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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.)

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116 thoughts on “Desi Spotting in Brazil

  1. Visited Rio and Sao Paolo a few months ago. Being a long time resident of the USofA (and having lived in Goa before that), it was heartening to see a quite a few familiar culinary connections (although the local food is otherwise dissapointingly bland and veggie free).

    1. Cashews – not the ubiquitous nut, but the fruit juice. For those who love the lightly acrid-sweet taste of the cashew fruit, the juice of that fruit is plentifully available, and always served on flights. and they call it CaJu!!
    2. The Pao – having awakened to the paowalla’s morning chant “pao, pao” every morning for 14 years in Goa, it was great to hear this word again. And the bread is surprisingly good, and just like what we had in Goa.
    3. Batata – yes they do call the tater “batata!” like in the other half of bhaji.
  2. Speaking of loan words here is a fairly long list of Portuguese origin words in Sri Lankan Tamil, many of which are also found in Tamil Nadu.

    Word Meaning Original
    alumāri cupboard armário annāsi pineapple ananás alavangu crow bar alavanca alupunethi safety pin alfinete alugosu executioner algoz baila dance baile or bailar chuppu suck chupar or chupo rothai wheel roda savei key chave jaṉṉal window janela kathirai chair cadeira kaju cashew caju kalusan* trousers calças[disputed] kamicai* shirt camisa kaṭatāsi* paper carta koiappalam guava goiaba[disputed] kōppai drinking glass copo kusini* kitchen cozinha mēcai table mesa pān* bread pão pappāḷi/papā paḻam papaya papaia pēnā pen pena piṅkāṉ* plate palangana pīppa wooden cask, barrel pipa pu**ai buttock bunda sapāttu shoe sapato thavaranai tavern taverna tācci* metal pan tacho tompu* title tombo tuvāy* towel toalha vaṅki bank banco[disputed] veethuru glass vidro veranta verandah varanda viskottu biscuit biscoito

  3. “Cha” im pretty sure they stole that word.

    The word Cha is of chinese origin. Most countries in the word use the word Cha or some variation of it for tea. Europeans probably introduced the word Cha along with their tea plantations into India in the first place.

  4. But, there weren’t any Sindhis

    I spotted a Sindhi businessman with a group of Japanese while in Rio. But maybe he was visiting. I did see many others who looked more desi than he, but they were all Brazilian.

  5. Why is it than when Indians/Desis travel abroad, they get all obsessive about scoping out other Desis, Indian restaurants, traces of Indin culture, etc.? What’s the point of traveling to another country, if not to imbibe the local culture? It’s like the typical U.S. tourist who invariably seeks out the all the local McDonald’s, whether vacationing in Berlin in Beijing.

  6. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/02_04_08_globalview.pdf

    Interestingly, based on this survey, the world has the highest opinion of Germany followed closely by Japan (the two big losers of WW II) while it has a net negative opinion of America.

    BTW, India too has a (slightly) net negative opinion of Brazil. What the hell is going on here?

    Seems like the latinos, middle-easterners and filipinos are the people who dislike India the most.

  7. Seems like the latinos, middle-easterners and filipinos are the people who dislike India the most.

    Is it because physically they are sometimes mistaken to be Indian and they dislike that association/misidentification ?

  8. Is it because physically they are sometimes mistaken to be Indian and they dislike that association/misidentification ?

    Its no secret that latinos and middle-easterners generally do not wish to be associated with desis. While desis on the other hand are extremely flattered to be mistaken for them (even though most of the time the flatterer is just playing with them).

    It has something to do with the fact that desis are much darker-skinned than them on average; and with the fact that south asia is much more poverty stricken than south america and the middle east.

  9. Its no secret that latinos and middle-easterners generally do not wish to be associated with desis

    I think there’s truth to that statement. When I told an Iranian acquaintance some years ago that he could pass for Indian (jokingly), he was visibly upset and spent the next several minutes angrily denying that he had any Indian resemblance. His reaction seemed oddly overreative.

  10. It has something to do with the fact that desis are much darker-skinned than them on average; and with the fact that south asia is much more poverty stricken than south america and the middle east.

    Of course this reasoning does not apply to Europeans and East Asians because they are unlikely to be racially associated with desis. Brazil and Central America have large proportions of the darkest skinned latinos (who occupy a low socio-economic status compared to their white minorities) so your point that their negative opinion of India may be because “they are sometimes mistaken to be Indian and they dislike that association/misidentification” is well taken.

    Its worth noting here that only the black african and east asian nations in the survey were unanimous in having a net positive opinion of India. By significant margins.

