Swetal grew up in a family of ten in a Chicago suburb. The schools which he and his cousins attended had few Indian American students. As a teenager being an Indian American was difficult. He was not willing to carry home cooked Indian food for lunch at school for the way it smelled. He spent his after school hours helping out at his family's store. He bagged groceries, swept floors, helped customers with their shopping carts and unloaded goods on weekends. He recalls how difficult it was for him to help the customers with their shopping carts during winters when the sidewalks were shovelled irregularly. But life had its wonderful moments too— he fondly recalls helping his parents prepare "bhel puri" [an Indian snack] in the store. Living with their extended family made domestic life different for the Patel children, compared to their American friends. Swetal remembers his mother's efficiency in having all the meals ready for the family as well as the frequent guests and relatives visiting for long stays. He remembers the absence of teaspoons and table spoons in his mother's kitchen. Indian women of her mother's generation, he says, never felt the need for precise measurements of ingredients since they cooked with an intuition honed by experience.
MEDIATING CULTURAL EXCHANGE
The Indian grocery store has always inserted a taste of India into the American landscape, although the way it did so in the past was different from contemporary practices. Swetal remembers that, when he was a child, the family store was not planned and carefully laid out as it is today. In those days, it was a square room with shelves lining its perimeter, and the merchandise had no systematic organization or display pattern. The identity of the Indian grocery store was in its smells and sounds. The smells an Indian groceries, or the "scented aroma" as he calls it, continues to define the identity of his store. Even today, one hears the sounds of "Ram Bhajans" [religious hymns dedicated to the Hindu god, Lord Rama] every morning from 10 a.m to 11 a.m. at the Patel Brothers grocery store. Today, as an adult, Swetal does business with various people, whether they be merchants, clients or officials and he brings them in closer contact with Indian culture as he introduces them to Indian sounds, smells, and tastes, through his business.
Text by Holland Dvorak and Niyati Naik
About Raja foods
Childhood memories of working at Patel Brothers
On his mother and home
On his idea of Indian identity of their grocery store
Story on how he manages purchases at Patel Brothers