reason Indians were consuming fewer calories today than in the 1980s was that they needed fewer calories. Poor Indians now had bicycles and fell sick less often, they said, and that might solve the puzzle that has confounded economists studying Indian nutrition -- falling calorie counts at a time of rising real incomes.
Economists have seen this trend twice before, according to Deaton and Dreze -- in post-Mao China in the 1980s and 1990s, and in Industrial Revolution Britain, from 1775 to 1850.
Before I left for the village, I called Deaton, who teaches at Princeton University. He was irritated that my questions focused only on calories -- the environment in which those calories were consumed and burned, and the manual labor the person had to endure were equally important, if not more so.
“I am not saying, for instance, that Indians are well-nourished,” he said. “What I am saying is that the fact that they are eating fewer calories doesn’t mean anything unless you know more about the rest of their lives.”
Following Ghanshyam around, I was less convinced that Deaton’s explanation was the right one. Neither are Deepankar Basu and Amit Basole, two University of Massachusetts economists. In a draft paper last month they found that while Indian incomes have gone up, a rise in spending on other essential items -- such as healthcare and transportation --meant the amount of money left over for food has remained stagnant at a time of high inflation.
There is little data to show that Indians have moved into less physically strenuous jobs -- India has yet to experience the kind of industrial revolution seen in large parts of China that has freed an entire generation from the fields. Sixty-nine percent of the nation’s 1.2 billion people still live in the countryside, against 49 percent of China’s 1.3 billion.
‘Poor, Slowly Worsening’
The lives of Ghanshyam and other villagers in Auar seemed beyond what 1,700 calories or even the government recommended minimum intake of 2,400 calories could sustain. India’s state medical research council says workers doing moderate or heavy labor need 2,730 to 3,490 calories.
I had picked Auar because it allowed me a glimpse into how little had changed in rural India since my father was young, in spite of a five-decade gap during which India became a food-surplus nation. By almost every measure, Auar fits the national averages for nutrition -- poor, and slowly worsening.
After some advances in the lead-up to the early 1990s, malnourishment rates in India appear to be stuck. Forty-six percent of children under three were malnourished in 2005, the last time a nationwide survey was carried out, compared with 47 percent the decade before. Twenty-one percent of Indian adults are malnourished, against 17 percent 10 years earlier. If lives had gotten less strenuous, and living environments healthier, then shouldn’t those rates have dropped? Deaton agreed that the latest data were puzzling.
To be fair, while India has struggled to improve nutrition for the entire country, it has largely managed to eradicate starvation deaths. Also, as India hasn’t counted its malnourished in seven years, Ghanshyam and the rest of Auar may be outliers in a sea of improvement.
Stoned in Heat
Most days, Ghanshyam never found work. We would lie in the shade, stoned in the heat. We moved as little as we could, stirring only to swat away flies and move our cots with the shadows. Soon after sundown, the darkness was complete, and almost everybody would head to sleep.
I’d walk back to the ruins of my father’s old house, and imagine his childhood.
In the stories he published, my father recreates a bucolic life interrupted by misfortune -- disease, the curses of slighted gypsy women, ghosts and poachers. The stories echo his own childhood. He survived smallpox, his body still scarred from the near-death experience. A sister, born underweight and listless, died of malnourishment at six months old. She had been named Munni; Hindi for “our little girl.”
In 1964, my grandfather landed a job as a conductor for state-owned Indian Railways, moving the entire family -- my grandmother, three sons (two more came later) and three daughters -- to the city of Allahabad in eastern Uttar Pradesh. In socialist India, a government job was perhaps the only way out of poverty. My grandfather leveraged his accomplishment with a relentless focus on educating his sons.
That urge was a relic of our caste beginnings. Without large tracts of land to cultivate, Kayasthas in Uttar Pradesh and the neighboring state of Bengal became a caste of peons -- clerks, bookkeepers, minor functionaries for the local maharajahs. That emphasis on being able to read and write has left an imprint throughout my family’s known history -- the great grand-uncle who spent his life’s savings to build the primary school my father studied in, and which still educates the village’s children.
