Parsi Nicknames

From time to time we invite readers to contribute. This article is by Havovi Govadia.

The occasion was my brother’s children’s Navjote. Parsis celebrate this “initiation into the Zoroastrian faith” or thread ceremony for their children with a lot of gusto and festivity. The family was sitting down to write down the invitation cards. The full list was drawn up – the family, the outstation guests, neighbors and finally friends. My sister-in-law suddenly asked “what is the real name of Masoor? I possibly cannot write ‘masoor’ in the invitation card.” My brother had no clue nor did my parents. A neighbor was called and asked, but we drew a blank there also. Finally the invitation went to Mr. ‘Masoor’!

I grew up in a Parsi Colony in Mumbai and nicknames were an integral part of our growing up days. It never struck us that the person we all knew as ‘Masoor’ had a name given to him by his parents. It was also very probable that he himself had stopped protesting a long time back and had accepted the nickname, which had now become a part of him.

Most of the nicknames were either in Gujarati, our mother tongue or Gujarati slang. Nicknames not only reflected the imagination of the person who thought about them but also the ingenuity of the language. They evolved due to various reasons. Once given, it stuck to the person like a leech all his life and the official name all but faded from memory. The gentleman in question must have liked masoor (a black lentil) popular amongst Parsis. What did you eat today? – masoor. And what is for dinner today? masoor! – till one day Fali became ‘Masoor’, and his real name Fali faded from both short and long term memories.

Since most Parsis are foodies, talk of food was common and inevitable. The centre of our happy conversations tends to be all about food. And since most of us have our favorite food, many were known for their fondness of that particular food. So Rutti became ‘Titta Kavab’ (actually ‘tikha’ or spicy kebab) since she not only loved kebabs but she loved them real spicy. Since she lisped, ‘tikha’ became ‘titta’. It was believed that if one suffered from constipation, Rutty’s hot and spicy kebabs would give instant relief. We also had ‘Akoori’ (scrambled eggs with onion and tomato) since his mother fondly told people that she fed her fussy son akoori every day since he loved the way she made it. Purvez, who was podgy and loved potatoes cooked whichever way, became ‘Papeta’. My neighbor Dolly’s husband was ‘Samosa’, since he consumed this snack every day at tea time. Jal was ‘Bheedo’ (vegetable lady finger) since he detested that vegetable and got irritated when he was called one.

Whenever Mr. R passed by, shouts of ‘Kavab Chor’ (kebab thief) would follow him. If he ever managed to catch any of his tormentors, his umbrella would be used with vengeance. This nickname stuck to him, since as the rumors went; he had once sneakily eaten all the kebabs that his wife had made for dinner. Left without a side dish for dinner, she created such a ruckus that it alerted all the neighbors to this fact and from that moment on Mr. R became ‘Kavab Chor’. Have you ever heard of ‘Mitha Palav’ (sweet pulao)? One youngster who loved to put sugar on all his meals was stuck with that name. Mr. Irani who ran a restaurant which was famous for its mince became ‘Kheema’. I suppose he did not mind being called that since this became a free advertisement for his business. My friend Rusi forever morphed to ‘Eeda Pav’ (eggs & bread) as every morning at 7.30, without fail, he would be seen heading to the grocer, a cloth bag in his hand, to buy his daily breakfast consisting of 2 eggs and a loaf of bread. He did not believe in storing eggs in his fridge or eating stale bread.

Some nicknames just described a physical attribute or some peculiarity, trait or nature of that person. So Mr. Burjor Master (B.M.) became ‘Baira Master’ (lady’s man). The diehard bachelor loved the company of ladies and flirted with and impressed all the ladies that he encountered. He knew how to treat a lady well and was popular with them. This made him a ‘master’ at the art of managing ladies so evolved the nickname ‘Baira Master’ and of course his initials (B.M.) sealed his name once and for all. Dara was ‘Cadbury’ since like the chocolate, he would melt or (pasri pariyo in Gujarati slang, meaning a cry baby) whenever he would be teased. But that did not in any way stop his peers from teasing him. ‘Cadbury’ soon realized the futility of getting annoyed or ‘pasri parvanu’ and then all was well and the nickname forgotten over the years. Perin was ‘Gold Spot’. She loved to deck up in gold and hence the name after the then popular drink. Tubby Farokh was ‘Little King’ after the popular comic character. Erach uncle was ‘Kaka Thoku’ as he had the habit of not only talking in a loud and booming voice but also exaggerating little details whenever he talked. In slang Gujarati ‘thoku’ means someone who tells tall tales. But ‘Kaka Thoku’ never learnt anything from his nickname. His narrations on every day happening were peppered with unbelievable anecdotes which entertained all who cared to listen to him. Kersi was ‘Bugger’ since he started and ended his sentences with ‘bugger’ – “hey bugger you know I saw Ben Hur and bugger it was great – you have to go and see it bugger”. Hoshi was ‘Pandit’ and no guesses why – he was the serious nerd type. Pervez was ‘Babuling’ taken from a character in an advertisement.

