Fitting time to celebrate East Indians’ success
Twenty years ago, when M.R. Rangaswami moved to San Francisco, there were only a few East Indians in the city. “There were hardly any of us here then. Maybe a thousand or so,” he said.
Now, there are 10 times as many in the city, and thousands more in the Bay Area, said Rangaswami, a software engineer who founded a nonprofit leadership organization, Indiaspora, in 2012 to unite Indian Americans and showcase their success on the global stage.
East Indians are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the United States. “There are 3 million Indians in the United States,” he said, “and I would guess that 10 percent of them are in the Bay Area.”
That would be about 300,000 Indian Americans in the region, most of them in and around Silicon Valley, drawn to the high-tech companies that have transformed the Bay Area.
This is a particularly good time to note the rise of this community. This week is the celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, which marks the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil. Wednesday is the night of the new moon, the most important day of the festival.
Diwali marks a celebration of Indian culture. It’s a significant time. “It is something like our Christmas. People wear new clothes, give gifts, light lamps and set off fireworks,” Rangaswami said. “It is big.”
There is even a Diwali postage stamp. It’s good luck to put it on U.S. mail.
Indians have had great success in this country. “It is the richest ethnic community in the United States,” Rangaswami said. The average median household income among Indian Americans, he said, is $110,000 a year, nearly twice the national average.
One reason: the tech industry. Indians are everywhere in high tech, mostly because of the old country’s network of elite engineering colleges. In 1956, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, called the colleges his country’s “future in the making,” At the time, agriculture still dominated India. When the tech boom happened, the country was ready to export thousands of scientists and engineers. “The future found us,” Rangaswami said.
As a result, the Bay Area has seen an amazing growth in the Indian population, especially in the South Bay heart of Silicon Valley but also in Fremont, Pleasanton, Dublin and San Ramon, where the Indian population increased by an estimated 490 percent in 10 years.
“If you go to places like Fremont or Cupertino, you’d think you were in India,” Rangaswami said.
By contrast, the Indian presence in San Francisco is under the radar, but there nonetheless. One outpost is Jai Ho, an Indian grocery store on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, a decidedly low-tech operation run by Rakesh Marwaha and his wife, Rama.
Jai Ho is an Indian food emporium, small but complete. “We have 40 varieties of lentils,” Rakesh Marwaha said. “We stock 30 kinds of flour, all kinds of Indian pickles, Indian snacks, Indian vegetables, everything you need to cook Indian.” They have fresh bread from the Passage to India Bakery in Mountain View and sweets from a shop in Antioch.
“Business is good,” he said. “We are expanding.”
There are a couple of South Indian restaurants on hip Valencia Street, and Dosa, one of them, has a branch on Fillmore, in the heart of what used to be the Harlem of the West.
Hetal Shah and her husband opened August (1) Five, an Indian restaurant on Van Ness Avenue, opposite San Francisco City Hall, two years ago. The name is a reference to August 15, 1947, the day India got its independence.
The customers are a mix of city workers, patrons on their way to the Opera and Symphony, and young Indians.
Hetal Shah used to work for Google but got tired of the high pressure and long hours of the tech world. “I’m passionate about this,” she said. “This is my baby — and I’m my own boss.”
Shah came to the United States in 2002, lived in New York, moved to California and fell in love with San Francisco. Many of her young Indian customers feel the same way.
They don’t care for the suburbs, she said. “Indians grew up in cities. We like the density, the hustle and bustle.”
East Indians have had a presence in San Francisco for many years. One of the city landmarks is the old Vedanta Temple, an exotic structure of domes and cornices that has graced the corner of Webster and Filbert streets in Cow Hollow for 113 years. It was the first Hindu temple in the Western Hemisphere.
“The Indian presence is all over the city,” Rangaswami said. “You just have to look for it.”
Rama Marwaha and husband Rakesh Marwaha, above, operate the Jai Ho Indian Grocery, left, on Fillmore Street, which features 40 kinds of lentils.