What does it mean to be “Brown?”

I have never liked the word Brown (too much of a New World term) but I much prefer Desi. 

I don’t actually know what desi means (I think it’s rustic & rural combined) because its haziness is what makes it so compelling. It’s a shorthand for the children of Mother India but doesn’t extend to South East Asia, the term attenuates somewhat in Sri Lanka (who have their own cultural peculiarities) and Nepal (because of their physical resemblance to the East).

Desiness fades off somewhere in KPK/Afghanistan; exactly where is a matter of choice because the historical boundary with Greater Iran begins somewhere in the Hindu Kush. The Indo-Gangetic plan is the beating heart of Desiness; the three rivers constitute the lifeblood of desiness.

Desiness connotes shared food, a Hindustani vernacular, Bollywood, an Urdu-Mughal High culture set off against Sanskrit religion, a local & earthy UP-Punjabi culture, PIR & Guru worship, a feeling of physical & geographic unity that extends to South Asia. It’s also a sentiment and a state of being rather than a fixed characteristic. Some desis are not so desi and sometimes you can turn up and turn down the Desiness, not so with Brown (unless you use some nasty bleach products).

Of course in the migration to the New World the stark complexities of what it means to be desi sort of strips away into “Brown.” For instance do Brown people like Urdu dramas & Hindi films? Desis usually like one or the other (and the smarts ones both 🙂

When we call ourselves Brown Pundits is there really much of a common ground in this matter? Is there anything that really unites Brown people beyond the colour of their skin; there are brown Cambodians and Turks.

Desiness of course is earthiness fused with a sumptuousness and lavishness that is almost unparalleled (look at a desi wedding as an example). Persia and her strong aesthetic influence have historically percolated through the Sub-continent via the medium of Muslim/Mughal High Culture (thanks to the Brits who ensured the two became synonymous). The interplay between the Sanskritic pushback and the Persian advance has contributed to so much of our cultural heritage (try as they might Urdu is not dead yet; in exile from its UP homeland to find refuge & succour in the Punjab and a bastardised existence as lyrics in Bollywood films).

But at the end of it all Desiness somehow captures the magic & mystery of India; a culture that has persevered despite all the odds. A millennia of foreign Pardeshi rule but India has somehow managed to preserve her traditions, her religion and her culture; no mean feat. 

Even Persia was reborn of an Arab rape in a way that India was not. There are several orders of magnitude more continuity between the Rig Veda and modern day India than there is with the Avesta & Iran-zamin (Zoroastrianism is memory fused with myth; Hinduism is a living reality ready to tame Islam at a moment’s notice, in fact Hinduism derives her strength by not being Islam).

Brown doesn’t really do justice to what is a highly complex and evolving civilisational space. Even if India & Pakistan make an ass of themselves on the world stage battling one another (and Pakistan always threatening defection to be a sweeper in th Minarets of the Middle East) it doesn’t mean it’s not a fascinating Sub-continent. When I compare India, Pakistan & Iran; India has retained that hue & joy of paganism that the stark monotheists have long abandoned (Islam has had such a problematic relationship with music for instance).

Of course Desipundits doesn’t have as good a ring to it as Brownpundits so I guess we’ll have to suffice with Brown.

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23 Replies to “What does it mean to be “Brown?””

  1. // Desiness connotes shared food, a Hindustani vernacular, Bollywood, an Urdu-Mughal High culture set off against Sanskrit religion, a local & earthy UP-Punjabi culture, PIR & Guru worship, a feeling of physical & geographic unity that extends to South Asia. It’s also a sentiment and a state of being rather than a fixed characteristic. //

    Damn! such a romantic 🙂

    I’m sorry to be the killjoy, but India and Pakistan have speciated away from each other. And in some respects, the India-Pakistan border is the bleeding Eastern edge of the core Islamicate world (just as the Greek-Turkish or Lebanese-Israeli are the Western bleeding edges).

    Who knows, it may take centuries before this edge softens. As an Indian, and a consummate trekkie who is over the moon about the new Star Trek series on Netflix these days, all I can do is flash the \V/ salute.

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    1. AfPak is a border zone of sort; Afghanistan more Islamicate while the Indus Valley is more Indic..

      Do you see Urdu dramas; I feel you would benefit from more exposure to Pakistani culture..

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    1. It is ultimately a South Indian (and Maharashtrian) custom, that, I believe, made its way into the Hindi movie industry in Mumbai, and now fairly common nationwide.

