Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

A Tribute to the Feriyas

Feriyas is a colloquialism from Feriwalla, Gujarati for someone who takes a ‘Fero’, a round of some place. During the struggle for Indian Independence, people used to have Prabhat Feri, a small early morning procession that went around singing patriotic songs, raising the Indian flag and reminding people about Independence struggle.

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

Aerial view of a man pushing a vegetable cart in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

For any Parsi living in a Baug or Colony, Feriyas are the lifeline… a means of availing everything from ghee to mutton to getting stoves repaired at the doorstep….all one had to do was clap loudly and call and a relay would start and end with the vendor at your doorstep!

Ferias can be divided roughly into 2 categories; those who advertised their ware with quaint calls that became their trade mark and others who did not call but had a select clientele whose requirements they fulfilled daily, weekly or monthly. The callers were certainly more interesting. If one heard them casually, you had no idea what they were selling. But their loud calls to announce their wares or services were unique to them and hence one knew that the vegetablewalla had come or the panirwalla was calling out or to take out your shoes for repair since the cobbler was taking his fera.

Bombay had practically no season to boast of. We knew that winter was upon us when the call “doodh na puff / ghas ni jelly lev” (sweetened milk in a tall glass with froth in half the glass) was heard, since doodh puffs were sold only in winters. Ramo, a tall man in white kurta and dhoti carried “doodh na puff/jelly” in a huge tray with compartments. He got only limited number of glasses daily so some days he started selling from the outside blocks and some days from the farthest blocks. He collected the glasses and money later on. In summers, post dinner, the last guy to call out was Ramo selling milk kulfi. Did they not melt in the Bombay heat? No, the kulfi in cone shaped aluminum containers were packed tight with ice and salt in a huge double cane basket. We had to give him our quarter plates on which he would slide out the kulfi for just 4 annas (25 p.). Ramo’s son continued to be called ‘Ramo’ and continued his father’s tradition till alas choco-bars reduced his business.

Early morning, Parsi Dairy Farm Milk vendors came in their uniforms carrying milk containers with taps. They had their set clientele who bought a predetermined amount of milk in exchange for coupons, which had to be bought and paid for at the beginning of the month. When the government milk scheme started, the boys left half litre milk bottles again at the door step of their set clients. In the ensuing years the glass bottles were replaced by plastic milk pouches.

Then it was the turn of the bread walla, Bansi, who, as children, we thought was so called, because he sold buns, bringing the typical Bombay ‘pav’ now famously called ‘pav-bhaji’ bread. One ‘laadi’ had 12 small breads and each family bought according to their breakfast needs. The ‘bruns’ (breads with hard outer crust) were very popular too. Bruns was the standard breakfast at our house with Polson butter (before the advent of Amul and Britannia) and jam and thick cream which was removed from the Parsi Dairy Farm milk.

The flower vendor Tulsi came with flower garlands, leaving “haar pudi” in the stoppers of our house. At the end of the month he came to collect his monthly bill when he was given instructions to bring extra garlands if any birthdays fell in the next month. He had a Parsi calendar in his shop with important festivals and roj marked in red since he knew he had to order extra flowers during those days. This walking computer hardly made any mistake in delivering whatever had been asked for.

The mornings started with various vegetable vendors who called out, the salt seller who came in a bullock cart, broom sellers who called out “jhadoo ghai jhadoo”. The ‘Dehnu chai fudinawalli’ was in great demand. She sold mint, spear mint and lemon grass which she claimed came from Dehnu and which most Parsis added to fortify their cuppa to keep cough and colds at bay. Sometimes she brought round red radish or salad leaves which were in demand too.

The tinkling of a certain bell sent parents of children who suffered from whooping cough scurrying. This was the guy who brought the ‘gadheri’ or an ass, whose milk was considered a magical cure for whooping cough.

Then came the shriveled old chunawalli who sold the powdered chalk used for making colourful ‘chowk rangoli’. Her call was a series of undecipherable sounds.

Then the much awaited fisher mongers descended one after another calling out the type of fish they were selling that day. One was spoilt for choice –

The variety included pomphrets, prawns, surmai, bombil (Bombay ducks), bangra (mackerel) etc. etc. They knew Parsi tastes and brought only those fish which would be sold off fast. The most popular among them was ‘Mavshi’ and her fat pock-marked husband with the catch of the day. Mavshi would be dressed in her cotton saree tightly tucked between her ample buttocks and her husband would be wearing a ‘Vashti’, a lungi-like triangular cloth tied around the waist and worn with a shirt. Just one call of ‘Machheeee’ was enough to get the ladies of a whole building of 40 flats turn into a rapid action force. There would be much haggling and bargaining interspersed with gossip and good humoured ribbing, till both sides felt satisfied with the deal. Once bought, the fish would be cleaned by the fish mongers all the while with an exchange of some news.

There was Bade Miya or Chacha, a Muslim goswalla who delivered meat early morning and came for the payment at 11am, when he took the next day’s order. His huge bag would be packed with packets of ¼ and ½ kgs. mutton wrapped in newspaper. This made it easy and convenient to fulfill the clients’ orders without wasting time. He even knew better than us kids, the four anrojas or the days when Parsis did not eat meat. At times he had to listen to complaints of meat which was not soft – “Bara gosh to nai laya?” he would be admonished (did you get beef meat?). He would act suitably offended and scandalized at that thought, since he knew that Parsis did not eat beef. The offals like brain and liver were sold separately by another man who called out “kaleji/bhejawalo”. Needless to say in the Parsi Colony where hundreds of tenants lived, these men managed to sell off everything. It was a win-win situation for all.

