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28th and Lex.: Little India's Language and Culture

Chandrika Jayant and Michael Saltzman

     The purpose of this report is to investigate the use of languages other than English in the Indian community known as Little India, centered around the intersection of 28th Street and Lexington Avenue in Lower Manhattan. Although we are aware that there exist larger communities of Indian language speakers in the outer boroughs of New York, we felt that the area we chose is more integrated with other ethnic groups. The focus of our study was oriented towards Indian language speakers, but we were equally interested in recognizing the symbiotic relationship between Indians and their neighbors. As we discovered, the Indian community in the area, while definite and vital, is not especially large (as compared to the Queens/Jackson Heights area, where the Indian population is now almost 110,000, the area we studied is the home of only about 2,000 or less). Therefore, it lacks a strong and centralized sense of identity. Also, in terms of government organizations such as schools, hospitals, and law enforcement, Little India is but a slight portion of their jurisdictions and its languages are not of primary concern to such institutions. In our report, we will present the fruits of our research scouting the neighborhood for evidence of Indian language and culture by examining census information, our personal knowledge and observations, the school district, city government services, religion and community organizations, and the preservation of Indian culture through the media and commerce.


     To start, we looked up census data on Indian immigrants and residents of New York City in order to get some background information for our report. According to the 2000 census, the Asian Indian population in New York City grew by 81 % in the last 10 years, making it 170,899. Indians are the second largest Asian group after the Chinese. As we were aware, the greatest number of Indians in New York City live in Queens, with a population of 109,114. Asian Americans comprise over 10 % of the New York City population and are the fastest growing national minority. Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi immigrants have also doubled over the past 10 years. With this vital information under our belt, we headed to Little India.


     The first time we walked through Little India (this is what many locals and New Yorkers call it), we were shocked that after merely a few blocks, it was completely gone and replaced by French bistros and Mexican eateries. We walked into a saree store (traditional Indian dress) and found out from a clerk that many of the Indians in the community were recent immigrants. She asked her boss some questions for us, and had to translate the answers from Hindi. This act of translation in Indian run businesses became a common occurrence for us during our investigation. Usually, at least one employee (often older members of the staff) did not speak English at all. However, according to the owner of the saree store, about 90 percent of the local Indians understand or speak English, though to what degree she could not clarify. A young employee in a grocery store next door backed this up; he explained to us that while most of the local Indian residents are recent immigrants, the vast majority speak English and conduct their business in English as well, having learned English to varying degrees in their native country. He also told us that most of the Indian residents speak Hindi. We spoke with a local librarian who said that in the Little India area, Gujarat and Punjabi are also common Indian languages. Other ethnic languages spoken nearby include Bengali, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Hebrew. We saw proof of this mix when we walked by a Mexican restaurant (staffed by Chinese employees) right beside Indian groceries and buffet restaurants. We did see at least three or four signs for restaurants with Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi cuisine. We also saw a few Middle Eastern restaurants and various signs in Arabic script. We did not notice much visible tension between cultures-North and South Indians shared restaurants and stores, and the mentioned ethnic groups above intermingled freely. However, we did notice slight tension between Pakistanis and Indians. For example, when we mistakenly asked for Indian newspapers at a Pakistani newsstand, the clerk was cold in his response. But this was not the norm. On the central corner of Little India, we saw a Hasidic Jew engaged in conversation with what appeared to be an orthodox Hindu, as Latinos schlepped by. Only in New York!


     Our next stop was P.S. 116 on 33rd Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. While this is the local primary public school covering Little India, it takes students from a very large area and thus not a large percentage of the school is of Indian descent. We arrived just as school was letting out and talked to an Indian woman picking up her children. She spoke broken English and was only able to tell us that she did not know of many Indian children that attended P.S. 116. She told us that she had just recently immigrated with her three children from Bombay. Interestingly, she commented that her children were learning English very quickly and had not needed to attend English language classes at school. She joked that if she had her children's skill with the English language, she would be a famous writer or journalist. We spoke to Judith G. Marlowe, the English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher for grades three through five. She told us that she had only a few Indian language speakers as students and that they speak Urdu, a standardized form of Hindi written in Arabic script, and that there were very few, if any, Indian students in the lower grades of ESL. This led us to believe that of the already few Indian students attending the school, most are already fluent or semi-fluent in English and did not require the help of an ESL class when they came to P.S. 116. The languages spoken by the other students in Ms. Marlowe's ESL classes include: Azerbaijani, Chinese, Spanish, Sindi (Pakistani), Turkish, Vietnamese, and Russian.