      I remember as a kid in Srinagar, Delhi, North India generally, I never saw people doing that. Now I do – esp. the younger generation. The distinctive head bobble reminds me of one of the mudras in bharatanaTyam. Well done to my Southie brethren for spreading it!

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  2. I disliked the term “Desi”, since it connoted culture rather than genetics. I was OK with “brown”, but it’s rather incomplete. As you note, there are other brown folks quite unconnected to us.

    Maybe we could be linked via our propensity for diabetes or something? In any case, I prefer the racial distinctions, as I feel the “culture” is long overdue for an update. Then again, it’s difficult enough getting a relatively homogeneous group like my own Bangladeshi peeps to see it in this manner, let alone the panoply of [related] ethnicities that litter the subcontinent.

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    1. As a member of a faith that de-emphasises race & nationality I prefer Culture, geography & religion.

      I would think that desi is a geo-cultural term. These “colour movements” is precisely what I argued against in my other post lol

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      1. Makes sense. After all, I’m an atheist, so the last thing I want as a “common connection” to related groups is to have a common “religion”.

        Then again, how do you de-emphasize race and nationality whilst preferring culture & geography? Don’t the latter two involve some portion of the former by default [or vice versa, if you prefer]? Geographically adjacent groups tend to be linked genetically [via race] and share the same/similar culture.

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  3. “Desi” means something like “of the country”. “Des” is country/nation in Hindi (“Pardes” is a foreign land). This is similar to “watan” in Urdu.

    I don’t think “desi” necessarily connotes a Hindustani vernacular. Bengalis are very much “desi” and they don’t speak Hindi/Urdu. South Indians prefer not to speak Hindi either. The description in the post is very Pakistan/North India centric. To me, “desi” connotes the Indian subcontinent, bounded by Afghanistan on one end and Burma on the other.

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    1. Yes that’s true but because of Bollywood Hindi/Hindustani/Urdu does take on some status with Desi space. It’s a common cultural link

      This isn’t to deny that South India & East India (Greater Bengal) have extremely distinct identities to the generic desi one..

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    2. “Desi” connotes culture to some degree, and since the North Indian cow belt and North-Western Pakistan have the Hindi-Urdu connection, it’s obvious that the bulk of the “common culture” [connected via media by the common language] of the sub-continent will be located there. Hence why I prefer race as a basic concept when discussing a common South Asian origin. After all, that is what we are basically talking about. I cannot see what links a straight Chittagonian whose native tongue is Chat Gaya with someone from Rajasthan if it is not race. It’s not linguistic, direct ethnic, religious or “culture”. Why would we even put them in the same bracket?

      It’s race. If you say it’s “country”… well, we still consider someone whose ancestry is from the sub-continent but born and raised in Manchester or Dallas to be “Desi” or of “Desi origins”. People of German descent in Australia do not go around calling themselves “German Australians”, they call themselves “white Australians” [maybe they relay anecdotes about their potentially German long-forgotten ancestry]. We can identify this “Desi” abroad by looks and features alone [though of course it is not always a correct estimation]. Though he may be culturally totally Anglo/American and never knew what “Bollywood” even is.

      So how do we “know” this person is a “Desi”, if not by culture or geography? Yet that doesn’t stop us from suspecting. Simply put, we use imprecise terms.

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  4. Yes that’s true but because of Bollywood Hindi/Hindustani/Urdu does take on some status with Desi space. It’s a common cultural link

    says who? you? you’re part of the culture you say is the common cultural link. someone who isn’t part of that culture would make a more convincing case.

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  5. Zachary is pretty accurate. Slapstick you clearly do not interact with Pakistanis. Desi is a term best suited for populations in Northern India and Indo Aryan speaking portions of Pakistan. It does fade in KPK, but I have noticed because of Urdu being the national language, Bollywood, cuisine, Cricket and just the gigantic media offered in Urdu/Hindustani/Hindi, a lot of Pashtuns living in KPK have been influenced considerably in the past 50-60 years and have been considerably more “desified” compared to their Persianized brothers in Afghanistan.

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    1. Just touching on cricket even though Yasir Shah is the only Pathan player right now; during the England tour last summer 6/7 players were Pathan..

      Cricket has made a huge impact on KPK..

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    2. That’s at cross-purposes. My comment about speciation, to which you’re referring, was not about the use of the “desi” term itself per se.

