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."