My heart is set on the Philly cheesesteak—the only one, I’m certain, to be found in India.
I’m at Mohammad’s again, scanning the menu as if I haven’t been ordering the same thing for the past three weeks now. My heart is set on the Philly cheesesteak—the only one, I’m certain, to be found in India.
The cheesesteak at Mohammad’s isn’t quite like the famously artery-clogging ones from Philly, thick, bouncy slices of beef smothered with fake cheese and served in buttery hoagies. Mohammad’s version comes in a small, hard pita with the consistency of naan, topped with tomatoes, onions, and green peppers, mixed with a little garam masala. The meat most likely isn’t beef; you can tell from the way your teeth cut through it. It’s probably buffalo, the safer option as testosterone-fueled Hindutva zealots roam the country threatening to kill anyone who harms a bovine. Even the cheese whiz is different—still fake, but less plastic, more acid.
But it does the job, and I’m not just at Mohammad’s for the cheesesteak. Mohammad’s is for outsiders, its two blue tents so removed from the center of Bodh Gaya that one can only reach the restaurant either very intentionally or as an outcome of aimless wandering. Everyone else in Bodh Gaya is laser-focused on visiting the main Mahabodhi temple. Most, I assume, hope that their lives will take the same arc as that of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who lived a muddied existence of vices and laziness and varied attempts at higher meaning until he decided to meditate under the shade of a Bodhi tree in this very town and—bam, enlightenment. One day, normal guy. Next day, the Buddha.
From a certain angle, all of this hope leaves the town aglow, hordes of people from near and far taking planes, trains, and buses to Bodh Gaya to lift themselves out of the drudgery of their everyday lives. But the underbelly of hope is complicated. I’m an American, which means I’ve inevitably been shuffled into the Western tourist circuit, which has turned the ambition for enlightenment into a competitive sport and a burgeoning industry, engorging the ego when you’re meant to obliterate it.
In Bodh Gaya, Western tourists walk around with plastered pleasant smiles and eyes half closed, feigning a clear position on the path to enlightenment no matter where they are in their journeys. Some drape their necks with strings of jade, agate, sandalwood until their flesh is barely visible, the beads stripped of their meaning. The worst wear t-shirts with Buddhist sayings and flowy pants with the green goddess Tara’s face printed Warhol-esque along the sides and crotch.
It’s hard to tell who or what to blame. Alan Watts-style pop Buddhism? Aesthetic Buddhist quotes on Instagram? Crunchy culture from Boulder and Nelson and Byron Bay? Maybe the Dalai Lama’s Twitter account.
It’s not that I don’t empathize. I understand the emptiness of American culture and the anxious desire to fill it with objects and big, pioneering missions, the world our oyster. That’s why I’m in Bodh Gaya, after all. I saw a Facebook ad for a meditation retreat and thought, “Oh yeah, I can definitely do that.” Meditation was the nexus of the many philosophies I’d half-learned and half-believed before dropping them, as fickle as your average American. Hinduism absorbed from a bored, detached childhood. Brain-hacking productivity learned from a tech industry hooked on conquering the body. Pop Buddhism a la college boyfriends who showed me Alan Watts.
I imagined meditation would allow me to exercise that fabled muscle that your brain reaches for during the few moments right after death, to allow the spirit or what-have-you to easily navigate into whatever comes next. I imagined meditation would make me so still that I could catch a resting fly in the basin of my hand, that the messiness of my brain would part like two neat portions of sea to make way for clarity. So I traded in my epicurean lifestyle in cosmopolitan Bangalore, where I worked as a journalist chronicling the breakneck ubiquitousness of technology, for a sparse top bunk at the retreat. I packed a bag with two kurtas, two pants, and no laptop, and boarded a long train to Bihar.
Lucky for me, it took me only a few days to realize I had no real talent nor taste for the practice of meditation; I was terminally lazy and chronically inconsistent. And I was born doubtful of my ability to conquer. Immigrants are more often used as tools in the domineering culture of the West than they are the conquerors themselves.
At the retreat, I share a room with Dana and Tina and Margaret, from Australia and Spain and France, three white women who are all impossibly full of hope and carried away by the promise of their own lives. Dana is the benevolent dictator, the leader of the little cohort that has formed. Hers was the first voice I heard when I arrived three weeks ago in the hush of night.
I imagined meditation would make me so still that I could catch a resting fly in the basin of my hand.
Sleeping bodies rustled as I climbed into my upper bunk. Pop rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh played faintly in the distance. I fell asleep to “Love Dose”—“I want you my baby, mujhe de de love dose”—and woke up to the lyrics playing again at 5 a.m. when Dana threw open the shades.
“Why the hell are they so loud?” Dana hadn’t introduced herself to me yet, and I saw only her silhouette against the window: a woman wearing a ridiculous bonnet and peering like a nosy neighbor into the outside meadow, where the sun hadn’t even risen. String lights lit up a cloth tent and illuminated hanging flowers that had been hooked from each of its corners. It appeared as if people had been celebrating a wedding. The other women padded out of their beds and toward the window, nodding in agreement.
