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The Impulsive Traveler: A bit of Bollywood in Canada

By Michael Kaminer
Friday, December 10, 2010; 11:53 AM

Hindi-language blockbusters are filming in the streets. A major museum is showcasing royal Indian treasures. The over-the-top musical "The Merchants of Bollywood" just capped a sellout run. And the Indian Film Academy Awards - better known as the Bollywood Oscars - will make a splashy North American debut here in June.

It may seem as though Toronto is having an Indian moment. But in fact, this head-spinningly multicultural metropolis has long boasted one of the most vibrant South Asian immigrant communities in the world. Twelve percent of greater Toronto's population is South Asian, a figure expected to double within 20 years, and Punjabi is the fourth most-spoken language in Canada (after English, French and Chinese).

And even though the centrifugal pull of the suburbs has thinned the Indian presence in downtown enclaves such as east-end Gerrard Street, an exploration of Toronto's South Asian offerings can spice up a Hogtown weekend even for a longtime visitor like me.

Though its glory days have passed, Gerrard Street still bills itself as "the largest marketing place of South Asian goods and services in North America," and the low-slung five-block strip makes a good entry point for sampling the range of South Asian heritage here.

Its official Web site - which dubs the neighborhood "Gerrard India Bazaar" - claims that more than 100 stores and restaurants populate the shopworn street, but the number of "for rent" signs I saw in empty storefronts on a late fall weekend made me wonder whether this was true. Indo-Canadian publicist Lina Dhingra assured me that Gerrard Street is still "a vibrant part of town for South Asians." But Binoy Thomas, editor of the influential Toronto-based South Asian newspaper Weekly Voice, believes that it has "more relevance as a symbol. The white community and Indians from the U.S. like to stop there."

The reality felt somewhere in between; at the very least, the street is an apt symbol of Toronto's cultural masala. On the market's first block, Pakistani flags flap beside the maple leaf atop Lahore Tikka House, whose tented patio draws throngs in clement months. Its neighbors on the block include Islamic Books and Souvenirs, where a hand-written sign touted half-price deals on Arabic Korans; "100% pure vegetarian" eatery Bombay Chowpatty, whose windows still bore colorful "Happy Diwali" signs; sari and salwar-kameez emporium the Little Bangladesh; and bright, sleek 786 Halal Restaurant, which dishes up such traditional Pakistani fare as chicken qeema mirch ($10) and the bean stew lobia masala ($5).

Half a block east, the fluorescent-lit Indian Record Shop stocks just-off-the-plane Hindi music, movies and magazines that belie the dusty racks and faded posters. Current Indian periodicals such as the newsweekly Frontline, the Mumbai fashion bible Femina and Bollywood gossip glossies Stardust and Filmfare arrive here weekly; the friendly proprietor assured me that movies such as the sports comedy "Dil Bole Hadippa!" and the historical costume drama "Jodhaa Akbar" were burning up the screens back home.

Next-door competitor Bollywood Music Center boasts a slightly groovier interior and selection to match, including "Action Replayy," a current Bollywood "Back to the Future" clone.

An essential part of the Gerrard Street experience is culinary, but the volume of restaurants with pan-Indian menus made it tough to choose. For direction, I consulted Toronto friends and Gerrard Street shopkeepers. By almost unanimous decree, I ended up at subterranean Udupi Palace, a low-ceilinged, white-tiled cavern incongruously punctuated by faux-Roman columns. The South Indian veg fare is straightforward, honest and cheap; my $8.99 thali included mellow dal shorba (lentil soup), bracing spiced cabbage, yogurt, chapati and the sweet, warm rice dessert called kheer. The place is deservedly popular with Indian families who schlep in from the suburbs for languid weekend lunches, so prepare to wait if you're here on a Saturday or Sunday.

Still feeling a sweet tooth after lunch, I wandered into Moti Mahal, whose ketchup-red laminated plastic interior and curved plastic tables look like those in any fast-food joint. But this is the real deal; a mango lassi ($2.99) arrived smooth and balanced, with just the right sweet-tart notes. You can also build your own thalis (veg, $7.50; meat, $8.50) from luscious-looking trays of chicken curry, butter chicken, lentils and channa on steam tables behind the counter.

Sari shops, tchotchke emporiums and jewelry stores dot the rest of the strip. A cheerfully jumbled window lured me into bazaarlike Sajawat, which proved the strip's best bet for gifts and souvenirs. Forgo blingy $95 bracelets for the rotating rack of $1 baubles on the display counter. Textiles from Jaipur, including riotously colored runners ($15), cotton bedspreads ($25-$35) and silk blankets ($150) also tempted but seemed unwieldy to pack. Mellow burning incense made for a drowsily appealing browse before heading back into the cold.

A day later, at a glitzy press preview for the Art Gallery of Ontario's heavily promoted "Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts," Gerrard Street felt very far away. Organized by London's Victoria & Albert Museum, the glittery exhibit is making its North American debut here. While some of the objects feel a little less spectacular outside the regal context for which they were created - a gleaming ebony desk from the modernist palace of Maharaja Manik Bagh still looks like just a desk - a few blockbuster showpieces make the show memorable. Cars don't thrill me, but I couldn't take my eyes off the Star of India, a Rolls-Royce Phantom II custom-built in 1934 for His Highness Thakore Sahib Dharmendrasinhji Lakhajiraj of Rajkot in Gujarat.

There's a nifty gift shop, too, with next-generation Indian textiles and household items such as pop-art Ganesh-print pillows in acid colors for $95 by Indian design company Koko and paisley-printed cloth notecards, $17.95 for a pack of eight, from hip Indian accessories outfit Two's Company.

If I had my own Rolls-Royce, I'd have driven to the satellite communities surrounding Toronto, where, Thomas told me, "all the action is." There's a spectacular hand-carved Hindu mandir, or temple, connected to an Indo-Canadian museum half-an-hour's drive northwest of downtown. The Canadian Museum of Hindu Civilization graces the multicultural northern enclave of Richmond Hill, not easily accessible via mass transit. And some of Toronto's most exquisite Indian dining, I'm told, is found in strip malls off highways in Brampton.

Maybe I'll follow the immigrants themselves on another trip and settle in the suburbs.

Kaminer is a freelance writer based in New York.

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