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August 7, 2000

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Down India Street

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Vivek Mukherjee

Devon Street in Chicago doesn't quite give one a feeling of déjà vu, a transferred memory of the bustling bazaars of Old Delhi or Ranganathan Street in Madras, but it comes close. One marked difference is the lack of roadside hawkers and peddlers with their cacophonic calls, the stray cow or dog pottering around. Maybe even a snake charmer as is the western but mythical view of India.

Manmeet Singh, from New Delhi, says "Oye, yaar, you get the desi feeling here. Hindi music, hordes of people on the streets, the congestion, the chaat, the tandoori ... are so attractive."

Ganesh Gopal and Ashwin Yadav, software consultants, don't want you to forget the Indian girls. "We often hang around in a bunch to ogle at pretty desi girls here."

Devon Street has acquired this unique desi flavor only in the last 15 years. It used to be a quaint Jewish locality till the mid-seventies. Indian Saree Palace was the first and only shop on Devon Street then. Soon after came Patel Brothers. By the early eighties, Indian shops were mushrooming all over. Soon Pakistanis and Bangladeshis followed.

Of course, there are similar desi markets in New Jersey, at the famous Oak Tree Road or in the Bay Area, but nothing like Devon Street. But the markets in New Jersey and California make you pay through the nose for feeling nostalgic. I've been horrified by Indian shops selling half-emptied jars of Horlicks or kumquat-like pockmarked oranges as Florida's best. Or shrivelled and rotting bananas as California's best.

Devon Street's sidewalks are even speckled with the paan stains, and many people walk down the street. If there's anything one misses, it's the people hanging out on the streets.

But just like back home, you can stop in the middle of the road, say a quick "Hi" to a friend, turning a deaf ear to the desperate honking from traffic behind you. A few exchanges of the finger and you are on your way.

There are even cops of Asian ethnicity who are never to be found in their patrol cars. They're probably having a leisurely chew of paan at some dingy shop.

Deep Shah comes to Devon Street to get spicy betel nut mixtures so popular with Asians after meals to go along with languid conversation. The delicate juggling and shifting of the mix is something to behold, at least till it is time to roll down that Corolla window.

Abdul Bari, a Pakistani immigrant from Rawalpindi who has been there for 23 years, says, "Devon Street is like my susuraal (home of in-laws). If my wife feels homesick and gets cranky, I take her to Devon Street; we feast on desi snacks, I buy her a fancy salwaar and she is happy."

He says Indians and Pakistani businessmen co-exist peacefully on Dewaan (A desi corruption of Devon). Tension does brew when the Indian and Pakistani Independence Day draw nigh.

Most shops have a big-screen TV and the cheering can get a bit over-enthusiastic sometimes, but it doesn't go beyond that. However, Pakistani video rentals do not keep recorded cassettes of Indian wins and vice-versa.

You could lunch at Tiffin, a run-of-the mill restaurant with pricey dishes or a hole-in-the-wall Pakistani joint like Gareeb Nawaaz where cabbies eat. Gareeb Nawaaz is what a person of delicate upbringing would consider declasse. Religious Arabic hymns spangled across the wall is all you have for décor but the biryani is just out of the world -- and yet available for an astonishing three dollars. The kababs are delectable too. The stale buffets pale in front of this fare.

One of these restaurants is the strangest place you could ever visit. You can't get anything across to the Mexican who makes the rotis or the fresh-off-the-boat Hyderabadi who replies with either a yes or a no. It's very funny to see the two of them scratching their heads, trying to figure out what to do. Adding to the confusion is the geriatric Afghan owner, playing buttinsky with his two pennies. I've even seen a frustrated customer make his own omelette there.

The street is divided into four national segments -- First, there are the kosher shops with Jews from all over, Russia, Israel, Poland... There are lots of adorable Matrioshkas on display there. At intervals you find a few Russian clinics with dubious looking qualifications trying to instil confidence in prospective patients.

The Indian belt is full of crummy music shops blaring familiar Hindi film music and paan stalls dotted with posters of muscle-flexing Bollywood hearthrobs strangling a meek and anorexic gal. There's also plenty of 'duplicate' stuff -- perfume, VIP suitcases, electronics... So you can get a Dior 50 ml bottle for three dollars instead of the 30 you cough up at J C Penny. Womenfolk obviously love these shops. Plenty of jewellery shops and garments to interest them.

"I go to Devon Street to get Indian groceries, paan, Indian ethnic wear and an Indian haircut," says Shubhada Savargaokar, orginally of Nasik. But, according to her, the hair stylists aren't as skilled as those back home. "The Indian ladies do a much better job cutting with scissors," she says.

Hiren Kelekar isn't so enthusiastic about the place.

"Man, Devon is a wallet-wallopper. My wife goes crazy buying gold baubles and trinkets. My eight-month-old son already has four gold rings and it seems that each time we go to Devon, we end up buying another ring for his tender fingers."

The Pakistani segment has lots of eateries with the word 'halal' figuring prominently everywhere, something like the 'kosher' we find elsewhere. The Bangladeshi segment is none too different.

We have streets named after Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Sheikh Mujibur and Golda Meir.

On Tuesdays, most desi shops remain closed, since some members of the Indian public don't eat meat on that day.

Devon Street addresses most desi culinary, sartorial, ornamental, entertainment and, yes, even tonsorial needs.

If there are other Asian markets in the US you've visited and not found what you're looking for, then pay Devon Street a visit. In the nicest possible sense, you can be pretty sure to get more than you bargained for.

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