  11. I think there’s truth to that statement. When I told an Iranian acquaintance some years ago that he could pass for Indian (jokingly), he was visibly upset and spent the next several minutes angrily denying that he had any Indian resemblance. His reaction seemed oddly overreative.

    LOL. Thats the same reaction you get from desis if you tell them that they could pass for blacks.

    If you want to flatter iranians tell them they look like italians. They tend to prefer Italian over Spanish probably because a lot of people who claim to be Spanish in the Americas have some amerindian and/or african ancestry and it shows. They want to be mistaken for what they think are pure south europeans :)

  12. The region of the world with the most negative view of India is Latin America with Brazil having the most negative view, followed by Central America. Wonder why the brazilians have such a low opinion of India?

    I see alot of ads for Catholic charities operating in India when I travel in Lat America. They are probably ticked off that despite all of the money they spend the Seventh Day Adventists are making greater progress

  13. 60 · Kaka said

    Its no secret that latinos and middle-easterners generally do not wish to be associated with desis. While desis on the other hand are extremely flattered to be mistaken for them

    I read a comment like that on the “Blogging while Brown” post, which said that Latinos and Middle Easterners are brown but do not want to be associated with Indians.

    I certainly don’t want to be associated with anyone from the Middle East either thank you. I do not know of a single person from India (if you control for religious affinity) or here who think it is flattering to be called Middle Eastern or even Latino for that matter.

    The whole “Latina Mami” thing being a compliment is something that I’ve heard only here and not in India. I don’t see any social mileage in being Latino either.

    However, I do remember my girlfriend (at the time)telling me about a guy she met back home in Australia, who insisted he was Latino when she told him that he looked like her boyfriend who was Indian. She sent me a picture and I could’ve met uncle sippin ada-cha in Ootacamund and I wouldn’t be able to tell him apart from the chai vendor.

    As for Brazilians and Indians, my sister-in-law is Brazilian and I’ve never heard anything of the offensive sort from her…other than her surprise at the Indian preoccupation with fair skin when everyone in Brazil couldn’t wait to get tan (her family is German so its more difficult for them than the average Brazilian. I wonder, if the Orkut phenomenon has anything to do with it – I think the two largest ethnic groups there, are Indians and Brazilians.

    Politically, if anything Brazil has, and should rightfully so, an affinity with India.

  14. As for Brazilians and Indians, my sister-in-law is Brazilian and I’ve never heard anything of the offensive sort from her…other than her surprise at the Indian preoccupation with fair skin when everyone in Brazil couldn’t wait to get tan

    Dunno… Brazil has its obsession with race and color too:

    Brazil’s Idol Is a Blonde, and Some Ask ‘Why?’ Brazil is now entranced by a rosy-cheeked 27-year-old singer with flaxen hair and blue eyes. Her performing retinue features the Paquitas, seven girls with golden tresses. A descendant of Italian, Polish and German immigrants, Xuxa has become the nation’s most successful performing artist. But in a land largely populated by people of African, Indian and Latin stock, some chafe at the idea that Brazil’s idol looks as if she just stepped off a jet from Frankfurt. ‘You have a nation that is half brown or black, and the national symbol is blond,” said Herbert de Souza, a sociologist here.”Our culture is profoundly racist.” Abdias do Nascimento, a leader in the United Black Movement here, said: ”It’s very negative for children. It makes people despise themselves because they don’t have the same model of beauty. You have little black girls who only want blond dolls.’link
  15. I do not know of a single person from India (if you control for religious affinity) or here who think it is flattering to be called Middle Eastern or even Latino for that matter.

    A brazen lie. Who do you think you are fooling?

  16. once upon a time a townie in boston attacked me and called me a spic while i was selling t-shirts outside of fenway park. i was quite flattered.

  17. once upon a time a townie in boston attacked me and called me a spic while i was selling t-shirts outside of fenway park. i was quite flattered.

    Did that happen before or after you slapped the Indonesian at the bar ? :-D

  18. once upon a time a townie in boston attacked me and called me a spic while i was selling t-shirts outside of fenway park. i was quite flattered.

    In pre-Qualcomm era San Diego, a hick asked me if he could drive me back where I belong across the border. I was practically tumescent with joy. Kaka/Prema knows more about the Desi psyche than anyone I know

  19. he also called me a sand n—-r and guini. never guessed indian. i don’t know why he was trying to complement me so.

  20. 70 · Vikram said

    Did that happen before or after you slapped the Indonesian at the bar ? :-D

    the townie incident is actually true, minus my flaterry.

