Miss Contractor’s chalk screeched on the blackboard as she conjugated a French verb in a series of appropriate sentences. Fais, fait, faisons, faites… she wrote with her right hand before launching into lave, lavons, lavez, lavent with her left. Finally, to the delight of Class 9A, she launched into conjugating two entirely different verbs at once with both hands, rapidly covering the board with her elegant cursive writing.
Every afternoon, with Mithoo, the favourite of her 10 parrots on her shoulder, Mrs Mani Dastur would plough through 10 Silhouette romances. She departed from this routine on festivals when she supervised the mistry (cook) in the kitchen and carried sumptuous salli boti and rose falooda in cut glass bowls covered with exquisitely crocheted and beaded doilies to the appreciative Malayali family next door.
Miss Contractor and Mrs Dastur are just two of the fantastic Parsis who rose out of the vaults of your memory while reading Oh! Those Parsis; A To Z of the Parsi Way of Life, a collection of Berjis Desai’s columns that appeared in Parsiana magazine between April 2014 and August 2017. Arranged in alphabetical order, the book’s chapters touch on everything from Abuse, Alcohol, Alpha females and Attire to Insanity (Being Cutely Cuckoo) and Xenophobia, Yesterdays, and Zoroaster.
“Parsis are from a different planet,” Desai’s introduction begins, “They confuse other Earthlings. Imagine a human being who is at once genial, high strung, funny, rude, crude, kind, brilliant and barmy. Most of the time Parsis are loveable; sometimes they are annoying. They are in a hopeless demographic decline – barely 85,000 in the world. This decline makes people sad. Rather soon, Parsis will be sorely missed. They are an anthropological rarity worthy of being preserved. However, they themselves are merrily oblivious to their imminent extinction and continue to make others glad and mad.”
Desai is a keen observer of his community, of its endearing eccentricities, its distinct culture shared by the masoor paav Parsis and the NCPA ones (his labels!), of its rare famous murderers Cdr Kawas Nanavati and Phiroze Daruwalla (“Totally, the assailant stabbed 147 times. Daruwala left no fingerprint and no clues… The murderer then filed his candidature for Bombay North LokSabha seat, to ward off suspicion… Daruwala was hanged at the Yerawada jail in Poona… When the Lok Sabha election results were declared, Daruwala’s election symbol, ironically, ‘scales of justice’, received 896 votes.”) and its raucous sense of humour that exults in imaginative cuss words (“Parsi swearing sounds sweet. Very often, it is used to express love and affection: “Madar… I missed you!”), double entendre and outrageous lines pronounced in the most deadpan fashion in the manner of Pope’s “Puffs, patches, bibles, billets-doux”. Desai himself is a master of comic delivery. Here he is on Parsis who display “deviationist behaviour”:
“The genteel, docile proper bawaji is now a rare commodity. There is an increase in the number of lahuvaas, haandaas, fituris, kaklaats and pallonjis. These are highly technical terms which are difficult at times to distinguish even for a seasoned community watcher like your writer… A kaklaat is a garrulous, incessant talker of nonsense which is jarring on the nerves. The listener feels physically exhausted after a kaklaaat departs. Kaklaats steal your energy. A well versed kaklaat will not let you interrupt his diatribe and he never listens to you… A pallonji is more than a show-off. A plain vanilla puffer goes by the little known but endearing term of foortaji. A pallonji is a compulsive attention seeker who spins yarns, exaggerates, pretends to be what he is not. If he is at Allbless Baug, he wants to be the bridegroom and if he is at Doongerwadi, he wants to be the corpse.”
At this point, you throw down the book and actually Laugh Out Loud.
The chosen excerpt notwithstanding, this is not a comic collection. Desai writes with seriousness on Parsi cuisine, furniture, jewellery and sartorial sense, on Parsi plays, on why Udvada scores over Navsari and the once bustling Parsi neighbourhoods of the latter, on baugs and sanatoriums, on the priesthood and on the Zorastrian faith. He also tackles the community’s entrenched prejudices, the tussles on intermarriage and the ‘correct’ way to dispose the dead between the traditionalists and the liberals. The undercurrent of sadness at the community’s declining numbers never degenerates into sentimentalism and while the writer is generally liberal, he admits to being attached to tradition, leading him to conduct his mother’s funeral at the Doongerwadi or Towers of Silence instead of at the new crematorium and Prayer Hall in Worli.
In a moving paragraph, Desai evokes the comfort of ritual and the need, in times of grief, to feel one with those who have gone before:
Author Berjis Desai ( Courtesy Zero Degree Publishing )
“Parsipanu can be seen and felt in the environs of the bunglis. Time, literally stands still. The collective vibrations of the thousands of geh sarnas, uthamnas and Sarosh, intoned during the last few centuries, can still be felt by the sensitive. An aura of protection exists from the occult circuits in the ground, created throughout Doongerwadi. As soon as the Doongerwadi hearse winds its way uphill to the bunglis, within seconds one is transported from the cosmopolitan traffic jams of Kemps Corner into an exclusive oasis of silence.”
This isn’t to say the crisis around Parsi death rituals, now hampered by the dwindling population of vultures, is out of bounds for comedy:
“While the community boasts of many dog and horse lovers, some of its members are also fond of the odd and the exotic… In Gujarat towns and villages, Parsis reared poultry for eggs and meat. However each home had a pet hen or two, who would live to a ripe old age instead of suffering the usual fate of their less fortunate kind, that of ending up on a plate alongside potato chunks… Of course , the ultimate exotic pets were the ones aspired to by the then trustees of the BPP (Bombay Parsi Punchayet), who made extensive plans to bred vultures in captivity and wanted well-off Parsis to sponsor a vulture baby. One paid for its feed and upkeep, including medicines. The BPP said it would forward a quarterly progress report with a photograph of one’s adopted pet (“Silla’s baby is cuter and more cherubic than Piloo’s, isn’t it?) Unfortunately, there were no takers.”
Even if the late great Farrokh Bulsara aka Freddie Mercury is the only Parsi you’ve known *eye roll emoji*, this book is packed with enough detail to help you win a specialised round of Mastermind: the Ilm-e-Khshnoomists are an occult group, who are ardent believers in reincarnation, vegetarianism and astrology; sadhana, popatji, karkaryu, varadhvaroo, malido, mehsoor and koprapaak are all traditional Parsi sweetmeats; the Mad Dog Riots involving Parsis broke out in Bombay on June 6, 1832 because the English decided to cull stray dogs… You have to love a people willing to wreak violence in defence of our canine friends.
This is a wonderful book about a wonderful community that might, despite the doomsayers, still dodge extinction.