I still remember Jimmy uncle. His nickname I thought was brilliant and whoever thought it out must have had a good imagination. His name ‘Kachbo’ (tortoise) was apt. Every morning at 9, he would step out with his briefcase to go to the office. He would be dressed in a shirt, pants held high with braces and a Parsi skull cap on his head. There was no sign of a neck and his face with bulbous eyes resembled a tortoise. Walking with his slow gait, it was as though a tortoise with clothes on and carrying a briefcase was slowing making its way amongst the multitude. Later on in life, whenever I would see a tortoise, gentle Jimmy uncle would always come to mind. We had a ‘Kaka Chhook Chhook’. When he walked, his hands moved in the motion of children playing ‘train train’ and going ‘chhook chhook’. Another person who had a peculiar gait of walking, going from side to side at each step became the ‘Pendulum’!

Mani aunty was a pious lady, who every Friday recited the ‘Behram Yazad’ prayers, invoking the blesssings of the Behram Yazad Angel and lighting the ritual diyas in its honor. She was therefore known as ‘Batti’ (lamp) since she would ask people to come and light the Behram Yazad batti. Silloo, a reed thin woman loved to wear stilettos. She was known as ‘minbatti’ (candle stick). One episode regarding her is still vivid in my memory. One day friends were sitting and chatting when she sauntered past in her high stilettos. One over-smart Casanova called out ‘minbatti’ to her receding back. She stopped in her tracks, took out one of her stiletto and aimed it at the poor unsuspecting Casanova. The stiletto went flying through the air and hit the target bang on. We do not know whether the hurt or the humiliation was greater, but from that day onwards ‘Minbatti’ sailed past any group without a comment or her nickname hurled at her.

Ruzbeh was a bad loser and behaved unsportingly whenever he lost in badminton or table tennis games. So his nickname was ‘Raryo’ (cry baby or a person who cried). Rumi who loved to pump iron became the ‘Iron Man’. Aspi become the ‘body builder’. His passion of body building won him many prizes in competetions. Pesi had a band called ‘Pesi and his Parrots’. Would anyone then call him Pesi? He forever remained ‘Parrot’. Inevitably Goolu was asked the time by all and sundry, since her standard reply “aks the clock” amused everyone. Goolu’s name became ‘Aks’.

The physical attributes of people were very aptly described by the various nicknames. A short person was ‘thuniyo’. An effeminate man was ‘choi’ and a hefty man ‘bhim’. A person with slit eyes ‘chin chin chu’. A mother’s boy was ‘chama’. A small-built man became either a ‘chivli’ or ‘lallu’ or ‘chinchru’. A woman with petit build was ‘Chiman Rao’. Whereas a well-endowed woman ‘bomber’. A shrill-talking woman who picked up fights with all her neighbors was ‘cockti’. A light eyed person was called ‘majro’ whereas a fair-skinned man ‘doodh-pav’. A street-smart person was ‘ustad’. Our friend who talked big about doing well in life and climbing the ladder of success was ‘chairman’. We also had a ‘netaji’ since he thought he was the leader and stood up to give lectures at the first opportunity. A forgetful person was ‘goofy’ and one who was in his own world ‘afini’. A morose person who hardly smiled was ‘amavas’. Any hot headed person became ‘tikhu marchu’ (hot chilly) as a tribute to the spicy temper.

Some names evolved due to the characters those ‘people’ had portrayed in the various plays. Ratan became ‘Mehli’ and remained so all his life, his birth name all but forgotten. We knew his real name when we read his obituary after he had passed away. His brother Rusi was ‘Premlal’, Noshir was known as ‘D’Costa’ for his endearing character of a servant in a play. Aspi was ‘Meena Kumari’ since he was adept at tragic roles in plays.

