The Cultural Value of an Indian Store

12 06 2009

Like many South Asian Americans, I wade my way through the dense thicket of Indian aunties and the crying babies to get my Indian groceries. It’s a small price that I readily pay to be an Indian in America. A single Indian grocery store is really nothing exciting. Yet the simple act of consuming cultural goods with other members of the community provides a sense of closeness and belonging. For most of my life, I have felt as though people point at me and sing “Which one of these is not like the other?” The anonymity in an Indian-American store allows for a certain community bond between Indian shoppers to develop. The Indian store is a place where an Indian can enjoy being Indian without anyone noticing.

Dallas (technically, Richardson, TX) has a million little South Asian niche shops and grocery stores like the almighty Taj Mahal Imports. Taj (as it is called locally) has a huge selection of South Asian foods and condiments, specialized cooking utensils, Indian books, Indian instruments, religious idols, and fresh vegetables. Within walking distance used to be Atlantic Video. They sold a huge selection of new and old Bollywood music and movies. Next door you can buy your gold jewelry, salwar kameez1 and kurta pajamas2 for the next wedding, then stop by the sweets shops and the restaurants too. To the unfamiliar eye, these stores sell an unimaginable variety of everything Indian. It’s like being a kid in a toy store. Ultimately, it’s a gathering place for the South Asian community.

I don’t remember the first time that my family and I drove to Dallas for the sole purpose of shopping at those Indian stores in Richardson. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a fairly large city with a tiny South Asian population. It was a regular Saturday trip for friends and family to carpool down to Texas. It seems like an odd thing to do, I suppose. How many people do you know who regularly drive more than 200 miles from home simply to buy their cooking necessities? For us, it was better than the alternative. Tulsa only had three small stores scattered throughout the city that sold Indian stuff in the ’90s. Their selections were always very limited. Prices were too high and the staple food products like flour and rice came only in small quantities. Finding fresh eastern vegetables was rare since they weren’t sold at the regular American supermarkets. We bought only the bare necessities at these stores, then moved on to the next errand.

Without a central place for the entire South Asian community, it took a strong effort to sustain our heritage in Oklahoma. Anthropologist Caroline Brettell asks how “the locality dimension of an immigrant community [is] constructed” in her research about spatial patterns of Asian Indian immigrants in Dallas3. She looks at the way these immigrants create meeting places to keep the community together. South Asian immigrants typically settle in the suburbs among white Americans, causing them to lack a certain centrality. To keep the community from disappearing into mainstream America, they need an assemblage akin to the consumerist face of the Little Italy’s and Chinatowns of the major American cities. In contrast to Tulsa, a large population of South Asians in the Dallas area allowed a greater community to arise there.

Brettell cites Taj Mahal Imports as one of the places that ethnic communities in the suburbs created as informal meeting places to “serve as leisure locales where social bonding occurs among users.” South Asians come to Taj to eat freshly made street foods like pav bhaji4 and pani puri5 over at the chaat6 corner with their friends. They catch up on the latest gossip and happenings of the community, all while buying their flour, rice, daals7, and South Asian vegetables for their day-to-day needs.

The outsides of the Indian stores in Dallas prove to consumers that they are in America. The inside of the store reminds them that the South Asian culture in America is sturdy, and that they have the strong common desire to maintain that culture. The stores allow South Asians to connect with their fellow countrymen in a way that bridges the power of consumption and its strong ties to cultural identity (which is another topic altogether). These places are so powerful that they attract visitors from hundreds of miles away. It reminds us that our larger South Asian American community is indeed big and thriving, whether we live in the heart of it or not.

Footnotes:

1. salwar kameez: literally, “pant shirt.” traditional clothing worn by South Asian women

2. kurta pajama: also “pant shirt,” the male version

3. Brettell, Caroline B., (2005). “The spatial, social, and political incorporation of Asian Indian immigrants in Dallas, Texas. Urban Anthropology & Studies of Cultural Systems & World Economic Development.” Vol. 34 (2-3), pp. 247-280.

4. pav bhaji: Indian street food made from a veggie mashup with bread. Wikipedia explains it better than I can; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pav_bhaji

5. pani puri: Indian street food involving stuffed puris and flavored water. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pani_puri

6. chaat: the term for street food

7. daal: blanket term for dried beans like split lentils and others that are often used to make soups or stews