Meet the chef without a stomach
A tumour took her tummy, but not her appetite for life. Food blogger Natasha Diddee on having to give up her "unladylike" sleeping ways, eating for "greed" now, and a taste for telling it like it is.
"I can literally say my eyes are bigger than my stomach."
It's the kind of tongue-in-cheek bon mot you come to expect as par for the course 10 minutes into a conversation with trained chef Natasha Diddee, who - apart from being chock-full of witty one-liners - isn't exaggerating: she literally has no stomach.
Better known as The Gutless Foodie online, Natasha, who was in Dubai recently, adopted the all-too-real moniker after a tumour required that her stomach be removed in 2012. For five years before that, she suffered greatly, because none of the doctors could figure out why she was in constant pain. It was only when one of them decided to go in laparoscopically that he discovered the growth. The decision to remove it was taken immediately, while Natasha was still on the operating table. And now that it's being viewed in hindsight, this, too, is a story told with much humour.
"It was like a dramatic Hindi movie," narrates the Pune-based blogger. "The day I was getting operated upon, they were shooting a death scene for a Marathi movie in the hospital that involved a lot of crying. My husband had gone downstairs and didn't know there was a film shoot in progress - only that the doctors had said I might die on the table; that was the risk involved. As he came upstairs, he heard a woman crying who sounded just like my mum. What followed was complete chaos. He ended up ruining the entire set!"
At the time, however, Natasha had no idea - even after she woke up - that they'd taken out her stomach. "My parents had told the docs, 'She's a chef. Take out her lungs, kidney or heart, she won't blink; but tell her it's her stomach and she'll collapse!' So, the doctors decided to break it to me slowly," she recalls.
For more than a week, no one told her anything. "They were feeding me intravenously. Without a stomach, I wasn't hungry, so I only ate if I was greedy. After nine days, I spotted some cookies on the bedside table. My mum was in the washroom at the time, and I had no idea there were eating restrictions. I was about to bite into my second cookie when the doctor doing his morning rounds entered the room. He looked at me like I was holding a grenade without a pin. My mum, who'd also come in at about the same time, screamed. All kinds of machines were brought in. They didn't know where the food had gone. That's pretty much how I found out. It took me a long time to process the news."
Ask her about it today though, and the 45-year-old says she could not be more grateful.
Because, life lessons apart, it's not having a gut that's currently making her stand out in an endless sea of food bloggers. "I think I'm very blessed for losing my stomach," she says. "It's given me such a story, which my life wouldn't have had otherwise. That's how I look at it. I really believe in making the best of whatever situation you have, because that is your situation."
After the surgery
How do you eat? What do you eat? Can you eat? These questions - and their variations - are, very naturally, the first queries Natasha is plied with, when people hear her story for the first time. She is not perturbed by the inquisitiveness; on the contrary, she is happy to indulge the curious.
Because her food goes directly from food pipe to intestine now, Natasha goes through a severe form of dumping syndrome (which includes weakness and abdominal discomfort) if she eats too fast. She can't have anything too heavy either: only tiny portions at intervals. "I can't finish a full chicken breast in one meal. So, I'll eat half, then feel greedy in an hour and eat the other half," she says, noting that her new consumption patterns have been especially tricky to manage in restaurants, because she "eats two bites", then has to ask them to pack the rest. "Most of them panic because they know me as a chef who reviews restaurants and think I don't like the food!" she laments.
The self-confessed foodie can still eat everything, but tends to avoid things that don't sit well with her anymore - unless she's craving them mentally, of course. "I can't digest red meat or simple carbs. But I love rice and potatoes, so I'll have them once in a while. I usually don't feel good afterwards. I can't enjoy cooked cheese either, so pizza and risotto are out too."
Her entire lifestyle has been upended, but Natasha - who can never sleep flat on her back in her preferred "unladylike" poses again, but has to maintain a 60-degree angle in slumber or risk having juices come up painfully through her nose - still believes she's living better because of it. "I was 88kg at my heaviest - and I ate every gram of it," she quips. "I'm the person who used to check her weight without any clothes on, so that they wouldn't add to the number on the scales. Now, I'm finding it really hard to gain weight. I think it's much better that way around, though; my quality of life has greatly improved and I'm very content," says the chef, who weighs less than 50kg today.
'No stomach for lies'
The TedxTalks speaker may not have the "energy" to run a kitchen anymore, but that hasn't stopped her from putting up the most delectable Instagram posts - complete with recipes - on everything she whips up at home. It's simple, wholesome Indian food that has garnered a 94.6k-strong following. You'd think one of the side-effects of amassing a large social media audience is that you become less easy to flag down. Not this blogger, who has a personal philosophy she takes very seriously. "If someone has taken the time out of their finite lives to write to you, the least you can do is reply. I guess that's one of the reasons I have a large following: I write back."
It was a friend who created the account for her, back when the app was just making waves. Natasha, who declares herself tech-challenged, took a while to understand the significance of the blue tick next to her name, and what filters mean - but is thankful for a platform where she can connect with people. Her mantra is simple: "I want to be credible."
To that end, she's turned down multiple endorsement opportunities in the past ("Do you really think Bachchan is zipping around Juhu in a Vespa? Don't endorse things you don't believe in") and ruffled feathers in the industry for not 'following' her peers back on social media. "I don't have the 'stomach' for lies," she cracks. "I'm doing what I think is authentic in my life." She admits her lack of a filter doesn't always end well, but irreverent humour gets her by. "I'm horribly honest - it gets me into pickles, but. I like pickles, so it's okay."
Above all, she is determined to live, not exist. "I saw my parents age 10 years in two months with worry [when I was ill]. Now that I've been given this second chance, I want to make a go of it. Most people just exist. Like hamsters on a wheel. That's their circle of life. I could feel sorry for myself and stay in bed, or I could live. I'm determined to live very much in the present, because it's a gift."