Desi Spotting in Brazil

When I travel to a new country, my eyes are always peeled for a desi sighting. My recent trip to Brazil was no different. This is the second BRIC nation I’ve visited (with Russia and China left to go) and having heard about Indian Oil Corp., Hindustan Petroleum, and Bharat Petroleum joint venture earlier this year to start ethanol production in Brazil, I thought I might spot other signs of investment. At the very least, I figured I would come across a Sindhi shopowner (the joke goes that even if you travel to the moon, you will meet a member of the diasporadic community of Indian traders, of which my family is a part).

But, there weren’t any Sindhis or Indians to speak of in Brazil. At least, we didn’t see any. (Well, there was one uncle type we ran into near the Ipanema farmer’s market, but he turned out to be a Mallu from New York, visiting his Brazilian wife’s family!) IMG_4556.JPG

We’d heard about Nataraj, the only Indian-run restaurant in Rio. It’s in Leblon, Rio’s most trendy residential neighborhood, and I figured we’d find a desi there. “It’s no good,” our New York uncle friend told us while he helped us shop for figs and sitaphal. “Don’t bother going.”

So we didn’t. (Now that I’m home, however, some scoping did yield a little write-up about Indian restaurants in South America here which pointed out that the restaurant is run by a family whose matriarch used to work for the British High Commission in Rio. “She had been doing special event catering for the embassy as a side interest and then one fine day she decided to open a restaurant – I’m glad she did. It takes courage to make a caipirinha with an indian twist.”

Dang. Missed opportunity for a good Sepia post. Next time I go to Rio, I’ll have to make it a point to go here.

So, Brazil is home to a multitude of skin colors, so it’s easy to mistake Brazilians for Indians and Indians for Brazilians, so much so that many times, people mistook me and my husband for Brazilians and spoke to us in Portugese. There were, however, a few exceptions.

In Salvador de Bahia, the northern city which was the first capital of Brazil, from 1549 to 1763, a photojournalist came up to us during the 2nd of July Independence Day celebrations. “Are you Indian?” he asked. “Yes,” we answered. “Can I take a picture of you? First time I’m seeing Indians in Salvador,” he said.

Wow. I felt like an intrepid explorer, though I was quite certain I couldn’t be the first Indian in Salvador.

I was proven right. Later that day, in Salvador, we were at Rafael Cine Foto in Pelhorino, trying to get our camera repaired–and ahem, negotiating for a better price–when the shopkeeper (whose English was limited) asked us, laughing, “Are you Indian?” (I guess we carry our reputation as bargain makers around with us, wherever we go!) Later, my mother mentioned that her once-in-a-while Brazilian cleaning lady told her that there are lots of Indians who own shops at the malls in Salvador. I guess I should have gone to the mall!

Despite my lack of desi human spottings, there was no dearth of Indian influence–mostly of the exotic India variety–to be found in Brazil. [A brief photo essay follows below the fold.] On prominent display at a bookstore in Ipanema, Mira Kamdar’s Planet India. Perhaps the pending free trade agreement in India has a lot of Brazilian investors thinking?


At Cafe Felice, a great lunch spot and gelataria near Ipanema beach, this guava lassi (they also had mango)– complete with a very authentic spice mix (like a chaat masala) sprinkled on top. You barely get that here in New York.


Brazilians love to shop. In Barra, a sprawling residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Rio, there’s a huge mall that could probably compete with the Mall of America in terms of size. It’s called New York City Center, no kidding, and comes complete with its own Statue of Liberty.


There were no Indians at this mall, But, inside was this stall, Tantra, bursting with incense, statues, and other decorative Indian fare. I checked; it wasn’t run or owned by a desi.


Yoga’s hot. Here’s the current issue of Prana Yoga Journal.


The “Father of the Nation” has a tangible presence in downtown Rio at the Praca Mahatma Gandhi. The statue there, adjacent to Cinelandia, Rio’s landmark cinema, was donated by India in 1964. [some great pics here.] In the historical Pelhourino section of Salvador, this “Gandhy” bag with a cute little illustration caught my eye. The bag was passed around during Carnaval and commemorates 59 years of peace. The man spoke no English so I couldn’t decipher anymore.


And, finally, I saw this guy at an evening service in a church in Salvador wearing a Shiva tee-shirt.


He probably picked it up at this tee-shirt stall at Rio’s famous Sunday hippie market. (Every city in Brazil has one of these fairs which actually began in the 60s.)


116 thoughts on “Desi Spotting in Brazil

  1. 99 · Vikram said

    Daniela Mercury

    NYT is not exactly the standard of truth. Americans have an annoying habit of interpreting racial relations in Latin America as though Anglo American and Latin American culture are the same.

  2. Is Mandioca the same as Arbi/chamadumpa/cassava? Google search says all of these are one and the same – colocassia. They have a number interesting Mandioca preparations in Brazil, including one as dried flakes to spread as a condiment.

    The part about cyanide as result of insufficient cooking always puzzled me. Do these vegetables (Arbi) really have this issue?

  3. 36 · fallen jhumki said

    OK so i looked at the Cafe Felice menu and noticed that “Cha” is the word for tea, in hindi we say “Chai” but in some west coast languages like marathi and konkani, where portugese explorers spent a lot of time, the word is “Cha” im pretty sure they stole that word.

