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My Struggle With the Term Desi

Words: Smrithi Ram

                     Photo by Faiyaz(@fixated_f)

I recently watched a video that explained how children don’t understand the concept of religion until about 7 or 8 years old. They view religion as a label, essentially a way to form groups and connections with others who physically resemble them. Comparatively, many of us have experienced gravitating towards other children who look like us or come from the same country. I quickly learned that just because other children identified as ‘Indian’ or ‘desi’, it did not mean they shared the same language, subculture, history, struggle, or identity as me. Like many others in the South Asian diaspora, I struggled to create an identity that was representative of my cultural dualism. I assimilated to the dominant culture, western and Indian, and slowly disowned my Tamil identity. So now, as an adult who is doing a great deal of unlearning, I am consciously choosing to only identify myself as Tamil. I choose to do so to prevent the erasure of Tamil people, language, history, and culture. In my opinion, the term ‘desi’ has only seemed representative of Aryan people, more specifically North Indians. This is evident in both mainstream western and eastern media. It is difficult for me to use the term desi when Tamil people have been oppressed by Aryan-centric ideals and Indians for many years due to anti-Tamilness, Hindi imposition, caste issues, colorism, etc.


To understand the complexity of Tamil culture, it is vital to acknowledge the various places we come from besides Tamil Nadu. Tamils are a part of the Dravidian ethnic group and come from the South Asian countries of India, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and Indonesia. Tamils are typically darker-skinned as Dravidians originated from Africa, while Aryans are typically lighter-skinned and originated from Europe. We represent a diaspora that has existed on earth for nearly 5,000 years as Tamil is the oldest language in the world. Although all Tamils speak the same language, there are a total of 23 dialects spoken around the world, making both our language and culture multifaceted. Each Tamil diaspora group has its own distinctive culture based on its geographical location, resources, means of work, religion, and history of oppression. Our struggles in particular are extremely complex and varied throughout the diaspora as not all of us face the same ones. This is why it is important to specify which Tamil sub-group a person is from.


For example, Tamils from Tamil Nadu face the specific struggle of Hindi imposition laws by the Indian government and have been fighting against it for the past 80 years. The first law was introduced in 1937, making Hindi a compulsory course in schools of Madras (present-day Chennai). Tamils protested against Hindi imposition laws with the leadership of E.V Ramasamy, respectfully known as Periyar, a Tamil activist, politician, and crusader for gender and caste equality in Tamil Nadu. He advocated for non-Brahmin social and political interests and was a key figure of the Dravidian Self-Respect Movement. Periyar believed that the introduction of Hindi into Tamil culture was dangerous, as it could destroy the progress Tamils have made on their own and make us subordinate to the Aryan ethnic group. Along with Periyar, many other Tamil and South Indian politicians and civilians rallied against Hindi imposition with several recurring protests, riots, fasts, marches, and conferences throughout decades.

Similarly, Eelam Tamils to this day are experiencing the effects of the Tamil genocide perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government (1983-2009). They are still fighting for justice, liberation, and a separatist state called Tamil Eelam. Their struggles are particular to war trauma, displacement, and the attempted cleansing of an entire ethnic group. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils were murdered and raped by Sinhalese soldiers throughout the civil war. Many fled Sri Lanka as refugees to countries like the U.K, Germany, France, Canada, etc., leaving behind family members both alive and deceased. Those who remain in Eelam continue to face discrimination and oppression at the hands of the Sri Lankan government. Mothers are still searching and protesting for their children who have been missing for decades. The Sri Lankan government has not been held accountable for their war crimes, allowing them to still have control over Eelam land and people. This is a specific struggle within the Eelam Tamil community, which no other Tamil group has experienced. So, when the term Tamil is not used when referring to Tamil people, it perpetuates the same erasure of identity that many died fighting against. There is no space for my Tamil identity in the word desi as I feel it is the title of our oppressor.

Female LTTE Freedom Fighter (source: Tamil Nation)

In mainstream media, especially in the Western world, desi culture is represented as Hindi speaking, Bollywood movies, chicken tikka masala, twisting the light bulb dance move, etc. If by chance Tamil or South Indian culture is portrayed, it is always extremely stereotypical. TV/film character names are comically long and the types of foods referenced in our name are always “idli and dosa” (actually spelled and pronounced ‘thosai’). If a Tamil character is portrayed in Bollywood or Hollywood, more often than not their narratives represent a singular Brahmin-centric identity, as can be seen in Chennai Express and Never Have I Ever. The storylines and characters shown rarely exemplify the various dimensions of Tamil people correctly. There are many Tamil celebrities like Senthil Ramamurthy, Mindy Kaling, Padma Lakshmi, Sundar Pichai, M. Night Shyamalam, and now Kamala Harris whose identities are reduced to “South Asian” or “Indian” so non-Tamils can feel represented. Even though our representation may be physically visible, it is not visible in conversation, as the recent U.S elections have proved. Kamala’s Tamil identity was rarely included in the narrative and was repeatedly masked by the term Indian or South Asian. This was not only done by the Western media but by many South Asian magazines/blogs as well. It feels opportunistic when nonTamils claim Tamil victories as their own, as they rarely advocate for the unique struggles and arduous journeys of the Tamil community.

I recently shared the photo above on my IG story, created by Sangeetha Thanapal (@kaliandkalki). Many people who share the same viewpoint replied expressing their perspectives. All of the opinions shared come from diaspora Tamils all over the world, ranging from Canada, the U.K, Singapore, and beyond. The responses I received not only affirmed my experience but also created a need for further dialogue on how identities are erased within the South Asian diaspora.

With the complexity that exists within Tamilness, it would be amiss to group us into a singular category that regularly fails to represent us if at all. The beauty of Tamil culture is not only in its diversity, but also in the qualities that unite us like the resilience, power, and leadership all of our ancestors have shown throughout history.

When I use the term Tamil to identify myself, I think about the Tamils who came before me who fought so hard for our culture, language, and people to even exist. I think about the female Tamil soldiers who, with no hesitation, left their families and gave up their lives for Tamil liberation. I think about the Tamil college students who fasted for days to protest against Hindi imposition and to continue the advancement of our people. I think about the millions of diaspora Tamils who live around the world and will continue the incredible legacy of our ancestors, history, language, and culture.

As a way to preserve our silenced voices my friend Meera Narendra (@meera_silk) and I created the platform Oru Mayil, an online community for diaspora Tamils to create, connect, share and learn. The term “oru mayil” translates to peacock, representing the beauty within the uniqueness of Tamil identity. Along with creating a space for Tamils, we wanted to improve our representation and account for the voices of those who are often unheard. Through our platform, we educate our followers on the unique aspects of Tamil history, culture, language, and people. We work in tandem with many Tamils showcasing the work of artists, photographers, writers, small business owners, educators, and more. To support our work, please visit us at @oru.mayil on social media.

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