Little India

Page 5 of 5

"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."

[email protected]

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Katharine Shilcutt