My Journey: From Desi ‘Ghee(butter)’ to a Desi ‘Me’

‘Ewee what’s that smell?!’ A familiar outrage when our mothers or grandmothers cooked in Desi ghee (clarified butter). Those were fleeting interactions with the word ‘desi’ in my childhood. As I grew older, doctors began piping the benefits of eating pure and unadulterated food, so Desi (organic) chickens and eggs were now the rave.

After moving to Canada, I realized that Desi wasn’t just about food. Desi could have as many interpretations as the fight against terrorism. Chickens were not the only ones upholding the prestigious title. I was a desi too.

Desi (Brown-skinned) – anthesis of the word Gora (white-skinned)

When you look up Desi in the dictionary it says: South Asian, esp. Indian. People from the Pakistani, Indian, Sri-Lankan and Bangladeshi descent have simultaneously been whipped into a multi-layer Desi cake. Our accents and languages, skin color, food, clothes,culture and beliefs are conveniently defined under the word, Desi. This is sort of like how we call all white-skinned folk of the world as ‘Goras’ – natives of US, UK, Australia etc.

If you are from South Asia/subcontinent region, the confusion is paramount. Especially since Pakistan and India originated from the same womb and separated at birth. Like how people of Hong-Kong or China can get mixed up.

Mississauga – The city oozing with ‘Desi’s’

I live in Mississauga-Toronto where Desis ooze out like maple syrup. Pakistanis represent a large part of the desi pie-chart. There are plenty of Pakistani stores that have everything laden from Tibet snow(ancient beauty cream) to Chawnsa Mangoes. So Pakistani culture is not akin to an alien controversy of Area 59. It is seen tiptoeing between latest trends of shalwar kameez, naashta (breakfast) joints with halwa puri and channay, Pakistan day events at the Celebration Square, Pakistani weddings, smell of our masalas wafting in the hallways of condos and Mosques bustling with activity on EID – you get the picture. It is all quite welcoming.

Contempt associated with Desis

A strange thing I’ve noticed here is the not-so subtle contempt associated with the word desi. And strangely enough, the disdain doesn’t come from ‘others’. It comes from us. It’s like we want to prove a point here. But what exactly? Perhaps nothing more than a hasty generalization.

If we catch a traditionally dressed ‘desi’ woman at the grocery store, we think to ourselves, ‘Uff, look at her dressing sense!’ Or if some driver breaks a traffic rule, our knee-jerk reaction is, “That must be a desi!” Almost like how back home every traffic violation was the doing of a woman (another topic for another time). Litter found on the road usually means that some desi did it. I once wore shalwar kameez to school to pick up my son and he said, “Mama! Why are you all desi today?” Imagine my embarrassment. First at my clothes. And then at what my son just said. It suddenly dawned on me.

My son was gradually becoming ‘anti-desi.’ I did not like it one bit.

The confusion

My tenant told me how she loved our Indian food. I kept saying, ‘Yes, you mean Pakistani food.’ She didn’t notice the difference because of similar ingredients and method. The end-product is still different. Indian food is delicious in its own place, but for many like me, Pakistani food is like mom’s cooking, closer to home and the heart. It’s like asking for Chinese food and getting Japanese in return. It’s not just the food. Our identity is a complete hodgepodge.

Despite our thriving representation in places like Toronto etc., why isn’t our Pakistani identity more comprehensible? This is not as much of a complaint as it is a confused query.

It. Is. Our. Fault. Period. 

Sometimes it’s like we are built that way – inherently confused desis, embarrassed Pakistanis and bewildered Canadians. Everything about us appears less worthy once we move to a foreign land. Many of us think that we have to let go of everything old to submerge into a new culture. The unending sequel to East meets West continues.

In my short time here, I’ve seen young Pakistani-Canadians feeling embarrassed for wearing their desi garb in public or in speaking their native languages. I don’t give my son kebab sandwiches in school because he’d smell like Pakistani food. Some people here don’t take the day off from work or school for Eid (religious holiday).

These trivial examples are relative to the priorities we hold dear. But what never changes is our desire for others to respect us.

Irony is, whatever roots we cut off, we are always DESI and BROWN in other people’s eyes. In our minds, we are not even that. So who are we really?

Finding my way

I am a confused-desi-immigrant trying to become a focused-proud-desi-Pakistani-Canadian. How hard can that be?

I love pancakes, but desi Parathas on a sunday morning are luxury. I love the contagious joy of christmas, but EID will always be my holiday. I love jeans but dressing up in shalwar kameez for a Pakistani wedding is precious. I love latte but a daily cup of bubbling hot Chaye (tea) will always calm my frenzied nerves. I love pasta and pizza, but the scintillating aroma of chicken karahi always means that much more. I enjoy Ellen Degeneres and Madam Secretary, but once in a while, some lighthearted ramblings of a Pakistani morning show or family quibbles in a drama are just what I need. I love the high quality of life here, but sometimes I miss not having a horde of people at arm’s length back home who’d need our help.

I love the big hearts of people here in Canada, and that is why I need to show a Pakistani’s simple heart to the world.

Rock the desi in you

I am no traditionalist. But this need to mummify my origin seems more important now than ever. I can’t expect my children to feel the way I do about Pakistan, but I can keep their association and interest alive.

More than anything else, this is a reminder to myself and my family. Be it a Pakistani desi, an Indian desi or a desi chicken, to us Desi should be the new Black, or Pink, or whatever is in fashion. How do you become a loyal and responsible Canadian citizen without understanding your complex and colorful origin. We will always be different here no matter how much we mingle. Why not put that to good use by balancing the best of both worlds? Not easy, but doable. I’m definitely up for the challenge.