Hardship hadn’t ended with the move to city living, nor with the ballooning shipments of American grain. Even as U.S. exports of wheat surged from nothing in 1954 to 4 million tons by 1960, intermittent floods and drought meant hunger remained a menacing presence. Money the U.S. loaned or granted back to the Indian government from the wheat sales failed to find its way into better irrigation, storage or roads.
In the markets, food remained unreliable. Droughts in the mid-1960s pushed prices far beyond my grandfather’s income. New to the city, my father and his brothers stood in lines outside ration shops to get rice and wheat. Often, he remembers, the shops would run out of supplies before their turn.
At 14, my father had won a National Merit Scholarship, an Indian government program designed to help poor, talented students in villages pay for their high school and early college educations. The promised monthly stipend did not come till four years later, by then my father was a student at Allahabad University.
By the time my father was 16, escape was near. Higher-yielding hybrid seeds, modern fertilizers and improved irrigation meant famines were becoming a relic of India’s past.
End of the Beginning
At 19, he read an advertisement in a newspaper for a job in Mumbai with the government’s science and research programs. He clipped out the ad and stowed away on a train, in much the same way as millions of migrants still seek out a better life in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore today. The interview went well, and he landed a job that allowed him to earn a PhD in nuclear physics at the same time.
For my father, the years of lining up for food rations were over. His older brother, who studied engineering, had gotten a job with the government of Uttar Pradesh, and their combined incomes paid for the education of their younger brothers and the weddings of their sisters. Looking through my grandmother’s old trunks this summer, I found stacks of receipts from the postal service checks that my father sent home -- the first was in 1971 -- each with a short faded note to his family, including my favorite, an admonishment to stop pressuring him to get married.
That final leap, from poverty to lower-middle class, was repeated by each of my uncles -- the three remaining brothers also became engineers. My cousins and I were born into families that could easily afford food, and the deprivation of Auar became a memory, best forgotten and rarely discussed.
And yet, at family reunions, it is clear that childhood hunger stalked them into adulthood.
My cousins and I tower over our uncles -- I am four inches (10 centimeters) taller than my father, six inches taller than my mother. One cousin was an amateur boxer in the Indian Navy, another passed the rigorous physical training required to join the Indian intelligence service and is posted in the Himalayas. A single generation of good nutrition catapulted us into the top 10 percent of Indians for height and health.
Deaton, the Princeton economist, pointed out that in healthy countries, the average adult height increases by about a centimeter every 10 years -- Scandinavians have grown by just that rate since 1950.
Indians have managed to grow at half that pace -- it would take us more than 200 years to reach the five-foot, 8-inch average height of an American male in 2006.
While the single generation of good nutrition that my cousins and I lived through separates us from our parents, it also separates us from the national averages. In Auar, I felt like a giant, stooping through doorways, my feet dangling over the edge of my borrowed cot.
At dusk, I would walk with Ghanshyam along the borders of the village.
Ghanshyam, with me at least, is a quiet man, miserly with his words. He had resisted my attempts to get him to share more than his most basic thoughts. One night, when I asked him about his favorite meal, he suddenly opened up. He told me he had been happiest when planning his eldest son’s wedding. As the groom’s father, he was the most important guest, and he described at length the dinner thrown by the girl’s family.
“Mutton korma, chicken curry, fish curry, naan, saag paneer (spinach cooked in cottage cheese), pulao,” he listed, along with the desserts -- a sweetened rice pudding called kheer; jalebis, which are sweet, fried dough; and ice-cream.
On my last day in the village, I drove to Pratapgarh and had a restaurant pack up that exact meal. That night, under the mango trees, I threw a small banquet for Ghanshyam’s family and that of his neighbors.
Thirteen of us sat under the biggest tree, and in the light from my car’s headlights, Ghanshyam and I shared a small bottle of local liquor made from a flower called mahua he had brought for the occasion. He laughed when I spat out my first sip, and I noticed for the first time that he had no teeth except for the front row.
About an hour after dinner, as I packed my gear for the trip back to Delhi, I heard a rustling behind me. I thought it was a stray dog going through the empty plates and Styrofoam boxes, and I turned on my flashlight to scare it away.
Instead, the beam lit up Ghanshyam’s wife. She’d come back, she said, for the chicken bones I’d thrown away. For a family too poor to buy meat, even boiled-up bones make a valuable addition to the diet.
“With some spices, it will taste just like chicken curry,” she said.