The Taxi Astrologer’s Masala Dosa
Regardless of the amazing characters I’ve met, the remarkable flavors I’ve been led to and the serendipity that keeps working its way into each journey, I still leave the house in a state of terror when I know I’m about to jump into a taxi adventure.
Getting in a cab and having no idea where I’ll end up is a struggle for me. I lean naturally toward predictability and all that’s linear (and I take twisted pleasure in crossing things off my lists). I can stare at maps for hours, and I’m at peace when I know where I’m going.
In the spirit of greener grass on the other side, I’ve always admired travelers who swing in the other direction – those bewildering souls who are brave enough to deviate from their itineraries. I’ve always wished I could be more like them. Open. Fluid. In tune with the poetry on the path and willing to surrender to it. They seemed to know something I didn’t: it’s not about holding on for dear life – it’s about letting go for dear life.
After nearly 100 taxi adventures, I’m still trying to internalize this idea. But if any taxi adventure was going to teach me something about letting go, it was Friday’s journey with Vinod Dogra.
Initially, the vegetarian banker turned taxi driver cum astrologer from New Delhi was going to take me to the first Indian restaurant his sister brought him to when he arrived in New York 19 years ago. Our ride would be short. The food would be buffet-style and mild enough for the non-Indians who frequent the place.
Then we got to talking.
The sixty-something taxi driver told me why – despite being “robbed, assaulted, and beaten” while driving a yellow cab – he still insists on picking up everyone who hails him: “Everyone is an individual. No one person can speak for an entire race. Humanity thrives on trust. Everything depends on that. What you and I are doing is based on trust.”
Then he asked me my birth date and gifted me with some bits of astrological analysis: “You have your own way of doing everything. You have very high standards, and you expect everyone else to abide by them. And you like to plan big.”
I barely had time to digest the accuracy of his reading (and find out that he was a Scorpio) before the cabbie went on to explain why, despite his love for the United States, he’ll retire in India: “No matter how long we live here, we’ll always be hyphenated. Indian-American. That’s a reality of life. We miss our culture, our language, our food.”
Where do you like to eat when you’re really missing home? I asked him.
Sometime you have to go to the South Indian temple in Flushing, he told me. They make the best dosas.
I pounced on the rapture in his voice, “Are they better than the food at the place you’re taking me?”
“Yes, they’re better.”
Several u-turns and two freeways later, we were in the residential depths of Queens. A short journey had morphed into a long one, and when Vinod pulled up to the Ganapati Temple, he blessed and thanked me. I had no idea where I was. I thanked him back.
A mass of white-washed concrete that seems to make a point of respecting the surrounding duplexes, the Ganapati Temple instructs devotees to remove their shoes before entering. To the left of the iron fence, a square archway with stone carvings of elephants opens up to the temple entrance. To the right, a grey metal door with a red and white sign (“Canteen Open Daily”) leads to a stairway to the basement.
It was 2:30pm. Most of the folding tables and metal chairs in the canteen were empty but for a few sari-clad women and their husbands.
The Masala Dosa ($4) I ordered – a rice flour and black lentil crepe stuffed with potato-onion curry – was the mildest dosa on the menu, but it still pushed sweat through my pores (I was glad I’d steered clear of the Pondicherry Dosa, which the man in line behind me had described as ‘blazing hot’).
I followed everyone’s lead and ate with my hands, alternating between bowls of searing coconut chutney and sambar, savoring the crispy, beautifully browned crepe as I felt my face inflame.
I accepted a suggestion from the nice man who knew I was no match for the Pondicherry Dosa and tried a chili-onion Uttappam ($5). Also made with rice flour and lentils but with the ingredients cooked into the batter, Uttappam was a greasy passport to pleasure, bringing fried onions, fresh rosemary, green chilies and cilantro into a delicious union. I haven’t eaten on streets of India (yet), but I imagined that I was tasting something that came close.
When my tomato face and I finally emerged from the basement of the Ganapati Temple, I was as lost as I’d been when Vinod dropped me off. The sidewalks were deserted. No taxis cruised those sleepy streets. Maybe I could feel my way home the same way the taxi driver had helped me feel my way there. Maybe I could take my time, explore the neighborhood, forget about the afternoon’s work.
My dosa reverie lasted three blocks before I dug out my map and figured out where the subway was. Still, I was grateful to the taxi astrologer for helping me loosen my grip on things, if only for a meal.
Ganapati Temple Canteen
45-57 Bowne St., Flushing (Queens)
Open: 8:30am-9:30pm, 7 days/week
Dosa/Uttapam: $2-5.50 each
Credit cards accepted
Subway: 7 to Main St./Flushing, Q27 bus