The Mark Blog

Desi Desi Desi: A Four-Letter Non-English Word by Mehnaz Turner

This morning at work a couple of my co-workers, Jim & Demian, came by my desk to discuss the diction in one of my facebook posts. I had used the word “desi” to describe a comedian. Heckling my word choice, Jim wondered if I was claiming allegiance to Cuban ancestry by referencing Desi Arnaz.

“I’m talking about the Indian Subcontinent,” I said with exasperation. “Desi refers to any person who is originally from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, or Sri Lanka. It’s an ethnic adjective—an identity marker,” I added, using my teacher talking to student voice.

This, subsequently, precipitated a discussion of Indian food and restaurants, a conversation I am more than happy to get into. I am, strictly speaking, Punjabi, and we like our tandoori grill and naan bread more than anything. Eating heartily is practically a law. Meals are ritualistic for us, like a religion. But at the moment, I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm that usually made others guffaw.

The truth is, I felt a bit puzzled after Jim and Demian left. While our banter around the term “Desi” had been playful, I felt a gnawing existential doubt swirling through my belly. Why didn’t more average Americans automatically know what the word “Desi” means, or how it is pronounced? I wanted, as a poet with a particular interest in this term, to be sure others understood it. And here a casual conversation with two educated teachers had revealed that this was not the case.

So why was I feeling morose exactly? Well, I’m thinking of including the word “desi” in the title of my poetry manuscript. I’m not revealing the full title yet, but I’m pretty stoked about this possibility. However, I suddenly felt unsure. Will people end up thinking I’m Cuban if I do this, I wondered. Will they frown and furrow their eyebrows at the title, activating potential future wrinkles? For goodness sake, is this word even in the dictionary?

To explore this some more, I decided to visit and do a basic search on the word “desi.” To my delight, it did come up! And it turns out it is defined as “indigenous” or “authentic”. It is also referenced as a Hindi language term. Still, I was a bit disappointed that a thesaurus search revealed no matches.

So after a moment of jubilation, I found myself getting morose again. The fact is the dictionary success proves little. Most people are not familiar with the word I am thinking of using it in the title of my manuscript, a manuscript geared toward an American audience. Would this present a problem, say, in terms of garnering sales and interest? Would it be a mistake? But maybe the opposite would happen. Maybe the mystery of the word would actually elicit a positive effect, piquing readers’ curiosity enough to make them pick up the book. Still, it was hard to know.

I opened my desk drawer and found myself a piece of chocolate. I think more clearly when I’m eating sweets, probably because I tend to think less. Taking a deep breath, I leaned back in my office chair and thought about the sky. And then it happened. I sensed a shift taking place. Closing my eyes, I pictured the clouds passing by shaped as the word Desi. I pictured a giant blimp sliding through the air, with the phrase, “Desi means people from South Asia” trailing behind it. I pictured a forest where every tree sported the term Desi. I wondered about getting the word tattooed on my back, shoulder, or thigh. I thought of a chocolate cake with the phrase, “Happy Birthday Desi!” frosted across the top in yellow. I pictured Desi written across a basic white tee, on the back of a baby stroller, on a fridge magnet. It could be a new fashion label, like Gucci. It might become a status symbol one day, to own a “Desi” purse. There would be glossy adds in Marie-Claire featuring Desi bling, Desi wear. It would become the next big thing.

And somehow, this flurry of materialistic images offered a sudden relief. I felt a sense of possibility, a bit of humor creeping through the conundrum of my thoughts. I took a deep breath, I even smiled to myself. There was no need to panic. I would use the word “Desi” in the title of my manuscript. In fact, I would begin discussing the word at future poetry readings. As a high school English teacher, I would make it a point to teach students about the term. At the post-office or DMV, I may drop it into casual conversations with staff. I could even tell my manicurist about it. My psychic. My neighbors. Slowly but surely, I would help raise awareness.

And then it hit me: maybe this is precisely why I had written all my poems in the first place, just so one day I could publish a book that helped draw attention to the word “Desi” in America. Maybe the entire purpose of my poetic life, my mission, in fact, was to be an advocate for one mysterious term: a four letter non-English English word.