Alpa Mandalya's story sounds similar to many Indian immigrants who've come to settle in the Tampa Bay area. She had a relative who had settled here and when she arrived from India 10 years ago, she was in love.
"I think the common thing Indian people love is that they always organize all our festivals here," said Mandalya, 47, an eyebrow-threading technician from Tampa. "We don't miss much in Tampa because we're still connected to it."
For the 26th year, Tampa Bay's Gujarati Samaj, a cultural organization for Indian families, will host its annual India Festival, replete with vendors, Indian cuisine and traditional dance competitions. The festival lands just before the Hindu new year celebration, Diwali, on Nov. 3., and gives Tampa Bay's bustling Indian community the chance to celebrate together and make pre-new year's purchases such as clothing, according Mahesh Modha, the event chair for 2013.
"For Diwali, we have people coming to the festival from all 50 states," Modha said. "We even have vendors who are visiting all the way from India."
The expected crowd of more than 12,000 for Saturday's festival at the Florida State Fairgrounds is only a slice of Tampa Bay's large Indian community. Though the festival's key point is bringing in the community, Modha said, Indian people have already had a great deal of influence of the everyday realities of living in Tampa Bay.
Nearly every community in the area has one or several Indian restaurant options available, and that density has spawned innovative cuisine ideas including Tun-Du-Ree, the bay area's own answer to Indian fast food in Tampa. There are Indian grocery stores and businesses that offer services relatively new to the Western world.
Special events have become a big business for people who can provide traditional Indian accoutrements.
Standing in the rear of the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel in St. Petersburg, Hameant Raghubir admitted he spends a lot of weekends traveling across the state to plan and execute lavish weddings for the Tampa Bay area's Indian families. His company, Shiv Priya Events of Sanford, specializes in Indian weddings and recently put on an event for 700 guests that included a groom's wedding procession — or baraat — that featured the groom riding an elephant through St. Petersburg. "This is tradition," Raghubir said. "The people who move here become Americans but they still maintain their Hindu and Indian wedding traditions."
Raghubir said that fusion, and the large Indian community in Tampa, is what keeps people emigrating and settling in the area.
"It's good," he said. "It keeps growing so there will always be work."
Day-to-day services have also expanded. Threading the eyebrows, Mandalya said, is a long held practice in India, where she trained in a salon and worked for 10 years before emigrating to Tampa.
"I've seen the popularity grow over the years because it's a more precise way of removing the hair," Mandalya said. In the past several years, even local malls — including University Mall and Westshore Plaza Mall — have opened their space to include threading shops to go along with the traditional nail salons that offer waxing. It's no secret why: The demand is there.
"I used to do about 50 people a day," Mandalya said. She recently left the business to take a break. "In the shops, at first we had to try to convince people, but once they had it done once, they were hooked." And for the time being, it will remain exclusive. Local beauty schools rarely offer training in threading, Mandalya said. The businesses in operation now use threaders who were trained abroad and brought their skills with them.
On top of new skills, the Indian business community has committed to bringing in new tourism revenue to Tampa. A group of leaders helped enter a bid and won the rights to bring the 2014 International Indian Film Academy Awards to Tampa. The event, which has been compared to the Super Bowl in scale, will bring Bollywood stars to participate in a week of award-related events before culminating in an awards show expected to be broadcast to millions of people around the world.
It will be a larger showcase of what the India Festival has been sharing with its neighbors for 25 years: a community that has opened its doors to the world.
The festival is hosted by the Gujarati Samaj, a group of families from or related to the northwestern state of Gujarat in India. The organization currently boasts more than 5,000 members who make up 700 families, Modha said.
"Gujarat is home to over 60 million people," he said. "It's home to a lot of businesses and has a big effect on the Indian economy."
Pooja Pandya, 30, is the daughter of one of the more than 500 doctors from India who have moved to Tampa.
"We were living in New York and my father's friends from medical school told him about Tampa and offered to help us get set up," said Pandya, a managing partner at Jhumroo Dance Studio. "Most of my dad's medical school classmates live here now, it seems."
Pandya's family joined the Gujarati Samaj after moving to Tampa 20 years ago, and she grew up dancing in the India Festival. Now, the school she manages will compete amongst the 61 dance teams scheduled to perform Saturday — fighting for mostly bragging rights.
"I love seeing all these kids so enthusiastically being a part of our culture," she said. "Honestly, they don't listen to Indian music. They'd rather hear Miley Cyrus and eat Taco Bell."
That's why the Gujarati Samaj is so important, Pandya said.
"It was founded with the idea that if we don't introduce our kids to our culture, no one else will," she said.
Modha said the local people of Gujarat are business owners, doctors, pharmacists and professionals who bring a lot of buying power to the area.
Vendors at India Fest are banking on that. This year, the organizers were able to collect more than $100,000 in vendor rental fees for the one-day festival — an all time record. To spin the profits for businesses catering to the Indian community forward, this year will be the first time a printed vendor directory will be offered to attendees.
"We really wanted to add value for the vendors and the people coming to India Festival," Modha said. "This will be one of the best India Fests in terms of revenue ever."
Modha, 47, of Lutz, owns a realty company, software development company and works in insurance and banking. He said he'd lived in other places, but there was something about Tampa that was special.
"I was living in Dubai, I was moving to America and had two choices: the U.S. or Canada," he said. "I came to visit here and establish my business. We lived in the Orlando and Daytona Beach areas but there was something very unique about Tampa. I thought that this would be a lifestyle my family would enjoy with being able to go to good schools, have good weather and meet other people from India and share in the community."
His family moved back to the area in 2005. Both his daughters will be representing their dance schools in the India Festival dance competition Saturday.
"It's great for them to be able to learn these things," he said. "It is a part of who we are. We come here with the hopes of a great future but we don't forget our roots."
India Festival is an extension of those roots, but the doors aren't open for Gujarati only, Modha said.
"I got into this volunteer position because I wanted to serve the community," he said. "Everyone is welcome to come and learn and have a good time."