Redefining ‘Desi’ by Visiting Karachi

Being Indian is being desi. Indian food is desi food and Indian culture is desi culture. Before visiting Pakistan, my understanding of desi ran in closed loops, shaped by the media’s nationalist rhetoric and a product of growing up in the ‘Kargil nineties’. Though desi loosely describes peoples and cultural practices of certain south Asian communities, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan identities are often excluded. I only understood the pan-ethnic nature of desi when I stepped into the diaspora, befriending other desis from across the border.

At university in London, my closest friends were two Pakistani students; something only possible in a third country. We spoke versions of the same language and drew on a common pool of socio-cultural references. The word desi was part of our daily lexicon. We used it as a device of memory and recall of home. Desiness is a complex concept negotiated by South Asians who often use it as a socio-cultural identity marker.

Desi included nosy matchmaking relatives on both sides of the LOC, copious pots of chai, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwalis, even our postcolonial obsession with English. Desi was speaking the same language but understanding it through the different Hindi and Urdu scripts.

This year of unlearning ended with a wedding invitation to Karachi. My prospects of attending were bleak, given restrictive visa arrangements. Tourist visas are almost impossible to procure and movement is restricted to specific grounds. Unfortunately, a friend’s wedding did not qualify. My friends turned to their families, seeking advice. Family members (who’d only heard of me, the ‘Indian friend’) provided stellar references to aid my quest. Armed with this goodwill, I visited the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi, only to be greeted by surprised, happy officials. “Please don’t be frightened, you will be very welcome there!,” they assured me. One conversation later I had a visa to a desi wedding on the other side.

Many Indians told me of their lifelong desire to visit Pakistan; to meet family or revive long-distance friendships that had fizzled under political tension. There was this sense of vast, almost insurmountable distance made up of history, violence and politics.

Being Indian seemed to make me ‘famous’ in Pakistan. Being the mehmaan (guest), the outpouring of warmth I received was overwhelming. Everyone had questions about India; on histories, obscure villages that their grandparents had left behind and Bollywood.

For older generations, there were tales of movement, crises and of reconstructed desi identity. I spoke to an elderly man who could speak Bengali, having been uprooted twice, once from India in childhood and then from Bangladesh.

“We slept on the streets while leaving India, and on waking up, we’d be covered in dust,” he told me nostalgically. He wishes Indo-Pak relations weren’t as damaged, “We shared so much, what is the point in this fighting?” This sentiment was unanimous everywhere I went.

Younger generations had hand-me-down narratives from naanis (grandmothers) and nanaas (grandfathers), about places I didn’t know of. It felt like the faint difference between ‘going to’ and ‘going back to’ between the two countries had blurred. Conversations also turned to the great Indo-Pak unifiers – Bollywood and cricket. A caddy at the golf club told me excitedly about caddying for Sachin Tendulkar. The wedding celebrations were also replete with Bollywood imagery, and the playlist for all the events, especially the mehndi was all Bollywood as well. Doing my bit, I dutifully passed on accolades for Fawad Khan and Coke Studio from fans on my side of the border.

“I hope you’ll find that Pakistan isn’t as monstrous as the media makes it seem,” a gentleman said smilingly. Far from it, everyone seemed as excited and curious to meet me as I was to meet them. All my conversations seemed less introductory and more like a continuing, historical ‘catching up’.

Without my Indian passport and tell-tale stops to take photographs of things like Karachi’s autos, I was just another person on the city’s streets. However, attitudes changed once people were told I was Indian. My friends had fun informing shopkeepers, librarians and tourist guides that ‘yeh India se aayi hain’ (She has come from India). Jaws dropped, as did the prices for the mehmaan. At one store, the excited staff treated us to chai, yet another desi unifier.

Visually, Karachi reminds me of multiple cities all at once. The vast cityscape has the aesthetics of New Delhi, while the cosmopolitan crowd is very Mumbai. Karachi is known for its cosmopolitan population, with a majority of its residents hailing from migrant backgrounds. The vigilant military in everyday life made me think of life in Indian border towns. Some differences seemed comical. The polite haggling over auto fares had nothing on the warlike negotiations we conduct with New Delhi’s auto drivers.

Karachi is a young city, dotted with visible fragments of a different past. I took a walk past Kabootar Chowk, now home to a million pigeons, it once housed a statue of Gandhi’s. At Pakistan Chowk, a neighbourhood which is still home to several Hindu families, I spotted the ‘Om’ symbol on some of the balconies.

Kabootar chowk, Karachi. Credit: Rudrani Dasgupta

Not knowing if I would ever get to visit again, my time there felt like I was seeing everything for the first and last time simultaneously. The distance between our nations is fluid; it stretches with every ceasefire violation. However, chai, biryani and Coke Studio references help us bore little holes in this mighty wall, allowing us a fleeting look at life on the other side.

Rudrani Dasgupta is a 29-year-old who currently works with Actionaid India, focussing on children’s rights and education.