Little India

It is a Wednesday afternoon during lunch service at Raja Sweets on Hillcroft and a line winds in front of the brightly lit case of sweets in the middle of the restaurant. Customers are having their cafeteria-style trays filled with golden-colored butter chicken and soft green saag paneer, then taking their seats in the unassuming dining room. And they're ordering sweets from the case by the dozen.

"Gulab jamun is by far our best seller," says Sharan Gahunia. "Almond or plain." The colorfully attired, always smiling Gahunia is the daughter of Joginder "Yogi" and Resham Gahunia, who opened Raja Sweets in 1985 along what was then a decidedly non-Indian portion of Hillcroft. In the 25 years that Raja Sweets has been open, Yogi has passed away (in 2002), but not before leaving an incredible legacy in Houston.

"Yogi was a friend of mine," says Kaiser Lashkari, the genial owner of Himalaya, one of dozens of South Asian restaurants that have cropped up along Hillcroft in the last 25 years. "He was the founding father of Indian sweets in Houston. He opened the first sweets shop in Houston. He was very much a part of bringing Hillcroft onto the scene."

"It was little-bitty when he started," Lashkari laughs. And despite that space of only 1,500 square feet, it was selling Indian sweets made from scratch on the premises, a tradition that continues to this day.

Sharan Gahunia says that many of the big-name Indian restaurants in town get their sweets from Raja, including the popular, ricotta-like Chenna Juli treats, each with a cherry on top. "We made those first," she grins. "Now every sweet shop sells them."

It's difficult to imagine that the successful shop, which is crowded nearly every day of the week for lunch and dinner, was ever small — it doubled in size in 1990 — or that its owners, Yogi and his wife Resham, were ever disadvantaged in this thriving area. But the Gahunias were pioneers in every sense of the word, arriving in Houston with not much money and a family to feed more than 25 years ago.

Now their sweet shop is a full-service, fast-food-style Indian restaurant that feeds other families day in and day out, a restaurant which has been instrumental in transforming this stretch of Hillcroft into what it is today: the Mahatma Gandhi District, home to many of the city's Indian and Pakistani businesses.

Indians and Pakistanis alike have known for years that Hillcroft is the place to go in Houston for not only food, but saris, gold jewelry, the latest Bollywood movies or music imported directly from South Asia. But when the area was officially designated the Mahatma Gandhi district, it was clear the rest of the city had taken note.

"If you talk to longtime Houston Desi residents, they'll tell you that the establishment of the Hillcroft area as the 'Gandhi District' is a milestone," said Lynn Ghose Cabrera, co-founder along with Aditi Raghuram of Desi Living, a blog that covers social aspects of the city's vibrant South Asian community, and social chair of Houston's immense Network of Indian Professionals. "It's one signifier among many that as a community, we've come of age," she continued.

A gold-framed photograph of Yogi, draped lightly with floral garlands, looks down over the shop from above the sweets case at Raja. He has a gentle smile on his face, his eyes seeming to watch the patrons fondly.

After he died, Sharan says, she and her mother received an offer of $1.5 million to sell the restaurant, which they swiftly declined. "I will never close or sell it," Sharan says. "I grew up in it."

The Mahatma Gandhi District is a relatively new name for this piece of Hillcroft, which marks its borders with Highway 59 to the south and Westpark to the north. The three roads combine in such a way as to form a little triangle within the tangle of streets and strip malls, a triangle which is still called by its other names: "Little India" to Houstonians, or simply "Hillcroft" to the city's large Indian community.

This area has been able to thrive not only because of its centralized location within the city and its increasing visibility, but also because of the demographics of the Indian community itself. South Asian population numbers in Houston have mushroomed over the past ten years. In the 2000 census, Harris County reported nearly 36,000 Indians, with a median household income $11,000 over the average for the rest of the county: $53,000 per year. In Fort Bend County, the median household income was $83,000, with a population of nearly 13,000.

