Sunday, March 15, 2009


At first glance, Richmond Hill's Liberty Avenue looks strikingly similar to 74th Street in Jackson Heights. Both streets boast colorful sari shops, restaurants that dish up curry at recession-friendly prices, and religious goods stores with smiling Ganeshas in the window. But when Adeet and I ordered lunch at Sandy's Roti Shop, we suddenly felt that we weren't in Little India anymore. I enjoyed an aloo pie stuffed with potato curry, a Trinidadian take on the samosa, and Adeet had oxtail, peas, and rice. And instead of the Bengali or Hindi we often hear in Jackson Heights, our fellow diners spoke with a West Indian lilt.

After the West Indies abolished slavery in the 1830s, plantation owners needed a new labor source and subsidized workers from India. The Indo-Caribbean community in Queens continues many of the traditions their ancestors brought west, and Adeet and I came to Richmond Hill to celebrate the Indian festival of Holi, or Phagwah.

Holi is celebrated with a riot of color—revelers streak each other with red, pink, orange, and green powder or splash each other with tinted water. It's fitting that the the festival is celebrated in spring, when nature is again saturated with intense hues. One legend associated with the holiday tells how the blue-skinned god Krishna smudged color on his beloved Radha's fair complexion. Krishna famously cavorted with the gopis, or female cowherds, and today's merrymakers can emulate the god as they playfully "attack" each other with Super Soaker water guns and bottles of baby powder.

Adeet and I missed the Phagwah procession, but we followed the parade route to Smokey Oval Park. The streets were littered with bits of white paper and smeared with color. A woman stopped us and asked, "Do you play?" and when we nodded, she smudged pink powder on our cheeks. We paled in comparison, though, to most of the people around us. Even a dog had its white fur tinged with red.

In the park, hundreds of children and adults chased each other and smeared anyone they caught with technicolor powder. Several people ran a brisk business selling baby powder, and clouds of perfumed talc filled the air. A group of musicians danced in a circle and laughed at everyone's antics. Some of the children targeted Adeet, who soon looked as though he'd stood in the way of a Jackson Pollock canvas. A couple of people dabbed powder on my cheeks, but as we were leaving, a teenager exclaimed, "You're too clean!" and sprayed me with purple water. I shrieked and ran down the sidewalk, happy to play along.

Before heading home, we stopped in Anil's Roti Shop for more Indo-Caribbean treats. Adeet ordered a doubles—two rotis filled with chickpeas and tamarind sauce—and I had a currant roll, a flaky pastry flecked with small raisins. Later, when we got back to Jackson Heights, we went to Rajbhog for chai. I think we've discovered the best of two worlds.

To see all of the photos Adeet took during the Holi celebration, please click on my Delikatessen web album.

Sandy's Roti Shop
121-10 Liberty Avenue • Richmond Hill, Queens

12502 Atlantic Avenue • Richmond Hill, Queens

Anil's Roti Shop and Bakery
125-01 Liberty Avenue • Richmond Hill, Queens

Photos by Adeet Deshmukh

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