Friday, April 11, 2008

Don't call me desi

I can see why you'd need another word for Indian in North America, but I don't have to like it.

One of the things that hits you when you leave India is that your identity is suddenly consumed by the fact that you're Indian. Having grown up in the country, my Indian-ness is not something I feel the need to justify, or even think about. It's just there, a part of me, like the shape of my wrist or the sound of my voice – when was the last time these intruded upon your consciousness?

You realise with a shock that for most people you meet, it takes a while to see you, because you're just an embodiment of whatever stereotype they're holding at that time. Many years spent abroad have inured me to this, I've come to accept and work with it. But while I understand and humour it from non-Indians, I don't forgive it in fellow Indians, no matter what passport they hold.

Another surprising thing you learn rather quickly is that the Indians born in other countries seem to be more prone than others to judge you by your passport. Most of those I've met – with some notable exceptions – have apparently never been anything but painfully conscious of their origins, making them defensive and strangely parochial. This is at first amusing, and then offensive, for those of us who know that India, more so than any other country, is what you make of it, and therefore has as many faces as there are people on the planet.

Wondering anxiously ("Am I being defensive as well?") why this word in particular makes me so angry, I found several possible reasons.

Of course the fact that I don't subscribe to the Hindi Supremacy makes the word annoying (please don't bother to say "national language"; I've heard it before). My bloody-minded dislike of being arbitrarily herded into any sort of group definitely has something to do with it. As also my tendency to instant fury at small-mindedness or tunnel vision, two traits that all labels exhibit.

Take the otherwise normal person who makes the startling comment that "being South Asian makes it even harder with respect to finding literary compatibility, especially if you want to date someone desi". Or that all "desi parents" are obsessive-compulsive about getting their daughters married. (Coming from a family that has never put any pressure on anybody, I resent this sweeping conclusion. Bollywood and Zee TV are bad enough, without thinking Indians endorsing the stupidity).

It's worth considering that the sentiments involved in the subject of a daughter's marriage are human ones, not merely Indian. This, finally, is The Reason – the reducing of everything to the word desi, a tiny little window edged with garish mirror-work and maybe also some badly carved elephants. As if that's all there is to the country, or indeed, the world.

Don't even get me started on gora.


The G-Man said...

I've been reading that blog and wondering why people who so often proudly claim to not be "confused" in the "C" part of ABCD, spend SO much time being defensive about colour and Indian identity.

One of the stereotypes in India (as you know) of American-born Indians of our generation is that their parents are stuck in a time-warp and are from an India of 30 years ago. I came here all ready to re-mould this vision (after all, I have some very cool cousins), but sadly SM and other blogs, discussions with people, stories I've read, theatre workshops I've been to, and plays I've watched just reinforce this.

Which India are they identifying with (or denouncing - depends)? It's certainly not the India their "desi" counterparts come from.

Anonymous said...

What pisses me off is that "they" seem to assume that all those in the "des" are unaware and hidebound. For eg what Gargoyle mentioned about the south asian women not reading, and implication I have often encountered that all of "us" go in for arranged marriages, are fat and have never seen an indie movie, ever.

Medusa007 said...

Oh come on. I work in silicon valley and believe me my prejudices are based on fact. And G-Man, I am not confused - I am brown and I like it.

TurbanCowboy said...

FYI Medusa, my prejudices are based on fact too. I've been patronised by the coconut motherf*&^%&@ ever since I moved to London. The ones with quarter my IQ, an eighth my travel experience. Parochial is right, Gargoyle. I'd get more world awareness and independent thought in Patinda than with these ass****s.

Medusa007 said...

It takes all kinds turbancowboy. but when you makes generalizations you're merely stereotyping. Some of us make an attempt see people as people first, in spite of our own prejudices.

Anonymous said...

I think the pt Gargoye is trying to make is that outside India, you're almost obliged to view everything, but everything, from a desi pt of view. I chafed at that myself. Returned to India to preserve what little objectivity I had left ;)

Dheeraj said...

Stop triviliasing issues folks. groewing up outside the norm is not a picnic, as i know from experience. Check it out here:

TurbanCowboy said...

You know what Dheeraj? This may come as news to you but *everyone* has "issues", as you call it. Growing up is not a picnic for *anybody*. That's not what this discussion is about.

The G-Man said...

Medusa007, I run into scores of computer engineers in CA all from India... and guess what? I have nothing to say to any them because they're from a TOTALLY different world.

What you need to be aware of, is that there are actually "desis" who speak ENGLISH and NOT Indian English (and certainly not the pidgin that passes for English in America). These desis date, have sexual relationships with girl/boyfriends, don't have arranged marriages and don't have to hide everything they do from their parents. They listen to all kinds of music, watch movies from all over the world and read everything.

I know desi girls who talk to their moms about their relationships, even the one-night stands. Not many, but quite a few.

Of course these people have problems - we are the Indian Born Confused Desis, and can be as pretentious as hell sometimes.

But it's my world--my friends, the crowd at the places I go to, the people who are at the plays and coffeeshops. Oh, and we eat beef - horror!!!

I can go on and on. You obviously haven't met the right people in Silicon Valley.

The G-Man said...

>And G-Man, I am not confused - I am >brown and I like it.

Now I'm confused. In my comment I said "for people who claim NOT to be confused...".

I'm glad you like being brown--I'd imagine you don't have much of a choice there. But why does your brownness have to involve being prejudiced about brown people from India?

I'd love to hear what these prejudices are.

The G-Man said...

And Turbancowboy, my sympathies. My friend in London has the same problem - he says he gets no prejudice/racism from anybody else - white Brits, French, Aussies... but gets it from the Brit-born Indians.

I've seen it here in the US too - there's a certain smirk that you just want to slap.

TurbanCowboy said...

Maybe one of these days I will :D

desi_in_aussie said...

spot on g-man! am an abd who moved to australia and the aussie born indians dont seem to have the defensiveness of their north american counterparts. strange! and such a relief to not have to do the forced desi with a difference thing all the time. you get so caught up in it when your thereyou don't even realize youre doing it! medusa007, theres a whole world out there man, a much more fun world.

the_ganga_is_a_fjord said...

I recommend reading this post and then getting on with your lives:

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