The American novelist, John Cheever, once said, “I’ve been homesick for countries I’ve never been and longed to be where I couldn’t be.”
So is the state of my gastronomic patriotism. What can I say? I’m India-born. But I’ve never craved my own cuisine. I don’t even miss it.
When was the last time I cooked a pot of curry, or a dish that had minims of turmeric or cumin in it? I genuinely can’t remember. And outside the home, when did I order it at a restaurant? It must have around the time when we were still using Internet Explorer 5. Yes, that long ago.
In the more recent times, the closest I’ve come to having an elaborate ethnic meal is an abridged lunch of rice and chicken, a version of the Spanish paella, at a greasy spoon in Queens, New York. That was 2,190 days ago. Even more, perhaps. As I said, I don’t quite remember.
I haven’t gone back there. Not that the food was unpalatable, but because I’d walked in not out of conscious choice, but cold compulsion.
Earlier that hot afternoon, my BFF had felt dizzy with exhaustion. She hadn’t eaten all morning. As we were gallivanting in the bustling neighborhood, popping in and out of shops selling DVDs of Bollywood songs, grocery, sweetmeats, we felt she had to eat a bite, lest she fell into a hypoglycemic swoon.
I enjoy my meats and veggies and fruits, roasted, grilled, sautéed, tossed, or raw, but very rarely fried and almost never prepared by a process that might tempt the fire alarm to go off—an event that occurs, I presume, with an embarrassing regularity in a traditional Indian household.
So, you will understand when I say that Indian food, though familiar a fare, has lately, morphed into a refreshing novelty, of sorts. After all, that which you don’t consume daily is bound to have an air of newness about it, no?
Around Memorial Day, my BFF and I rode the 6 train to Lexington Avenue to give our rather cosmopolitan taste buds a jolt of spicy adventure. We looked forward to the quiet jollity of tearing a piece of bread or two, with our fingers and dipping it in a dollhouse-edition of piping-hot copper woks.
How did we end up going to Saravana Bhavan? My BFF came across it in her Facebook stream. A friend of hers had recently paid it a visit and was crowing about it. It might be relevant to state that the friend in question is a widely-traveled American—not Indian-American.
Instead of sifting through the reviews on Yelp or UrbanSpoon, she trotted over to the New York Times, where, perhaps she’d read more than she’d needed to. The über researcher that she is, she fished out a profile of its owner, a “gentleman” named Rajagopal, who hails from Chennai.
“Masala Dosa to Die For” painted a portrait of a figure not unlike that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who was, on one side, an astute businessman of gumption, who took patriarchal care of his employees, and on the other, an arch criminal, who’d served jail time in an Indian prison for murdering his girlfriend’s hubby.
The paper had followed up by polling its readers on whether they’d patronize his restaurant, knowing his nefarious history. Most didn’t care about that. They cared about the victuals.
My BFF asked me if I cared.
What vile side-alley of human experience this man had strayed into wasn’t my concern, I told her. Whether he kept a harem of eunuchs or flogged his wives or had asphyxiated a lascivious cousin, though profoundly shocking and distasteful, didn’t matter to me enough to shun his grub, which I’d gathered had earned a sterling reputation.
Saravana Bhavan was the world’s largest vegetarian restaurant chain that was also looking to set up shop in the swell metropolises of Frankfurt, Doha, London, Dallas, and Paris.
And so we went.
We located it with relative ease. Quite befitting its name—“bhavan,” in Hindi, means “mansion”—it declared its presence by an oversized sign.
The building it occupied, the color of gram flour, thrust itself onto the street and craned over a block of nondescript, single-storied curry houses, small and puny. It was drab, stodgy, and uninspiring. A knot of men, women, elders and kids milled about outside the entrance, possibly awaiting their turn to be seated. The place must have been busier than Mario trying to save Princess Peach.
On the opposite sidewalk, we were waiting for the pedestrian signal to change when I remarked a “B,” in bold, light-green lettering, ogling from the glass-window pane. The light turned from red to silver, but we kept standing where we were.
What had abruptly changed our minds was the letter, not the proprietor’s past dark deeds. Where others saw nothing, I saw filth and infestation.
At least, once a year, a food safety inspector from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene performs unannounced inspections of every restaurant and rates them on the level of their hygiene. A “B,” roughly translates into unclean.
We walked desultorily and somewhat dispiritedly, back along the path we’d come, along a stretch of eateries owned and run by an Indian, a Bangladeshi, or a Pakistani restaurateur. One menu melted into the one next to it.
They advertised staid staples, not exceptionally appetizing or singularly vanilla. They conjured the everyday dinner of a middle class, joint family, hunched around a cheap formica table, heads cocked to a shrill soap, playing on a 32-inch plasma screen TV.
We’d planned on feasting on dosa (which the Oxford English dictionary defines as “a pancake made from rice flour and ground pulses, typically served with a spiced vegetable filling) and so we stuck to it. On the first door we saw an “A,” we walked through.
We’d stepped inside the mouth of a cave. No maître d with a starched collar. No hostess in pencil heels. A server was doing a quick once-over of the floor with an old broom. They might as well have told us to naff off. A few garçons putzed around like perambulatory billboards, “Got Dosa,” printed in black, on their uniforms. They couldn’t be more original, could they?
Colored, wire-mesh bowls, hang from a wall, yellowing under attack from the kitchen fumes.
Fake banana leaves, cellotaped in irregular intervals, attempted to evoke the tropical beaches of the Coromandel Coast. At the far end, a dirty tablecloth hid the underlying imperfections of the buffet table.
A pot-bellied man in a grimy red T-shirt and a pair of denim jeans showed us to a table for two and thrust a laminated menu at us. We ordered à la carte, ate, and left—with a bare minimum tip.
My appetite had fallen like a lead ball in a jar of ethanol. Was it the callous attitude of the server? Was it the gloomy décor? Was it the stainless steel crockery? Evidently, I didn’t feel like someone in an audience, who’s just been given away a free Volkswagen Beetle by Oprah.
It’s quite clear then that I came away unhappy. Yet, every blue moon, I’m happy to go in search of an Indian eatery.
I go because it’s my only link to the culture of the land that I left behind a great while ago. I read the ingredients of soup cans. But books on India, by Indian writers, I scrupulously avoid. All the music I listen to are by composers and DJs born west of the Prime Meridian.
My walls are broken by perfectly rectangular windows into, say, a Pointillist scene of Parisians strolling and basking on an island park on the Seine River, or of a tin vintage Coca-Cola ad, or a door-size cover of the first edition of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
For whatever it is, I’m alienated enough already from everything Indian. If I stopped partaking of its tastes and flavors, every now and again, who would I be, then? Where would I say I was from?
Alakananda Mookerjee lives in New York.