Ah, the inimitable flavor of Devon Street. When I first heard of this famous and highly praised avenue in Chicago, I felt I was being told of a magical and faraway land, a fairytale come true—and for me, a desi, it turned out to be just that.
Growing up in the middle of Indiana, my family was only about three hours away from this enchanted spot, but we made the trip only once during my childhood, a trip I have no recollection of. Only when I entered college in Bloomington and became friends with many new immigrants (termed FOBs) from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh did I have my first memorable encounter with the magical Devon.
Devon is … shops of shiny bangles, racks of glittering gold saris and shimmery silk kurtas, and impossible lengths of luxurious fabric that could stretch from Devon’s littered sidewalks to India’s shores and back.
Devon is … young coconuts split open by the cleaver-wielding man who has parked his cart in front of the Patel Brothers grocery store.
Devon is … red-orange spittle from paan, streaked across the streets and sidewalks.
Devon is India all over again, without the jet lag or diesel-fueled, horn-blaring lorries. Devon is a place of nostalgia, the closest one can get to India without ever going there; the chaos of men and women, young and old, in dhotis and saris and kurtas, casually crossing the street. As if confronted by stray cows on an Indian road, cars have no choice but to stop and let them through.
I was not surprised, then, to see that the south end of Devon was informally called Ali Jinnah Road and the north end termed Mahatma Gandhi Road. It seemed fair enough. You will find that more of the Pakistani kebab restaurants and halal grocery stores crowd together on the Jinnah side, while the Indian buffet restaurants and wedding sari boutiques lean toward the Gandhi end.
In those good old college days we would drive like mad, sometimes in the middle of the night, all the way to Chicago (about three hours, depending on how much we pushed the speed limit) all the way to Devon, just to satiate our need for greasy kebabs, hot and fluffy naan, and chicken makhani.
It was through these spontaneous culinary adventures that I first discovered brain masala and nihari (a Pakistani meat stew). But I also discovered that the mango lassi I had always ordered at the Indian restaurants (or begged my mother to make at home) was more or less an American invention, as my FOB friends preferred the sweet or salty plain version. I made sure I never breathed a word of my passion for mango lassis to them, and simply ended up making my lassi in a blender back at my campus apartment.
This also pleased my Turkish American roommate, who happened to be a huge fan of Indian cuisine.
One day she decided to join me and my friends on our Chicago adventure to experience for herself the high we got from our Devon eating spree. We headed straight for the street once we entered the city limits, aiming for a particular late-night restaurant, where the most heavenly greasy dishes awaited.
As we arranged ourselves with a bit more drama than necessary at the largest table in the restaurant (there were about 12 of us), my roommate enthusiastically put in her order for a water … and a mango lassi. I grinned at her and said nothing, watching the reactions around the table. “See what the gori is ordering,” they surely thought to themselves. And I had to admit to myself that I was secretly pleased that this time I wasn’t going to be the one being laughed at for my strange firangi ways.
We ordered about ten different dishes, and almost everything was heavy and oily and greasy; we had driven all this way, why hold out on the good stuff that we would never find back in the cornfield country of Bloomington, Indiana? As we made our plates heavy with rich, spicy sauces and tender, marinated meats, I noticed my roommate moving at a much more cautious and delicate pace than the rest of us. When I asked her what was wrong, she leaned closer and whispered that the oily food was not sitting well with the rich lassi, and her stomach was really starting to hurt.
I couldn’t laugh at her, because I could sympathize. Every single time I had ever traveled to India had resulted in at least two separate or sometimes back-to-back cases of stomach sickness in one form or another. And here on Devon—well if you didn’t know what you were getting into, you may as well be in India.
My roommate ended up spending the rest of the evening resting her stomach at a friend’s place, unable to join us for the night’s revelries, but the next day we decided to return to Devon for lunch. This time she made sure to grab a sandwich from a cafe beforehand. As we ate a quick meal at a tiny dhaba-cafe with the most luscious, melt-in-your-mouth fish curry I had ever eaten, my roommate said she’d shop around in the nearby jewelry stores. My FOB friends again smiled their bemused smiles.
Two doors down, I found her browsing through rows and rows of bangles in a shop that carried lots of heavy gold and silver jewelry. I was instantly drawn to a glittering diamond nose ring with a chain that hung across the cheekbone and fastened in the hair by the ear—a necessity in my Bollywood-infected vision of an Indian bride.
I bought the piece, knowing fully well that I would probably never have a chance to wear it in public. But I had to try it on.
My roommate found me in front of a small mirror by the earring section, the plastic packaging of the nose ring discarded in haste, and the tiny, cool, fake diamonds nimbly stretched out in a shining ray of light across the left side of my face. I was aiming for Bollywood bride, but I could have been a character out of National Geographic! What the hell was I thinking?
I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a face divided in two: half pale reason and half diamond-studded sentiment. No wonder my friends laughed at our mango lassi cravings and bangle shopping urges.
Later we all returned to Bloomington, somewhat exhausted but refreshed from the mini-escape. My roommate was giddy with the treasure trove of glittering bangles, henna powder, and kohl pencils, and I couldn’t stop myself from inhaling the scent of the packages of garam masala, cardamon, chili powder, mustard seeds, dhania, papad. We sat at our little IKEA kitchen table on our IKEA chairs and looked at each other and suddenly erupted in conspiratorial laughter. Our goodies and groceries were laid out on the table between us. It looked like we had been desperate to take back as much of Devon as we could, each in our own way.
Two years later, I would find myself in Bombay, volunteering with an NGO for street children, living in a working women’s hostel for an entire year and eating mangoes and cream on Marine Drive in the late night hours—the idea of and desire for the mango lassi forever dissolved.
Suchi Rudra is a freelance writer.