A writer finds small Indian community bonding around the ‘Amitabh Bachchan of Alaska’

Searching for Home
Stories of Indians Living Abroad
Book Excerpt 

We land in Alaska with little more than a dinner invitation from a man I’ve never met.

Of all the destinations I’ve visited, I feel most unprepared as I arrive in Alaska, the daunting ‘Last Frontier’, as it were. From the moment we step out of the airport, the location itself, as marked on the globe, makes me feel distant from the world I know, as though by making the journey, I have stepped into another unfamiliar dimension.

For most people, the appeal of Alaska lies in its wild beauty. When you close your eyes and think of the state, the first images that come to mind are of its extraordinary national parks, fjords and snow-capped mountains and particularly, of its wildlife, ‘Alaska’s big five’ – bears, wolves, caribou, dall sheep and moose – not to mention the whales, eagles and salmon that can be spotted by even the most amateur onlooker. These are Alaska’s main attractions, according to most visitors.

But I am not among them.

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I had decided to make the trip to Alaska after coming to learn that a mandir, located in the city of Anchorage, was the northernmost temple in the world dedicated to the Hindu deity Ganesha. If there was a mandir, there had to be devotees, I surmised. As I began researching the subject, trying to find out more about the person who had built this mandir and about the people it was meant to serve, a clearer picture of the small Indian community living in America’s northernmost outpost began to emerge.

At the Anchorage airport, my husband and I load up our grey Hyundai rental car. Though we’re staying at a local bed and breakfast (B&B), over the next few days, this car will be like a second home for us as we drive hundreds of miles in and around the Anchorage area.

As we leave the airport, my fatigue bears down on me; my eyes have trouble focussing. The nearly 20-hour journey to Alaska from our last destination, Abu Dhabi – quite possibly, the opposite extreme in appearance and character to our current location – has taken its toll on my reserves of energy. Gone are the dusty roads, the crowded shopping areas, the searing-hot winds. We are surrounded, instead, by green needle trees, mountains on all sides and vast, peopleless streets.

I’m wound up tight and my mind is entangled in worries. We’ve recently packed up our last home and after weeks of travelling, we will need to find new jobs and a new home. There was a time when I loved the freedom of travel, but lately, I have an overwhelming need to feel anchored, to find a home and put down roots. I wish I could just allow myself to relax.

We should rest, but we don’t want to waste our first few hours in Alaska. We pass stores like Wild West Guns and head downtown, where the quiet streets are lined with souvenir shops and furriers.

The Indian community here is small, unlike London’s thriving one or even Dubai’s, and numbers around 1,200, according to the 2010 census – a figure that is certainly higher than that of a state like Wyoming which has 500 Indians living within its borders, but is far lower than that of other American states like California, which has an Indian population of half a million, or New Jersey, which is home to a quarter million immigrants from India.

I had spoken over the phone to Sanjay Talwar, businessman and member of the Asian Alaskan Cultural Center, when I first began making plans to visit Alaska. Sanjay is not associated with the temple, but is a social anchor in the local community.

It’s not all igloos and dog sleds up here, he had pointed out during our phone conversation, reminding me that ‘we live near the mountains, not on the mountains’. I was curious to see this for myself. He had generously offered to host a dinner party for us when we were in town and promised to introduce us to the Indians in the community. ‘I know everyone here. I’m like the Amitabh Bachchan of Alaska,’ he’d declared with a roaring laugh.

When the Big B of Alaska invites you to his house, you don’t turn him down. For me, his personality symbolized Alaska – generous, natural and larger than life.

Having made the long journey, we’re now looking forward to meeting Sanjay at his home in a few days. Until then, we plan to venture out and explore our surroundings. Far from India, far even from the rest of America, I can already feel a sense of solitude and disconnect here. It’s not so difficult to imagine Alaska’s isolation from the rest of the country when you consider that Anchorage is the only American city to have 500,000 acres of state park at its border. In fact, Alaska has the largest state park overall, covering as much land as the state of Connecticut in terms of acreage alone. Locals refer to the rest of the United States as the ‘lower 48’ and proudly assert that Alaskans are kind and patient, unlike the indifferent and impatient people of the mainland states. Here in Alaska, there is pride in being the ‘other’ and as I interact with its people, I can feel and appreciate their distinctive identity and sense their individuality.

