On Hillcroft

When driving down 59 after work you squint at the setting sun that glares redly in your eye, and around you the cars have become an ocean of unmoving metal, come to Hillcroft.

Nothing to eat at home except what you might pull out of the freezer. Piles of bills, TV, unwashed laundry, and your aching feet for company. This is not how you thought your life would turn out when you moved to Houston. But never mind, just off the freeway, an adventure waits. Veer sharply to the right, past a cacophony of honks, down the ramp, and you’re on a street you’ve always meant to visit: Hillcroft. Park, step out, begin.

In Hillcroft groceries, the air smells different, a little musty, a little like you’ve entered another land. Bins of multicolored lentils, ten kinds of rice in sacks large enough to feed a hundred mouths. Packets of spices: vermilion, ocher, cadmium brown. Ayurvedic pills, Isabgol for regularity, fairness creams. For those in a hurry (and who in this city is not?) bottled curries, frozen samosas, spicy snack mixes, honey-sweet gulab jamun ready-made and waiting in tins. But wait,

don’t fill your arms yet; on the next block, beside the beauty salons for eyebrow threading and gold facials, sit the sari shops, the jewel-toned fabrics unfurling sheer as hope, the decorous, brown-skinned Hillcroft mannequins that sport salwars, tunics, and lehenga skirts studded with gems for brides.

You want music? Here’s store upon store filled with song, classical, folk, Bollywood—and movies too. Kareena and Ash smile at you from postered Hillcroft walls in magnified glory. Shah Rukh gyrates; a leather-jacketed John Abraham surges forth on his bike. It’s hard to tear away from the big-screen TV with Malaika dancing Munni Badnaam—oh, those hips! I understand,

but in the dusk, listen, can you hear temple bells from the back alley and from farther away, the muezzin’s call? Lamps are lit, deities garlanded. Incense fills the air. On Diwali Hillcroft will transform into strings of lights, sparklers and firecrackers, flame-fountains, loudspeakers, and mountains of sweets to pack in shiny boxes and take from house to house.

But enough of distant festivals! You are famished right now, and there are a hundred options. Stand here, under the sign announcing that you are in Mahatma Gandhi territory, and look around. You want North Indian? South Indian? Pakistani? Chindian? We have fusion too, and vegan, all well priced, because we like value. Tandoori chicken, dosa, biryani, dahi vada, ras malai, dhokla, kheer. On Hillcroft, no one need ever go hungry.

Happy? Ready to leave now, your arms weighed down with purchases? Ah, but you’ve missed the most important part. Close your eyes, breathe in. Smell the dreams with which we came from our homelands, single suitcase in hand. The nostalgic songs we hummed those early days in Houston, families crowded into a single apartment, still waft along the air above Hillcroft. Can you feel the heft of our struggle? Our uncertainty, our hesitant backward glances?

But Houston opened its arms to us. That is why we flower on Hillcroft today—and all over this city. In return, we opened our hearts and let the city in. Look now:

Around you the milling evening crowds are brown and black and white and smiling shades combined, the color of Houston itself, all pulled to Hillcroft because here we’ve brought together everything that’s needed to feed the soul.

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