  21. 67 · Kaka: A brazen lie. Who do you think you are fooling?

    Myself, sir, Myself…I put the C in *CD

    Is that an appropriate answer? Personally I feel that thats too much of an answer for the way you phrased your argument, but there ya go.

    69 · Manju: once upon a time a townie in boston attacked me and called me a spic while i was selling t-shirts outside of fenway park. i was quite flattered.

    Might just be me, but everyone in Boston seems to call each other names…It certainly wasn’t the friendliest place when I visited there…And I wonder what luck I would have selling “Horry Kow” tshirts outside Wrigley..

    Pardon my major digressions

  22. Iran’s Aryan obsession makes even the most radical Hindutva proponent fall into the Bryant Gumbel – Wayne Brady comparision. The Shah actually changed the name of the freakin country so that they can associate themselves with the Aryans. Though a rudimentary glance of the Vedas shows the drollery of the endeavor (Hint: Daevas – Ahuras)

  23. he also called me a sand n—-r

    I dont doubt that you like many desis in America have indeed been called a n….r many times Manju; but its amusing how you like most everyone here makes sure to put in “sand” in front of the n…er whenever they report the racial insult. Kinda proves my point ;)

  24. 76 · Kaka said

    I dont doubt that you like many desis in America have indeed been called a n….r many times Manju; but its amusing how you like most everyone here makes sure to put in “sand” in front of the n…er whenever they report the racial insult. Kinda proves my point ;)

    nice. I can appreciate a good machiavellian move. I’ve actually never been called n—-r, but if I say that I prove your point. I’m trapped.

  25. he also called me a sand n—-r and guini. never guessed indian. i don’t know why he was trying to complement me so.

    OH god, this is so funny!

  26. I’ve actually never been called n—-r

    Yeah right, you have only been called sand n….r. Cause americans are so caring and sensitive when they insult you. They know how deeply you would be traumatized if they neglect to use the word “sand”. LOL

  27. OH god, this is so funny!

    Not nearly as funny as you claiming that the taiwanese were “praising you continuously” for your filipino looks :)

    I think Borat should make a movie about desis and their racial delusions….

  28. actually come to think of it, the toughest kid in elementary school, tommy lane, who used to drink beer in bathroom, was using the word nigger and turned to me apologetically and said, “not your type of nigger manju.” then his friend Rodriguez called me something but i forget what, so i sucker punched him later on the lunch line breaking his nose.

    i was deathly afraid lane would kill me but he just e opposite occurred, he was friendly and left me alone.

  29. actually come to think of it, the toughest kid in elementary school, tommy lane, who used to drink beer in bathroom, was using the word nigger and turned to me apologetically and said, “not your type of nigger manju.”

    wow, what a cultured elementary kid – knowing the nuances of the n***rs of the world – lol

  30. 79 · Kaka said

    Yeah right, you have only been called sand n….r. Cause americans are so caring and sensitive when they insult you. They know how deeply you would be traumatized if they neglect to use the word “sand

    well, i’ve only been called sand nigger twice and the amount of times i’ve heard racial slurs directed at me is in the single digits, i think. but i’m very very aloof inreal life so i often don’t notice people, ergo the lack of sensitivity. so not many data points, but i think spic would be the most common as a kid. but i grew up in a jewish neighborhood and virtually never heard anyone say the word nigger. but when i visited friends in catholic neighborhoods, i was shocked.

    in the last decade or so the only people who yell racial slurs at me are black kids when i run thru Harlem. so nigger wouldn’t make any sense. mostly muslim slurs, but even that’s few and far between, though kids always seem to mess with me.

  31. oh, but back in the day when i used to go to indian parties, thuggish indian kids would call me n—-r but in a friendly way like “brother.” so maybe that counts with prema.

  32. in the last decade or so the only people who yell racial slurs at me are black kids when i run thru Harlem. so nigger wouldn’t make any sense. mostly muslim slurs, but even that’s few and far between, though kids always seem to mess with me.

    Living in a developing area in DC I’ve heard a couple of very mean comments about my ethnicity from some black kids/young adults.

    Anyways I’m calling you a Nr too, so let me add that to your Nr belt – I’m not even going to give you a chance to gloat by calling you a sandN****r either. It’s the regular N word for you.

  33. Iran’s Aryan obsession makes even the most radical Hindutva proponent fall into the Bryant Gumbel – Wayne Brady comparision. The Shah actually changed the name of the freakin country so that they can associate themselves with the Aryans. Though a rudimentary glance of the Vedas shows the drollery of the endeavor (Hint: Daevas – Ahuras)

    One thing I don’t understand is these people from Iran, India or anywhere else like to say that they look Italian, or aryan or whatever, why don’t they then adapt those cultures instead. I bet alot of these people who live in the west are the one that are the least likely to asslimate or intergrate.

