If you, too, have spent the hot season in a tropical country with only enough money for a very small room in which you sweat more or sweat less, but never quite stop sweating, then you will understand how the discovery of an a/c restaurant, tucked in the back of an over-priced hotel, may feel like a surprise gift or secret ability, like the discovery of a henceforth unrecognized supernatural power.
You will understand, too, how the restaurant’s total lack of atmosphere is perceived by the sweat-soaked wanderer as total luxury. Beige walls, blocked windows, fake wood tables with dowdy woven placemats, bulbous copper coated water glasses only ever filled halfway. In a place where holiness, filth, chaos, and color abound, this place resembles nothing so much as the 24 hour restaurant of an international airport. It is nowhere.
What a relief it is to be nowhere. How lovely it is to visit nowhere, to spend an hour or two nowhere, now and then.
There are three painting of glaciers, all under blue skies, that almost decorate the restaurant, but somehow fail to do so. They could be photos of downy baby ducklings held up with thumbtacks for all the decoration they succeed in providing. They do, however, succeed in communicating the primary message of the restaurant: only the a/c matters.
Staff members are numerous, but they come in only two categories. There are overbearing 40-somethings with pinkish shirts, beer bellies and spectacles. Their bellies are accentuated by a tendency to walk around with their hands clasped behind their backs.
There are also delicate young men in white shirts who move very quickly, smile often and nervously, and who appear scarcely older than 14. In spite of their extreme youth and lack of ability in English, these boys are vastly more helpful and pleasant than their overseers, whose only function is to collect money and to tell you what is this evening not available.
The restaurant has only one soundtrack and only one song, a refrain of Hari Om Tat Sat that plays in a loop of nine and a half minutes, breaks off abruptly, and starts again. It is a fairly soothing sound and only irritating if you pay attention. Actually I’m sorry I mentioned it.
On each table is a small white vase containing a red rose. The management is not aware that the fact the rose is almost always dead is highly discouraging, at least to those prone to discouragement, or that adding water to the vases could well prove pivotal. It is not appreciated when the customer attempts to add water to the vase himself.
I can recommend the Dingri Dolma, though the button mushrooms are sparse. The nan are flaccid and over-priced -- you’re better off with rice. The lunch thali (130 rupees) comes in a dozen copper dishes but none of them contain vegetables other than potato or cabbage. (For a proper thali, you must go to Seshadri ashram, where they will scoop fresh pumpkin or beet curries, as well as spinach or green eggplant, onto your banana leaf for just ₹55.)
The veg biryani with onion raita is a safe choice. Although the quantity of raita is insufficient, more can be requested at no cost. It is true, too, that, although the biryani at dinner is satisfactory, at lunch it is far tastier. It is not known if the cause of this is a different cook, the same cook becoming tired and discouraged in the course of the day, or some other factor.
As it is part of the best hotel near the ashram, the restaurant collects the wealthiest of the devout, the most sensitive, the most elderly, those often heard to admit with a sigh, I need my comforts. A number of the these people refer to themselves in the third person: “this one”, “this person”, “this Janet”, “this so-called Janet”. It is rude to eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers. Also if you don’t listen it is much easier to eat.
Among foreigners, the number one topic of conversation is energy. There are those who believe in manifestation and those who do not believe in manifestation. The latter may be heard declaring to the a/c restaurant, “What need have I for manifestation? There is nothing I need! Nothing in the entire universe. Nothing!”
However, the primary clientele of the restaurant is not foreigners but upper-class Indians on pilgrimage. These Indians are not certain that their vast wealth is due to the gods but, just in case the gods are responsible, they intend to keep those prayers and pujas coming. They drag behind them luxury-brand children so fixated on electronic devices that they may or may not look up at some point and express astonishment that they are no longer in Mumbai.
The restaurant has beautiful dishes, heavy cutlery, and steel coffee mugs, as well as the copper water cups mentioned previously. However, the tiny spoons for stirring one’s coffee are only clear plastic and even appear likely to melt. I suppose the proper small spoons had a tendency to be stolen. There is something oddly appealing about very small spoons. I admit to having stolen at least three in my life, though never from expensive places and never from friends. One I stole from an airplane lunch. I would never steal a spoon now of course. I am practicing to be holy.
In the same vein, the boys -- young men -- who work here are all handsome, with very tight pants, very dark skin, and astonishing teeth. They are all very handsome, which is not to say they are attractive, not sexually, not to me, certainly not. In 2 to 4 years, precisely on their 18th birthday, they will become attractive and not a single day sooner, or else I would be someone else, someone awful, and someone quite different from who I am quite certain I am.
On the other hand, is there some reason why every waiter appears to be more or less the same age, the same height and adorable in the same way? The soles of their shoes are smooth. They like to sprint toward the kitchen, then slide through the swinging double doors.
In a holy town like this one, one seeks to learn to pray without ceasing. Thus: may the managers always be distracted as the beautiful waiters slip tips into their pockets. And may the waiters always be nimble enough to dart away from sudden obstacles.
To me it seems a very peculiar variety of magic, the way an a/c restaurant in a holy town, over-priced and devoid of atmosphere, may nonetheless be found, at the height of the hot season, to be the setting for a succession of surprises and discoveries, as well as a distraction and a solace through the endless blazing Tamil afternoons.