Be it the impeccable maintenance of their vehicles or their unique style of swearing, Parsi quirks are legendary. Ahead of the Parsi New Year (August 18), we invited entrepreneur Kainaz Messman, stand-up comedian Neville Shah, archeologist and caterer Kurush Dalal, and playwright Meherzad Patel to talk about the community.
Article in Hindustan Times
(From left) Meherzad Patel, Kainaz Messman, Kurush Dalal and Neville Shah. (Kalpak Pathak/HT photo)
The ‘secluded’ reputation
Kainaz Messman: A lot of Parsis live in colonies. They are born and brought up there, and go to school there. And over the years, a lot of Parsis married other Parsis.
Kurush Dalal: There were so few Bawas to start with, and we got ghettoised further. There was a really nice old lady, Bai Jerbai Wadia, who built the baugs where 35-40 per cent of Parsis in Mumbai live. She was trying to do a good thing, but had no idea of what she was actually doing.
Neville Shah: The properties are amazing. I’d love to live there, but I can’t. Mom married a Gujarati. Every time I go to a fire temple, the guard asks me, ‘Kidhar jata hai? (Where are you going?)’ because I’m dark.
Dalal: In Iran, anybody can walk into an agiary.
Meherzad Patel: Here, it’s about honouring an age-old promise. They were told you’ll be allowed (in India) if you don’t try to convert others and stick to your own community.
Messman: I married a non-Parsi.
Dalal: Me too.
Messman: We’ve all been kicked out.
Shah: I was kicked out one generation before.
The endangered community
Shah: There’s this new thing called ZYNG (Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation). Their aim is to promote Parsis marrying Parsis.
Patel: I don’t think anyone has accurate figures. Everyone just randomly says 60,000 or 70,000.
Shah: There is a Parsi community in every city I’ve been to. In Atlanta, they even have an agiary.
Illustration: Chetan Patil
Messman: In which non-Parsis are probably allowed.
Shah: I got Malido there on a New Year’s Day.
Messman: Malido is only had when someone dies. Just like Dhansak.
The obsession with food
Shah: You have to eat at a Parsi household to know what Dhansak actually tastes like. Everyone’s mom makes the best Dhansak. Any version you’ve eaten outside is a hack.
Dalal: Swati Snacks in Tardeo does a vegetarian Dhansak that someone recommended. ‘Why would I eat that?’ I asked. But I did. And then I asked myself the same question again.
Patel: You ask us anything, we’ll end up talking about food.
Shah: My death row dish is Khichdi Saras. It’s a white sauce khichdi.
Messman: It’s the Parsi version of béchamel. Parsis consider themselves British; therefore, the bastardised version of béchamel.
Dalal: It’s fusion food. It has a shot of vinegar, which is Portuguese, and fish, which is Indian. To make it Iranian, there’s fried garlic. We also love eggs; everything can be eaten with an egg on top.
Shah: Kera Par Eedu is egg on banana.
Dalal: We hang the bananas in our kitchen till they turn black. Then, you peel, slice and shallow fry them in ghee. Then, you crack eggs over it, and add salt, coriander and chillies.
Shah: Coriander is our basil. It makes anything awesome.
Dalal: And last night’s leftovers can always be breakfast the next day, with eggs added, of course.
The clichés and the humour
Patel: The audience needs to relate to the quirks, and a non-Parsi audience won’t relate to the subtle ones. In a Gujarati-Parsi play, you can put it all in and the Parsis will laugh because we laugh at ourselves. But for others, we use stereotypical stuff: the fussiness over vehicles, and how the sticker we put behind our cars increases their value 10%.
Shah: I sold my 2004 Santro for Rs 1.2 lakh last year. No power steering or power windows.
Patel: On OLX, they write: “Parsi-owned and maintained”.
Dalal: I know people in Cusrow Baug who take their bikes inside their houses during the rains.
Patel: A Parsi man called my neighbour and yelled because he hit his bike while reversing the car. He said he will wait outside his house till he came and paid Rs 2,000. You have to see these things yourself. However, everybody knows that a Parsi can’t speak Hindi or Marathi properly.
Messman: They also think Gujarati is a universal language. My old aunts would speak to everybody in Gujarati no matter what language they replied in.
Shah: If I crack an incest joke, the Parsis in the crowd will laugh. They are okay with it. But that is where you have to stop.
Patel: We did a scene in my play where the characters had to wrap up a wedding quickly, so they just threw the entire plate of rice. The Bawas thought it was hilarious, but the rest of the audience was at a loss. So, you have to know where you can exploit the Parsi humour. For instance, Parsi bachelors in their late fifties hit on anyone and everyone. Parsis find it funny, but everybody else finds it perverse.
Dalal: Parsis are incredibly racist too.
Shah: There are two kinds of people: Parsi and non-Parsi. And if you happen to be in the second category, you’re not worth it. We’re also proud of every Parsi who has ever done something, irrespective of the fact that we’ve never even met them in our lives. For instance, everybody quotes Sam Manekshaw, the first field marshal of India.
Shah: Even Freddie Mercury. Though he was a banned topic in the colony as he renounced his Parsi roots and was gay.
Deciphering the Parsi talk
Shah: My mom has a soft spot for Akshaye Khanna because Vinod Khanna’s wife was Parsi. She says, “See, he looks so nice, because of his Parsi mother. Mittho chhe (sweet)”.
Messman: That’s also the Parsi code word for ‘gay’.
Shah: There’s also ‘bailo’.
Messman: Sooni Taraporevala wrote a book on Parsi phrases.
Dalal: But she was nice about those phrases; she didn’t use the really juicy ones.
Shah: My favourite bad word is not even a bad word. It’s ‘ghelsappa’.
Patel: Whenever I have an issue in my play, it’s the only one I can use in public.
Shah: I don’t even know what it means. It just sounds like ‘you’re an idiot’. It’s got this onomatopoeic ring of hatred to it.
Patel: If you put two Parsis in front of each other and have them argue, they might be serious and angry but an outsider will just find it funny.
Dalal: Two Parsis might seem like they’re about to kill each other but they’re really long lost friends meeting each other.
Meet the people
Kainaz Messmanowner, Theobroma
Kurush Dalal archeologist and caterer
Twitter: @Karboholic | Facebook: Dalal Enterprises
Neville Shah, stand-up comedian
Meherzad Patel writer-director, Silly Point Productions
Upcoming play: The Buckingham Secret, on August 22 at NCPA. Tickets on bookmyshow.com