The levity and longevity of mealy-mouthed Parsis
Sooni Taraporevala and Meher Marfatia’s new book is an exuberant, laugh-out-loud collection of “insults, endearments and other Parsi Gujarati phrases”, writes Ravina Rawal.
Sooni Taraporevala and Meher Marfatia Good Books Pages: 158 Price: Rs 500
There’s almost nothing on earth I enjoy more than a disgruntled Parsi. Or, well, a Parsi in a good mood. Or a Parsi celebrating his/her 95th birthday. Or a Parsi after his/her fourth whisky, at a funeral. Because through all of life’s many celebrations and disappointments, through life’s many moods, theirs is just the same.
I don’t know if it’s the effect of some ancestral, evolution-affecting drug that’s still making future generations trip hard, or if it’s what happens to your genetic makeup when you only marry and procreate within the same 20,000-odd people. Either way, never have I met a people bursting with more enthusiasm, applause and outrageous sarcasm than this curious species of happy maniacs. (And I’m Punjabi.)
They will tell you proudly, “Mummo chuchcho vugur ‘seerpa’ nahin.” (If you don’t swear, you are not a Parsi.) And they’ll be right. While the rest of the world is busy getting offended at everything that comes out of everyone’s mouth, the Parsis are having an absolute riot, roaring with laughter at the wicked names they’re calling each other (and their mothers and fathers and aunts and grandparents and house pets). They don’t care how insulting or political- ly incorrect it is, their brains work relentlessly to conjure up the most imaginative insults the rest of us have ever heard.
“Chumnajheva pug” ( feet like pomfrets), they’ll remark of a person with large feet. “Who? Boman? Evun toh photo frame thai guya (he became a photo frame)!” they’ll tell you casually about someone who just died, a phrase also often substituted with “Kolmee thai guya” (he’s became a prawn). And somehow it isn’t disturbing at all that you’ll often hear a mother squeal, “Tuhree kulejee khau!”(I’ll eat your liver!) to her child — because it comes with a generous side of love, laughter and kissy-koti.
“Oont nee gaan ma jeera no vughar” literally means “a sprinkling of jeera in the bum of a cam-
“Mummo chuchcho vugur ‘seerpa’ nahin.” (If you don’t swear, you are not a Parsi.) While the rest of the world is busy getting offended at everything that comes out of everyone’s mouth, the Parsis are having an absolute riot, roaring with laughter at the wicked names they’re calling each other (and their mothers and fathers and aunts and grandparents and house pets).
el”, used when referring to a big eater who’s been given too little food. “Tumboo ma sahib,” they’ll say without a second thought to a pregnant lady, referring to the “boss in the tent”. Which reminds me of a famous Parsi actor, who once spoke to the baby in my cousin’s belly for well over two hours over the course of a single evening. Not a word to my cousin, just a very fascinating conversation with (at) her stomach.
One of my closest friends not so long ago was Parsi, and I’ve spent endless hours grinning from ear to ear at her house at the dinner table where every dish was topped (or bottomed) with eedu (egg), and every bite punctuated with a quick bitch and moan about relatives (or friends who are really relatives because, Parsis). I may also have been the most enthusiastic of all her friends about accompanying her to family gatherings she herself so reluctantly showed up at, because I am acutely aware that 150 Parsis all at once is the sort of party you’re never going to forget, or otherwise get invited to.
These guys also all seem to live for…ever? A near 100-yearold Parsi man or woman isn’t the mado murgho (sick hen/ sickly person) you’d expect them to be. And there’s a tiny seed of senility that seems to set into them at a fairly young age (if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say age 10?), so the fullblown happy madness that stares back at you from the eyes of a 98 year old, for instance, isn’t new or unsettling in any way.
Despite their ridiculous life-span, there are so few of them around in the first place — and some of them are even getting crazy enough to start marrying outside the community — that somewhere they’re all worried that their wildly evocative, sometimes bizarre and always funny vernacular will get lost forever. So photographer-filmmaker Sooni Taraporevala and writer Meher Marfatia took up the cause, rounding up everyone they knew in the community for their contributions to what has resulted in a delightful archive of Parsi Gujarati. Parsi Bol is a little handbook of over 700 “insults, endearments and other Parsi Gujarati phrases”; its pages peppered with lovely little illustrations by cartoonists Hemant Morparia and Farzana Cooper, bringing to life some of their choice picks.
Split into chapters that include picture phrases, sarcasms, insults, endearments, food, twin words, character traits, anatomy and advice, it’s a great book for everyone who’s ever been curious about the Parsis. I guarantee it will make you laugh out loud and share the things you read with whoever else is in the room. If you don’t find your favourite phrases in this book, the authors ask that you e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org to add to a possible sequel.
The bunny boiler is another staple of popular culture and has been since the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, in which Alex Forrest (played by Glenn Close) boils a fluffy pet in an act of gruesome revenge after a one-night stand. Bunny boiler means psychopathic female stalker. She is always female. In the late 80s, she represented the Frankenstein’s monster of feminism. She was the newly empowered woman, cut loose to pursue her own career and therefore threaten men’s dominance and the nuclear family unit. She was the anti-mother: unhinged, grotesque, an aberration. By gaining access to contraception and abortion rights in the 60s, women had become dangerously dislocated from their “natural” biological function as wives and mothers.
When the film was released, audiences shouted “Kill the b****!” at the screen. The bunny boiler points to society’s deep fear of the woman with ambitions other than marriage and motherhood. Her independence is terrifying: behind that veneer of self-composure, she must be a maniac. In my novel, I wanted to satirise this idea.
Inspired by Julia Davis’s brilliant TV series Nighty Night ( 2004- 5) and Muriel Spark’s novel The Driver’s Seat (1970), Eat My Heart Out is a dark comedy. I wanted to suggest that the seeming fluidity and freedom of courtship today in fact conceals a rigid adherence to age-old gender roles, whereby the woman is cornered into passivity. The term bunny boiler is batted around in the same breath as phrases like “he’s just not that into you”. It is part of a dating vernacular that we have inherited from US TV shows.
If a man and a woman go on a date, they get on well, they have sex, and the next day she calls him up and tells him that she would like to see him again; it’s possible that he will call her a bunny boiler. This act of female assertiveness is cast as an act of aggression; she is a predator for stating what she wants.
Despite the great visibility of pornographic female sexuality in our culture, real female desire remains a taboo. We are expected to drink, to emulate the grinding machinations of porn, to be wild, gagging for it, yet somehow also as demure as a 50s housewife, in love with cupcakes. This is the ancient split female identity; the whore and the saint. Now we are expected to be both at the same time, which is confusing.
The first series of Girls was special because it offered a heroine who isn’t immediately likeable. My heroine AnnMarie may similarly not be likeable to some readers; she is difficult. I tried to give her depth, rather than morality. She is full of rage and reacts violently against playing the coquette. But she does it anyway. Why?
In her wonderful short story A Telephone Call (1928), Dorothy Parker describes the inner monologue of a woman as she waits by the phone for her lover to call. “Please, God, let him telephone me now,” she whines. She counts to a hundred, but still she hears nothing. She is experiencing the void. Her delirium rises. “I mustn’t, I mustn’t, I mustn’t,” she cries. “Oh God, please don’t let me telephone him. Please don’t let me do that.” The narrator has been driven mad by passivity. The rules — unspoken, unwritten, but iron-clad — have ensnared her.
Parker was writing in the 1920s. It is alarming to think that our dating mores have not evolved much since then. Now we need more complex heroines who are true rather than likeable, fearless rather than waiting for a man to call. THE INDEPENDENT
An illustration from Parsi Bol