In this South Asian Neighborhood, Everyone (Mostly) Gets Along

A Sikh greets people in front of a jewelry store on a snowy day in Little India, a peaceful South Asian enclave in Jackson Heights, Queens. (Photo: Jordan Hilliard Cooper)

Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis work to cooperate – despite horrific incidents like Mumbai

If you tell V.M. Gandhi which earthly concern of yours is most pressing, he will recommend the appropriate Hindu spiritual medallion. To avoid untimely death, you might pray to the shimmering likeness of Shiva, the destroyer god. Mother Lakshmi brings peace, and Ganesha, the elephant-headed avatar, will cleanse your path of evil.

In New York’s Little India, a large South Asian enclave in Jackson Heights, Queens, these charms appear to be having a desired effect.

"Here the South Asian community lives peacefully," said Gandhi, chair of the local community board and owner of New York Gold on Little India’s main strip. "They have nothing to fight about. Here the different groups make an attempt to understand each other."

The Indian, Pakistani, Bengali, Nepalese, Sri Lankan and Afghan people who live in close quarters in this neighborhood – surrounded by people from dozens of other countries in Latin America — hail from a region with a long history of religious and territorial conflict. The terrorist attacks that killed 163 in Mumbai in November 2008 is just the latest horror.

Yet one rarely hears of differences erupting into violence here.

Residents often cite necessity and proximity as reasons, along with a decline in the importance of religion, and a discovery that their cultures have more in common than it once seemed.

"Everybody wants to bring up their children in a nice way, and take care of their families, and make some money, so there are no grudges against anybody," said Manu Khiantani, 63, a Hindu Indian store manager who has lived in the United States for nearly 40 years. "We look at the news and it doesn’t affect us. If something’s going on in Pakistan or India, we don’t care."

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"The relationship is more peaceful here because the relationship between Pakistanis and Indians, say, is more pragmatic and utilitarian, on the one hand, and the modalities of political expression are different here — shall we say, more ‘civilized,’" S.N. Sridhar, director of the Center for India Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said in an email interview.

Once they reach the United States, the differences between these groups become less important than the things they have in common, said Sagar Mehta, a 25-year-old Indian Hindu.

"When one minority meets another minority they hang out together, they share cultures, and get along better here than back home," he said.

Political scientist Aushutosh Varshney concluded in an essay that, the more Hindu and Muslim Indians share communal space, the less likely they are to be violent toward each other.

Tariq Hamid, a Pakistani Muslim and manager of a Little India restaurant, can see the logic in that.

"The environment has a lot to do with it," he said. "When there is no variety [of people], they become extremists…. I have been here since 1973, and have never seen any animosity between these groups. The only time we see division is during a cricket match."

Still, it’s possibly less harmonious than that.

"[Various groups] might have something against each other, but they don’t bring it up," said Zareefa Ahmed, 18, whose parents were born in Bangladesh. For example, Bangladesh’s secession from Pakistan in 1971 left an aura of competition and suspicion between people from the two countries.

"I haven’t seen any strife as such," said Bir Grewal, an Indian store owner. "But looks are deceptive…. Even though you don’t see anything, underlying tensions are there."

For example, a mixed Hindu-Muslim family’s decision to cremate their deceased son in the Hindu tradition, rather than burying him in a shroud, as Muslim rites would require, became a public debacle in the fall of 2008, after two Muslim acquaintances angrily protested the family’s choice. The family accused the protestors of attempting to organize a boycott of a shopping mall they own, and making bomb threats. (The police hate crimes unit was called in to investigate.)

And the Mumbai attacks have undeniably raised the temperature here.

"Pakistanis are reacting in anger because the blame is coming on Pakistan, and they have nothing to do with it," Hamid said. "[Pakistanis] are sad about what happened, but on the other hand, they are angry the media is blaming them… People think only Muslims are terrorists."

Media also plays a role in forming people’s opinions, Sridhar said, by putting exaggerated emphasis on words like "tensions," "hostility," "enmity," and "rivalry."

But he stressed that Desis – a Sanskrit-derived word meaning people from South Asia – live in relative harmony because their commonalities outweigh their differences: they share food, clothing, music, movies and many customs and values, such as respect for elders, and reverence for family ties.

"These things make one Desi closer to another regardless of politics," he said.