I was bewildered as we headed out for our new assignment.
“Eat a dosa?,” I asked in disbelief. “I mean, no. Impossible. We can’t be getting attendance for eating food.” My stomach gurgled, almost as if it was background music. I had skipped breakfast yet again to my mother’s disapproval, running out just in time to catch my bus to college. With every passing second, I felt hungrier.
“Why do you have to question everything?,” my friend A said exasperatedly. He patted his small round paunch contentedly as it peered at me over the waistband of his jeans. “I can’t wait to eat it,” he continued. “I’ve heard about this place, it’s supposed to be amazing.”
My friend S agreed with him. A small fanatical gleam had appeared in her eyes as she strode away. She was a Brahmin and her favourite dish was a hot crispy dosa. I could almost see her mouth salivating at the thought of eating a dosa and writing about it. I followed them slowly. This seemed like such a fun activity. It couldn’t be real. I was sure it was a trap.
The college campus was almost deserted. It was only 10 in the morning after all. The air was still fresh. A gentle breeze ruffled my hair. As I dawdled behind my dosa-obsessed friends, a small mournful shape sitting outside the cafeteria came into view, tapping disinterestedly at his phone.
“I think that’s Z,” S told me, pointing at the shape. “He told me he had a free hour today.”
We approached him. It was indeed Z, one of our friends from another class. He was both surprised and amused by our given task. “Writing about eating a dosa, huh?” He shook his head in mock admiration. “English students are so weird, man. What next? A story about my grandfather’s moustache?”
We walked away in a huff, only to see him running after us, a wide grin stretched across his face. In spite of our unwelcoming faces, he decided to come with us, keeping up a running commentary as we walked through the streets.
We walked through winding roads and calm alleys. The sun was slowly beginning to heat up the day, its rays gleaming off the shiny parked cars. As we walked, I whipped out my small cracked phone to take pictures. Any random object was immediately snapped in my excitement. My friends walked on, ignoring my antics as I kneeled down to take a ‘meaningful’ picture of a stone lying on the ground. I felt as if I was a professional, capturing photographs for my article.
The feeling lasted for a few moments, until I realised I was standing alone in the centre of the road, my friends nowhere to be found.
I ran to catch up, finding them waiting impatiently outside a large rusted steel cage.
It looked abandoned to me. A parking lot left to decay in isolation, scattered wrappers and torn papers dotting the ground. In the corner was a small bedraggled shack. My fellow classmates crowded around it, chattering excitedly.
We entered and I looked around curiously. A ravaged sign with No Smoking written on it in scraggly red letters hung on one of the walls. It was ironic, considering the group of old men with cigarettes clutched in their hands as they sipped steaming hot chai and chuckled over boisterous jokes.
I walked up to the shack. The kitchen could be seen through a small opening in the wall, piles of steam escaping through the door in the back. Inside was a tiny room with a few full tables. A small wizened man in a white dhoti served the dosas to the customers, rushing back and forth every few minutes.
As I steadied my phone to take a picture of the action.my classmate stopped me. “Oy! Don’t take any pictures!” He gestured to the opening where a round angry-looking man slapped batter onto a hot griddle. “He already shouted at us twice for taking photographs.”
I nodded, and as A ordered us a round of open dosas, I watched through the opening as the man expertly flipped the brown discs before they burned, sprinkling spicy powder onto their surfaces and using his spatula as if it was an extension of his arm. It was starkly different from the way I cooked, burning most of my fingers in the process and poking most of my dishes with a fork to see if it was done.
S pulled me away to stand outside. Our dosas arrived, piping hot with a large lump of yellow butter dolloped on the surface. The butter was melting with the heat, the richness seeping into the dosa’s crispy surface. Z rubbed his hands together in delight. “There can never be enough butter,” he announced as he took his plate. “My aunt used to say that.”
I broke off a piece of my dosa–it was crisp yet soft at the same time–and wrapped it around the aloo palya. There was no bowl for the spicy green chutney, instead it lay at the dosa’s side and I dipped into it before placing the whole bundle in my mouth.
Being non vegetarian, I would never be excited for any meal without a tender piece of meat or at the very least an egg for me to eat with it. But this dosa was something special. The rich taste of butter mixed with the fried batter was pure heaven, and the flavours from the masala had me reaching for another piece before I even realised I had finished the first.
For a few moments, we were silent as we ate, each of us licking our finger-tips in appreciation.
“Well,” said A, as he crumpled his plate and threw it into the blue plastic bin. “Thank god for this assignment. If ever there was a dosa I could write about, it would be this one.”
We washed down the dosa with small steel cups of hot coffee. The taste, bitter and milky, rolled around in our mouths, taking the remnants of the dosa with it.
After checking our watches, we realised we were due for our next class and started to walk back lazily. Now that our bellies were full, all we wanted was a quick nap.
The sun had risen. It was almost midday and the streets had become busy. Cars were passing by, and a woman stood at a wooden gaadi, heating a heavy iron with coal to iron a mound of clothes at the side. The smoke from the coal rose black and heavy into the sky. My mood darkened as each curl of smoke rose.
“I don’t want any class,” S moaned, rubbing her stomach as we neared the college gates. “I feel like eating another dosa.”
“We can go again,” I said. “It is right up the road and it’s worth the walk.”
“You’re just saying that,” A rolled his eyes at me. “You don’t even like dosas that much. I doubt you’ll go again”
He was completely right. Even though I was born a South Indian and my mother made dosas once a week, I could never understand this craze over the dish. It seemed like such a boring snack, flat and uninteresting, a poor substitute for soft thick chapattis or crisp puris. I could eat masala dosas, but I would never crave it and even though I had enjoyed the open dosa at Yellamma Dasappa, I didn’t think that I would ever go back there just for a dosa of all things.
In spite of this, I found myself there two weeks later. It wasn’t exactly voluntary. I’d been dragged there by S on another one of her dosa hunts. As she ordered herself a dosa, she looked at me and sighed. “I know you want your chicken roll, we can go there next if you want.”
“It’s fine,” I said, and turned to the old man in the lungi, waiting for our order. “I want an open dosa, uncle.” I smiled as my stomach rumbled. “In fact, make it two.”
Image Credits: Shalom Sanjay