Indian culture in Shrewsbury and Westborough expands

In Shrewsbury, shoppers examine the fresh produce offerings at Patel Brothers, the country’s largest Indian grocery store chain.
In Shrewsbury, shoppers examine the fresh produce offerings at Patel Brothers, the country’s largest Indian grocery store chain. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

At the multiplex on Route 9 in Westborough, it’s a rare day when a Bollywood movie, in Hindi with English subtitles, isn’t playing. The concession stand serves samosas and chai alongside tubs of popcorn.

A few miles west in Shrewsbury, Patel Brothers is so popular that owners of the Indian grocery store had to move one of its entrances farther from Route 9.

And this summer, Shrewsbury had its first full cricket season, on a new pitch built on town land with private donations. So many children signed up for a summer clinic that some had to be turned away.

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More than 5,000 Indian Americans have settled in the neighboring towns, forming one of the largest Indian populations in the state, and transforming the area into a fulcrum of Indian culture and commerce.

“So many small businesses are popping up, especially Patel Brothers,” said Rithika Kulathila, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Boston who lives in Shrewsbury. “Whenever you see a Patel Brothers, you know there’s a lot of South Asians.”

The India Society of Worcester, created in 1963 to help stave off homesickness for students living in an area then devoid of their Indian culture, has built a large center in Shrewsbury and now has more than 1,000 members, including many who were born in the United States.

Dr. Sahdev Passey, a former India Society president, came to the area in 1973 as a resident at the now-closed Worcester City Hospital.

“There was no Indian restaurant,” Passey said. “There was nothing you could buy or do in the Worcester area that was related to India.”

And yet, many of the young doctors were Indian, he said. Because Worcester City Hospital and St. Vincent Hospital, also in Worcester, were not university hospitals, Passey said, few American doctors applied for residencies there. Of the 30 spots available for interns and residents the year he arrived, Passey said, more than 90 percent were filled with international medical school graduates, and most were from India.

Like Passey and his peers, many Indians moved to the towns near Worcester in the 1960s and ’70s for jobs in medicine and teaching. The tech boom brought more Indian immigrants in the 1980s. Many Indian families settled in Shrewsbury for its proximity to Route 128 and its schools.

And the growth has continued. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Indians statewide increased by 76 percent, according to the US Census; Westborough’s Indian population rose 192 percent and Shrewsbury’s 173 percent.

Shrewsbury, with 3,137 Indians, or nearly 9 percent of its population, ranks third in the state, after Boston and Cambridge. Westborough ranks seventh in the state, with 2,160 Indians, or almost 12 percent of its population. (These numbers include only Indian Americans who report a single ethnicity.)

“They’re attracted for a lot of the reasons that other people are attracted to this region,” said Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston. “High tech, universities, biomedicine — all of those things are factors in attracting people from these populations.”

Indian businesses began to spring up, including a salon for women. Restaurateurs who had successfully opened one Indian restaurant are opening others, Passey said.

A few years ago, Saqib Syed and Fazal Alam, Shrewsbury residents and former cricket players, wanted to introduce local Indian children to a game many had only seen on television. They talked to town officials, who agreed they could use a town softball field.

But the field wasn’t the right size for cricket, which is similar to baseball, but played on a rectangular, 22-yard-long pitch. Syed raised money to build a proper pitch, and this year the field had its first full season.

More Indian restaurants have opened in the area over the last few years, including Khatta Mitha and Ming III, side-by-side Westborough restaurants serving different styles of Indian food that opened by the same family in 2010, and Mayuri Indian Cuisine, which opened this spring in Westborough.

Sailaja Maddali opened her takeout restaurant, Mommy’s Home Kitchen, in Shrewsbury in August 2010. She had first started a catering service in her home that was so popular she and her husband began looking for retail space. Now she does a steady business from a kitchen on Route 9, beside Tacos Acapulco.

Kulathila, whose mother is Indian and whose father is Sri Lankan, moved with her family from New Jersey to Shrewsbury in 2004.

Even in the past eight years, she has seen a growth in local Indian businesses, including the opening of Patel Brothers, the country’s largest Indian grocery store chain.

“Patel Brothers is just crazy,” she said. “There’s always people coming in and out. People had to park in the Borders parking lot.”

To Kulathila, another sign of the growing community is Usha Beauty Salon & Facial Spa – an Indian salon on Route 9 in Shrewsbury.

Kulathila is working to get more Indians involved in politics: “I know, politics, the uncharted field that our generation has yet to conquer,” she wrote in an essay for the India Society website.

Watanabe says he doesn’t know of any Indian Americans who have been elected to the state Legislature, although some have served in Massachusetts as city councilors and selectmen. The reasons for the lack of representation, he said, have more to do with the state’s political structure than any immigrant group.

“You could ask this about almost any group except white or males in Massachusetts,” he said. “It’s nothing particular to South Asians. It has to do with a lot of things, including the power of incumbency in the state.”

Even in Shrewsbury and Westborough, Indians are not running for local office. Passey believes this is because many Indian parents traditionally encouraged their children to seek jobs in medicine or engineering. But he thinks that has begun to change.

“We don’t have much of a political presence in Massachusetts,” Passey said. “I have a hope that within the next five to 10 years, we will have people running for election.”

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