Barry Behram's India Spice & Gift Bazaar is a blend of exotic smells, colorful clothing and cultural concern.
"When (Prime Minister Indira) Gandhi was assassinated," Behram said, "I was getting calls as if some immediate member of my family had been killed. People didn't know how to respond to such a tragedy. The phone was ringing all the time. People wanted to talk to somebody from India. During that time, my shop became a meeting place on a regular basis for people from India."
Behram's shop on Clairemont Drive is, indeed, a touchstone for people in the Indian community in San Diego, as well as for those from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. This is not to mention the other shoppers, the gourmet cooks looking for exotic spices, and others interested in India and Indian goods.
The pungent and sweet spice scent of the shop, along with the burned-wood smell of incense, strikes the visitor immediately. Bright clothing hangs on one side of the shop--a turquoise dress with silver threads, pale cotton and batik blouses, a red print gauze skirt, metal belts, thin earrings and bangle bracelets. Stacked in the center is rice, lots of rice-- bags from one to 55 pounds.
"The Afghans buy 55-pound bags of rice," Behram said. "I sell more rice than anything."
On the other side of the small shop are, in tones of gold, orange, and brown, an array of exotic spices--star anise, mustard seed (brown, black or yellow), black cumin seeds, and Behram's favorite spice, the expensive gold and orange saffron. There are rows of canned vegetables, including such items as papri beans, drumstick vegetables, tina, and lotus root. Near the register are what Behram refers to as "crunchies," or sweets.
Behram even stocks a large selection of taped Indian music (not only Ravi Shankar, known to American audiences, but musicians named Panna Lal Ghosh and Anil Biswas), and Indian videotapes with English subtitles.
"Afghans are the No. 1 movie watchers," he said. "I rent more to them than to Indians. Sometimes they rent three to four movies a day. The Afghans were first displaced into northern India, and began to really love the culture. They learned the Indian language and cook many dishes like ours."
Indian comic books, newspapers and even an old copy of Indian Sportsweek are stacked loosely on a table next to the crunchies. There are also posters of Indian cultural events (Gandhi films at the University of San Diego and a benefit concert at San Diego State University for Sri Lankan refugees) along with Indian travel posters, and a map showing the density of Indian population in California.
Behram (born in Secunderabad in southern India) left his homeland when he was a teen-ager. He was chosen as a youth ambassador to New Zealand. "Under that program I was supposed to live with a family in New Zealand and study and work," he said. "I became associated with a newspaper in New Zealand and wrote my visions and experiences in New Zealand. It was very gratifying. I was very fortunate to get a chance like that."
Behram received a master's degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin.
"After graduation I moved to Chicago and did several different things, and then, for a number of reasons, decided to start a restaurant. I called it Taj Mahal, and I also began to teach gourmet cooking. I realized that was really my thing."
Behram, in fact, received a little fame in Chicago in 1975 for creating the world's longest recipe. "It had 115 ingredients," he said. "I created it for the 50th anniversary of YMCA college where I was teaching. It got TV coverage, and Mayor Richard Daley and Governor Walker both acknowledged me."
Two and one-half years ago, Behram came to San Diego and opened his shop. "This shop is really an extension of what I did before," he said. "I plan to teach gourmet cooking here, too, but because of back surgery earlier this year, I've just taken it easy for awhile."
Behram plans to lead a gourmet tour group to India in November for 3 1/2 weeks.
"We'll go to Nepal, Kashmir, New Delhi, Old Delhi, Agra (where the Taj Mahal is), and chefs will give us demonstrations in every place we'll stay. I'll show the participants the fields of tea and rice, as well," he said.
"After that I will complete my cookbook of saffron and rice dishes. Saffron is an amazing spice. The saffron bud is my symbol. I'll talk about how to use it, and what it can do."
Then glancing around his shop, the soft-spoken Behram commented, "My shop is one place where all different cultures live in harmony. A Pakistani man and an Indian gentleman from London both work for me. This is a place where we don't talk politics. There are problems going on in India, but here we are great friends. I know everyone who comes in on a first-name basis; 90% of my business is repeat.
"The whole idea of this environment is there is no other place to associate with this culture, so even if they don't buy, the Indian people browse, see items--candies and toiletries--they saw when they were growing up."
"See this tooth powder," he said, picking up a box. "It is black tooth powder. They put in on with their fingers. Some people still use it.
"And these," he picked up a wrapped container of nuts, "these lather up and are used as a shampoo.
"And these," he pointed to horse-shoe-shaped metal strips, "these are tongue-scrapers. A lady just came in and totally cleaned me out. And these biscuits, called Krackjack--it's not that they are so good--but they remind people of home.
"Indian families are found in several areas of San Diego, primarily in Mira Mesa, the San Diego State area, Poway, Escondido, Encinitas, and even El Centro. Many Sikhs came to El Centro because they were skilled in agriculture and could apply themselves well there."
His degree in journalism comes in handy. Behram publishes a newsletter that he sends to his customers as part of his attempt to develop community. "I have a mailing list of over 2,300 families, and the Indian and Pakistani community is growing in San Diego. At some point they all come in to my shop. I know almost all the Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans in town.
"People call here, ask do we have this or that, and I tell them where to get tickets for the various Indian cultural events. If they travel, they often ask my advice. I feel my job is to keep a feeling of community, to disseminate information, to create an atmosphere in which people can feel at home."
Now because of the recent tidal wave in Bangladesh that killed many and left many more homeless, Behram is rallying to the aid of these people who are also part of what he considers his community. He has felt moved to action in what he described as his "humble way."
He has opened a fund at San Diego Trust & Savings for the Bangladesh relief fund and is encouraging customers to contribute what they can, either through his store or directly to San Diego Trust.
"We are a little people," he said. "My store is small. I don't expect to raise a lot of money, but at the minimum I'd like to raise $5,000. If I could raise $10,000, I would be gratified."
Behram hopes to have a chance to talk about his fund-raising on television or radio. At this point, he has raised a little more than $300, all in small amounts. Behram also contributed his profits from last weekend to the fund, and plans to do the same the weekend of July 13-14.
"Like every individual who came from that part of the world, I've been touched by what happened," he said. "I know how poor they are, how they suffer day to day. I have a very sad feeling, because I know I can have a lot in this country and I know they cannot. The average salary is $250 a year. When the tragedy happened, I felt I had an opportunity to do something. I felt I could put my store to good use to try to help."