      Though it has to be said that the term “desi” in the Hindi belt is primarily a pejorative. To the so-called “shuddh” Hindi speakers, it even sounds vulgate – an apabhramsha (lit. bastardization) of Sanskrit “desha”. Indian Punjabi self-apellation is free of this baggage.

      My comment really was about how Indians self-identify w.r.t. to Pakistan and beyond. An average North Indian, born much after Partition, does not see any cultural kinship that their grandparents did. In that respect Sikhs, as far as I’ve noticed, are a little more emotionally invested. Even Urdu, a purely Indian language, is now treated as foreign by people of the region – obv nobody can read Nastaliq either.

      Besides large parts of North India (say Gujarat & Rajasthan) did not even have the Partition experience. And the centre of gravity of India’s culture has also steadily moved Southwards since ’47 as the South has grown economically.

      I don’t condone any of these changes. I’m just saying that this is what’s happening in India. Think of it what you will.

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    3. Desi is a term best suited for populations in Northern India and Indo Aryan speaking portions of Pakistan.

      It’s a terrible designation, since these are actually the “stans”, not “desh’s”. Plus, if you make it into that specific regional north-western thing, it more-or-less drops a massive number of people that are labelled “Desi”, and will almost certainly become weaker over time.

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  6. Your mixing religion and what the article is about lol. If anything cities like Pune, Bangalore have been significantly influenced by the Desi macro culture, as people have migrated from the North to cities in those areas.I remember even just 10-15 years ago, in Madras, you would rarely find women wearing salwar kameez, and I went there recently and women were wearing North Indian styled salwar kamiz de rigeur. Its a fact though, South Indians are complexed by North Indians, some have even admitted it to me themselves. If Bahubaali is your fulcrum for thinking Southern culture is the epicenter of India, your delusional lol, its a mix of LOTR and 80s Ramanand Sagar series with VFX.

    As for language, Bollywood more or less is dominated by Hindustani which leans much more in the Urdu cline, but now I do notice oddly placed English words filling unusual gaps. Hindustani was born out of the natural progression of time, in the same way English was transformed from a very Germanic language to being significantly influenced by French, and Classical languages (Latin and Greek), Khari Boli which would later become Hindustani follows that route. Shudh Hindi, is synthetic as its aim is replacing Perso Arabic words in a surgical manner with a Bronze Age Sanskrit equivalent, and its a largely 20th century event. Its like me taking a lot of the Latin based words out of English and replacing them with Germanic equivalents.

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    1. Oh come on, listen to Razib, you can’t say your culture is the major influence, because, of course you would say that.

      I specifically want to comment on Salwar Kameez in Southern states, because I am one of the first generations who were allowed have Salwar Kameez (and related) clothing instead of traditional “half-saree” once past the high school. You know why? Because we were also the first generation middle-class women to be allowed to pursue STEM in greater numbers, allowed to learn software (particularly COBOL was all-the-craze) so that we can fly to US for a software job to prevent Y2K following economic liberalization, or at least acquire a master’s degree while being the spouse of Southern software engineer in US so that we can get a H1B too.

      Salwar Kameez was a compromise between half-saree and leg-showing midi-skirts, still “traditional” while allowing us to catch those city buses in greater numbers. Go and have a look now, all those aunties continue with Salwar Kameez and the next-gen nieces have long switched to jeans and t-shirts, while nostalgic aunties hold “half-saree” functions as if they are weddings (it is a THING now… and youtube has plenty of examples).

      Just because there are more urdu words in use, doesn’t mean it is affiliation to Indo-gangetic plains. People seem to forget Nawab of Hyderabad (of Telengana State, not the Pakistan one) had much more recent influence than any Mughals for Eid celebrations, or famous Biryani. Hyderabad State lasted about 90 years after the end of a Mughal one (but Mughal fantasies do last longer it seems). So, it is as Southern as it gets to re-watch “Farmaan” on youtube or listen to Urdu news that follow Telugu news on Doordarshan.

      Also, those envious of “Baahubali”, where do you think all those software engineers from 90s want to invest their skills and earnings in? They are trying to compete with Hollywood not Bollywood. (also, who won Miss USA from Indian descent, again? ) As an aside, I think “Magadheera” is a superior effort than “Baahubali 1&2” from the director.

      LOL @ “South Indians are complexed by North Indians”, Pakistanis say the same things about Indians…..when they rely more on the past and less on the recent..

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