Saturday, October 28, 2006

postheadericon Gautam Malkani taught me what a Desi is!

Sasgirl pointed me to a really informative article recently. The article had to do with Gautam Malkani's book "Londonstani" which incidently has somewhat of a cult following among the South Asian community in London and to a smaller extent, here in Toronto ( the book and I had to part ways after about 50 pages because I just couldn't get used to the lingo, but for the readers that persisted the book was a rewarding read indeed).

Anyway, in a nutshell, Malkani's novel revolves around a gang of desi rude boys in London, England who are prone to cellphone scams, beating up white kids who call them "Paki," and obsessed with bling, bodybuilding and girls. Now, how is that different from any other gang of street kids one might be tempted to ask...what's different is that initially immigrant East-Indian kids followed a certain stereotype: we were all studious, conscientious, timid...almost subservient. Then, according to Malkani, in the early '90s, we were not only rejecting that, we were morphing into something aggressive and embracing gangsta rap and asserting our ethnicity in OTT (over the top) ways.

Malkani explains, and I paraphrase, that minority (Indian) communities find it difficult to integrate quickly and effortlessly, so, they may do just the opposite, that is voluntarily isolate themselves from other communities, trying to build up their self-esteem and identity so that when they reintigrate into society later on, they do so from a position of strength and on their own terms. They no longer integrate by trying to be like the predominant culture (in the case of Londonstani, the British) . With their East-Indian backgrounds and culture they know they are different and whereas they once feared that, they now embrace it. This has provided a new definition of Britishness or American-ness, as the case may be. The result is what is termed as Desi subculture- a fusion of South Asian and the mainstream, in everything from food to music to clothing.

According to Malkani, the word “desi” literally means countrymen and refers specifically to the diaspora of the Indian subcontinent. It is broader than terms such as Indian, Pakistani, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, and yet narrower than the term Asian or even South Asian. It acts as a self-determined alternative to the word “paki” and the enthusiasm with which it has been embraced suggests a conscious decision against appropriating the offensive word paki and trying to turn it into a positive the way black kids have done with the word “nigger”.

Last year, “desi” appeared as a noun in the Oxford Dictionary of English, having been first introduced as an adjective in 2003. Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets have employed it
for programming - such as the BBC’s Desi DNA show - and even an entire channel in the case of MTV Desi. There is also the Desi-Lit book club of which I am a proud member!

All this semantics is important because, as a result of the word’s development, desi is now closer to the term “latino” than “Hispanic”, and it has come to refer to a loose subculture rather than a rigid ethnicity.

So, are all Indian expats desis? I don't think so. To me, a "desi" is a person of Indian origin, living outside of India and embracing all things Indian. For instance, I have a lot of Indian friends here in Canada who are, by their own admission, "coconuts" - brown on the outside, white on the inside. They could not and would not like to be considered Desis.

What does being Desi mean to you?


Nocturne said...

Amazing! still, that must make them desi coconuts. :)

it is a fascinating question, what makes one a desi. like you said, it's embracing and revelling in our culture and roots. personally, i've found that nothing makes my scalp prickle the way "Jana gana mana" does when it blares forth, and i think that's a manifestation of an unequivocal desi.


Lotus Reads said...

hi, anocturne!

Thanks for stopping by, "Jana Gana Mana" and "Vande Mataram" give me goosebumps, too!

And this "Desi" factor is just one aspect of the book...the novel also opens the readers' eyes to why British-Asian youth gravitate more towards a "gangsta" culture rather than a British (white) one, which their forefathers aspired to. If only I could bring myself to get over the lingo and finish the book!

Is it on your "to be read" list by some chance?

Beloved dreamer said...

Lotus, can't say I know how you feel. As a white with roots in my country dating back to 1640 and the Dutch land grants, it is hard. I do know that I love your culture very much. I love reading about Indian life and it's people. You opened that whole world for me and for that I thank you so much.
There is so much more to know and learn. I have found the Indian culture to be so gentle and caring that I envy you.
I will return to this blog in hopes of learing more my friend.

love, db

beenzzz said...

A very interesting post. I think it's very difficult to narrow down the term "desi." Anymore I think it's just a way of saying "homey," or someone who looks like me. It's an identifying phrase which is mainly based on the ethnicity of the person and not really the geographical location they live in. Interesting though. I bet we can try and try and never come up with an answer.

Lotus Reads said...

www, Beloved, what a nice thing to say, thank you! You are a desi just because you love all things Indian, so welcome!

beenzzz, helllooo!

You are absolutely right, the term desi has no fixed defination, it changes depending on who is being asked and that is what I find so fascinating! I have my own defination ofcourse, but so does everyone else! ;)

Beloved dreamer said...

Thank you Lotus. I would be proud to be called a Desi!


Shelliza said...

BTW, I hate coconuts! I know quite a few around here too. If a Desi is someone of Indian descent and proud of their heritage, then I'm one! I just learnt that my maternal ancestors were from Madras, and my paternal ones, from Behar. Do you know anything of those areas?

nomadica said...

I borrowed Londonstani from the library but had to return it before I managed to read it! (I was getting too ambitious about my reading goals I guess!) I would like to read it at some point. I hope I can get over the lingo too :)

Lotus Reads said...


My parents lived in Madras (Chennai) for nearly 15 years, so I know a lot about the place and its people - do fire away if you have questions. Also, my sister's inlaws are from Bihar, so I could get information about that area, too!

hi, Nomadica!

Gautam Malkani was in Toronto recently and I listened to all his interviews on the radio and got a much deeper insight into the Desi culture in Britain - its origins and its purpose. What's more, I am finding that it is happening here, too. My daughter tells me the Indian/Pakistani kids in her school are involved in a lot of gang-related activities, prefer gansta culture to rock and refuse to integrate. If it hadn't been for the book, this behaviour would have puzzled me because I am so used to the stereotypical Indian student who attends school, scores top marks, lands himself/herself a fabulous job, marries someone from the sub-continent and spends the rest of her/his life being part of the Asian elite in the UK, US or Canada. This book has been a real eye-opener.

luvcandle said...

Pleased to find an Anthropologist like me..

I also love to study life alongwith people. It really gives pleasure to see the wonders of nature hidden in and around us, woven finely around each aspect of our lives.

Read my blog :
and you will be glad to have a person with similar thoughts..

anyways good post...

David D Jerald said...

Hi Lotus,
Your Anthropologist Blog is so interesting. You have done well my friend and I think you are destined for great things. Desi is an interesting look at the immigrants from east India. I sometimes feel so far behind the people of other countries. I actually feel dumb as hell when it comes to you and your knowledge of other worlds. That is why I like this site. Thanks for staring it up lotus ...I will return.

Lotus Reads said...

hi, luvcandle!

Thanks for visiting and letting me know about your blog - I will have to check it out!

Hi, Dave

*blush* I don't know about being destined for great things, Dave, but it was nice of you to visit and say so. No need to feel dumb, wasn't it you who educated me about the Native Americans? I didn't know very much about them until you recommended certain books for me to read. I think we're just more knowledgeable about those parts of the world we happen to live in - we absorb its history, geography and social conditions almost through osmosis. Yes, please do visit again, thanks!

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