Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Top 5 Cool Things About Being Desi

I have never been a non-brown person, so don't know if any of these apply to a non-desi. But these are the things that are cool about being a Bengali/Desi.

1. War of the Plates
Ever since I can remember, whenever my mom would make some special dish in the kitchen, she would take a few small plates, fill them with the aforementioned food and send me around the neighbourhood, with clear instructions to bring the plates back. And the aunties who would open the doors would NEVER give the plates back.

"I have to wash them," They would say, or "I will send (insert her son's name here) with it later."

Few days later their son would show up with our plates, plus one or two of theirs, with some delicious food. And now it was my mom's turn to find excuses not to return their plates immediately. As soon as we move to a new neighbourhood and made contact with a few friendly neighbours, this never-ending process would kick-off.

2. Code Language
It's really cool to speak another language that's not the common tongue of the land. Let's say we go to buy a car. The Croatian salesperson is harping on about the bells and whistles. I excuse myself for a minute, turn to my dad and can rapidly shoot off in Bengali. And he can reply with his criticisms of the car, while the salesperson looks on with a nervous-but-polite smile. And being Bengali, we can switch between Bengali, English, Hindi, Urdu or Arabic (lived in the Emirates you know) as the situation demands. I pity the ScotiaBank commercials where the couple meeting a loan officer has to talk in whispers so the banker cannot hear them. With us, the word 'whisper' does not exist. Just switch to Bengali.

3. Desi Parties
Admit it. While we may make fun of them and pretend not to enjoy going to these parties, they are really unique. I remember one of my first white friends (roommate) in Canada making this remark when I told him about a desi party.

"Wait a minute." He scratched his head. "There's no rock music, no alcohol, no intermingling of genders, no dancing, and you manage to have a good time?!! How?"

Yes, I know. Puzzling, is it not? Not that I mind a little intermingling ...

And the food. Let us not forget the food. Especially the food. No wonder the British stayed in India for 400 years. I mean, look at their specials in Britain.

"Today, same as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before .... Fish and chips."

Meanwhile, even our BBQ (the easiest and least 'gourmet' cooking) has flavoured chicken. I cannot believe they BBQ chicken without tandoori masala. Hello? Putting Heinz's BBQ ketchup just does not cut it the same.

4. Nicknames
Every person has a nickname. All over the world, it's a variant of their 'good' name. So Michael becomes Mike, Abraham becomes Abe, and Elizabeth becomes Lisa. Now, switch to desiland.

Good Name: Mohammad Nabeel Abdus Sattar Shamsuddin.

Nickname: Bhola.

Huh? It doesn't make sense. The guy could be the smartest guy, but now for the rest of his life he will be 'Bhola'. And this is also another puzzling matter for our white friends. Once, a Swedish girl I know from our university heard another brown friend's wife call him by his nickname.

"Oh that's so sweet," She told the wife. "You have a nick for your husband."

"Ya," I quickly cut her misconception short. "That nick is also used by his mother, sister, aunt, friends like me ..."

And nicknames stick. We have two friends, both called Jashim. One is older than the other by two years, so we call him 'Boro Jashim' (Big Jashim) and the other 'Choto Jashim' (Small Jashim). For the last twenty years that has been their names in the community, even though Choto Jashim is anything but Choto now.

5. Adda
This is a Bengali word loosely translated to mean a 'get-together'. What it is, is a bunch of friends (usually ALL guys) who just hang around late into the night discussing all the issues of the world. Again, it sounds gay, there are usually no alcohol, no joints (usually), some smoking (NOT me), perhaps a little guitar, but it's amazing how long one can engage in 'Adda'. In university we used to just hang around at someone's place or outside (in summer) and talk about global warming, the new Chemistry professor or our non-existent love lives, and even now we occasionally get together with old friends. The song 'Purani Jeans' by Ali Haider (Pakistani), or 'Coffee House' by Manna Dey (Bengali), that perfectly captures the Adda moments.

Honourable Mentions:
Music and Bollywood.
Fish (Ilish or Hilsha).
Aloo Bhaji, Paratha and omelet.
Your mother calling you long distance at 11 pm to remind you to put oil on your head.
And so much more ...

  • Inspired by Lucky Fatima.
  • Narmeen on Desi Parties.
  • My tips on Iftar Parties.


    Aisha said...