    Yeah, the word for tea in Portuguese is “cha” (pronounced “sha”). I’m taking Portuguese classes this summer, so yeah. Interestingly, the word for window in Portuguese is “janela,” and in Bengali it’s “janla”…

  4. I know this post is about Brazil, but I lived in Buenos Aires for 10 months and there were very few traces of South Asian cultures. There were some Indian restaurants (I didn’t go to any, though), a bunch of incense stands, and some shops that sold “ropa hindú” (indian clothes: they call anything desi/Indian “hindú”) that didn’t look like anything people actually typically wear in South Asia–looked more like hippie clothing. I met a few dozen Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis living there. Some had lived there for close to 20 years while some had moved there only recently. Some were married to local Argentine/Paraguayan/Peruvian women and had kids and intended to live there forever since that was their life. I got the impression that some of them moved to Argentina only to get Argentine citizenship–if you have an Argentine passport, you can go to most countries in the EU on a tourist visa without applying for anything. Oh, almost all of them were guys. I only met one South Asian women that moved there. What else… Yoga is big down there, and there are some Hare Krishnas, and there’s a Sai Baba center. Basically, India/South Asia is just a mystic place for most people down there.

  5. my parents and two older sisters lived in rio during the late 70′s and were part of a community of desis that lived there at the time. my middle sister was actually born there…i almost was, my mother was 7 months pregs with me when they moved to the states. all this is to say that brasil, and most latin america, has been explored by southies :)

  6. I wonder if there is a Latino blog somewhere with 107 people talking about how amazing it is to find tacos in South Africa. Or, an East African blog marveling at the Ethiopian guy who sells coffee in Sitka. Navel-gazing, ad hoc, bubble-gum cultural anthropology…

  7. Forget Desi spotting, what about sizzlin hot Brazilian guys….. how many of those do you spot?
    Any pics?

  8. Brazil’s Idol Is a Blonde, and Some Ask ‘Why?’

    Uncle Cookiebrown asks “why not?”…

  9. I don’t know what it is but I’m obsessed with Brazil at the moment (the beaches, the bundas on the beaches, the vibrancy of the culture, etc).

    I am seriously considering taking a year off from work to volunteer/travel in the Bahia region. The Brazilian culture is just fascinating to me. Primarily, it’s the significant pan-African influence of the culture that attracts me. I recently started studying capoeria and absolutely love it. It’d be interesting to see how that fits in with yoga, as I never really thought about it until reading this post.

    Thanks for the insights Brazilian travelers and former residents, please keep them coming.

  10. I bumped into this thread just now. I recently returned from there. Let me add/update on desis in Brazil.

    The restaurant Natraj in Rio was only open for dinner, when I previously visited Rio (not this trip). There are a few families in Rio of indian descent (1st generation) – mostly professionals and academics. I understand that they came via Portugal (Goan roots) You will find many sindhis in Manaus (A must visit city for the adventurous) The sindhis in manaus from guyana, hongkong and africa. If you bump into desis in Sao Paulo, they might be working in the consulate or are on temporary assignment working for outsourcing/insourcing company, or a tourist.

    When I was there, a TV novella about an indian family was in the top 5 rated shows – Caminos Das Indias.

    Here is the link In Sao Paulo, you can get bootleg VCD of the songs from this soap opera. There are many magazine cover stories about India now a days in Brazil, and ofcourse many magazine stands in Ave. Paulista have books on Kamasutra and Khajurao. There are a few indian restauants in Sao Paulo, only one that I know of is run by desis – the food there is unmemorable, there is tremendous amount of interest in the food, thanks to Caminos…

    I have heard that there are a few expat nuclear scientists who I cannot attest, as I have not bumped into them. A good majority of people of indian diaspora are from the former british colonies. You can get good spices in many shops, though not necessarily imported from India. You are likely to also find some chutney music courtsey Trinidadians and UK musical fusion. Brazil is a very big country – The Amazon jungle and ecosystem is bigger than India itself. I am planning to be there again very soon. Enjoy the country.

  11. i hate racial talk. i really do because it is stupid. however, i must say that belonging to this race or that race does not always have something to do with your skin color. if a german person lives for 10 years in the african sahara walks and works under direct sun light everyday his or her skin color will surely get darker. so, does that mean he or she is not german or european anymore?!!! italians, greeks , spanish are much darker than germans, swedish and english people and their skin color of those greek, spanish and italians ( but not necessarily their facial features ) matches the skin color of most middle easterners but they are still being considered “whites”. Arabs are classified in the u.s , canada and all Latin amercia as whites. those who are being called whites even those who live in northern Europe do not have matching skin color. some are pink, some are beige , some are yellow but i have never seen a skin color that i could call white. the snow is white, the pages of my book are white but the skin color of all my friends of north European origin is pink, beige or yellow!! exposure to lots of hot direct sun light changes the lightest skin to darker and maybe very dark but that does not changes the race of the person. My full blooded swedish friend spent one year in mauritania and came back darker than my self and i am dark south indian but he still considered white. this is why arabs italians spanish greeks jews are darker than germans swedish and english but they all are considered whites. but again there is no such a thing as white skin. there is pink, beige and pink among those who are being called whites !!

  12. Im going to be workin in brazil for year. I will be at campinas and I did find a brazilan sikh gurdwara in sp…..lookin fwd to the trip