The Ganesh Temple Canteen is a basement annex of the temple proper. Visitors enter through a steel door on street level. Next to a security booth, there are neat rows of sandals and sockless shoes, battered and electrical taped empty sockets. Down two flights of stairs, the canteen smells like a fine dusting of curry powder. As a boy I mussed the tops of pewter curry plants that I grew in tomato planters. The smell of rich yellow would cloud my eyes like a bottle rocket set off on asphalt and brimstone. Although my plants died in the St. Louis summer, even hotter than the immense fiery imaginary sun of India, I nourished their memory in the architecture of my upper skull. My sinus chambers would resonate with the twang of pulluvan paattu. I caught a green snake and smelled my fingers. His dusky skin, shedding on my hand, reminded me of my garden, something grassy and thrumming.
I had read about the Ganesh Temple online. It is an infrequent recommendation on the blunter of foodie blogrolls—the type that make claims to authenticity, that disregard the complexity of personal politics in favor of deliciousness, that dismiss ethics as academic hogwash, except when the adoption of an ethical stance, always disingenuous, authorizes an aesthetic position. There is a fascinating anthropology, yet to be written, of food blogs, the majority of which excuse the most mediocre imperial violences—meaning the most rote and banal, not necessarily poorly executed—as irrelevant to the comparative pleasure of the body. The narcissism of these blogs is terrifying but not surprising. Thinking is painful and interferes with the hedonist’s yawn. The realization that all pleasure comes at the expense of another, one who may be trained to consider such extortion pleasurable in turn, is of course incompatible with the hedonist’s orientation to the world. Rather than rotate the structural nature of hedonism about in the mind like a smooth pebble on the tongue, the hedonist elects to never think at all. That, in my estimation, is the great tragedy of foodie politics: all so-called complexity and philosophy and thought swivels to peer at the sum of hedonism like a foul rotting daffodil turning to the sun. Immanent critique, institutional critique, is impossible as long as we validate the usefulness of our conclusions on the basis of their sadomasochistic value. After all, the asceticism of the vegan is no better than the wallowing of the glutton: a satisfaction in deprivation follows the same logic, and in fact converges with, the doxa of overeating: the minor sublimity of punishment.
On the train ride, one hour and twenty-seven minutes from the four to the seven, I hung my head between my knees. I saw legs scabbed over with sun spots, toenails painted fuschia; her daughter’s moonstone.
The walk to the Ganesh Temple from the Flushing Main Street stop must be close to a mile. In the heat I sweated and wanted the giant watermelons heaped in cardboard boxes at the Chinese markets, or the white ribbed footballs called golden squashes that seemed, from their oracularity, cool stones dug from the bottom of a riverbed. The neighborhood looked suburban and dinged around the door handles. Women wobbled under the weight of their umbrellas. While carrying a camera and mike, we feel like feds dispatched to monitor a criminal conspiracy. But the charge of criminality is reflexive. We are the interlopers, inadvertent violators of social norms, uncomfortably unaware of the most basic protocols. Yet, the burden of ethnographic discovery has been lifted from our sufficiently yoked shoulders. Other eaters before us have foreclosed the complication of “discovering” a foreign site, or at least the ignorant, self-deceptive fun of imperial cartography. The energy of ethnography has been exhausted. We must identify alternative but perhaps equally pernicious motives for invading these spaces. If the most obvious and the easiest—to map the unknown—is neutralized, then others, with a greater capacitance for ethical possibility, may arise.
In the canteen, we ate alu bonda, onion uttapam, idiyappam, and rava dosa, and drank Madras coffee with two tablespoons of sugar. A Hindi cartoon played on a big screen TV. Kids ran around the tables while their parents stacked dirty cafeteria trays. I nibbled on a square of almond cake and breathed deep of black and green cardamom. No one was busting a nut. I felt relaxed.
[In the Ganesh Temple the offerings warm and close as waxy flesh.]
For dinner, we rode back down Roosevelt Avenue, into Jackson Heights. I walked into an ordinary storefront advertising electronics, passed through shelves of new rubber and metal widgets, and stumbled into a sewing room. After backtracking out of the basement, we found our destination, a T-Mobile store. At the far end, just visible from the door, there’s a counter and a glass case holding trays of food. One table and a bar with a few stools, that’s it, and as my brother and I shared a bowl of thenthuk, the store filled with families. The soup, with its soft floating fragments of dough, reminded me of chicken and dumplings. I associate chicken and dumplings with the hottest most miserable days of summer, because one year I went to camp and the only tolerable food they served was a glutinous stew of thick-ass dough and dark meat chicken. In the July jungle heat, steamy off the reservoir, I came to love a hearty porridge. Campers downed glasses of sweet powdered drink from plastic pitchers. The counselors told us that the red koolaid concoction was made from wringing out the bug zappers on the back of the mess hall. In the evenings, I went to my first dances and wandered around between pre-pubescent couples, horribly awkward—not that that has changed, particularly—and wondered about those myths: did they really make juice from mosquito abdomens? would you get butt rot from wearing a wet swimsuit too long? was “Buffalo Soldier” Bob Marley’s best? I hated camp, but it remains one of my aesthetic anchors, a still point of nostalgia in a floating world. Memories from that summer are an index of metaphor. Rivers smell like the Black River, gunpowder smells like the .22s we shot at targets twenty feet off, and the best ice cream tastes like a foamy push-pop and fireworks on the fourth of July rupturing the blackest Ozark sky.
We also ordered momos, Tibetan dumplings, brothy and stuffed with beef and greens. I bit off a tiny corner and drank the soup inside, but my brother struggled, slopping the soup all over his plate. I learned to eat soup dumplings on a “date to see if you want to go on a date,” you know, the arrangement wherein you and a potential significant other do a date-like activity accompanied by friends. Theoretically, the presence of other people defuses the threat of sustained one-on-one interaction. The gathering lets the pre-daters figure out whether a real date is worth the investment. And hey, it’s not such a bad way to go bowling or try a new restaurant. Probably not a best practice for exploring Flushing, though. The hour plus train ride both directions, half-day commitment on location, and absolutely unfamiliar, well, everything, make that particular “how about we” less than optimal. Unfortunate, too, for me, because she was a nice girl. She did teach me how to eat a soup dumpling. None of my brother’s “dates to see if you want to go on a date” at Great Wall in New Haven involved soup dumplings. Unlucky him.
Perspiring from soup and roasted chilis, we staggered to Rajbhog and drank a sweet lassi. Two greying Indian men yelled at each other across the café. We shared gulab jamun, plain burfi, and bundi ladoo. Before leaving Jackson Heights, I stood outside the café and let the ache of sugar course over my gums and infect my jawbone. Indian sweets are a luscious headache. Guilty of all the charges I leverage against others, I feel stuck in a narrowing cave, sticky with subterranean mud. Claustrophobia grips my rib cage. I can focus on the headache and forget the threat of entombment in its cold silvery pleasure. But with every second of indulgence I slide deeper into the crushing maw of the underground.