    Hmm I can't relate to any of those :( I hated going to desi parties I feel they are fake and pretentious people who smile to your face and backbite in the distance. Maybe just the crowd I've known but I've lived in over 7 different cities... no nicknames... no walking over and sharing food but we never lived that close to another desi.... although code language is nice unless you find yourself in the need for it while youre at an indian store :)

    Anonymous said...

    The "War of the Plates" was true for me when we used to live in Saudi Arabia. Ever since we came here, that has stopped (THANK GOD). Otherwise it becomes weird. I still know some people who do this (and they have lived here for more than 15 years). See, desi's are smart people.. They can guage the other person very nicely and in the most effective way. Suppose 'A' makes a special dish and sends it over to 'B'. 'B' receives it and thanks 'A' for doing it and starts ranting about how that was not necessary and stuff. Now there are three outcomes to this situation:
    1. 'B' will keep the plate until 'A' reminds him/her.
    2. 'B' will return an EMPTY plate back
    3. 'B' will return the plate with some special dish of their own.

    Based on the outcomes, 'A' will judge 'B' and will see if he/she is worthy enough to be contact with or not. :)
    (I HAVE SEEN THIS HAPPEN..I HAVE SEEN TIGHT FRIENDSHIP TURNING SOUR ON "I-gave-you-food-and-you-returned-an-empty-plate-back-to-me..-you-KANJOOS".)

    The code language is so true. It has been there for many years and it will continue to exist. The funny thing about code language is, "when you are in North America (or any where abroad), then you turn to your native language (or any other language you speak) when you need to get your opinion across to your family/friends in the presence of a foreigner... BUT, when you are in India or Bengladesh or Pakistan or any other country, then you tend to use ENGLISH to get your point across (assuming that the person who you are trying to do business with is not so fluent in western-accented-english" Phunny isnt it? :)

    Desi parties are indeed unique. Not all 'Phirangis' can fit into those parties (especially those who like a lil' alcohol on the side as well during/after their meal. But there are some white people who crave for such parties and do enjoy them as well.

    Mohammad Nabeel Abdus Sattar Shamsuddin A.K.A BHOLA (...LOL..)
    Thankfully, I dont have a nickname, so i cant relate to this category... But its true...(Ahem Ahem: Sidney Zaidi, harvinder (hardy) dhall, mandeep (moe) bhalla are all too common here)

    - Behbood

    Anonymous said...

    Lol at Bhola. I know someone called Phool (meaning flower in bengali) but it's funny when her mom calls her Fool in presence of white friends. You should read the book The Namesake, deals totally with a nick.

    You know, girls do 'Adda' too. Except we call them sari-parties.

    - Farah

    Dil-E-Nadaan said...

    HAH! I love it! aaah..our parties, something ALL south asians/subcontinentals can unite over.

    mystic-soul said...

    Visit your blog after long time and it was worthed. Remind me of "purani Jeans" culture, I was brought up !!... Nickname thing is so true

    Very well written piece. Should send to local newspaper.

    Crimson Mouzi said...

    The Namesake talks about the nickname and stuff, but I thought it was not that great a book. THe first half (or less) was interesting as it talks about all these deshi dillemas, but then it turned out to be a very typical "ABCD" stories, which I thought was... I don't know waste of time. A lot of people liked it! But I didn't! Or maybe I had too high an expectation from this book as I started reading this after hearing so much about this book.

    About the plate war. Oh God, Behbood scares me. I tend to return (but, my mom joins the war) the plate right away, ( I wash it tho) upon the sender's request. I thought they really "meant" to get the plates back!
    Blasphemy! Oh well, I don't care if people think I am Kanjoos! LOL

    NAB said...

    I don't like Jhumpa Lahiri too much. But then again, I could never stand the psycho-analytical emo category of literary works.

    About desi parties, umm, I kinda...like them. Does that officially make me a loser? :(

    But hey, I like the fact that I am given an excuse to dress up and actually *gasp* put make-up on! and wear churis. and nice sandalwear! basically, NOT jeans.
    The delicious food helps the cause of course.

    But yea, it WOULD be sad if you can't intermingle. At home, guys and gals would be jumbled together on the same bed watching movies and all. And here, people give you looks if you go to the next room and talk to the guys -- doesn't stop me from doing it though. lolz. I am of the belief that the more casual and nonchalant I make it out to be, the more they (read: aunties) will get used to it and stop talking about it.

