Desi and civilised | Pakistan Today

Desi and civilised

  • Thank you Gora Sahib!

One remembers with justifiable bitterness a time before Europe’s wholesale annexation of ‘civility’.

The ‘adaab’ of the multicultural East were no less complex or refined than a French croquembouche. We are the scattered remnants of defeated empires; fighting for scraps in postcolonial landscapes for so long that all memory of our home-grown sophistication appears to have faded away.

Also missing from the world’s collective memory are the political and economic atrocities against the global South. The systematic deindustrialisation of India to keep England from being out-competed by its own colony is barely explained in South Asian history books, let alone British schools. Sir Walter Scott referred to India as Scotland’s ‘corn-chest’. There are countless stories of middle-class British men who went to India and came back as insufferably wealthy “nabobs” – a mangled English form of ‘Nawab’. Our civilised invaders took so much, they even took the word “loot” and added it permanently to English dictionaries.

The past, we’re asked to pretend, was a different planet. As if we hit a ‘reset’ button in August 1947, and the politico-economic crater left behind by 150 years of British colonial rule – recently estimated to be worth $45 trillion — vanished without a trace. As if the Kohinoor wasn’t clawed out of the Indian subcontinent, but grew naturally on Her Majesty’s head. As if the trains magnanimously left behind by the British weren’t part of a large-scale operation to efficiently exploit India’s labour and natural resources, but a charity project launched by an INGO called the ‘East India Company’.

Socially, the most important thing that the British took from us was our right to see ourselves as a sophisticated culture. The word ‘desi’, or local, became forever associated with crudeness. The ‘desi’ version of everything is schlocky. It’s difficult to remember how we honoured individuals before ‘Sir’ and ‘Madame’ were introduced to the Indian vocabulary. We remain invisible until we speak English, and the better we speak the more ‘educated’ we sound. It is no longer possible for me to sound smart or profound in my native tongue.

It’d be cynical to ignore social progress in the west concerning its perception of South-Asian cultures. The west no longer routinely refers to us as savages (thank you). But that hasn’t kept us from seeing ourselves as the uncultivated savages we’ve been told we are

One barely remembers a time when we too were a cultivated people. Those who aren’t do not build awe-inspiring structures like the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, and develop artistic treasures sought after by the world’s leading museums. There is sufficient historical evidence to suggest that it was, in fact, the Indian gentry that viewed the British merchants as a brute, cultureless species. Narayan Singh, a Mughal official, lamented, “What honour is left to us when we have to take orders from traders who have not yet learned to wash their bottoms?”

There’s some humour in imagining an alternative universe in which the forces of Delhi had descending upon London with the gift of eastern etiquette. How they’d arrived in shining palanquins bearing fragrant sweets and aromatic spices for the culture-starved English; surviving on an unenviable diet of flavourless fish and the weakest, most pitiable variety of tea. How they may have cringed upon discovering the plague-ridden streets of London and the dismal, damp vaults beneath Edinburgh. It’s particularly amusing to picture the likes of Narayan Singh bringing along a shipload of ‘lotas’, to wash away the assumed savagery of Europe.

But the opposite occurred, and the colonisers won the cultural war. Local art forms that were beyond European comprehension were declared ‘vulgar’. The tawaif community comprising of highly-skilled artisans who often fell in the highest tax bracket around mid-19th century, were reduced to common prostitutes for British officers. Words like ‘kanjar’ and ‘marasi’ – which once signified esteemed custodians of Indian culture – became forever associated with brothels. The British took many things, including the dignity of the South-Asian tawaif. The infamous prudishness of British rulers resonated with the narrow-mindedness of eastern religious hardliners; those who were all too happy to rebuild a subcontinent that’s forgotten how to sing and dance without inviting shame.

It’d be cynical to ignore social progress in the west concerning its perception of South-Asian cultures. The west no longer routinely refers to us as savages (thank you). But that hasn’t kept us from seeing ourselves as the uncultivated savages we’ve been told we are. For a civilisation left soaking in shame for two centuries of colonial abuse, it’s not uncommon to find brown people regularly mocking their own desi-ness on behalf of the colonizers.

There are many among us who ask for respect, and a few daring enough to demand compensation for colonial crimes. Mostly, we are struggling to convince ourselves that we deserve the respect that we’re demanding.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.