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.

The Sunday Guardian - - Bookbeat -

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 parsi­ 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

Parsi Bol

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