Longform

Little India

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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."
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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.

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Katharine Shilcutt