Anila Keswani moved to New Orleans 45 years ago with her late husband Har, a naval architect. A CPA who has raised two sons in the Big Easy, she has imported authentic Indian culture to New Orleans through multiple businesses — the popular Nirvana and Taj Mahal restaurants as well as Nirvana Weddings. As part of an ongoing series about the many diverse communities in New Orleans, we recently sat down with Anila to talk about the Indian population here.
So, how big is the Indian community in New Orleans and how much of a community is it?
My estimate, it’s about 400 to 500 families, which would put it at about 4,000 people. But nobody really knows. That’s the best information we have from the Census Bureau.
Does everybody know one another?
You know, I used to know everybody, but it has grown to where I keep bumping into people I don’t know, and that’s really shocking. Because of my business, I used to know everybody. But it’s grown.
Where did you grow up in India?
I grew up in Bombay. I was born in Pakistan, came to India as a refugee during partition. A lot of history there. I grew up in Bombay. I went to school and college and everything there. My native language is Sindhi. And Sind is not a state in India. It’s a state in Pakistan. but the Sindhis in India have a very big presence; we’re well known.
How big a culture shock was it when you came to New Orleans?
Even in India, I grew up in a pretty progressive family, went to a boarding school and was quite exposed to the British ways. So, I wasn’t that shocked. But look at the culture from 45 years ago to today. It’s shocking for everybody.
Tell us a little bit about the things that Indians have brought to this community and to this country.
Post-Katrina, I have seen a lot of young IT people that have come from India for the jobs in New Orleans. We never had that before. Before, you had to be a doctor or an engineer. That was it for professionals. But there’s a lot of IT presence now.
How do you retain your sense of your roots and yet also dive into local culture?
Whatever you grew up with, you can’t shed that. You keep that, pick the best of it and pick the best of what’s here. There’s a lot of bests. All Indians are quite adaptable like that. They really are. We’re very much a mix of a lot of different foods, music, languages, people, backgrounds, so it’s maybe easier to be diverse here.
New Orleans is the best place to assimilate and be assimilated because the local people are so friendly. And I’m saying that 45 years later. I can tell when I go to another city, the difference, the stark personality difference of other cultures. Everybody says that when they come to New Orleans, they just loved it and come back. If they don’t come back to stay, they come back.
You have a business that does Indian weddings. Is that a big business in New Orleans?
It’s a niche that I have now. I probably do one wedding a month, but that’s all our population has, you know? I love to do them. I have many props to make it grand and opulent, which Indian weddings are. I do the food, which is Indian food. That makes it authentic Indian. So, we’re not missing anything here. Of late, I’m noticing that I’m doing half my weddings as a destination wedding. Young couples are coming from New York and Chicago and the big cities to get away, because New Orleans is such a wonderful destination. It’s so contained. Everything is right there. And I love that. I love to be doing that.
What aspects of Indian culture do you retain?
Indians have not given up our food. We all love to go out and eat at the finest restaurants in the city, but we have to get back to our own Indian cuisine no matter who we are or where we are. So, Indian cuisine is very much part of our culture. We haven’t shed it at all.
Do you have a gumbo that has an Indian base or do you borrow ingredients and cook them in Indian manners?
We don’t have a gumbo but we have many equivalent sorts of things that we cook with all spices. Half the spices in the gumbo are Indian spices, you know? So, spices are a commonality with New Orleans food. How we use it and how they use it makes the difference, but we do use the same spices or similar.
Both the climate and the food in India and Louisiana are similar, right?
Correct. That is the number one thing that attracted my husband and I to come to New Orleans — the climate. He went to school in Michigan, and we were there for three winters, and I’m from Bombay, which is just like New Orleans. So, when he graduated, he had an opportunity to go to Pittsburgh or somewhere in Minnesota or New Orleans. It was a no-brainer. I’ve loved it ever since.
You’re the first person I’ve talked to who really likes the heat and humidity.
I love it. When I get off the plane, it’s like, oh, I’m home.
What things from New Orleans do you export back to India when you go?
All my family and friends have all been here multiple times for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. Bombay has imported jazz and a friend heads a jazz society that does jazz festivals over there twice a year. That’s what New Orleans has to export, more than anything else. It’s reached Bombay for some time now.
What are things about India that you miss or that you would like to see in New Orleans?
Maybe the shopping, you know? Unless you’re satisfied with online shopping for Indian; I’m not.
Going to India is another huge attraction because it’s such another world. It’s our home and it’s like you love both worlds. It’s not one or the other anymore.
Are most in the Indian community keeping that tie?
Absolutely … 95%, everybody is still attached. Our generation. Now, the next generation, we’ll have to see. I used to go to India twice a year. My children go once every five years. I’ve already been with [my grandchildren] three times and they love it every time.
The third generation is definitely more American, even the next generation. It’s not that easy to arrange a match anymore because these kids have their own minds. The difference being in this country and the way the world has evolved, there’s more opportunity here. When we were growing up, it was a very closed environment. You didn’t meet anybody, so you couldn’t even say I’ve fallen in love with somebody because you haven’t met somebody. I’m just saying that’s why most marriages were arranged. Mine was arranged, but we grew up brainwashed that that’s the way it is. And that’s the way it was.
If I want to get a fix on Indian culture in New Orleans, where do I go besides your restaurants?
We have organizations here. The India Association of New Orleans is a big group. Almost every Indian can belong to that, so they do three or four functions a year to celebrate the Indian holidays or whatever. If you want to gather, if you’re new and you want to come to town and you want to meet some Indian people, these organizations definitely give you that opportunity.
How does our Indian community compare to those elsewhere?
Houston has half a million. I am one wedding person in New Orleans. Houston has 100. And of course, we are a handful of restaurants. They have 100. Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, New York, New Jersey, L.A., San Francisco. We’re not to be compared — 4,000 is very little. It’s a very, very small community.
Can I get curry or Indian spices or a sari in New Orleans?
You can’t really buy a sari. But there’s a huge Indian grocery store here. It’s called International and you can get everything Indian there. Food, spices and stuff.
After half a century, are you a New Orleanian? Indian? Both?
Confusing, but I’m definitely a New Orleanian. I was 20 when I came. I’m almost 70 now. So, what does that say? You know? The Indian isn’t out of me, but New Orleans is very much in me.