I almost said: Let them have fun. Wasn’t that part of the zen? The enlightened soul can be in peace anywhere, on a busy train or on a mountain. But I bit my tongue.
Dana preached a rigid vegetarianism. “I just can’t believe that they’re still eating meat,” she huffed to me one late evening, after she’d seen meat skewers displayed in a shop window outside of town. Dana loved animals too much to see them die, she explained, and meat-eating was a regressive practice that should be left behind in the old world.
But Dana didn’t seem to read the newspaper, though she had been to Bodh Gaya and around India many times. As she meditated, a virulent strain of upper caste Hinduism that mandated vegetarian diets was tearing through the country, galvanized by the election of a prime minister who quietly supported these actions by refusing to deny them. Muslims, Dalits, Christians—anyone caught eating beef or handling cattle potentially for slaughter were being threatened. Many had lost their lives. No longer was Dana’s militant vegetarianism the delightfully crunchy and innocuous version it may have been in Fremantle. Here, she was the arbiter of evil.
Thus was the comic, tragic, terrifying portrait presented by Dana, Tina, and Margaret. The elitism endorsed by their version of Buddhism only served to deny what the religion may have granted to countless Indians: a reprieve from the inescapable, rock-solid hierarchies of Hinduism’s caste system. A month at the retreat cost more than most would make in a year in Bihar, ranked as India’s poorest state on various development indices.
“So creepy, someone needs to teach them a lesson,” Tina sat muttering to Dana once after returning from the town. “Do they not have jobs?” She had been leered at by a few men standing roadside who had disappeared when her taxi had arrived. Dana nodded furiously at the injustice.
“Where is their discipline?” Tina asked another time, after a group of men had gathered outside the doors of our retreat to sleep on the ground, late into the afternoon.
I wanted to escape, but I was in a state of purgatory. I was barely Indian, merely an appetizer version of the full course identity, unable to truly break out of the Western tourist circuit. But I was certainly not part of their domineering class, neither welcomed into it nor eager to join it.
I was barely Indian, merely an appetizer version of the full course identity, unable to truly break out of the Western tourist circuit.
And so I sought out Mohammad’s, the oasis with the Abrahamic name. Or maybe Mohammad’s sought me out. As the crowd of tourists made their usual right to the temple, I took a left, and then another left, and a right, continuing on at random with no order in mind. The blue tents of Mohammad’s greeted me from the base of an abandoned parking lot, past a line of gray cloth enclosures where people slept. Two mangy dogs slept out front; fat flies drifted lazily around the entrance. Plastic chairs and tables were arranged haphazardly and I chose one in a corner, near a row of Korean teenagers who appeared to be monks-in-training, covertly eating greasy mutton biryani.
Mohammad’s menu was expansive. There was your usual Indian hippie trail fare—shakshuka, all sorts of smoothies. There was restaurant style North Indian cuisine—naan and butter paneer or butter chicken, biryani, pani puri. There were dosas, Tibetan momos, Tamil Nadu-style podi idli. And there was the cheesesteak.
When I flagged the waiter down to order the cheesesteak that first time, I wondered whether the chef would even know how to make it, whether the cheesesteak was a mirage that I’d spun up to escape the faux-enlightenment that surrounded me, whether the menu was full of fake items to draw in customers. And I couldn’t imagine what the cheesesteak would be like so far from its roots. I’d only ever eaten them in Philadelphia at the best spots, sitting eight-to-a-table, letting the cheese whiz drip onto my hands.
But that first bite—the chewy mystery meat, the almost-sour fake cheese—revived me. And Mohammad’s made up for the rest.
At Mohammad’s, there’s an inkling of what Bodh Gaya might be like if one can escape the Western tourist circuit, a town for genuine seekers, lifelong devotees, regular citizens, one in which Buddhist emperor Ashoka built an homage to Siddhartha Gautama in 250 BCE until his jealous wife tore it down, the town where the scholar Faxian traveled from modern-day China to Bodh Gaya and took Sanskrit texts back with him, exchanging wisdom and culture between the two now-antagonistic regions. And the town to which the Dalai Lama occasionally comes down from his outpost in the mountains of Dharamshala to offer sermons to devotees, the town that was a central node for Tibetan refugees for years, the town from which these very refugees have started to leave as the new Indian government has started to make it more difficult for those without clean-cut citizenships to survive.
And this is the town with the only Philly cheesesteak in India. A working class American dish created by a guy named Pat has made it to the town where the Buddha found enlightenment. Imagine that. If you’ll allow me, Mohammad’s is like a middle path for those of us shuffled into extremes against our will, the cheesesteak my very own Bodhi tree.
Meghna is a writer from Queens, among other things.