Oops I did it again! Over two decades ago, while doing a recce for INTACH Pune, I remember strolling through Laxmi Road wearing something quintessentially me and stood out like a sore thumb. Cut to circa 2016 and the same thing happened to me in Queens, NYC. I was the only one in those few square miles wearing a sleeveless, short dress and sunglasses. It is summer, temperatures were hovering around the 90 mark but more to the point, I was not in conservative Pune, I was in liberal New York City. Go figure!
I guess some things just do not change, no matter the location. At first, I got off at the wrong subway stop and landed in a foreign land. The products on display made me feel I was strolling through the night markets in Hong Kong, Bangkok or Singapore until the unmistakable sounds of Spanish interjected with Latino music blasting from street radios and stores attuned me to the fact I was not in the Indian neighbourhood. Ten blocks down and it is like an invisible dividing line; the overtly Hispanic neighbourhood, suddenly morphed into a street in Bombay, Dhaka or Kathmandu. There was a distinct masala smell in the air from the many restaurants serving desi cuisine and the people suddenly looked more like me except the women were dressed in sarees and salwar kameezes.
I walked around like a tourist, simply gawking at store fronts with names such as Menaka Beauty Parlour, Raj Electronic Services, Delhi Durbar, Dosa Hut. There were people pushing strollers, selling calling cards to India, advertising discounts and urging shoppers to visit their premises. There were shops with heavily embroidered Indian garments, beauty parlours offering threading and waxing, jewellery stores selling gold ornaments, countless stores selling cell phones and related accessories and above all row upon row of grocery stores such as Apna Bazaar, Patel Cash and Carry, Subzi Mandi with fresh Indian vegetables, spices, snacks and lots more. I shut my eyes and was transported to the lanes of Bhendi Bazaar, Chandni Chowk, even Main Street in Pune. I have been to Edison in New Jersey so seeing a mini India in itself is not an anomaly, but I had just not expected it in New York.
I strolled into a few restaurants nervously hoping I did not come out smelling of curry. Jackson Diner was by far the largest in the area and could have been physically lifted out of India and placed squat in the middle of America’s most cosmopolitan city. I waited to speak with the manager and had to wait endlessly until I was told he was too busy. I looked around at a virtually empty restaurant and could barely contain my surprise. It was past the lunch hour but my argument fell on deaf ears. Was I dressed inappropriately? Was I not important enough? No matter where you are, for an Indian, it’s all about having the upper hand. My plea received a shrug and a request to come again!
The manager at Rajbhog sweets was more accommodating. Despite people clamoring to buy sweets and snacks, he took a few minutes to hear me out. My mission was unsuccessful but as I glanced around I did wonder if the place has passed health inspection. Suffice to say I did not feel inclined to touch anything in that room, though there were people seated at tables wolfing down their meal. The large grocery stores in the area are amazingly spick and span and refreshingly cool after the sticky humidity shimmering on my skin.
As my body temperature came down, I walked around Dorabjee trying to jog heat dulled mental faculties into remembering if I needed any groceries. Did I say Dorabjee? I could be forgiven that déjà vu moment. There is nothing to indicate otherwise unless you glance out of the windows and see an occasional white body walk past or catch a glimpse of the road signs. I can be forgiven considering my sensory organs were processing Bollywood music, Parachute oil, heaps of ginger, garlic, coriander, tomatoes, bitter gourd, even packets of Gits idli and Mother’s Recipe pickles.
New York is truly a melting pot. It amazes me how effortlessly a semblance of home has been recreated far away from the mother land. I would never have imagined I need to rethink what I wear when I visit a place in New York city, but next time I visit Queens, I will try to blend in. Maybe those Indian clothes settled in my closet, growing roots, will finally get to see the light of day.