Although official 2010 Census data aren't yet available, a 2009 American Community Survey demographic estimate put the Harris County Indian population at 46,125 and the Fort Bend County Indian population at 25,104.

Nearly 65 percent of those Indians in Harris County had college degrees in 2000, with 62 percent reported in Fort Bend County. Compared to a mere 18 percent of the overall population in Harris County and a slightly higher 25 percent in Fort Bend County, it's a staggering difference in education between South Asians — also called Desis — and the general populace. It's these levels of education and income that have made Hillcroft a success, especially for the businesses that deal in expensive items like gold jewelry at Karat 22 and saris at Roop Sari Palace, where a basic summer outfit starts at around $140.

It's an assessment that Kaiser Lashkari backs up with anecdotal figures of his own. "When I came here in 1980, there were like 50,000 Indians in Houston," he said. "Today, there are 130,000 and about 50,000 Pakistanis. And of course, we've also got Indian people that have migrated here from Africa, from South Africa, from East Africa."

"The Indians are professionals," he continued. "They're educated people: doctors, lawyers, engineers, software personnel. They have the income to support our businesses." And those businesses would, in turn, support a change for the area in January 2010, when — after many years of petitioning by local business owners — gleaming white signs trimmed in saffron-colored steel were installed above the bright-green street signs, designating the area as "the Mahatma Gandhi District."

Aku Patel owns Karat 22, the largest jewelry showroom in Texas and one of the first Indian businesses to move to Hillcroft. The glittering interior of his jewelry store looks like a museum, and he's proud of the fact that his store is one of only six licensed Rolex dealers in town.

"People came to Hillcroft from as far as Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico and South Texas to do their shopping for their kids' weddings or big occasions like that," Patel says of the years before the signs were installed. "This was a good market, good for Houston's economy."

The original plan had been to rename Hillcroft itself "Mahatma Gandhi Avenue," but the City of Houston requires that at least 75 percent of the businesses along a street put their signatures on a petition in support of a street name change, and the India Culture Center — which spearheaded the signature drive — was never able to obtain that large a percentage.

However, the Center — in conjunction with amenable business owners — was able to come up with the $10,000 it took to install the 31 temple-shaped signs and designate the street as a so-called cultural district.

"You see, the name Mahatma Gandhi itself means peace," says Patel. "He's a person who propagated peaceful ways. Nonviolence. We come from an area where we believe in nonviolence and we do our things very peacefully, so we thought it very appropriate to have this area have a deeper meaning like that."

He continued: "Sometimes ethnic areas become a little bit less — how do you say it? — to the mainstream community, they're perceived as downward areas. And we didn't want to give that impression. We wanted to welcome the mainstream American people: Come on into this area. This is a nice area, a very safe area."

When the Gahunias first came to Houston in 1981, there were only a handful of Indian stores along Hillcroft. But that wasn't exactly the family's primary concern. With little money and three children to feed, Yogi and Resham had to get to work. Sharan remembers those thin days, when her mother made small meals mostly from rice.

It wasn't the Gahunias' first experience in America, nor was it their first experience in the restaurant industry. Originally from Punjab, the Gahunias had run a successful restaurant in London for a few years before the gloomy weather became too much to bear. They landed in Cleveland on the advice of a family member, and started a restaurant called Front Row in 1979. Three years later, the weather was once again too cold and the economy had soured significantly in Ohio, so they moved to Houston with little more than the hope of opening another restaurant in this new town.

Yogi and Resham stuck with what they knew: the food-service industry. Yogi got a job at Burger King and Resham worked at Dunkin' Donuts, saving nearly every penny they made, dreaming of the day they'd be running their own place once again.

By 1985, they had saved enough money to open Raja Sweets. Their neighbors in the strip center were a club called Traffic Jam and a Champps. "We were the first," says Sharan of the family's bold decision to open their restaurant in an almost completely non-Indian part of town.

