Navsari lingo - II

Berjis Desai

Just as the British could not pronounce Udagamandalam (no wonder!) and called it Ooty, and Khadki became a clipped Kirkee; the Navsari Parsis too were masters in corrupting Gujarati. Speaking the corrupt version signified clannishness; professorially insisting on the pure version meant an insufferable sense of superiority. The latter participated in the Freedom Movement and wore khadi; the rest did lobaan (burning incense) before a portrait of King George V. 
Anecdotally speaking, the language purists were more inclined to extra religious worship; the orthodox, always xenophobic, felt safer speaking the bastardized dialect. May be an unscientific generalization, but true. Also it was a question of class. The rich, though then fluent in reading and writing Gujarati, never spoke the pure version; the poor did. Lastly, geography mattered too. Parsis in the villages around Navsari sounded just like the sons of the soil. This resulted in many born of both non-Parsi parents quietly slipping in as temple workers and the like. But let’s not flirt with sensitive subjects and move back to Navsari lingo.
Decades ago, Adi Marzban penned a poignant Parsi New Year play (which, not being a slapstick comedy, did not do well at the box office) called Sagan ké Vaghan or in pure Gujarati, Shukan ké Vighna (auspicious or inauspicious). If you stepped out of the house and a rooster crowed, it was sagan. If an owl was spotted, it was vaghan. Parsis therefore never ate the cock, only the hen. Similarly, Parsis called the auspicious day in Gujarati as saparmo dahro, the bastardized version of the word dahado in Kathiawari Gujarati. As our jolly friend Nowroji Gamadia always hummed, "Husta rumta daharo jaay, ruré téni bén…[May the day be merry, and may those who cry (expletive)].”

Illustration by Farzana Cooper


A pre-engagement ceremony was called sagan na rupiya péhravia (giving a token rupee); a custom borrowed from the Hindus. If the doctor thought you had a malignant tumor and it turned out only to be a slightly gangrenous gall bladder, Parsi dowagers would exclaim, sooli (shooli) nu vaghan soy ma gayoon, meaning a major disaster was averted with minor mishap. Shooli, hanging (from the neck until you die), was bastardized as sooli, Parsis generally omitted the h, so shoo(n) became soo (what?). Soy for the uninitiated means a needle.
In the absence of television or any other entertainment, food was a central topic of discussion in Navsari. A wedding gatecrasher or an uninvited opportunist guest at a dinner was called dhai maula, toonk maula (unknown etymology) and the slang for eating heartily was jhaanswanoo, borrowed from Saurashtra. A caterer who ran out of food was termed oondhi chamach (upturned spoon); when children returned home from a gahanbar (communal feast, vegetarian), the curious matrons would ask, barobar jobhariyoon ké (did you eat heartily)?; again of Saurashtra origin. Those who embezzled community funds were termed howdaas choudaas; those who misappropriated public funds were said to have indulged in apaamcha jemaamcha oorvanaamcha, a phrase appearing in several of our prayers. 
Aanglee aaptaa, poncho pukréch (if you offer a finger, the person will grab the wrist) summed up a person who took undue advantage of kindness. In Kathiawari Gujarati, the wrist was called phoncho. A person dishing out flimsy excuses was castigated as naachva nahin gamé, tau aangnoo vankoo (if you don’t like to dance, you blame the stage for being uneven). Aangnoo was a bastardized version of aangan (portico).
Sage advice was always given in colorful phrases. Keeping up with the Joneses was a cardinal offence in spartan Navsari. Koi no mehel joie né, aaproo jhooproo nahin tori nakhvanoo (on being impressed by someone’s palace, you should not destroy your own hut). Our grandmother often uttered this phrase, say, if one wanted new upholstery for the chairs after 20 years. She could have single-handedly destroyed consumerism in America. Em jo khotta kharcha karso, tau Kahroun no khajaano bhi khalas thai jaay (even the famed treasure of Kahroun will be depleted if you spend so much). Was Kahroun a figure from the Arabian Nights? Or the Shahnameh?
Although she was not enamored of the rich, she believed in keeping them happy. A memorable phrase was "motta na dhor chaaréla bee koi daharo kam ma aavé (it may prove useful in future, if you have grazed the cattle of a rich man for free).” She decried anyone who did not know how to manage a business, "laakh na bar hajaar karéch (turning one lakh into Rs 12,000).” 
Navsari often liked to make a point by reciting ditties. Our maternal grandmother’s favorite was: 
"Bhhokh na joové, aentho bhaat 
Oongh na joové, tuto khaat 
Pyaar na joové, jaat purjaat.”
This ditty was very popular amongst Parsis, even though surprisingly every word was in uncorrupted Gujarati. It meant:
"Hunger will make you eat from a soiled plate
Sleep cares not for a broken bed
And love does not distinguish between caste or religion.”
Now the last line was quite radical considering how conservative Navsari frowned upon interfaith marriages. Later, one of our cousins improvised the ditty to say, "pyaar na joové, tuto khaat (he who wants to make love, minds not a broken bed).” So long as the counter party was not a juddin (from a different religion) perhaps. 
Children were rebuked in colorful terms and never dared to retaliate (ék oondhé hatt ni purséni, tau chhatthi nu doodh yaad aavi jasé; literally, one reverse handed slap will remind you of the milk you were breastfed on the sixth day after birth). Many of these phrases were borrowed from the early settlement days of the Parsis in Southern Gujarat but were so corrupted that to fathom their etymological origins was near impossible. A buffoon was called labhhai lérvo (useless person); and a child who was lazing around was asked: ae su seena sairvaich (why are you trying our patience)?. There are some very popular terms but of unknown origin, like why on earth Navsari called a screwdriver, deespees. That is the carpenter’s tool, not the cocktail. Navsari only drank toddy and Morarji Cola (illicit hooch).
The Parsi refugees apparently promised the local Raja, Jadi Rana, that they would speak only in the local language (obviously for national security reasons; the asylum givers wanted to know what the refugees were up to) and thereby, the Parsis abandoned Pahlavi for Gujarati. However, the remnants of Pahlavi still got embedded in the Parsi Gujarati dialect. Speaking in a juddin tongue, wearing juddin dress (sari), marrying after sunset according to juddin custom; the list is endless. Oh! the price refugees have to pay!

Berjis Desai, author of Oh! Those Parsis and The Bawaji, occasionally practices law.