Toronto's Little India suffers from Time Warp

I was cruising around the city last Sunday evening when I realized there were road closures on streets leading to Gerrard Street’s Little India. Quite accidentally, we stumbled upon what is called the annual TD Festival of South Asia. Puzzled, I scratched my head because as we walked toward the festivities, all around me were large groups of people wearing traditional robes and head coverings, leading me to think it was a religious event rather than any summer festival let alone an Indian festival.

I am not quite sure why the place is still called ‘Little India’ in the first place given the fact that a majority of the businesses as well as clientele now happen to be Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Afghans. If the place was re-christened Little South Asia or Little any other neighbouring country from the subcontinent, it would be more accurate. An ever-increasing number of businesses, as well as the language on signboards, will clue you in as to whether the establishment is Indian or one of the other countries in the subcontinent.

Little India’s roots can be traced by to the year 1972 when a businessman Gian Naaz bought the Eastwood Theatre to show Bollywood and Pakistani films to the growing number of South Asians that were beginning to settle in the city. This, in turn, resulted in entrepreneurial South Asian businessmen to set up restaurants and other stores to cater to the South Asians, who were drawn to the area for their weekly or bi-monthly Bollywood fix. Old timers back then claim that the place truly represented the South Asian continent with a very strong Indian influence that anchored it, thus the name Little India stuck.

Back then immigration from the sub-continent had just started and immigrants were trying to create roots in a new country and whether you were Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, Nepali or Indian, you were quite content to shop at Little India because you could buy things there that weren’t available elsewhere in the city. And it was quite exciting for South Asians to come to an area filled with brown people, who looked like them and talked their language and many friendships were formed over cups of tea or vegetable shopping. That was back in the day when Toronto was mostly a White Anglo Saxon city. Weekends brought hundreds of South Asians from as far neighbouring Quebec and small towns in Ontario. Soon, close to a hundred stores and restaurants mushroomed along the street from Greenwood to Coxwell. The businesses were operated by South Asians of Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Afghan and Pakistani descent.

Regardless of whether other South Asians were or are larger in number, “India” as a brand name has endured so much so even many non-Indian business establishments in Little India don’t advertise the fact they are from elsewhere on the sub-continent.
By the 90s the demographics were clearly changing. The Indians started to gravitate and set up homes and businesses in Brampton and Mississauga, the Sri Lankans started to shift and consolidate in neighbourhoods in the Scarborough area while East Danforth, closest to Gerrard Street began to populate with Pakistanis and over the years, businesses and clientele now reflect the changing demographics.

Chinatown has its annual festival, so does Little Italy, the Greeks in the Danforth and Roncesvalles Polish festival are among the many food and cultural festivities that happen in the city. Although most Italians now reside in places like Woodbridge, Taste of Little Italy festival attracts Torontonians and tourists from around the world and more importantly Canadians of Italian origin. The restaurants are chic, clean and elegant, so are the stores that are neat and well preserved.

Ditto the Danforth, which has its extremely popular Taste of the Danforth. Now when you compare these awesome festivals with what I observed at the Festival of South Asia, you’d understand why I was so underwhelmed by what I observed at the TD Festival of South Asia. Fortunately, there were very few non South Asians to be seen apart from the police and medical personnel on hand and of course the few Liberal Whites, who came here looking for ‘Indian’ food but ending up in restaurants serving food from countries bordering India. Everything looked quite chaotic and haphazard, which in a way, reflected India, perhaps it was all intentionally done to keep with the authenticity. There was some Bollywood-related dance contest on a stage set up on the street which was quite unremarkable and there was little else by way of quality entertainment, just a lot of noise and crowds everywhere.

Little India seems trapped in a time warp as far as exteriors and interiors of some of the eating joints are concerned. This is a seriously tired-looking neighborhood littered with many vacant storefronts and ‘For Lease’ signs. There are visible signs of urban decay and no one really seems to care about aesthetics or standards of cleanliness that one encounters in mainstream business establishments in Toronto. Many of the businesses I’m told are struggling to survive and apart from a few that are definitely doing brisk business like the store selling Islamic books which was filled with customers and the long time fixture, the restaurant Lahore Tikka House.

Two decades ago, Little India was the only game in town and although the bulk of South Asians had already started settling into suburban areas in Brampton and Mississauga, doing some shopping, groceries and enjoying a typical Indian meal, buying DVDs and music was all to be found exclusively here. But today, businesses catering exclusively to South Asians have mushroomed all over the city, particularly where we live which is everywhere.

New South Asian business establishments out of Little India tend to be more trendy, clean and competitively priced, with the result, Little India’s status has diminished and for most South Asians, it has been a while since they intentionally made a trip into the city just to visit Little India like myself.

Perhaps it is time Little India is carved out in a neighbourhood in Brampton or Mississauga where the new Little India will have a strong Indian influence that is representative of the diversity of India. But then again ethnic enclaves are harder to maintain since most new immigrants have spread out thinly across the GTA. These little quaint enclaves are simply tourist attractions for other Canadians when the communities are small go. They aren’t as integral as they once were and serve no other real purpose, especially since the communities have migrated into the suburbs.

And this is especially true of Little India which existed despite not having a significant presence of South Asians, who actually lived in and around the neighbourhood. When is the last time you visited Little India.

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