Ana Berry, America’s Gypsy, explores America’s most fascinating ethnic neighborhoods.
Join her on her latest adventure discovering the sights, sounds, smells, shopping, and of course, singing and dancing in New York’s “Little India” South Asian community in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens.
“If it wasn’t for Rama and Allah, I’d still have a mother,” says orphan Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire, referring to his mother’s murder due to religious strife between Hindus and Muslims.
Deeply affected by the Oscar-winning movie, I wondered if I could discover other Bollywood films that that would resonate as much, both politically and emotionally.
Bollywood, a play on “Bombay” and “Hollywood,” is the center for the Hindi-language movie industry based in Mumbai, India and is the largest producer of films in the world. So it seemed fitting to shop for more Bollywood movies in Jackson Heights, Queens, aka “Little India.”
At first glance, Queens appears to be the most ethnically diverse 115 square miles on earth. The 7 subway line, dubbed the “International Express” travels straight from Manhattan into the heart of Little India, transporting passengers into another world.
Swarms of saris and burkas, turbans and caftans passed by as stepped off the train at Roosevelt Avenue. Although I was there to look for Bollywood films, I felt I was about to star in my own movie.
New York has the largest concentration of Indians of any city in America and Jackson Heights currently boasts an Indian-American population of more than 650,000.
There’s no missing 74th street, which has been renamed Kalpana Chawla Way as a tribute to the Indian-American astronaut who died in the Columbia space shuttle tragedy. It’s packed with the sights, sounds and smells of South Asian restaurants, clothing stores, groceries, and music shops. There are also temples for Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, representing the four dominant religions of India.
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The front windows of the store Jessi Emporium are adorned with pictures of a turbaned old man named Guru Nanak, the founder of the ancient Sikh faith. Having taken Kundalini yoga, which was created by a Sikh, I greeted the shop keepers with a gentle “sat nam,” (which loosely translates into, “Truth is my identity and I call upon the eternal Truth that resides in all of us”).
Two adorably small, dark-skinned ladies responded with a hearty, “Hallo! Welcum!”
When they explained that they are not Sikh but Muslims, I quickly changed my greeting to “Asalamalakum” (“May peace be upon you”) and they responded with a surprised smile, “Wa alaikum assalaam” (“May peace be upon you”).
Want more intercultural etiquette tips? Check out America’s Gypsy’s exploration of the myriad cultures of NYC’s Bukhari community in Rego Park.
The shop was a Queen’s paradise, filled with beads and bangles, colorful slip-on shoes and the traditional salwar kameez (loose pants with a matching tunic top), kurta (long flowing blouse) and sari (a colorful piece of fabric wrapped worn as a dress).
The little ladies wrapped me with an elaborate sari of sheer, bright-red fabric and golden beads, pushed golden bangles onto my wrists and stuck a red bindi on my forehead.
It was as if the director had shouted “Action!” and now I truly was the star of a Bollywood film.
I had my sari, my bangles and my bindi. Now all I needed was music … and a little curry.
Upon entering Jackson Diner, instead of being greeted by a host and a hello, guests are greeted by a huge statue of Shiva (seen as the Supreme God in Hinduism) and a “namaste” (“the divinity within me honors the divinity within you”).
At the table, instead of bread and butter, waiters bring chapati (unleavened flatbread) with chutney (sweet and savory jelly).
The waiter, being a vegetarian Buddhist from Nepal, couldn’t give me a fair recommendation of the tastiest dish for an omnivore on the extensive menus, so I ordered an enormous meal: Punjabi kadhi (chickpeas and curry), saag paneer (spinach and cheese), and halal chicken tandoori (halal means the animal is killed with respect to Islamic law).
Instead of after-dinner mints, patrons are handed a scoop of mukhwas, a colorful collection of fennel and anise seeds that works as a natural digestive aid and mouth freshener.
Next door, loud music blared from a store called Golden Music. Videos and CDs lined the walls while a DJ wearing a white turban blasted Indian pop music on the turntables. I couldn’t help but move to the beats.
Almost immediately, a cute little boy popped out from behind the counter and began dancing with me. I followed his lead—he pushed his hands up to the right, then to the left, and acted as if there were a drum in between his legs. I followed like the fabulous fool that I am, still adorned in my red and gold sari with the bright red bindi still clinging to the middle of my forehead.
Our audience clapped their hands, yelling, “Balle! Balle!” (an exclamation of having fun). It was truly a scene in a Bollywood film—a beautiful, colorful scene of people dancing joyously to music. And, I marveled, it was a Sikh DJ playing Hindi music as an American woman danced to the universal beats.
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The lesson of my day?
I didn’t have to trek 15 hours over the Atlantic to experience South Asian culture. I only needed to travel 15 minutes to Queens, where diverse groups from the largest continent in the world have re-created their native home right here.
And once they reached the United States, finding common ground became more important than fighting over differences—where one man’s “Asalamalakum” is another woman’s “Namaste.”
And it’s not just New York City. Other American cities with large, active South Asian communities include: Devon Avenue, Chicago, Illinois; Oak Tree Road, Edison, New Jersey; Pioneer Boulevard, Artesia, California; El Camino Real, Santa Clara, California; Chatham Street, Cary, North Carolina; Newark Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey; Hillcroft, Houston, Texas; Hicksville, Long Island, New York; Millbourne, Pennsylvania.
Interested in good South Asian music? Don’t miss:
Classical – Vikash Maharaj & Prabhash Maharaj (India), Ravi Shankar (India), Jagjit Singh (India), Drepung Loseling Monastery (Nepal), Wasifuddin Dagar (Bangladesh)
Pop – Baba Sehgal (India), Alisha Chinai (India), Habib Wahid (Bangladesh)
Devotional – Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Deva Premal, Snatam Kaur, Wasifuddin Dagar, Yousef Islam, Hafíz Kani Karaca
And last, but certainly not least, must-see Bollywood films: Black, Satya, Kabi Kushi Gabi Gham, Lagaan, and Sholay.
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Are you a fan of Bollywood or Hindi pop tunes? Let us know your favorites in the comments. And for more on Asian culture, don’t miss our Asia Travel section.