A question from a friend: She is white American Muslim and lived in Pakistan and India as a student and professionally while working in the development sector, and she hadn’t heard the term ‘desi’ until coming back to the US recently. She now hears it used frequently among American Muslims of South Asian decent as well as from other Muslims when referring to South Asian origin community members. She asked me what it meant. I thought I would use the opportunity to make this into a blog post because I have been asked on occasion what it means. Desi is one of the first Hindi/Urdu words I ever learned when I first started interacting with friends of various backgrounds from the South Asian American community as a new Muslim. It sounded like daisy to me, but with an /s/ instead of a /z/ sound in the middle. What was this word? Over the years the word has become a very normal term for me to use, so let me put this out there for anyone interested in the word. My take on what desi means:
Desi is very much used all over the des (South Asia) where Indic languages are spoken. However, outside of S. Asia, it is used in a very different way than what one may have heard before, prompting the question.
Des/desh and the adjective desi/deshi have roots in Sanskrit (desh). Des and desi would be preferred in Urdu and Western dialects of Punjabi, going into India and further East and on South it becomes deshi/desh, depending on how the s/sh is pronounced in the local languages. It essentially means homeland, or something of the home, something domestic, or native. It also takes on the meaning of the Indic homeland. So you have a desi, a native, and a pardesi, a non-native. Foreigners are pardesis in the des. And you have terms like swadesh (homeland). In Hindi, a more formal term for pardesi is videshi.
Pardesi also means anyone who is not local, without the implication of Indic versus non-Indic. In wedding songs (in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, etc), the bride who leaves her native village to marry a person from a different village calls that man a pardesi, he is not native to her village. In other usage in songs, a man who leaves his village for travel, perhaps for economic migration, can become pardesi to his wife/love-interest by going to the pardes.
Desi is also use regularly all over to mean sort of like “organic” or grown/raised in purity in the countryside—so you have desi murghi (sort of like free range hen), desi anday (organic, natural eggs), desi ghee (pure ghee just like what is made in the village which has does not have adulteration or hydrogenated oils in it (opposite would be vanaspati ghee or adulterated ghee made with transfats). This particular usage would probably be the way that ‘desi’ is most frequently used within the des.
These are the main ways that desi/deshi is used within India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh by peoples whose languages include this terminology. (Bangladesh…the desh or homeland of the Bangal people). However, the word desi has taken on a life of its own outside of the des among the South Asian diaspora. Probably coined by South Asians in the UK, desi has become shorthand for South Asia/South Asian and is used just to mean Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and Nepalese. Rather than say that whole mouthful, one can just say desi.
Desi has even been used in diasporic academic writing (though the term has been deemed problematic) and very much widely used in common speech among diasporic desis. Desi aunties, desi foods, desi dinner party, desi clothes, etc. It isn’t used so much in this manner within the des because there is no need for contrasting, but saying desi in the diaspora highlights the contrast between desi versus the non-desi majority community, so it marks insiderness. Interestingly, in very recent times, this usage has spread back to Pakistan-India-Bangladesh, and now one can hear it used this way more and more in popular culture. So you have the word appearing in Hindi film songs.
I use the word desi frequently, and pretty much everyone I know does, too. It’s just easy. However, in the diaspora the word is not without controversy. Who counts as a desi both popularly and also by self-designation? What about Afghans? Bhutanese? Maldivians? Where do desis from places like Kenya, Guyana, or Trinidad fit into this picture? Some diasporic Nepalese say that they are desis, some don’t. Also, some Nepali cultures are very Indic, others are very Sino-Tibetan in culture and language, and hence more clearly non-desi. The term also has some particular ethno-political implications within Nepal. Some diasporic Pakistani Pashtoons are completely fine with being called and self-labeling as “desi,” while others see themselves as more Afghan oriented in terms of language and culture view desi as meaning Indic, in contrast to themselves. A friend tells me that Pashto only uses ‘desi’ in the pure organic food sense, but that within Pashtoonistan the term does not exist meaning homeland or native place the way it does in the Indic languages, so these factors give it a twist in the diaspora. There are hairy identity politics at play when it comes to using and applying the term in the diaspora. There are also many who don’t like the cultural lumping and erasure of distinctness that comes with such a blanket term. Obviously as a non-desi, it is in no way up to me to define who is and who isn’t desi, and I do respect that there are diverging views on the term and its usage.
Here in Amreeka, the term is used with impunity and definitely serves its purpose, though. For example, I might ask a Bangladeshi American friend “Should I wear desi clothes to your party?” I don’t want to be exclusive and say “Pakistani clothes” or “Indian clothes” since that implies that one nation owns the clothes, South Asian sounds too formal…so I just say desi, she gets it, it’s fast and she lets me know what will be appropriate.
We all “get it” when a desi American person says “Oh that’s such a desi uncle thing to say,” or “She has such thick desi type hair, mashallah,” it shows cohesion and a common experience of such disparate groups as Hindu Gujaratis, Hindkowan Pakistani Muslims, and Bangladeshi Muslims in the US who up close in the des might find it strange that anyone thought that they had so much in common, but in the diaspora, share some common experiences as South Asian origin people with hyphenated identities. The term bridges religious and national divides, too.
Desi also evokes a longing for homeland, a longing for des…desis are such a global people now due to migration, they are of the des and in the pardes. There is actually a lot of media within South Asia and the global diaspora produced on the des-pardes migration issue, including a publication, and I think in the 90s, an Urdu drama of that name (Des-Pardes), a Hindi film with that name, and the issue crops up in Hindi films a lot, too. So many South Asian families have become des-pardes families.
So you have a word with deep roots that functions in distinct ways within and outside of the des.