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New York Dispatch: Romance & Roti

If you’ve ever been in a long distance relationship, this story is for you. I heard it on Valentine’s Day in the back seat of a yellow cab going from Tribeca to Union Square.

Imagine getting married in Chennai, India. Imagine coming to New Jersey in 1998, leaving your new wife and 2 small kids behind, moving to Queens in 2000, and landing a job as a manager at Greenleaf Grill at La Guardia airport.

Imagine working 40 hours and not being able to pay rent and quitting your job to drive a taxi 7 days a week so you can save enough money to visit your family every two years.

Imagine trying to bring your family to the United States – and waiting over a decade for the powers that be to say ‘yes.’

Imagine being a man alone in New York with every opportunity to re-marry or at least to stray. Imagine resisting temptation for 12 years, and finally, finally, being reunited with your wife six months ago.

“In Indian culture we have to stay married. We don’t go for divorce. If I do something [outside my marriage] it’s not good for my wife,” the cab driver said, “She sacrifice for me. I sacrifice for her.”

It took Abdul’s wife and children about a month to adjust to the absence of whispers from their neighbors in Chennai who never believed that the cab driver would send for them. Half a year into their New York lives, they’re ecstatic about being here.

“Nobody cares what you do here,” Abdul said, “Back home all the people they bother you, talk about you, get jealous. Here whatever you want you can do that.”

For all his love of New York, the cabbie still misses his food. Before his wife came to the USA, his favorite thing to eat was chicken biryani at Roti Boti in Astoria.

I got on the subway to Roti Boti right after I hopped out of Abdul’s cab and thanked him for his love story. They were out of chicken biryani when I got there.

I over-ordered to curb my disappointment, found a seat facing a flat screen broadcasting the news in what I guessed was Urdu and studied a flyer advertising Quran classes. Across the dining room, the lights were off behind the money transfer to Pakistan counter. Ivy plants were turning brown.

Pretty soon, I was face to face with channa masala, chicken tikka masala and basmati rice from a steam table – and roti baked to order in a tandoori oven.

“Is someone else coming?” the lady asked as she arranged the plates on the table.

“Nope, it’s just me.”

Coriander was the first flavor I found in the channa masala (a vegetarian stew made with chick peas) but after a few bites the stew started leaving a hard-boiled egg aftertaste on my tongue.

I ripped off a piece of roti and dipped it into the tomato cream sauce that makes it so hard to ruin chicken tikka masala. Loaded with ginger and fresh thyme, Roti Boti’s is one of the better versions I’ve tried in New York. I’d order it again.

Basmati rice might have been chicken tikka’s more logical sauce-absorbing companion, but I left it alone and focused my attention on the roti. Chewy and warm and oven blistered, it made me want to try everything else that touched the tandoori. I wanted my lover, thousands of miles away in Berlin, to try it all, too.

Roti BotiMap it
27-09 21st St (near Newtown Ave) – Astoria
Tel. 718-278-7888
Open 24 hours
Credit card minimum: $15
Recommended Dishes: Chicken tikka masala, $9; Roti, $1; anything from the tandoori, $1-4.
Note: If you try the chicken biryani before I do, let us know what you think.

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  1. Really enjoyed reading this and found a connection to where we are now (Kuala Lumpur) as so many of the workers here are from Chennai. And you see so many more Indian men than women. I imagine some are not yet married, but given the age of the others I imagine that there are many wives and children at home waiting and hoping to be able to be together again.

    Dan and I did the separation thing for two years, but that’s nothing compared to 12!!

    • Audrey, thank you for sharing your story – I didn’t know about the big population from Chennai in Kuala Lumpur.
      (And I thought you and Dan would appreciate the resilience a 12 year separation requires!)
      Wish both of you good adventures and good eating in Asia.

  2. What an amazing love story! I can’t begin to fathom the sacrifice required to spend 12 years apart from one’s wife and children. Daniel and I were apart for two years before I made the move to Argentina, and that was torture enough. Now, after another two years, we’re getting married. :) Love can conquer all.

    • Katie, I can’t quite wrap my brain around 12 years of waiting either. I’m glad your story has a happy ending, too!! Congratulations to you and Daniel. Viva el amor :-)