In the Line of Laughter – Sooni Taraporevala and Meher Marfatia

Meher Marfatia & Sooni Taraporevala on why they turned archivists with a new book that’s trying to ‘save’ quirky Parsi phrases.

By Tinaz Nooshian, Mumbai Mirror

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It’s well past tea time when Sooni Taraporevala sips on a cup of ginger-laced chai, one eye on a chubby samosa that sits on a plate which Meher Marfatia is dotting with mint chutney. “They are from Dave’s,” Marfatia, a former journalist-now author smiles, referring to the blinkand-miss institution at Babulnath best known for its wiped-clean-byafternoon farsan.

“He is the best,” Taraporevala says with the conviction of a jurist. She would know.

The shop sits less than a kilometre from Cozy Building at Gowalia Tank where the photographer-filmmaker grew up in a flat shared by her parents, grandparents, two uncles – and Maneck kaka, a grand uncle, who’d arrive every day from his Sleater Road home at five sharp for an evening spent discussing Nietzsche and Nehru. The Bai Hirjee Soonaiji agiary which seals one end of the lane where Cozy and three other Parsi-occupied buildings stand, is where she laid sandalwood sticks and prayed for a safe journey before flying to America for the first time.

Memories are precious to Taraporevala, and several of them, the product of living in a large, floating family of elderly. It’s what connects her to Marfatia (in addition to a friendship that saw the two collaborate on Laughter in the House! 20th Century Parsi Theatre, a coffee table book that looks at Parsi Gujarati drama from 1930 to 2000), who didn’t know what a nuclear family was because her Bandra home brimmed with the chatter of four fuis (father’s sisters) who’d refuse to communicate unless she spoke to them in Gujarati.

In a unique attempt to hold on to these memories marked by a lingo that could very well disappear in a few decades, the two have put together an archive of Parsi-Gujarati phrases. Parsi Bol: Insults, Endearments & other Parsi Gujarati Phrases, a record of over 750 idioms and sayings sectioned into 16 segments (insults, sarcasm, advice, character traits, anatomy, etc.) is sponsored by industrialist Cyrus Guzder and will release mid-December in time for the 10th World Zoroastrian Congress in Mumbai.

Taraporevala takes less than a second to pick her favourite. “Position ma puncture. It refers to a dent in status. It’s so simple, graphic, illustrative,” she says, watching Marfatia crack up. It’s a phrase she had never heard or used, and like several others that have made their way into the crowd-sourced effort, this one too came from a contributor.

Once the two had spread the word via Facebook and community publications, they received a flood of suggestions, “several of them painstakingly handwritten and sent to us by post from all over Gujarat,” Marfatia adds. “We’d type them out into our phones if someone suggested something at a random social meeting. The response was overwhelming.”

Each one features in the book in the Gujarati and Roman scripts and carries with it its literal translation and idiomatic usage, both of which Taraporevala’s aunt Rutty Maneckhaw oversaw. “Tedious” is how the two describe the compilation and verification phase that lasted a year-and-a-half after collecting inputs for a year. “And I’m sure we are still going to have people say, this is not correct, and that’s not right. But that’s the point of a contributors’ book,” says Taraporevala.

“Cheap (she means affordable), cheerful and fun to flip through is how we wanted to keep it,” she adds, hoping that’s what will pique the interest of younger readers, including their teenage children. “There’s poetry in the madness, alliterations, rhyme, it’s imagistic,” says Marfatia. “Look at the phrase Daant ma khasroo apvoo (To give a shoe in the teeth; Harass too much).”

Taraporevala believes anyone connected by the Gujarati language is their audience. Members of the Dawoodi Bohra community have also sent in suggestions. “Mira’s (Nair; filmmaker) husband Mahmood Mamdani is from Kutch, and he’s keen to see it. And I can imagine his dad read it. Everyone loves Parsi Gujarati anyway. They think it’s a hoot!”

And Parsis settled abroad have offered their silent support. Marfatia says she heard how families in Auckland got together for dinners and shared phrases they intended to send to Parsi Bol. Ardeshir Damania, a professor of plant genetics from California, ended up sending so many, they decided to give him an entire chapter.

My Mother Used To Say, says Marfatia, carries phrases accompanied by a detailed explanation of their use in Gujarat’s villages.

She refers to Oojhur gam ma erundeeyo prudhan (In a barren village a castor plant is king; In the land of the blind the oneeyed man is king). In Kutch’s barren landscape, Damania writes, even erandiyo or the wild castor plant – although thorny and producing an oil that tastes awful – is a welcome sight.
This one’s clearly then, of the bawas, for the bawas, by the bawas.