SAN DIEGO — 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.