In E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India a central plot point concerns the search of some of the British ladies for “the real India,” the India of facile friendship, delicious curries, docility and poetry. There are a number of reasons they don’t find it: they’re suppressed, superficial, and incurably of the club with its booze, paternalism and insularity. The cultural gap between the women and the “real,” “authentic,” “other” (to use a few postcolonial buzzwords) is unable to be bridged.
Living on campus and paying out the nose to dine at Indus Valley can sometimes feel a little like that. But in New York, as in Forster’s novel, the “real India” is something geographically close and obtainable. To take the 7 from Times Square is to experience what John Rocker did, and to have the opposite reaction: the crowds of careerists thin, the train becomes elevated, and before you know it you’re miles from Manhattan and above the houses, main streets, and mid–rise apartments of Jackson Heights.
An old cliche about New York says that it’s a very livable town, but you “have to know where to go”: even if ninety percent of the food, the housing, and the “culture” are tripe, the remaining ten percent is enough to engage you for a lifetime.
This is true in Manhattan, but not in Jackson Heights. The community is at once self–contained and open to outsiders, cosmopolitan, and laden with local color.
The halal cart on Broadway peddles chicken, rice, and spices at low prices. Spacious stores on Roosevelt Avenue under the 7’s penumbra sell incense, ice cream, alcohol, and everything else needed to pimp out a dorm room. Several Indian places have buffets for lunch; one does for dinner. Cheap, good food is ubiquitous, everyone speaks the lingua franca of commerce, and life moves at a slower and steadier pace. Jackson Heights is heterogeneous: Russians, Latinos, Bangladeshis and Poles all have ample representation. My roommate last year was a Ukrainian immigrant from the neighborhood, and one visit started with a stop at the halal cart, a walk to the Trade Fair, and the purchase of 40s. “See your ID?” said the cashier, her perfunctory look at the fake indicating that she didn’t give a shit.
We went back to his building, walked inside, and took the elevator up. He opened the door upon a narrow hallway: “I hope this isn’t too fobbish for you,” he said. The hallway led to a commodious kitchen, a big bathroom, and a few bedrooms: the view was nice, the place large and peaceful, yet close to it all (what all?).
The Eagle Theater is in the heart of Jackson Heights’ Little India, right off the crossing of Broadway and Roosevelt Avenue. Every day, Monday through Thursday, it shows a Bollywood movie. The entrance, squeezed between a storefront and a corridor leading to the subway, opens into a broad and dissonant atrium, with soaring white arches above and tacky red–and–black tiling below. The ticket office is two panes of glass and a triskelion turnstile with arms shaped like ping–pong paddles. The guy manning the box wore his white–shirted paunch well and his baldness badly; if someone had asked, “What if V.S. Naipaul and Tony Soprano had a lovechild?” he would have been the answer.
It was 7:55; the show started at 8. A faint scent of urinal cake intensified as I neared the bathroom. Coming back there was a derelict office on the right and two chairs on each side of a table; I imagined phantom Michael Corleones, Luca Brasis. To the tune of 50¢ we determined that the arcade machines (Bust–AMove, PacMan) were defunct, passed a stuffedanimal crane game that read “Playing the crane game is prohibited for minors between the hours of 8 A.M. and 3 P.M.,” and went inside.
The theater, with the size and curvature of a Cinerama, seats 500. There might have been 15 in attendance. The only other people in the lower bowl were two Indian men, one on each side, their forms fluid, their postures gelatinous. It was Thursday; this should have been prime–time.
“How does this place stay open?” I wondered. “It’s a mob front,” suggested my sherpa. The lights were dimmed, the patrons’ gazes fixed forward. We mixed smuggled rum with Coke and waited for the feature presentation to start.
Now I wish to present the following idea: Slumdog Millionaire is to Manhattan as this evening’s feature was to Queens. There were no previews. The opening was Vedic and dripping with redness. Rama was invoked. A drink and a minute or two in, it was hard to believe I was watching the movie itself. All of a sudden, we were in modern Delhi. The plot revolved around a “black monkey.” “The black monkey kills everyone,” said the subtitles. The rapid–fire Hindi gave way to occasional bursts of English. “Where are you going with that?” said the scruffy Indian man in aviators. He was the incarnation of Rama. Who knew?
The formal plan was loose and the women hot; I’m pretty sure these films work best when the viewer, horny and tipsy, focuses on these kinds of details instead of trying to discern a narrative arc or social agenda. “Only dogs eat when they’re hungry,” said another dapper character, “humans eat to bond with each other.” No Slumdog, no Passage to India was this—“the novel is a form of social inquiry, and thus outside the Indian purview,” wrote V.S. Naipaul. Thank Rama for that.
“It’s almost over,” said my sherpa, “isn’t it?” But it wasn’t! A song–and–dance number segued into silence and stillness—but it was intermission, which lasted ten seconds. I went to the bathroom anyway and passed the office. Inside was the ticket–peddler with three of his friends, reading the newspaper and talking in the same tones as the characters in the movie, but with calmer cadences; a decade ago, they might have been smoking cigars. I decided the Eagle was indeed a front and walked back in. Racial tension was ratcheted up in the concluding act; not Aryans versus Dravidians, as the “black monkey” would suggest, but Hindus versus Muslims. A Molotov cocktail set a shrine ablaze, and the Hindus and Muslims seemed as equally ready to snap, samba, and mêlee like the Jets and the Sharks.
As in West Side Story, it was all cartoonish, subordinated to the match–making plot, and it all degenerated into attractive people breaking it down. Rama, the guy in aviators, turned out to be the monkey. He was beaten and resuscitated. As he kissed and embraced one of the shapely women with bejeweled stomachs, the film reached its climax: a spontaneous outpouring of emotions that necessitated singing and dancing in unison to reach full expression. I left the theater and the neighborhood wishing that life was always like that.
CHRISTOPHER MORRIS–LENT is a Columbia College Junior.