***

To understand life in Alaska, you must first become acquainted with its grand landscape. We set off from Anchorage to drive down the Seward Highway, considered one of America’s fifteen ‘all-American roads’, and among National Geographic’s ‘drives of a lifetime’. The journey from Anchorage to the small seaside town of Seward, home to hardly 3,000, can be completed in a couple hours, but we stretch it out over a day. We stop off at places like Potter’s Marsh, with its vantage points for bird-watching. We see mountains that rise sharply from the shoreline to heights of 4,000 feet and glaciers that feed streams. Waterfalls have become ice falls, frozen midway in their downward plunge. As we take in the spectacular views all around us, I wonder how much we can trust the face of nature, as it presents itself here, and the wilderness beyond.

We stop at Beluga Point, where hundreds of whales pass all through the summer months; about 400 beluga or white whales are to be found in the inlet alone. We hope for the chance to spot a beluga whale in the water, aware that this isn’t the right season. But the landscape is so overwhelming that it impels us to put a halt to everything and try being a part of the scene, even if it’s for a single moment.

We drive through Moose’s Pass, where the town has a school for its forty children and a deli that is offering a special today – reindeer sausage burritos. A sign here says, ‘Land of the midnight sun’, and I’m reminded that in the northern tips of Alaska, the sun neither sets in the summer months, nor rises in winter. We travel through the Kenai Peninsula, where we stop by the emerald-green Kenai Lake and breathe in the fresh air.

We drive through avalanche-prone areas where horrifying natural disasters have taken place in recent history, a reminder that life in Alaska is always precarious, always one of extremes.

In the presence of such natural grandeur, I have no inclination to click photos and trivialize it. I can’t imagine reducing all that I see before me to an insignificant image that can be edited, swiped or deleted whenever the mood strikes me. All I want is to breathe it all in and live with the memory.

***

Sanjay is already waiting for us when our car sweeps into his driveway and pulls up before the entrance. His house sits in a neighbourhood of manicured gardens, with a panorama of ice blue mountains serving as a distant backdrop.

His wife, Molina, warmly welcomes us into their home and leads us into a living room with tall windows and a view of the mountains. In the few minutes I have to speak to her alone, I learn that she is originally from Chandigarh and that before marrying Sanjay, she had never been anywhere beyond India’s borders; in fact, she had applied for a passport only so that she could move with her husband to Alaska after her wedding.

As their friends begin trickling into the house, everyone is informal and there is a sense of familiarity as they regularly get together at each other’s homes.

‘We don’t have our own families here in Alaska, so we’ve all become like an extended family,’ says Aarti, one of the Talwars’ younger guests who was born in India, but grew up mostly in Alaska.

Sanjay is an entertaining host and offers everyone red and white wine or – for the more daring – vodka cocktails. As everyone settles in, the room is abuzz with loud small talk in Hindi and English about the weather, recipes for homemade jalebis and the latest episode of the Kapil Sharma show on Indian television channels. We eat pakoras and guacamole and later in the evening, Sanjay and his friend, Anil, make fresh tandoori rotis on the barbecue grill outside to accompany the dishes that have been prepared for dinner.

The guests – close friends – are from all over India. There are couples from Bihar, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Punjab. The ladies are wearing a mix of suits, saris and tunics with leggings.

‘I love how our Indian cultures mix here. You won’t find that in the “lower 48”,’ says Aarti.

Although this isn’t strictly true, the smaller population of Indians in Alaska, in comparison to that in other American states, does ensure a more intimate, cohesive group of people for whom their regional identities do not stand in the way of their unity or social interactions.

As I begin working my way around the room, chatting with each of the guests, I get to hear their stories and learn that for them, life in Alaska is isolated but comfortable, and Anchorage makes for a good home.

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