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'Bollywood Oscars' visitors will find growing Indian-American community


When Pawan Rattan and his wife arrived in Tampa in 1982, they encountered few other people from India.

If it happened, it was a thrill.

"We would cross the street to meet somebody," said Dr. Rattan, 65, born in the state of Punjab.

The retired physician is no longer lonely for countrymen.

The last U.S. census recorded 15,242 people of Indian descent in Hillsborough County and 12,697 in the four surrounding counties, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk and Manatee.

Counts will spike in April when the Tampa Bay area hosts the International Indian Film Academy's 15th annual awards program, which is expected to draw 30,000 or more visitors to a region of 3.5 million residents.

History suggests some may find the climate pleasant and decide to stay.

"There's a general sense of being at home with your own community here," Dr. Rattan said. "Some functions, we have thousands of people. We are at home. There's no feeling of 'where are we?' We're totally at home."

As Indian-Americans have settled in the bay area, they have made it more hospitable to those who have followed.

They built Hindu temples. They prospered in business and medicine. They made friends at school and at work. They won hearts with philanthropy. They threw Indian Gasparilla parties.

And they grew in numbers the marketplace could not ignore.

The falling price of paneer tells all. A block of the soft cheese once cost $8 in Tampa. But it's $5.49 — and occasionally on sale for $2.99 — at Patel Brothers, part of a national grocery chain that caters to the tastes of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Patel Brothers, which opened on Fowler Avenue in 2009, expects to grow to 15,000 square feet within a year. The store draws both home cooks and restaurant owners with competitive prices on spices, hard-to-find produce such as Indian karela, an array of lentils and a freezer wall loaded with the filled pastries Indians call samosas.

The opening was greeted in the Indian-American community with the enthusiasm others have mustered for Trader Joe's. Manager Mohan Purohit said some people drive from Miami, soon to get its own store.

"My husband was raised in this country, and he still likes Indian food," said shopper Shaila Reddy, as she navigated the produce aisle with her father, who was visiting from India.

Indian restaurants, nonexistent when Dr. Rattan arrived in the early 1980s, are seemingly everywhere.

He remembers the 1991 debut of Taj on Fowler Avenue, with fare characteristic of northern India. Now, Udipi Cafe in Carrollwood cooks meatless fare from southern India.

Food isn't the only way families keep one foot in America and the other in India.

Satellite and cable TV companies sell programming in Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati. The languages are among 22 recognized by India's constitution. It is a nation with hundreds of dialects and 1.2 billion people, a population four times that of the United States and second only to China.

AMC Veterans 24 in northwestern Hillsborough County routinely screens movies from India, including the action thrillers Dhoom 3, released in December, and Jai Ho, released in January.

And, of course, there's the coming Indian film weekend in Tampa, April 24-26, so large that its biggest event — a $93.50 to $3,294.75-per-ticket awards ceremony dubbed the "Bollywood Oscars" — requires use of Raymond James Stadium.

The Indian-American community has its own statewide monthly newspaper, Khaas Baat (, started nearly a decade ago by journalists Nitish and Shephali Rele.

Dr. Rattan is in the February issue, describing the new 10,600-square-foot Hindu temple planned for Tampa Heights. It will replace one he founded in 1991 at the urging of his father, who reminded him that making money was not the sole purpose of his move to the United States.

Indian-American doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants, insurance agents, real estate agents, travel agents, videographers and dance teachers promote their services in Khaas Baat.

In classified ads, a Gujarati family in Florida seeks a husband for their daughter and a St. Petersburg motel looks for Gujarati-speaking staff.

Newspaper co-founder Shephali Rele, 46, grew up in Hannibal, Mo., when there were two Indian families among 19,000 residents.

Now, she and her husband live in New Tampa. She counts four Indian families on the Reles' street and at least a dozen in their Pebble Creek subdivision.

"I can't go to the grocery store without seeing a new Indian face," she said.