For the first 15 years the shop was in business, Yogi and Resham never stopped working. "From 1986 to 2002, my mother was literally here for 12 hours a day, seven days a week," Sharan says. "My dad wasn't a big travel or vacation person." But they were too busy supplying the city with freshly made sweets to take a break anyway.

"Every Indian loves sweets. They want to literally have them every day," laughs Aku Patel. He recalled a conversation with his old friend Yogi: "He said, 'I'm gonna serve fresh sweets. Not pre-made sweets coming from New York or India or Pakistan. I'm gonna make them right here.' He was the first guy to actually make sweets in Houston."

"Considering they use sweets at temples, at birthdays, at parties, at festivals, at New Year," Sharan says, it wasn't a surprise that Raja Sweets took off the way it did. "Everything is based around sweets. Anything happy that happens. You have a kid, they give out sweets."

The other draw at Raja Sweets was the sheer amount of home-cooked North Indian food one could get for cheap. Patel laughs when he recalls how much food Yogi piled on the plates. "I used to tell him, 'Yogi, these portions are too big!' He said, 'No, I want them to be satisfied they ate as much as they could for $3.50."

Within three years after the Gahunias opened Raja Sweets, India Grocers had opened down the street, adding to a handful of existing grocers in the area. Like Raja, it was originally a small space until Yatin Patel moved and expanded it in 1994, four years after the Gahunias had expanded at their own original location. Also in 1994, the Gahunias saw another long-term neighbor move into the Hillcroft Park Center: Keemat Grocers. Like India Grocers and Patel Brothers, it was one of many signs that the neighborhood was rapidly becoming more than just a small assortment of South Asian restaurants. Hillcroft was growing quickly.

During this time, Sharan graduated from Sharpstown High School and the University of Houston, going straight to work for Continental Airlines in its customer-service department for 11 years. But she was still always present at Raja Sweets when her parents needed her — sometimes whether she liked it or not. It had evolved into a full-blown family business by the early 2000s, with every staff member somehow related to each other.

Two of her uncles became the chefs as Yogi added North Indian-style fast food to the menu a few years after opening. And Resham continued her insistence on everything being made fresh, on-site, every single day. She resisted dumbing down their recipes, refusing to add cream to dishes like the popular butter chicken, refusing to skimp on ingredients. They bought their spices during twice-yearly trips back to India and supplemented what they couldn't bring home with groceries purchased from their neighbors along Hillcroft.

And although the Gahunias were insistent upon keeping Raja Sweets a family-run operation, not every design goes according to plan.

Sharan's older sister was oxygen-deprived at birth, a condition that's left her permanently disabled, with the mind of a toddler, although she's often present at the restaurant with a sweet grin on her face. "She requires constant care," says Sharan.

Meanwhile, Sharan's brother has absolutely no interest in the family's restaurant lifestyle, to the extent that he distanced himself from the business, anglicizing his name from Raju to Roger. It was an unusual move in a community where the second generation typically works alongside and then takes over for their parents after retirement, whether they're keen on the family business or not. Until recently, he worked as an IT specialist at ExxonMobil before his job was outsourced.

Then, after fighting pancreatic cancer for years, Yogi died in 2002. It was a blow not only to the restaurant but to the Indian community. After 17 years, Yogi and Raja Sweets had become what Sharan calls "the compass, the magnetic north" of the Indian community in Houston. He was well known for his sweets, yes, but also for his benevolence: providing food and snacks for events at the India Culture Center or the South Asian Chamber of Commerce for free, his restaurant serving as a sort of living room for Hillcroft itself.

His generosity didn't end there — he often wrote $5,000 or $10,000 checks to other organizations that needed seed money. "The guy who started Masala Radio," recalls Sharan, "had a vision and an idea. He came to talk to my dad about it. He needed $10,000 to start and my dad wrote him a check and said, 'I believe in you.' Of course, he paid my dad back. But my dad did stuff like that all the time. Even with other restaurant owners. He always told them: 'You should do it, follow your dreams.'"

