QUEENS, NEW YORK – Step out of the subway station at Roosevelt Avenue and Jackson Heights and it is a miscellany of colors and smells. A visually stimulating collection of storefronts packed from floor to ceiling where gorgeous linens and tapestries imported from India and Bangladesh surround hole in the wall eateries that are bustling with customers eager to try traditional cuisines.
The New York City metropolitan area, according to the 2010 United State Census Bureau, is home to the largest Asian Indian population in the Western Hemisphere.
This last month the energy in Jackson Heights has been high and streets are filled with more people than usual. The excitement of T20 International Cricket Council (ICC) tournament wrapping up has this South Asian enclave buzzing.
Two men converse outside the restaurant, Khabbar Baari which translates from Bengali to “home cooking” smoking cigarettes and sipping on tea as they speak about politics in their home country of Bangladesh. Enter inside the restaurant and the aroma of turmeric and chilli powder can be smelled in the air.
Across the dining hall on a 60-inch flat screen television are the highlights from the T20 ICC tournament, which has been underway for a month now. Most clientele in the restaurant are more invested in the plates of rich, spicy, hot food in front of them instead of the England vs. West Indies game recap.
A week before, Bangladesh suffered a major lost 75 runs to New Zealand, which is another defeat on a string of a disappointing losses by the Bangladesh National Cricket team during the current tournament that started in March and will conclude in April, but the patrons of Khabbar Baari couldn’t be any less interested.
Rashed Ahammed is a Bangladeshi immigrant and the owner of Khabbar Baari and also happens to be the marketing expert for Channel I, a major Bangladesh based television channel. This allows Ahammed to show the games at his restaurant.
Ahammed says the Bangladeshis in the neighborhood swarm to his restaurant and the neighboring restaurant Premiere Sweets & Restaurant, because it is like watching cricket back at home.
Ahammed says, “When I show the ICC my business does better, Bangladeshis like to see all of our star players play for the nation’s team.”
On March 1st, Bangladesh upset Pakistan in the ICC tournament play by 5 wickets and gave hope to the Bangladeshis that maybe the young team would make it deep into the tournament, but the game is deeper than just tournament play. Pakistan is not only a rival on the cricket pitch, but these countries have a bloody past.
The partition of British India in 1947 created the modern republics of India and Pakistan, followed by the 1971 war that liberated Bangladesh from Pakistan. The South Asian region has been involved in wars, many border skirmishes and military stand-offs. This is no different in the neighborhood of Jackson Heights where a different rivalry plays out between the Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.
In fact there is strong rivalry among the large South Asian community that makes up the vibrant, lively neighborhood of Jackson Heights. The streets of 73rd and 74th are much like the geographical makeup of South Asia. In this small enclave there is Little India, Little Pakistan and Little Bangladesh.
Karan Kunal, an Indian immigrant and owner of Karan & Kunal Jewelry Store says, “The rivalry between the countries is strong here, on the outside we are all friends, but inside things are actually very different,” he continues, “the only time these days you will see us with Bangladeshis or Pakistanis is a funeral for someone in the community, that is first priority and once a year for Diwali.”
Diwali is a Hindu festival of lights celebrated by Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist South Asians.
When there is a game between these countries, the alliances are very apparent. Without India, Bangladesh would not have defeated Pakistan during its liberation war and at least in Jackson Heights says Ahammed, “The Bangladeshis support India when Pakistan plays against India in tournament play like the ICC.”
Ahammed says, “There used to be some mixing of crowds in my restaurant and next door at Premium Sweets and Restaurant, but now we do not watch together anymore.” He says it is unfortunate, because “everyone loves cricket, we share a lot of similarity in culture and love of the game, but the problems between the nations in politics are very apparent.”
Saif Nagra, a Pakistani immigrant and owner of Dera Restaurant & Sweets Pakistani Cuisine, says differently, “When we show the ICC tournament, currently the T20 the restaurant is filled with Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and even Nepalese.”
Nagra’s restaurant is one of the bigger restaurants in Jackson Heights. It can accommodate 70 people and is always packed, no matter what time a cricket game airs between the rival nations on television.
Nagra says, “When India plays Pakistan or Pakistan plays Bangladesh or Bangladesh plays India the restaurant is filled, but not for other games.”
Whether or not rivals will or will not sit together because of international politics is up for debate, but there does seem to be some resentment over the politics within the Jackson Heights community as well.
Kunal says, “We are in competition with each other, because we are all business minded. Our businesses compete, we compete on the community board, we are always competing and this is because our home countries historically compete.”
According to Kunal, Jackson Heights has been in the control of Indians who immigrated first over the last 30 years and it wasn’t until the last 10 years that Bangladeshis have made a strong presence.
When asked where Kunal has been watching the T20 ICC tournament he replied, “For the India matches we pack into our homes, I had between 15 – 20 ppl come to my house, I have a 60” flatscreen in my basement just for the cricket games.”
For some in the community, like Muhammad Rashid, a Bangladeshi immigrant who owns Smart Academia, a tutoring company and is a community activist, he doesn’t understand why everyone cannot get along. Take a stroll down 73rd Street with Rashid and you know you are with a community celebrity that everyone likes.
“Namaste Apa, how are you today?” a Hindu greeting that Muhammad Rashid, a Muslim, cordially asks a woman who is passing out fliers that advertise the Hindu tradition of palm reading. He speaks his native tongue Bengali as well as Urdu and Hindi, the languages of Pakistan and India.
Rashid says, “I see no difference, we are all the same, I am a Bangladeshi man who has been married to a Pakistani woman for 22 years.” He feels that a game like cricket should bring the people together. He remembers seeing glimpses of hope when he has watched cricket with his Pakistani and Indian neighbors at 3 o’clock in the morning, as their nations played against each other.
Rashid says, “I hope that the rivalry that the nations have can one day be resolved and we can all find common ground, at least in Jackson Heights, we should come together and watch the game we love.”