In Missouri, her parents single-handedly instilled in her a love for Indian culture, music and film. Here, parents get support from temples, cultural organizations, frequent festivals and other Indian-American parents.

At an Indian dance studio in Carrollwood, girls learn classical movements that date back centuries, in classes so popular there's a waiting list.

"When you're with school friends, you're American with a hint of Indian," said one of the dancers, Anusha Kante, 14, as her mother sat talking to other mothers after a rehearsal.

"But when you're here, you're Indian with a hint of American."

• • •

Sheila Narayanan started the dance studio, called Shreyas — An Expression of Dance. She and her husband, business consultant Ravi Narayanan, moved to the area in 1996 from New Jersey with their daughter, then 4.

The girl, too, was named Shreya. The word means "auspicious," or what will be good in the long run.

As her American education unfolded at Carrollwood's Essrig Elementary, the parents made sure she also learned about India and encouraged her to speak Tamil, their mother tongue, at home.

Now 22, Shreya Narayanan straddles two cultures.

A second-year medical student at the University of South Florida, she aspires to become a doctor-journalist like CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta, the son of Indian immigrants.

But from her earliest years she also has studied and taught classical Indian dance alongside her mother, who took up the lifelong pursuit at a New Jersey school opened in the 1970s by Bollywood actress Padmini Ramachandra.

The daughter, who seldom has time for either Hollywood or Bollywood these days while in medical school, identifies with both America and India.

"It was never something forced on me," she said. "It was encouraged. They made a point of showing me how beautiful the Indian culture was, as opposed to saying, 'This is how we grew up. You have to do it, too.'

"I came to love the Indian culture and it's absolutely a huge part of who I am."

Her mother was born in Mumbai when it was still called Bombay. She came to the United States with her parents as an infant.

Over the years, the Carrollwood family has made regular trips to India. Such trips can cost a family of four close to $10,000 in airfare alone.

"It's almost like you have two homes, even though I didn't grow up there," the mother said. "There's something about India that's so warm and inviting that you want to go back."

Children return to the United States with lasting memories of elders and mango season, their ears filled with new sounds.

• • •

Dr. Rattan sees the value in maintaining ties to India.

He recalls something his father used to say: "Without the root, the tree cannot survive, though there are many branches."

Tampa mental health counselor Sushama Kirtikar, 58, also uses trees to make a point: With roots firmly planted, limbs that sway in the wind and leaves that change for the season, they show the power of adaptability.

Eating apple pie doesn't have to mean giving up the Indian dumplings, gulab jamun, she wrote in a Khaas Baat column a few years ago. "If we can learn to be open to the host country without fully relinquishing our Indian culture, we will learn to be happy," she wrote.

She remembers her own experiences. She was 19 and newly married when she joined her engineer husband in Kalamazoo, Mich., in September 1975.

It was lonely for a while.

Long-distance calls were expensive. After two months in America, she finally called family. It was during India's biggest holiday season, Diwali, the festival of lights. The connection brought familiar voices.

"I just remember choking up," she said. "I couldn't get any words out."

Away from home, immigrants find kinship where they can, recasting the friends they make into the cousins they miss. If the new friends are from India, too, the adventure in the United States becomes a shared story.

"There is a sense of solidarity in knowing we have witnessed similar struggles, and similar scripts have been written out for us," Kirtikar said.

"The heart just gets full."

• • •

Dr. Rattan can remember when a single shop on 30th Street in Tampa met the needs of the entire Indian community.

It wasn't a big shop. But it carried spices, teas, prepared foods and movies that could be rented.

He doesn't watch many movies. But he's going with the flow to the Bollywood Oscars.

It will be a surreal event, sitting in Raymond James Stadium amid tens of thousands of people of similar ancestry in a city many now call home.

Far from India, and yet, in a sense, not.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.

'Bollywood Oscars' visitors will find growing Indian-American community 02/22/14 [Last modified: Sunday, February 23, 2014 12:17pm]
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