Using the internet to learn about real live human beings can take you and your mind only so far. If you want to actually learn something, at some point you need to hit the concrete and start knocking on some doors. Before I did that, however, I needed to make sure I had all my headless ducks in a row.
While searching online I stumbled upon the Yash International Cultural Association, which provided me with a bevy of information (as well as a soothing song) as to where Guyanese Hindu temples were located throughout Brooklyn and Queens. I took down the numbers of a few places that seemed get-to-able along with the names of their respective pandits or pujayres as the case may be, then Google mapped the addresses of mandirs I was interested in visiting, while finally viewing each in Google “street view” in order to get a picture of what it and the surrounding area looked like. In a few cases the mandirs stood out from their surroundings. Imagine:
bodega, cleaners, house, house, driveway, house, <<<***MAHAKALI SHREE DEVI MANDIR***>>>, driveway, house, house, house, bodega.
As such, the temples were easy enough to find.
Unlike the ones shown above, however, some temples were unidentified, which made it difficult to have confidence that these temples were actually temples at all. Such was the case when I happened upon a mandir only a few blocks from my home.
After a few days visiting temples in the cyber realm I happened to notice that one of the temples I had missed was two blocks away from my own apartment. All day spent traveling the city via Google Maps and apparently there was a temple five minutes walking distance from my home. Of course the phone number to the address that was given did not work, which simply meant that if I wanted to check it out I’d have to show up unannounced. I was somewhat OK with this. The problem was that from the look of the address on the map this temple had no distinct “Kali mandir” look about it. Nothing seemed to distinguish it from its surrounding addresses. No “Om” signs, no deities, no bells and whistles. I didn’t even know if the address was correct or if a mandir still existed at that particular locale. There seemed to be no other option but to walk up and ring the bell.
And that’s what I did.
One night before dinner I walked to the address where I took note of a few small and weathered flags in a bucket on the front lawn. I felt like I had seen these before, but wasn’t sure, and really had no way of being so at that moment. I also couldn’t make out what was on the flags without actually walking on the property, which is not the cleverest of ideas in my neighborhood. So as not to look like a prowler I picked up my cell phone and pretended to talk to someone about not “knowing the exact address” hoping that someone walking passed would hear me and offer their kind services. This didn’t happen, and so eventually I decided to go up and ring the bell. Only one light was on and it was all the way up on the third floor.
The gate was locked, which after having jiggled it a few times, made me look like a serious creeper. Not to be swayed I reached over the top of the gate and unlatched it from the inside. I walked to the door and started pressing the doorbells. First the top one. Nothing. Then the next. Nothing. Then the last. Nothing. Then I paused. Then I thought about something nonessential. Then I pressed the top button again. Nothing. Then I pressed the middle. Nothing. Then the bottom. Nothing. Getting ready to pack it in I saw an elderly woman through two small cloudy windows in the door slowly walking down the hallway with her walker. Damn! I thought to myself. I’m disturbing some little old lady who probably came all the way down from the attic. I tried to wave and look as friendly as I could, but how friendly can you look in twenty degree weather, in the dark with an insane beard, a big hoodie, and steam coming out of your mouth? Obviously she didn’t open the door. I decided to just start with the obvious:
“Does the pujayre live here?”
“I’m sorry. What?”
“Is this a Kali temple?”
“A Kali temple.”
“No. I don’t know who you’re looking for.”
“I’m looking for the pujayre.”
“No. No one here by that name.”
“Is this a mandir?”
“Yeah. The pujayre.”
“Oh, yeah. He moved. You need to go around the block.”
“Do you know the address?”
“Ok. Sorry to bother you.”
“Thanks so much.”
At this point it was completely dark outside. I had no information as to what house I was looking for, had just woken up a little old lady from her 6:30pm bedtime, and was feeling a bit like a whacked out crazy person. I decided to keep trying.
The next block yielded the same scene: no recognizable temples. One of the homes did, however, have the same short, red, and weathered flags on the lawn as the previous house. But, here again, I couldn’t tell what the flags were without actually crawling on the lawn, which I was not about to do. I eventually asked a “Carribean-looking” man walking to his car if he lived on that particular block. In retrospect, it was a strange thing to ask. His answer was less so:
“What are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for a Kali Mandir.”
“Hmm…I think the pandit lives right near here.”
“Yeah. Go into that corner shop and ask the owner. He’ll know.”
I walked to the shop—the sign indicating that it was indeed a Guyanese grocery—and went in. There were a number of people on line and rather than just blurt out “Does the Divine Mother in her wrathful form give darshan around here?!” I decided to stall until everyone before me had left. The easiest way to do so was to look around for something to buy, which if you try to lay off the baddies, can be difficult in a corner store. Nevertheless I rounded up a bottle of ginger beer and proceeded to the counter. When I did so I asked the cashier if he knew about any of the things I was looking for: Kali temples where devotees go into ecstatic trances and have their illnesses sucked out of their feet by a priest. He was pleased to reply in the affirmative.
“Oh sure! There’s a whole bunch of mandirs in this area. There’s a fairly nice one just down the block.”
Coming up: “Ooooh…. You do yoga. You must be very wise.”