Anyone familiar with desi cuisine would recognise the unique combination of spices that goes into it: zeera (cumin), turmeric (haldi), fenugreek seeds (methi) and carom seeds (ajwain). Combined, these spices can have an overpowering smell; and given the disparate nature of this food genre, first timers would describe their initial experiences with desi food as being “quite the adventure!”
Growing up, we had very few and fleeting interactions with the word ‘desi’ in my family. With time, doctors began harping on the benefits of consuming unadulterated food, so desi (organic) chicken, milk and eggs soon became all the rave. But a recent conversation with friends showed us that Desi wasn’t entirely about food. Desi could have as many interpretations as the pursuit of happiness. Being desi is that bhangra you perform to your best friend’s mahendi entrance and desi could also be those million-and-one random aunties, peppering you with unsolicited marriage advice throughout your life and if confronted, will say “sanu ki”! To summarise: Chickens are not the only ones who can be described as desi. I was a Desi too.
And this is something I sensed during the same conversation with friends – when somebody pointed out the “accent” in my spoken English, despite having lived in Pakistan for a little over two decades (as we speak). This is the same friend who stops eating with her hands and instead uses cutlery when somebody would ring her doorbell
Wikipedia defines Desi as “being a loose term for the people, cultures, and products of the Indian subcontinent or South Asia and their diaspora, derived from the ancient Sanskrit deśá or deshi, meaning Land or Country. Being an extremely loose term, countries that be considered “desi” are subjective; however, it is generally accepted that Bangladesh, India and Pakistan come under the said ambit. Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka may also be considered “desi” – in some usages of the term. So technically, numerous descents are represented on the multi-tiered Desi cake. This could possibly be because our accents, skin colour, cuisine, clothes and culture are conveniently clubbed under the Desi grouping. This kind of reminds me of how we refer to all of the world’s white-skinned folk (natives of US, Europe, Australia) as ‘Goras’.
Question: what does it mean to be our kind of (Pakistani) Desi?
In my eyes, Desi is everything between Tibet Snow (hint: beauty cream) and Chawnsa Mangoes. It can be a spiritual trip to Multan, chapli kebab from Peshawer, Ajrak from interior Sindh, a drive down Margalla Hills, Pakistani weddings and truck art. Desi can be described as the adrenaline rush of hitting a six while playing cricket on your neighborhood streets or taking in the grandeur of Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore. It is also the ability to overdose on honest, good food at the (legendary) Burns Road Food Street and know it to be one of the truest forms of happiness. You get the picture – it is entirely and unbelievably endearing.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, there seems to be an anti-desi trend creeping into our lifestyles – kind of like a subtle contempt associated with being desi. Ironically, though, it doesn’t come from ‘others’: but more so, from within us, ourselves. It’s like we want to prove a point of sorts here – which is probably nothing more than a hasty generalisation.
And this is something I sensed during the same conversation with friends – when somebody pointed out the “accent” in my spoken English, despite having lived in Pakistan for a little over two decades (as we speak). This is the same friend who stops eating with her hands and instead uses cutlery when somebody would ring her doorbell.
Let’s now talk about “desi styled washrooms.” Or how desis have a perceived inability to converse in English. Or how desis smell of the curry they consume at mealtimes. Why is being desi taken in a derogatory sense – often denying somebody else their belonging? I realise that such categorization suppresses one’s own identity. Is it an attempt to become the brown equivalent of “white-passing” – ignoring one’s own roots, to become something else? Where did we lose our identity? Can we somehow reverse the trend and make our identity more comprehensible?
Maybe we are wired that way – to be inherently confused desis, embarrassed Pakistanis and a people described best, as lost. This sentiment could possibly be attributed to the never-ending pursuit of “greener pastures”. And it becomes more apparent, when we move abroad. Everything suddenly appears less worthy once we move abroad – because we feel that we must let go of everything old to assimilate into a new culture. These trivialities are relative to the priorities we hold dear. What remains constant, is our desire for others to respect us.
Regardless of where or how ever far we may go – we will always be desi. But in our minds, we are not even that. And this makes me then wonder: who and/or what are we, really? There’s a thought – now you decide. How hard can it be to find oneself – in all of our desi-ness?
I love pancakes, but nothing beats andaa paratha at any given time of the day. Pakistanis regularly experience Blessed Friday deals (based on the concept of Black Friday sales that accompany the Thanksgiving holiday abroad) – where, in November 2021, Daraz.pk boasted generating PKR 660 Million in revenues within the first hour of their 11.11 sales! While I wonder what this year’s 11.11 will look like, Eid will always be my favourite holiday and 14th August a close second. Dressing up for a Pakistani wedding is an experience, in itself. And nothing compares to the bangles and the mehndi that are a part and parcel of the entire ensemble. Cheese pizza is my go-to comfort food – but white karahi and chargha from BBQ Tonight is a thing of legends, as is paan from PIDC and halwa poori at some roadside place (recall Deira, Tooso and Burns Road) and gannay ka juice on a hot summer day. Pakistan is all of this and so much more. But above all, Pakistan is home.
So, this is a reminder of sorts. Be it a Pakistani desi, an Indian desi or a desi chicken, we ought to embrace it for what it is. We will always be different – regardless of how well we integrate into whatever new culture we ultimately adopt: but we can definitely attempt to balance the best of both worlds. Not easy, but doable.
Thing is, you don’t ignore something that is in your blood. You accept it and find comfort in your roots, like an old flame that you once loved, lost and then rediscovered. And then you just hold on tight.