Death and bawdiness from the Parsi tongue

Parsis don’t have the reverence for the dead that other Indians do and their irreverence is extreme, as shown by numerous Parsi sayings

By Aakar Patel | Livemint

The Parsis are my favourite Indian community, followed by the Christians. Both give and have given many times more to this country than they take. And both seem culturally insulated from the problems the rest of us are infected with. There is a reason that “Parsi owner” used to be advertised in Mumbai’s used-car market in the old days. Parsi-ness is a byword for diligence and also morality.

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If there were more Parsis (and perhaps fewer of the rest of us) India would be a more pleasant place. Certainly it would have more humour—when was the last time you heard of Parsis rioting over some slight to their faith/community/elders/ prophets?

The only time I’ve seen Parsis really angry as a group is when others fail to turn off their cellular phones at the Symphony Orchestra of India’s concerts (I’m convinced one can accurately discern the declining number of Parsis from the increasing number of people who, innocent of structure, applaud between symphonic movements).

Anyway, I know Parsis well and have lived among them all my life. My class in the orphanage and school set up by Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy in Surat had two sets of Bawa twins (Cyrus/Shahrukh and Mahtab/Mahrukh), a wonder unlikely to be witnessed again in our land.

The Parsi of Bollywood caricature is funny and simple-minded, and retains his Gujarati character only through his language. This language he knows intimately and speaks very well. There is no one correct or pure Gujarati accent, but Parsi Gujarati is marked by its insistent use of the hard T.

Parsi men are unusually foul-mouthed. They get this as much from their own culture as that of Surat’s, where most lived before migrating in the 17th century to Mumbai and then elsewhere. Casual and conversational abuse defines Surti Gujarati.

For the longest time, when all over India local FM stations were being set up, Surat city was denied. Surtis were convinced this was because the government was terrified that one of us would take the microphone and in an excited moment let fly some bad words.

I’ve just read a book by Sooni Taraporevala and Meher Marfatia compiling 716 phrases Parsis use, and wanted to share some of them to show the community character.

Many of the sayings in this book, called Parsi Bol, are Gujarati and not specifically Parsi. For instance “Budhwar na vandha” (He struggles to remember the days beyond Wednesday, i.e. a moron) and “Veham-ni dava Luqman Hakim pase bhi nathi” (Even the Greek physician Galen had no cure for suspicion).

I will therefore isolate the unique aspects of Parsi sayings, and these are essentially three:

Their attitude to death, and their ease with sexual and scatological references.

Parsis don’t have the reverence for the dead that other Indians do and their irreverence is extreme, as these will show:

“Evun to photo-frame thai gaya (He’s become a photograph, i.e. died).

Kolmi thai gaya” (He’s become a prawn, i.e. died).

“Wicket padi gayi” (His wicket fell).

If you are not familiar with the bawdiness of Parsis, these will show why they are justifiably famous for being naughty:

Chadhyo nahin etla ma to utri gayo” (The fellow had barely climbed on when he got off).

Taddan poniyo che, mai-baap-e amtho ujagro kidho (He’s such a loser, his parents shouldn’t have bothered staying up at night to conceive him).

Nalla amba par motti keri (Large mangoes on a slender plant).

Nara no dheelo (Always keeps his pyjama strings loose, i.e. always priapic).

Parsi humour is scatological, and, unusually for upper-class India, relentlessly deployed in polite society. Examples:

Lindu aapi ne indu lidhu” (Got an egg in exchange for a goat-dropping).

Sau-sau-e potani gan gothvi lidhi” (Each of them found a place for his bum—i.e., took care of himself first).

Manita-nu muter bhave, anmanita-nu doodh bhi nahi” (Will sip the piss of those he likes but not even the milk of those he doesn’t).

Gan ne gardan ek thai gai” (My bum and neck became one in exhaustion).

Gan batavo pan daant na batavta (Reveal your behind but not your teeth—i.e., never get familiar)

We English-speakers are no longer comfortable with casual caste references, but this is not true of sayings in our languages. For instance: “Vaniya-vaniya fervi tol” (Go back on your word like a Baniya).

In my collection of Gujarati sayings, the Kehvatkosh, there is surprisingly only one on Parsis: “Parsi paisa male to biji baiyyar kare, ke padoshi nu ghar vechatu le” (The Parsi who comes into money gets himself another woman, or buys his neighbour’s house).

In Parsi Bol there was one that I hadn’t heard before: “Mummo-chucho vagar ‘Seerpa’ nahi” (He who doesn’t use bad words is no Parsi).

Quite right.