    Anyways, this was a good post. The war of the plates. Sigh. Nostalgia.

    Nicknames - never been given one and thank GOD for that!

    Baraka said...

    Yes, yes, & YES!

    Wonderful highlights :)

    Em said...

    Numbers 1 and 4 are SO true, and Behbood's observation is spot-on also... Another great post with great comments!

    One other thing probably deserving at least an honorable mention (I think) is crashing tha airport when someone arrives/departs... like 30 people to see off one pathetic being, and snapping endless photos while they're at it.

    Nabeel said...

    i didn't know adda was a bengali word .. hmmm .. kher yaa I know @ plates and food for the neighbors .. my moom does that too .. well not all the time but on Eid and stuff .. u know it's usually hot on Eid (the second one) and i have to take gosht from house to house .. dangg !!

    Anonymous said...

    Oh man, seriously good post. In Bahrain the Bengali population was small but our parties used to make some noise! No Adda though, that is more B'deshi I believe.

    - M.

    Granny said...

    The "plate debate" is very interesting.

    When I was growing up in this country it was a common thing. We never sent back an empty plate.

    We still do a little here in the neighborhood too. The more I find in common, the more I'm encouraged.

    Ann (aka granny)

    Shabana said...

    I miss the plate exchange.

    I don't live near desis, and I think my neighbours might throw out food received from this little-known foreign lady, just in case.

    I could use some biryani or korma or heck, even some channay, from a desi auntie.

    Ashish Gupta said...

    plate war is wonderful reminiscent! in some communities they have tradition not to return empty plate (bad luck, bad manners, etc.), and then its pretty much perpetual problem/fun! also i can relate to 'boro' and 'choto' types of nicknames, there are at least 3 pairs in my neighbourhood.

    Jane said...

    As an American caucasian I can tell you that number one trancends all cultures and religions. My mother always tells me about how she never gets her dishes back from my sister. Therefore I make it a point to ALWAYS return them ASAP.

    Nero said...

    The plate and the code language bits are so true! Came here through desipundit, wonderful article :D

    Smith said...

    great post...but Bongs seriously have the most ridiculous nicknames...i know a boobaa, a golgol, a bocha, a bugu...and most bongs when they leave bongland try and conceal their nicknames!!

    the addas in kolkata are crazy, i was there once during elections and crowds of people would gather around a chaiwallah, and block one side of the road, discussing how momta-di got hammared by jyoti-babu again! i am curious, do these people necessarily know each other, or do they just gather around in some strange automatic way?

    and yes, knowing a different language rocks, hell it helps in north india to be able to switch to malayalam instead of whispering...

    karmic_jay said...

    Great post. I think the plates thing does transcend cultures. But this is not always true. We have had plates returned washed and empty. (not that is is an issue).

    Desi parties - I havent been to one for ages, mostly cos I don't really go seeking desis nor do I avoid them. That being said, I have seen a lot of back biting and bitching behing the back or barely restrained snide comments to the face.
    But the food is great, also one does not just go for just the food.

    mezba said...

    Thanx for the comments all.

    Good to know I was able to invoke a bit of nostalgia in many of you! :-) Also glad to know many of these transcends cultures, particularly the plate war.

    zahra said...

    Thanks for the laugh!! : )

    Anonymous said...

    Good Post. Made me laugh. Just to add on to the plate war issue; did you notice the yogurt tubs have now come to replace the plates here in North America. Thus washing and savings the Yogurt Tubs for that purpose is becoming common. My wife and her cousins do that a lot and think it is a hoot. I try to throw them in the recycling bins wherever I get a chance.

    Growing up in Pakistan (now living in the US), I have heard of nick names like Munno, Baba, (two of my brothers were given these “original” nick names when they were young, thank God my mom discarded the se nick names when they grew older). In turn, my older brother gave the young neighborhood kids names like Gorilla, Thipri (Punjabi for turnip). They became so common that their parents started to call them by these nick names. He named one of our adult neighbors “Mughroor” (proud) because he never smiled at anyone.

    If you want to get so more laughs at the Desi habits visit this site:


    Anonymous said...

    I and my elder sister call my eldest brother "Bhai", which literally means brother out of respect. At some point in time, my parents and grand parents picked it and everyone in the family would call him "Bhai". Even my grandpa.