Two generations from now, even if my children’s children are  immersed in their new environment, their parents and grandparents were still Desi’s. How do you ignore what’s in your blood? You don’t.

You accept it and let your roots give comfort when needed, like an old song you once loved, lost and then rediscovered.

And now you just can’t stop humming its tune.

Not just four stars….

True stories are the best. All the academy awards in the world cannot do justice to real life depictions. This is just one of those hazy reviews of a life greatly lived, topped of course with some necessary touches of fantasy and fiction, for you; the readers.

A 10 year old girl with the world’s hope and dreams trapped in little soulful eyes, hurried home from school so that she could get  back to her homework. The dilapidated mohalla where she lived with her parents and siblings reeked of poverty yet the smell of love overpowered it all. Tiny pathways connected all homes, like a stringent network of capillaries. Voices skipped from one room to the other in such closely placed houses. Laughter and cries; gibberish and screams.

She loved how words connected on paper. She adored school. All those books about fairies, Jinns, Castles transported her to places she could never even dream of. These dreams were as short-lived as a person’s childhood. She was taken out because it was time to migrate to another land. People in her country had been clawing at each others throats for a long time. Muslims vs. Hindus; British vs. Muslims; Hindus vs. British. Same people – Different combinations. Now it was time for a new land.

Everything was a hodgepodge. Kind of like the spicy curry ingredients her mother cooked in her huge steel pot. How could you just get up and leave your country just because everyone was doing it? For safety reasons, she heard from relatives. You will be a free Muslim there, she was told by her parents. She was confused. She prayed five times a day and no one ever stopped her. How freer could she be? She just held on tightly to her small dupatta and gathered her few belongings, her heart fluttering as she thought about the long train ride ahead.

After a restless and dangerous ride of many hours, she was told they had arrived. Many people had not made it alive. Trains had been ransacked and people brutally murdered like useless insects. But they arrive in one physical piece, but with hearts divided in two. Pakistan was her new home now. She looked outside of her window, waiting to see some magical land of flying horses, fairies dressed in gold, angels giving away sugary flat bread. Nothing. It was all the same. Barren land, disheveled people dragging their belongings, with frightful, bloodshot eyes. Some even had blood on their clothes and faces.

She accompanied her family to some distant relative’s place,which was equally depressing. Her enthusiasm died a slow torturous death, like the goat that was sacrificed last year on Eid.  She did not like what she saw as she peered outside the buggy, on her way to her new temporary house. It was far worse than her little cupboard containing a few broken dolls she had left behind in a waterfall of tears. The entire city was like an abandoned circus; as if someone had left in a terrible hurry. It was all there but nothing looked right.

They acquired a small place of their own, in a cramped neighborhood. The people were friendly, especially to a 10 year old. As she grew up, they were not so friendly any more. She turned 15 and all the friendly smiles turned to obnoxious stares. It was time for her to get married, which to her meant only one thing; no more school. Her academic life was over for good this time. She was wedded to an unknown man whose face she saw the day of their wedding.

At a young age she had realized the power of being thankful, no matter what. Her gratitude stood resolute in front of all the setbacks that followed. A huge family of typical overpowering in-laws, a suffocating house, and a 15 year old daughter-in-law who only new how to cook potato and meat curry with roti. Her rotis were the best. Her mother took pride in that fact. In the years to come, her cooking left everyone with exploding bellies, licked fingers; still asking for more. She then learnt to sow and stitch, to weave and crochet, to clean, to give,…and to give some more. Who was to know, this was something she would be doing all her life. Give, that is.

She gave birth to a daughter the very next year. The minute she laid eyes on her daughter, she knew she was going to do one thing, and one thing alone. Send her to school, and never deprive her of such a blessing. After that a long line of children arrived, three of whom died in infancy. She was left to take care of seven children on a meager income and a husband who was hardly ever around. She was a disciplinarian when it came to school. Although not educated enough herself, she ensured that her children got the best possible education. After years of blood and sweat, the family finally left their archaic neighborhood and moved to greener pastures. She had her own beautiful home. She could finally sit on her own porch in those glorious mid-morning hours; when the soft sunlight greeted her plants as she ate oranges with sprinkled salt, and read the Urdu newspaper.

All her children went to universities and adopted the best professions of the time. She knew how to be a friend and took great care of the friends she made during her life. Wherever she went, she was the life of the room. Her contagious laughter, her interesting anecdotes and amusing vocabulary made her presence difficult to ignore. She had incredible general knowledge; about politics, about celebrities, about her religion Islam. She was a voracious reader with an uncanny memory. Despite the world’s problems stubbornly gnawing at her feet, her charming smile never left her thin lips. She never stopped thanking her creator.

She is over 75 years old now. She still loves weddings, praying, putting chameli (Jasmine) flowers in her ears, music, reading, and a good joke. A true patriot; despite having the option to move out with her children who are happily settled abroad, she chooses to stay back. Living with a bad heart and extreme pain all over, she is peaceful and content. I have never once seen her complain or whine about her health.

She is my beautiful grandmother; the most brave and strong woman I know. She gave a large part of her love and prayers to me too, and for that I will forever be grateful. There so much that I can say about her, yet it will never be enough. Behind her wrinkled face and a joyous smile remains a life ingrained with years of hard work, faith and the ability to make the most out of what you have.

If you ask her, she will tell you how her life has been God’s beautiful gift to her, which she chose to wrap with her own bows of strength and determination.

If you ask me, her life story is worth all the stars in the world. Not just four stars.


Daily Prompt Challenge: Four Stars: Write a review of your life — or the life of someone close to you — as if it were a movie or a book.