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South Asian Indian immigrants find community, American lives, similar struggles as other immigrants

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 4, 2008 - In 1975, Dr. G.V. Naidu and his wife, Rajyalakshmi, moved to St. Louis. The Indian couple knew nothing of the city, but both had jobs here. They found no Indian groceries, no Indian restaurants and few other Indians. When Rajyalakshmi wore a sari, people stared.

Not anymore.

In 2006, a report from the U.S. Census Bureau found that 7,944 Asian Indians lived in St. Louis County, and 2,309 in the city.

It might seem a small number compared to the larger population, but the Indian community has watched it grow and change not only their lives, but the city and county as well.

Like every immigrant community, they bring with them language, music, dance, culture, religion, family, and with each generation born here, Naidu says, the dilution of those things.

"We're not strangers anymore..."


Like others from around the world, Indians began arriving in St. Louis for opportunities and possibilities.

In the 1960s, those coming were doctors, like Naidu, says Prasanna Kasthuri, artistic director for Soorya Performing Arts.

Next came people opening businesses such as motels, he says, and then the recent information technology wave.

Kasthuri rode that wave, and like many Indians in St. Louis, didn't come here first. After studying in Texas, he arrived in St. Louis for a job in 1996.

He liked what he found. "It's not a huge city where you get lost," says Kasthuri, originally from Bangalore, one of India's largest cities. "It's not a small city where you don't have anything."

St. Louis is nice, agrees Rao Chilakala, from the state of Andhra Pradesh. The traffic is nothing compared to what they've seen.

Chilakala also came to St. Louis to work in I.T. He's the senior software engineer at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. He lived in Boston previously, and when his brother finished school at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, they decided they'd meet in St. Louis in 2000.

After the dot-com bubble burst, Chilakala watched Indians and other South Asians come to the Midwest from the coasts and settle in with more traditional companies.

And while he lives in St. Charles, many have made West County their home, including Kasthuri and Naidu, past president of the Hindu Temple of St. Louis. It's partly word-of-mouth, Kasthuri says, and because the majority of Indians are Hindu, it's also close to the temple in Ballwin.

Members of the community had planned a new complex in Jefferson County, with a temple and 100 homes.

Naidu says the space, off Byrnesville Road, was chosen because of its location. Late last month, however, neighbors opposed to the plan, citing zoning concerns.

Naidu isn't sure why there's opposition."I don't know. It's hard to say," he says. "It's hard to say about that."

Currently, he says, there are no plans to move forward until the Jefferson County Planning and Zoning Committee makes a final decision later this month.

But one generational challenge for older Indians is to open up and share their space, says Dr. Tika Shah, a dentist at People's Health Center, in north St. Louis County.

"They definitely need to learn to accept others," she says.

Over time, though, the close community has begun participating more and more in St. Louis, says Naidu, who is originally from Andhra Pradesh. "Many are. They're opening up better now."

"We are a part of the St. Louis community," Kasthuri agrees. "We love the St. Louis area a lot, but also we would like to keep what our forefathers gave us. We are Americans."


One challenge for Indians -- as it is for many immigrant groups -- is to preserve a culture that doesn't have roots here.

In 2002, Kasthuri started dancing and teaching full-time at Soorya Performing Arts, a not-for-profit that seeks to preserve and promote music and dance of India.

Chilakala started a website where people can buy traditional South Asian clothing, gagracholi.com, and more recently namaskardesi.com, kind of like an South Asian Craig's List, he says.

And finding common culture becomes even more important for young people who move to St. Louis on their own, sometimes away from families in other states.

Shah moved to the U.S. as a child from the state of Gujarat, but found herself alone as an adult working in St. Louis. She quickly got connected with the Network of Indian Professionals, or NetIP, and now serves as the president. While celebrating their traditional culture, members of NetIP also have events at clubs that cater more to their generation.

Along with their diverse culture and food, Kasthuri believes Indians offer some of their values to communities in St. Louis. That includes a respect of teachers and elders, the desire to let others live happily and an appreciation for the value of life, he says.

Indians also bring brainpower, Shah says, cultural diversity to St. Louis, and a high-income bracket.

But the task for Indians is always a balancing one, Chilakala says. "We are trying to have our culture and at the same time, we are trying to mingle with the American culture."


As tightly as it's woven into his own life, parts of his culture will be lost for Naidu's 10-year-old granddaughter and the generation of Indians like her. "There's no question about it," he says. "It gets diluted with each generation. We have no control over that."

Chilakala's daughter, who is 5, takes Spanish and ballet as well as learning her parents' native language.

What results is a fusion of Indian and American, something like a few of the dances Kasthuri now teaches and the two worlds many like Shah have learned to live in.

Regardless of the differences that come from background and experience, most Indians can sum up their identity here in one word -- desi, a word that refers to South Asians in general.

The word, sometimes pronounced deshi, comes from Sanskrit and isn't an offensive term to most, Chilakala says, but a simple way of telling others where you're from. "You don't need to do anything once you say desi."

Now, however, perhaps you do.

Desi might describe heritage, but doesn't say anything about generation. Older generations see the Indian-ness in everything, Shah says. Younger generations want to be Indian, she says, and American.


Currently, California has the largest population of Indians, more than 300,000, according to Allied Media Corp., a marketing firm that targets ethnic populations. Next comes New York, New Jersey, Texas and Florida. They figure Missouri's total Indian population is a little over 12,000.

Shah thinks that number will continue to grow, with more people moving directly into St. Louis, finding things they like such as farmers' markets and places selling global foods, as well as a little city with big city offerings.

But Kasthuri doubts whether the population will get much bigger. "A lot of people are going back to India also because there's a lot of opportunities there."

Naidu agrees.

St. Louis is a different place now than when he arrived. India is a different place now than what he left. "I don't think it will grow as fast as it did in the last few years," he says. "There are more opportunities in India itself, unlike when we came."

Local favorites

Rao Chilakala

Favorite Indian restaurant: Ruchi, 12513 Olive Blvd., and Priyaa, 1910 McKelvey Road
Favorite non-Indian restaurant: "I like pizza. I like Dominos, and the California Pizza Kitchen is also one of my favorites."
Favorite Bollywood movie: "There are so many."
Favorite Hollywood movie: "I don't know. I just watch it and forget it."
Tika Shah

Favorite Indian restaurant: India Palace, 4534 N. Lindbergh
Favorite non-Indian restaurant: "I love to go to Blueberry Hill and sit outside. I like P.F. Chang a lot, too."
Favorite Bollywood movie: "'Jab We Met.' Basically Jab means when. They kind of combined the English and the Indian."
Favorite Hollywood movie: "300."

Dr. G.V. Naidu

Favorite Indian restaurant: "It's hard to pick one. There are almost a dozen restaurants now." However, he says, India Palace, at 4534 N Lindbergh, has nice decor.
Favorite non-Indian restaurant: "We generally prefer Italian, like Olive Garden and then Uno's."
Favorite Bollywood movie: "I used to like old movies, not the recent ones."
Favorite Hollywood movie: "Gandhi."

Prasanna Kasthuri

Favorite Indian restaurant: Gokul, 10633 Page Ave
Favorite non-Indian restaurant: Olive Garden
Favorite Bollywood movie: "Dev Dass."
Favorite Hollywood movie: "'Twister'. Any time the wind blows, I think, 'Oh my God, I hope it's not like 'Twister'."

Kristen Hare is a freelance writer in Lake St. Louis. 

Kristen Hare

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