Almost every weekend, the former Radisson Hotel becomes a little India, a buffet of Bollywood, Hindu and Muslim music, vibrant saris and savory curries.
On a Sunday last month, about 5,000 Indo Americans of different faiths and regions poured into the Sacramento hotel's grand ballroom to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the subcontinent's independence from Great Britain.
The previous night, 550 guests attended a Punjabi wedding there. On Aug. 26, hundreds of young women and their sisters, aunts, mothers and fiancés toured the South Asian Bridal Show. They touched the finery, enjoyed the dance and fashion show, and scoped out the DJs, caterers and photographers.
"Before, there was nothing like this in Sacramento," said the businessman behind the hotel's cultural transformation, Kumar Sharma, who bought it in February for $5 million and had it blessed by his Hindu priest.
"I wanted to let our multicultural community know that this is their hotel," said Sharma, who came to the United States from India 24 years ago with $42 and an agricultural worker's visa.
Sharma, 53, found one of his first American jobs in the vineyards of Napa. He worked his way up through Sacramento mini-marts, liquor stores and food markets, first as a clerk, then as an owner. His hotel empire now includes seven properties.
He's turned the former Radisson on Highway 160 into a gathering place for many of the region's 50,000 Indo Americans, whose population has more than doubled in the past decade.
The hotel which Sharma initially had renamed the Woodlake Hotel officially became the Red Lion Hotel Woodlake Conference Center Sacramento last week. Sharma's Shri Vinayaka Hotel Inc. also announced the purchase of the Red Lion Hotel near Arden Fair mall for $9 million.
A traditionalist who practices Hindu astrology, Sharma worships weekly and honors all faiths. "We will have a big gathering for close to 2,000 Muslims for a religious feast in October," he said.
He doesn't limit his clientele to South Asians firefighters convened at the hotel this past week. And he plans to relocate the Casino Royale cardroom on Auburn Boulevard to the hotel by the end of the year.
Like thousands of other Indian immigrants, from Yuba City to Stockton, Sharma's journey began in the fertile north Indian state of Punjab.
He was born in Hajipar, a village of 2,000 in the foothills, "like Cameron Park," Sharma said. His father, who ran a clothing store, was a political activist who rallied villagers to protest British rule, Sharma said.
Both of Sharma's parents were astrologers. When he was born Feb. 10, 1959, they were given a Kundli a 15-foot-long scroll that predicted his future in Sanskrit and Hindi.
"According to my Kundli, I will never stay in India, I will just work abroad and be very successful," he said.
Sharma said his wife, Rajiminder Sharma, the daughter of prominent astrologers consulted by Indian movie stars and politicians, reads the Kundli for the Sharmas and their two sons.
It provides a blueprint for all aspects of their lives: what they eat on which day, when they donate money to the poor or go to the temple to be blessed, even what medications they need so they won't get sick in the coming year, he said.
Sharma earned his economics degree in Amritsar, a holy city in Punjab.
In 1981, he was hired by a Yugoslavian company in Baghdad building air force bases for the Iraq Defense Ministry under Saddam Hussein.
Sharma who speaks English, Arabic, Hindi, Punjabi and Serbian said he recruited 6,000 Indian immigrants and put them to work.
He vacationed in Europe, then returned to India in 1987 and met his wife through an arranged marriage. "I was watching too many American movies, looking at high-rises in New York, L.A. and San Francisco, and reading American books," he said. "I saw it's the land of opportunity and wanted to prove myself. If I could do it in Iraq, I can do it over there, too."
On Aug. 18, 1989, he landed at New York's JFK Airport with $42. "I didn't know anybody," Sharma said, so he made a collect call to a friend in Vancouver, Canada, who had someone pick him up at the airport.
Sharma caught a Greyhound bus to California. An Indian American in Fairfield, Dr. Pardeep Kumar, gave him a job at a liquor and food store on Auburn Boulevard in Sacramento.
Sharma spent weekends pruning and picking grapes in Napa for several months. During the week, he worked 16 hours a day at two jobs in Sacramento. "I worked eight hours at a gas station and another eight hours at a 7-Eleven at the corner of Madison and Kenneth in Fair Oaks."
There, he met Sacramento developer George Tsakopoulos. "He used to come for coffee and we talked every morning. He said, 'Kumar, I see you working seven days a week, you want to open your own business?' "
Sharma said Tsakopoulos loaned him $75,000 in 1992 to open Greenhaven Market in Tsakopoulos' shopping center at Florin Road and Riverside Boulevard. "I paid him back in six months," Sharma said.
He said he bought another convenience store from a Serbian immigrant, and before long he owned five convenience stores.
Sharma said he bought his first hotel the Best Western Placerville Inn for $6.4 million in 2001. He also owns the Holiday Inn in Chico and the Quality Inn and Suites in Salt Lake City.
Sharma and his wife live in Folsom. Their son Shivi Sharma, 21, is a pre-med student at UC San Diego. Son Paras Sharma, 19, majors in business at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
The Sharmas worship weekly at the Laxmi Narayan temple at Elder Creek and Power Inn roads.
Temple President Surendra Singh, who's known Sharma for 20 years, said the businessman helps prepare food and serve lunches at temple events. "He believes in sharing his wealth, his knowledge and his ability."
Sharma also raises money for floods and earthquakes in India, and helps new immigrants get started. "In my religion, if you give to those in need you get 1,000 times more," he said.