  34. Perhaps because they seriously are everywhere, it’s difficult to spot a Sindhi sometimes. My uncle has lived in Sao Paolo for over two decades …he’s Sindhi with a Brazilian soul. :)

  35. ummm edit: it’s difficult to spot a Sindhi sometimes. My uncle has lived in Sao Paolo for over two decades and he has adapted to the lifestyle, culture, and mannerisms so well that we all consider him more Brazilian than Indian in every respect… he’s Sindhi with a Brazilian soul. :)

  36. 66 Vikram : Xuxa was born in 1963. She’s possibly old enough to be your mother. Her career is mostly in children’s TV and competes with Sesame Street. She has never been “the most successful performing artist in Brazil”, unless you are limited in your reading material to sources on the order of People or the National Enquirer. Your outrage, based on a few quotes and little personal knowledge or interest, is sanctimonious. Please give yourself a few brownie points for being racially and politically correct.

  37. sandhya @ 44:

    I expected Brazil to be cheap, maybe not as cheap as India, but cheap nevertheless, but didn’t find this to be the case.

    A Brazilian I know shops for electronics and other stuff in France. Says its cheaper. France is not a cheap place.

  38. 91 narayan: Not sure what Xuxa’s age has to do with the matter being discussed. Wikipedia says “Her achievements include the best-selling album in the history of Brazil, and being the singer with the second highest total of number-one hits in the Brazilian charts, surpassed only by Daniela Mercury. “. I suggest you check those numbers quoted on Wiki before you embarrass yourself further. The link I posted in #66 as a source was The New York Times. Maybe you are familiar with that newspaper. I’m not outraged… I don’t really care much about what Brazilians like or dislike. I was just pointing out to the poster in #65 that Brazil wasn’t quite as color-blind as he thought it was. I have posted my references. What can you offer other than blather ?

  39. Rekha and I brought a bit of Basement Bhangra to Sao Paulo for a music festival in 2005 @ SESC Pompeii, along w/ the Mrs. C. We saw 1 sikh (or guessing so by her prominent kara) girl in a sari over the course of a week. happy day!

  40. There are actually at least a dozen desi brazilians, including myself that I know of. I was born in Montes Claros in Minas Gerais. Altogether it was 6 desi families, our fathers all worked at the same company and came over from England after their degrees. Its really amazing how our parents all learnt and were fluent in Portuguese. Our families left Brazil around 1988-89 timeframe when the economy was taking a downturn and affecting the industrial cities like MC. All the kids were also getting to the age where we needed to settle down in schools. We lost touch for a few years but have connected recently through the wonderful world of social networking groups. :)

    I hope you got a chance to taste their pao de queijo, and brigadeiros when you were there… by two favourite foods from Brasil.

  41. Vikram : Conheco Brasil bem; parece que voce nao conheca. “Sabios custumam mentir …”, Wikipedia tambem.

  42. Vikram : Conheco Brasil bem; parece que voce nao conheca. “Sabios custumam mentir …”, Wikipedia tambem.

    Yes, I’m sure you know Brazil well and wikipedia does makes mistakes. But posting a response in Portuguese doesn’t make you any more credible without posting some references to your refutation of what the people said in that NYT article, both of whom are Brazilian themselves, one a sociologist .

  43. 59 · Vikram said

    Seems like the latinos, middle-easterners and filipinos are the people who dislike India the most.
    Is it because physically they are sometimes mistaken to be Indian and they dislike that association/misidentification ?

    This seems to be true for Latinos and Mideasterners here in US. A lot of them look down on Indians for being “dark, smelly, and ugly” as well as talking with a funny accent and worshipping cows and snakes (this seems to be more so for Middle Easterners). The irony is that these are the same terms used to deride Latinos and Middle Easterners by whites. Since discrimination against Middle Easterners and Latinos is more visible here, I’d say it’s a sort of inferiority complex. The extreme example as someone mentioned is the Aryan complex among Iranian-Americans, who buy into the Pahlavi bullsh*t of Iranians being superior Aryans, and Arabs, Afghans, Indians, etc. are inferior. When I travelled through the Middle East I experienced nothing but love for Indians (especially Amitabh Bachchan) and free taxi rides.

    I guess Indians do feel elated to be mistaken for Latinos and MEs cuz they’re generally lighter, and as all know from shaadi ads, light skin = true beauty :)