Next there was the omnipresent egg seller, who did not really call out but went from door to door saying “eedawallo”. He was a swarthy Maratha who sold his wares in a quaint round basket and inspected each egg by making a tube of his fist and peering through it. In those pre-fridge days he even exchanged the rotten eggs if evidence was produced! The changing times brought a Parsi gentleman who had started the business of selling eggs. He came in a big van once a week and blew his horn loudly. His eggs were cheaper so all the ladies would trundle up with vessels to buy their supply for a week.

Then came the fruit wallas, rustic Marathas with orange turbans, and’ tilaked’ foreheads. They sold the seasonal fruits. But Gulub, the banana seller came every day. He not only had his set clientele who needed bananas everyday but also the ones who bought once in a while. After his round of the colony he would sit out and sell bananas.

There was “Junna Kapda lai ne vasan apvawalooaaarrrgh” whose call ended with a belch-like sound, the guy who exchanged old clothes for vessels and came along with a fellow who carried a heavy load of vessels and walked very slowly. Old clothes were exchanged for brand new aluminum vessels and later stainless steel. I believe now the trend is to exchange with non-stick cookware.

One need not go out to buy even cloth for curtains, nighties, koro satin and long cloth for pyjamas etc. since even these were available at your doorstep. There was an old Chinese man who came to sell patchwork bed sheets, pillow covers, cushion covers. He would talk in a funny accented Hindi with all the ladies, coaxing them to buy. He had picked up many Gujarti words too which always came in handy to build a rapport with his customers. The “Rangaro” or dyewalla came once in 15 days. If you wanted anything dyed or darned, you waited for him. He got a shade chart for you to choose the colour from and brought back your dyed sari after 15 days.

And who can forget the brassier walla, who without saying ‘the B word’ called out “bar, anna, bar, anna, chalo, One-four”…. had the ladies calling him, but always with other female friends around. Believe it or not regular bras were available at 12 annas equivalent to 75 paise and deluxe ones at Rupee 1 and 4 annas (roughly Re.1 and 25 paise). He was immortalized by Bomi in the game of housie in the colony when number 14 was called, calling out ‘vun phor’ exactly the way the vendor did…

“Junni kasbi kor vechati laisu” (will buy old silver/gold thread borders) was a cry I heard practically every day. In the 50s and 60s garas and kor had gone out of fashion. Nylon had been invented and nylon saris and material were a rage. Alas, so many priceless and beautiful heirlooms were sold off for a

pittance during this time.

In those days when food was cooked either on primus stoves or on wood and coal, primus chula repairwalo was much in demand. He used to say “chulaaaa lo” and his call would bring out various ladies who daily had some work lined up for him. He would clean and service the primus as well as change some faulty parts.

All these were interspersed with the twang of the pijaro, the guy who with his quaint contraption went twang, twang, twang and rejuvenated old mattresses… He would remove the cotton from the old mattresses, fluff it up with his contraption and refill the fluffed cotton in another brand new cover.

These ferias came once in 15/20 days.

Ladies called takiwalli, who were supposed to be from the Wagri community and who wore saris without blouses, came to mark the grinding stones on which masalas were ground. They would mark the big grinding stones which had become smooth due to use, with some primitive tools; so that ginger, garlic and other curry masalas would be ground to a fine paste.

The kalaiwallas came to nickel the bronze vessels. Cooking in bronze vessels created toxins making some food cooked in these vessels poisonous. The nickel coating made bronze vessels safe for cooking. The plain steel knives needed sharpening and an old man came with a wheel to sharpen them.

With the advent of fancy sleeping mattresses made from coir and rubber, and knives that do not need sharpening at all or the mixer and grinders which have revolutionized cooking, the new generations have probably never heard of these ferias. The whole style of living has changed and alas these people with their unique tools are no longer needed.

By mid day the stream petered out since no hawkers were allowed during siesta time between 12 and 3 in the afternoon.

From teatime onwards, the new lot of ferias brought in more exciting ware. There was the rough and ready Bhavnagri sev, ganthia wallo who came only on Tuesdays and Friday so you had to stock up for the week. Late evening saw some sundry ‘feriwalla’ the bhelwalla or the narielpanniwalla.

On special days and Zorastrian festivals came a Parsi gentleman in a black coat and tall black cap, who brought along an assistant who pushed a 3-wheeled cart, from which he sold sandalwood, loban incense, kakra, agarbatti and tacho, Kolah’s vinegar and homemade dhansak masala. He too had a high pitched inimitable call.

If one of the feriwallas failed to appear at the designated time on the designated day he was sorely missed with mumblings of ‘ Marere muo, kahn gayo?? (beyond translation)…such was the nexus between the ladies and the ferias…of mutual respect and friendly dependence.

With more women going out of the house for work, a different set of feriyas have started coming. It is now the age of ready mades; so now you have the lady who comes to sell readymade rotis, cutlets, or dhanshak in foil boxes. Some sell Parsi goodies like “daar ni pori” or “khajur ni ghari” since these are hardly made at home now due to lack of time. The cotton pinjaras, kallaiwallas, takiwalli, stove repairers have disappeared from the scene. The kasbi kor buyer is hardly to be seen since thankfully people have realized the value of these heirlooms. Bade miya unfortunately was killed during the 1993 riots. Change it is said is the only constant.

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”.