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Flashback: The Taxi Astrologer’s Masala Dosa

Sometimes the cab ride, and the conversation with the driver, is the most remarkable part of a taxi adventure. Sometimes it’s the food. When I was living in New York, the trip with Vinod Dogra to Ganapati Temple Canteen in Flushing, Queens was one of those rare and wonderful instances when the ride was as remarkable as the meal. I hope you don’t mind me sharing the story one more time.

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Regardless of how many times I attempt the taxi adventures, getting in a cab and having no idea where I’ll end up is not a natural reflex. I like predictability. I like maps. I’m at peace when I know where I’m going.

But I’ve always admired travelers who swing in the other direction – those fluid souls who take pleasure in deviating from their itineraries. I’ve always wished I could be more like them. 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 so many taxi adventures, I’m still working on internalizing this idea (Like tango, I think it’ll take a lifetime to learn). The journey with Vinod Dogra brought me a step, or maybe a few steps, closer.

Initially, the sixty-something 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, the flavors mild. Then we got to talking.

He 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,” he said, “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 he went on to explain why, in spite of 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.

Several u-turns and two freeways later, we were somewhere in the residential depths of Queens, approaching Ganapati Temple, where he said they make the best dosas in New York. A short journey had morphed into a long one, and when Vinod dropped me off, he blessed and thanked me. I had no idea how I was going to find my way back to Astoria. I thanked him back.

canteen

A mass of white-washed concrete surrounded by suburban duplexes, 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 (If you have a Bourdain kind of tolerance for spicy things, try the Pondicherry Dosa, which the man in line behind me described as ‘blazing hot’).

Along with everyone else in the canteen, I ate with my hands, alternating between bowls of searing coconut chutney and sambar, savoring the crispy, beautifully browned crepe as my lips began to burn.

I accepted a suggestion from the 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 like a pancake, Uttappam was a greasy passport to pleasure, a delicious fusion of fried onions, fresh rosemary, green chilies and cilantro. I haven’t eaten on streets of India (yet), but I imagined that I was tasting something that came close.

When I emerged from the basement of Ganapati Temple, my face was aflame and the sidewalks were deserted. No taxis cruised those sleepy streets. Maybe I could feel my way home the same way Vinod had helped me feel my way here, I thought. Maybe I could take my time, explore the neighborhood, forget about the afternoon’s work.

The reverie lasted for about three blocks. Then I dug out my New York City 5-borough street atlas and figured out where the subway was.

Ganapati Temple Canteen
45-57 Bowne St., Flushing (Queens)
Tel. 718-460-8493
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

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