Friday, February 8, 2008

In Parsi land: 'Andar aao ni' (Come on in)

Nai nai, you are quoting too much for the tomatoes, Rs 14 is right. After all, yesterday you sold it at Rs 12, and today Rs 16. What nonsense!” argued Dilnaz, a 45-year-old housewife living in Cusrow baug in Colaba, Mumbai. Dressed in a pink flowery nightgown at eight in the morning, she is haggling over the vegetable prices with the tarkariwala (vegetable seller). This is a familiar sight at any Parsi baug in Mumbai.

Most Parsis live in secluded colonies called ‘baug’ that are built by various trusts headed by industrialists like the Wadias and Godrej’s or by the local Parsi Panchayat. The baugs of Mumbai, Cusrow, Rustom, Jer, Godrej, Novroj, Ness, Malcolm, Behram, Panthaky, Bharucha, Firozsha and Contractor, to name a few are home to 35,000 of the 40,000 Zoroastrians. Each baug has its own unique layout with the buildings surrounding the agiary (fire temple) and garden. The baugs with their arched entrances have tall trees that provide shade to the Victorian style buildings enclosed within a compound wall. Each baug has ten of these buildings in the very least that are spread across five acres of land, some of them more, and they house 100 families on an average.

First built in 1912 in Mumbai by the Parsi Panchayat, the baugs are now more than just an address for the Parsis; they are an essential part of their distinct identity. After the first baug, several more were built in 1937 and after the World War II to provide houses for the Zoroastrian community at affordable rates. Even today a Zoroastrian who wants to own or rent a house in a baug can apply to the trustees and will be offered a place based on availability.
Each baug has its own doodhwalla (milkman) and pauwalla (bread man) along with their own tarkariwalla who become part of the extended family and are familiar with the needs of each family. Quibbling over prices is an enjoyable ritual for them.Nanu bhaiyya, the vegetable vendor in Cusrow Baug, said, “I have been coming here for 30 years now and nothing has changed. Every morning I still have to explain to memsahib why I cannot give her a 50 per cent discount. I do not mind because she is like my family now.” The goswalla (meat seller) is the most sought after as a true Parsi cannot imagine a meal without a mutton dish. Ras-gosh, an authentic parsi dish which is a mutton gravy made of apricots and garam masala and eaten with with naram pau (soft white bread), is finger-licking good and a dish to die for.

A baug is a closed community where everybody knows everybody else and if Jahanbax dikro is studying or not. Freni, a 64-year-old in the Old Parsi Agiary in Secunderabad, with her snowy white hair tied back in a braid and a scarf over her head, said, “These children in the colony are like my own. Every evening when I go down to meet my friends; I take a few chocolates for the children.” She laughed and added, “That is the only time they come to me. Otherwise when I ask them how their studies are going and are they troubling their parents, they run away from me.”
Asking questions is natural in the baug whether it is the day’s menu or is Rustom still dating the same chokri (girl). Sanobar, a 30-year-old housewife, said “Every afternoon my neighbour hollers across the passage asking me what I have cooked. When I first moved in, I was baffled. But now if Dolly Aunty doesn’t ask me I would think something has happened to her.” On cue, Dolly Aunty, a cheerful 54-year-old housewife, walked into Sanobar’s flat and said, “It is nice to know what the other is cooking. It’s a sense of being loved. Sometimes we also send food across. This way we ensure the feeling of being a part of one big family.” There are two to three flats on each floor, facing each other. Residents talk across their grilled doors which are always open and people also walk in and out of each other’s home frequently.

While the women exchange recipes the men of the baug discuss matters of the world: on whether 'Bipasha Basu is more attractive or whether Aishwarya Rai retained her charisma even after marriage’. These men or bawajis, dressed in leghas (loose, flappy pajamas)and sudras (a religious vest made of handspun cotton) with a topi (a religious cap) on their bald pates meet every evening in the large garden around the baug’s agiary (fire temple).

Their mornings are spent in their arm-chairs reading the newspapers and slurping tea from their abominably large cup and saucer every morning. Darius Uncle, a 70-year-old grandfather, prefers Bipasha Basu. He exclaimed, “Dikra (child), she is smart and sexy. She has brains to go with the beauty.” And clinching the argument, “After all she is going out with aapro dikro (our son) John Abraham.”

But Jehangir Uncle, a 65-year-old retired bank manager, argued, “Bipasha hasn’t had as many hits in her kitty as Ash has. Even after marriage she (Ash) is going strong. That never used to happen in our times. After marriage the heroines had to settle at home.”

Younger men of the baug are not part of these animated discussions. Jehangir Uncle said in a mischievous tone, “All these cutlets (‘young parsi boys who have meat and no brains’) are busy wooing the fatakrees (a variation of the Gujrati word fatakra meaning cracker) in the colony.” He smiled wistfully and murmured, “In our days we had only one fatakree for the entire colony and now there are so many for them to pick from!”
The fatakrees are not the only reason that keeps the cutlets away from the elders. They feel that the elders pry too much into their lives and can be embarrassing. Pervez, a 22-year-old M.Com student said, “They are so inquisitive that they need to know everything from the ice cream you ate to the girl who dropped you back home.” But Roxanne, a 21-year-old student, said “I will be lost if I no longer hear my neighbours bellowing out at one another.” She emphasized, “I am so used to them discussing their family drama across two floors; it is now a source of entertainment for me.”

No matter what their complaints are, youngsters do not want to move out. Pervez said, “I am so used to it that I can’t think of living anywhere else.” Hormazd, a 23-year-old, said “Living in a baug is dirt cheap. We pay only Rs 600 a month as rent and live in the most posh part of the city which is Napean Sea Road. The same 500 square feet flat will cost at least Rs 20,000 a month. So why would I even think of moving out?!” Godrej baug, on Napean Sea Road, was built in 1984-85 by the Bombay Parsi Panchayat.

A baug is home for the Zoroastrians, a community space for them to bond; a haven where time seems to pause for gossip and naram pau.


zen81 said...

wow..very interesting..very entertaining..and very true!!!
reminds me of granma wen she is fiting wid the reading abt pervez, who does not want to move out..dont u think dats one of the reasons many of our community gals r fallin for the non-parsees??? cos dey want boys who r more independent!!!!
and cutlets..i never knew guys were called cutlets!!! well done!!

IMJ said...

well, girls are also looking out 4 other reasons like de fact that there r smarter 1s outside the community!! ;)

and granny fights with almost anybody!!! lol