     As we stated previously in the report, because of the small size of the Indian community we researched, there are not specialized government agencies or programs available solely for Indian language speakers. For example, the nearest police station, the 13th precinct, has only minimal translation services available for Indian languages and it is clearly not a common concern of the police there. When we called the station, the officer we spoke with was not even initially certain of the specific translation services available although he did insist that they existed. Similarly, the hospital in the area, the Beth Israel Medical Center on 16th Street and 1st Avenue, told us that there were interpreters for their patients but did not put much weight on the issue. The secretary seemed offended that we assumed the Indian patients would need translation, as she informed us that there were multiple Indian doctors at the hospital. Also, we saw at least two local Indian doctor's offices in the central Little India area.


     There are no Hindu temples in the Little India community due to its limited size. Many of the Indians we talked to said that they went to temple in Queens. We found out that the only main Hindu temples in Manhattan are the Sri Nitai Gauranga Mandir temple on 3rd Avenue and the Vedanta Society on 71st Street. We felt that the presence of a temple in Little India itself would create more unity that seems to be lacking in the area especially among newer immigrants. However, we thought that many of the people we spoke to were more concerned with getting their lives started in America economically rather than spiritually. The 2000 census did mention, however, that in the past 10 years, the temple going population has increased proportionally 50%. There do seem to be a number of smaller Indian organizations in the Little India community, as we saw advertised on numerous flyers on the streets. Many of the flyers had to do with Indian classical dance (Bharatanatyam) and music, taught, it seemed, in the native language to preserve ethnic identity.


     While we noticed that most Indians had learned English, and that the community was not tied together in a united religious center, we did see much Indian culture preserved in other terms. The dance and music classes that we already discussed were one example, while the extensive selection of Indian imported foods and decorative products on sale in the area were another. Many of these products had no English written on them anywhere. There were plenty of Indian magazines and newspapers available in Little India, some in English covering primarily Indian concerns, others written in Hindi. Currently, the English language Indian newspapers like desiTalk and India Post, are still focused on the September 11 tragedy in relation to Indian communities in the United States and the affect it will have on U.S.- Indian relations. More preservation of the Indian language was seen through the local availability of Indian made films and cd's. The Indian language movies were available for sale in many stores and also in the local public library. Interestingly, the library had a limited selection of Indian language books available, and we did not see any book stores in the area either. There were also multiple Indian clothing stores, preserving Indian ethnic dress, although we did notice that the largest of these stores featured clearly Caucasian mannequins in its display.

     After spending time in Little India and learning about the area, its people, and its relationship with other neighboring regions, we recognized a fast linguistic assimilation coupled with a slower cultural one. Many recent immigrants have learned English successfully but are reluctant to dive into "American" society. Curiously, most of the Indian population seems to have forgone much traditional Indian culture as well. We felt that the reason for this may be that in this particular Indian population, which is composed largely of recent immigrants, the residents have to work extra hard just to support themselves in their competitive new environment, especially as inherently disadvantaged foreign language speakers. This may not allow for excess time to enjoy cultural activities. Also, the lack of a centralized meeting-place or a temple makes it harder to have a sense of community. New York City seems to assume that these Indian immigrants are fluent English speakers and thereby does not provide many services for linguistic accommodation. While the residents of Little India have not embraced American culture and have given up some of their own, they seem to have filled in the gaps with other ethnic groups' traditions, foods, and pop culture. The linguistic state of Little India is very much one of transition, and nearly everyone we met was a part of this process.

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