Yatin Patel has operated India Grocers for 22 years, most of that time spent in the Olympic Center that runs along Highway 59. The rakishly handsome eternal bachelor, originally from Zambia, has decorated his store with posters of cricket players and sports cars, and he always has a story for his customers, most of whom are regulars.

When the store first opened, Patel says, "Hillcroft didn't have a very strong Indian community. A few restaurants and stores, but that was it." But now, Patel says, "a good 20 to 25 percent of the business is not from Indians anymore — it's from other ethnicities. We carry a lot of English products, a lot of Caribbean stuff. But the truth is that more people are being exposed to Indian food these days."

"It doesn't seem like it's been 20 years," he said, smiling over the busy counter of his store one morning. Customers had lined up outside waiting for Patel's arrival that morning.

As the Indian community comes of age, so has the Pakistani community. Lashkari, whose own restaurant is Pakistani, estimates that 35 to 40 percent of the businesses along Hillcroft are now Pakistani-owned, which leads to the occasional tense moment between Indians and Pakistanis along Hillcroft, where the geopolitical boundaries between businesses and customers are even more blurred than they are back home.

While there are some anecdotes of tensions between the two groups, Lashkari has a different story to tell. He's never witnessed any conflict between Pakistanis and Indians, just people getting along as newly christened Houstonians. "Once you're over here, you're over here," he mused. "And I thank God for that," he said.

Sharan, too, is happy to have all kinds of customers in her restaurant. Being from Punjab, a vast region that straddles India and Pakistan, naturally inclines one to be accustomed to a great swirl of religions, cultures and traditions. Indian or Pakistani, Sikh or Hindu or Muslim — they're all welcome here. And like Yatin Patel, her customer base is shifting. "These days, we get a lot of Chinese, African-American and Latinos coming in," even though she says that Raja's food is "really authentic Indian food; we don't Americanize our flavors."

As with Kaiser Lashkari, his neighbor in the Olympic Center, Patel gives a lot of credit to Raja Sweets for bringing Houston's South Asian community to Hillcroft, although he grins as he says that his store is as much of a landmark for Indians now as Raja Sweets once was. But, he admits, Raja Sweets was instrumental in jump-starting that initial development.

"We all complement each other. It kind of cemented this thing. If someone wanted to come out to Hillcroft, everything they wanted was here. We became a permanent fixture."

Of the great concentration of South Asian businesses along this tiny street, Patel is an optimist: "Some people are afraid of competition. I think it's a good thing; I've never been the one to not direct customers to a competitor. There are just so many stores here."

But stores aren't the only entities to have sprung up in the last 25 years. There are a half-dozen Indian and Pakistani newspapers available in restaurants and shops, such as the Voice of Asia and the India Herald. There is Masala Radio, an AM station featuring all-Indian music and talk shows such as Meena Datt's long-running Music of India, broadcast for 25 years. Big-name Indian singers make tour stops in Houston: Sonu Nigam, a wildly popular singer from Haryana, played a recent sold-out show at the Arena Theatre, just down the street. And each night, the Bollywood 6 theater on Highway 6 is packed, screening movies like Love U...Mr. Kalakaar! and Double Dhamaal.

"You know every movie in India is a musical," laughs Kaiser Lashkari about the prevalence of Bollywood culture in Houston. Across Hillcroft from his restaurant, Maharani Music keeps the party going after the films have left the theater. "He brings all these music CDs and DVDs from India, all the latest films and movies, all the new music that's released," Lashkari says.

And just as vital to the culture is the presence of several professional dance academies in Houston, teaching dance to young Indian girls. "Dance is an integral part of Indian culture," Lashkari notes, making schools like the Abhinaya School of Performing Arts and the Shri Natraj School of Dance all the more important.

Temples, too, have proliferated here along with social and professional networks like the one that Lynn Ghose Cabrera chairs.