Actor names or even characters of popular movies were popular. So we had ‘Geeta Garbo’ (yes not Greta), Sophia Loren, Asrani, Rajesh Khanna, Suzie Wong, Hatari, Dev Anand and on and on. Even today, whenever I see a Dev Anand movie, Jimmy would come to mind with his slicked back hair, a prominent puff, his shirt worn with collar turned up and the typical Dev Anand sideways swagger. This ardent Dev Anand fan loved his nickname and felt happy to be called ‘Dev Anand’ instead of Jimmy.

The funny surnames which have been a constant source of amusement to others were a rich source of nicknames. So Tavadia became ‘Tavvo’, Chinoy became ‘Cheeno, Tamboly became ‘Tammy’ and so on.

There were some funny incidents related to the nicknames. Noshir, who for some reason was known as ‘Poi mama’, detested that name so much that he vehemently fought with anyone who referred to him as Poimama. One day, as things got out of hand with the teasing; he paid a visit to the Police to lodge a complaint to teach a lesson to his tormentors and put an end to this teasing once and for all. Keeping a straight face, the cops asked him what name he was called which offended him so much, which further enraged him. He spelt it out loudly ‘P-O-I’, even refusing to say it.

An old man was called ‘toran chor’ (toran thief) of course behind his back. He was reputed to be a kleptomaniac who targeted the ‘torans’ or the multi-colored woven glass beads that most Parsis put on their doors as ornaments. He would go about with his umbrella, picking up the torans from the doors with the umbrella tip and hiding them inside his umbrella. When he was caught red-handed, the name ‘toran chor’ was branded on him forever. As an infant Adil had a maid called Gajji. As he grew older, the umbilical cord was never severed. When the old lady died, to honor her memory, his friends nicknamed him ‘Gajji’.

Framroze ‘Kapoos’ owned a laundry. When some of the boys ran up high laundry bills, they teased his sons that their father was a ‘kapoos’ (one who charged more and cut their pockets) and Framroze of the laundry fame became ‘Framroze Kapoos’. His grand son was nicknamed ‘dhobhi’ (washerman) for the same reason.

Fali had a distinctive nasal twang when he talked, so whenever people referred to him to distinguish him from various others with the same name he was called ‘Fali geng geng’. Rohinton talked fast and furious and he sounded as though he had a lollipop in his mouth when he talked, so his nickname was ‘lollipop’. Rohinton was also known as ‘Katy Katy no rus’ due to an incident which took place long ago. Once we cooked Chinese fried rice at his home. When he came home, his sister Katy asked him to go to the kitchen and help himself to his lunch. Not familiar with Chinese cooking, he came and asked Katy –‘Katy, Katy no rus?’ (There is no curry for the rice?). So he was either lollipop or ‘Katy Katy no rus’ depending on whether one felt lazy to call out a long name so referred to the short nickname.

There were countless other nicknames whose origins no one knew and which were absolutely inane and senseless. But those people were identified with them all their lives. So we had ‘Noshir Horo’, ‘Erach Poppy’, ‘Filly Gamo’, ‘Aspi Bali’, ‘Mistry Ooki’, ‘Rumi Prince’, ‘Nari Challo’, ‘Gev Chhas’, ‘Purvez PK’, ‘Erach Kamaati’.

Before starting to write, I emailed my friends to send me all the nicknames and the reasons why they were called thus. I received a flood of names, some with reasons given why they were called all those funny names and some without reasons. This opened a floodgate of memories for all of us and nostalgia for days gone by. Nicknames were not only fun and time pass for us. There were so many people with the same names that nicknames helped to distinguish one Jimmy from the various others or one Mani from another. They distinctively identified all those people and gave them a character all their own. Today, when I am writing this, all these people come to mind vividly. Because of their nicknames, they have been forever imprinted on our minds.

Havovi Govadia is a 65 years old grandmother of 3.  She was born and brought up in Mumbai and shifted to Nagpur after marriage.  Was working in Empress Mills (first Tata enterprise) till it shut shop in 1987.  Working now as an independent financial adivsor. 

Havovi wrote scripts, directed and staged plays and various tableaux on Zarthushtra, Parsi fashions through the ages etc. mostly to acquaint the younger generation of their rich heritage from 1980 till about 2000 for the Nagpur Parsi Gymkhana. 

Havovi started writing these little anecdotal stories at the insistence of her niece who is now 10 years old and living in USA and who was keen to know about her grand parents whom she would never meet and those days when “you and my Dad were little”.