Long Live Desi!

By Kollengode S Venkataraman

Many people have told me in my interactions that they do not quite like me using the term desi to refer to ourselves. None of them mean ill, and with some, I have decades of interactions. I’ve ruminated over this for quite sometime now. 

The expressions we use in identifying ourselves or any group of people, should be appropriate to the time, place and context of the usage. One example: In a racially charged environment in the US, over time, the term to refer to people of African heritage has morphed from Negroes, Africans, Afro-Americans, Blacks, and now African-Americans. 

Even in India, Harijan (literally God’s People), the term first used by Mohandas Gandhi for referring to India’s untouchables, has now frowned upon by the very people whom it refers to. Their chosen term now for referring to themselves, and accepted by all others, is Dalit, meaning “the Oppressed.” Incidentally, both Harijan and Dalit are etymologically rooted in Sanskrit.

With the Dalits in India guaranteed constitutional protection and preferences, which translates into raw political power, the term “untouchable” may even re-emerge with an uppercase “Untouchable” with a new nuanced meaning: When nobody in Old India would touch the “untouchable,” in the New India, now nobody will dare to touch the new “Untouchable,” in anycase, the politically well-connected ones.

In formal settings, we refer to ourselves as Indian-Americans, and the US mainstream has adapted this term. The US census Bureau, however, refers to us as Asian-Indians. India’s babus (bureaucrats) have come up with these monstrosities: NRIs (non-Resident Indians), POI (People of Indian origin), and CIOs (Citizens of Indian Origin). Now our ethnic identity is reduced to acronyms. 

When we are communicating among ourselves on the pulp or over the airwaves, I find nothing offensive or condescending in calling ourselves desis.  In fact, the word is just perfect, precise, and succinct. I do not think anybody can come up with a better term.

First, Desi is rooted in Sanskrit. With Desh meaning country, Deshi becomes an adjective and a proper noun for refering to people belonging to a Desh. People of Bangladesh refer to themselves as Bangladeshis. Videshi and Swadeshi are authentic Sanskrit adjectives meaning foreign and indigenous.

And Deshi colloquially morphed into Desi, much the same way Indra morphed into Inder in Northern and Western India. Dharmendra is Dharmeder and I.K.Gujral is Inder Kumar Gujral, and Satya morphing into Sachcha. Pardesi colloquially means a stranger or an outsider.

The term Desi entered the middleclass conversational lexicon in Bombay and New Delhi in the 1950s and 60s when large numbers of people from rural India moved to the cities seeking their livelihood, mostly in low-level, mostly muscular, brawny jobs.

The employer (seth) will be looking for additional hands, and he will tell his people that he needs “good” hands to work in the plant. And the news will percolate down among the workers, and one of them, who the owner likes, will bring his buddy from his gaum (village) to the boss telling him that “Yeh hamara des-se hai,”  meaning “He is from my country.”

The country he refers to is the subregion around Haryana, Punjab, or Western UP; or Marathwada, Konkan, or Telengana. By simply referring to his buddy as his fellow desi, the employee tells his boss in one simple 2-syllable word that he vouches for his buddy’s workmanship, loyalty and skills.

Living ten thousand miles away from India, in the US we at once identify ourselves with other people from different parts of India we see in our neighborhood and workplaces. Our children do the same at school because they as a group see a common set of challenges — both at home and at school — in assimilating into the American mainstream, which they know only they can understand. It is another story that in India and sometimes, even here in these United States, the Tamils, Telugus, Kannadigas; and the Marathis, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Punjabis, Haryanvis; and the Bengalis, Biharis, Oriyas and Assamese cannot stand each other.  

How do we refer to ourselves when we are talking among ourselves?  Indians? That is not esoteric enough, for, every outsider understands the term. Besides, it is the name given by Europeans.  So, no. Besides, a large number of us carry US passports. Many are green card holders, with one foot here and one foot in India, calling themselves Ghat-ka-kutta in their moments of confusion.

PIOs or People of Indian-origin? NRIs or Non-Resident Indians? or CIO, or Citizens of Indian Origin?  These are long and clumsy bureaucratese.

In this context, Desi is just perfect, succinct, and rooted in India etymologically. And in the geographical context, it is expansive and inclusive, and includes Pakistanis, Bangladeshsis, Nepalese, and Sri Lankans as well. So, Desi, Amar Raho! or Long Live Desi.

 Of course, the anglicized middleclass brown sahebs in India, being mental slaves of the British, will wait for the Oxford Dictionary to accept it into the English vocabulary before using the term themselves.

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