The growth has amazed even members of the South Asian community itself. Says Ghose Cabrera of the area when she first moved here from Oklahoma ten years ago, "What I remember is the awe I felt that so many Desi and other ethnic businesses were concentrated in an area, and thriving. It was my first inkling that Houston's a city on par with other well-established, world-class cities. It was my go-to place for buying bulk spices and staples, to have a meal, have threading done, and to buy Desi sundries that you just couldn't find in the mainstream."

"Of course, these days," she says, "you can buy bindis just about everywhere."

Nearly 400 of the Gahunias' customers showed up to celebrate the restaurant's 25th anniversary party on April 24. The Sunday afternoon was filled with bhangra music spun by a local DJ, T-shirt giveaways and, of course, free food and sweets. Yogi would have liked it that way.

"My dad used to say this should be Little India," Sharan says. "It was after he passed away that this became the Gandhi District, but I think he would have been so happy to have seen that. He would have been so proud."

She chuckles. "He would have said, 'Now let's get the signs in Hindi.'"

Yogi had other grand plans for the district, too. "Before he passed away," Sharan says, "he was saying someone would make so much money if there was an Indian movie theater right here on Hillcroft. Somebody should invest $10 to $15 million and just build a really nice theater. Everyone would go."

Aku Patel agrees. Continued South Asian development along Hillcroft is a given, although they're somewhat limited geographically. "Moving on the other side of 59 would be difficult because there is a very high Latin population. And they are expanding this way as we are expanding that way. We are meeting in the middle," he laughs. "I don't think we'll go beyond 59, but the possibility is that we'll go a little bit deeper into Harwin; that is pretty much where the expansion will be. More east-west than north-south."

Traces of this expansion are already seen in the pages of local newspapers like the Pakistan Times, where ads for South Asian accountants, lawyers and insurance agents already show Harwin addresses alongside their smiling headshots. And those saffron-trimmed, temple-shaped street signs are already placed prominently above several of Harwin's own street signs.

As for Raja Sweets, in the entire time that Yogi ran the restaurant, he increased prices only twice. Sharan doesn't see any reason to increase them now.

She doesn't speak much about her father's death. She mostly talks about the future, but with a few asides here and there about trying to get her mother Resham to slow down after her father passed away in 2002. After all those long years working without a break, Resham was finally ready to take one day a week off — with some convincing from Sharan.

That decision led Raja Sweets to close its doors on Tuesdays, the first time in its history that it hadn't been a seven-day-a-week operation. Soon, other businesses followed suit. It was nice to have one day a week off, and Tuesday seemed as good a day as any, noted Yatin Patel. Once again, Raja Sweets was setting a trend along Hillcroft, one that continues in most Indian restaurants to this day.

Sharan still keeps the place closed on Tuesdays and mostly runs things these days, although Resham is almost always there as well. They speak a mixture of Hindi, Urdu, English and occasionally Spanish to their many customers, Resham usually speaking Punjabi when it's just her and Sharan.

The 25th anniversary party was not just a milestone year for the restaurant, either: Resham will turn 60 this year.

At this age, is she ready to retire? Sharan laughs. "According to her accountant, she can't retire until she's 65."

"My mom is really active," Sharan says. "Even when the restaurant is closed on Tuesdays. She says she feels more tired when she's at home not doing anything because she's so used to coming here every day. She's one of the most hardworking people I know."

Sharan isn't quite sure of Raja Sweets' ultimate direction in the next 25 years, but she mentions wanting to expand into the lucrative wedding business. "Indians spend more money on their weddings than they do on houses," she says with a smile, sitting across from Aku Patel in his office one sunny afternoon. "It's crazy."

She calls Patel "Uncle" with a distinct fondness. He and Sharan reminisce about Yogi and his enthusiasm for the Mahatma Gandhi District, how excited he would be to see its progress these days.

"Her dad had a vision," Patel says. "He was always telling me how the Indian market had mushroomed in the United Kingdom."

"He said one day the same thing will happen here in America."

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Katharine Shilcutt