Communication is at the core of our very existence. We are very passionate about sharing our thoughts, views, concepts, and many other things that is on our mind and heart. Probably, that is also the reason why blogs exist today, because people want to communicate and reach out. Language is an important tool that help us communicate effectively and sometimes it helps us go back in time, decode some of the greatest mysteries and unveil the truth. I never really had planned to elaborate more on Parsis in India, but I’m overwhelmed by the response and by the fact that readers have questions that they want me to answer. Well, I am not a history teacher or a language expert, but I thought it would be nice to cover the language aspect as well, now that I’ve covered some of the popular Parsi dishes.
One of the main question that I would like to cover in this blog was asked by Cyrus in my earlier blog of this series. I have copy-pasted the comment/question – “Parsis are a Gujarati-speaking people and haven’t spoken Persian as their mother tongue ever since they left Persia. This is understandable to initially lose your language when such a tiny minority in a huge country, but why didn’t they ever learn Persian again? Persian was the official language of India for hundreds of years prior to British colonization, and there was still heavy emphasis put on learning it in Muslim communities in India (and Pakistan) well into the mid-twentieth century.It strikes me as strange that Parsis never saw an affinity towards this language or thought to revive it among themselves when it was the official language of the country they were living in for several centuries“.
Without wasting any further time, let me try and answer this based purely my viewpoint and research. I am not sure about what language Pakistan-based Parsis speak today, I guess they might be speaking Urdu, considering that Urdu is a national language in Pakistan, but yes, across India Parsis speak Gujarati (the state language where they landed).
When Zoroastrians landed in Gujarat, Sanskrit was the language that was common across India and Gujarati was spoken in many western parts of India. I believe that Zoroastrians initially did speak Persian, but since Sanskrit and Gujarati were more common they began adapting and translating many of their texts in Gujarati. There are books published in between the 10th and 15th century that indicate that many religious texts were translated from Middle Persian versions to Gujarati and Sanskrit. Some of the books are translated from Pahlavi to Sanskrit and then into Gujarati. Ardā Wīrāz-nāmag (q.v., tr. 1451) and the Mēnōg ī xrad (tr. 1554; ed. E.T.D. Anklesaria, Bombay, 1913) are two such books that were among the first books to be translated. Apart from that, Zartošt-nāma (1674), the Šīavaḵš-nāma(1680), the Wīrāz-nāma (1651), and the Aspandyāar-nāma, were translated that narrate the lives of Prophet Zarathushtra, Siāvaš, Ardā Wirāz, and Esfandiār.
Later on when Mughals ruled over India, Persian and Urdu became the court language, but I doubt Parsis then switched to Urdu or Persian. In that period some of the philosophical books retain certain words that are derived from Persian and Pahlavi, but have been mixed with the local Gujarati language. Many books also claim that Parsis fought hand in hand with Hindus to defeat Mughals and Muslim invasion, so my guess would be that Parsis were not really on a friendly terms with Muslim rulers, as they were in first place persecuted by Muslims in Iran.
Parsis have been on the forefront in terms of journalism. Furdoonji Marzbanji (1787-1874), is often termed as the father of Gujarati journalism (he published the first Gujarati journal Punchang in 1814), was a prolific writer in prose and verse, and so was Mancherji Kavasji Shapurji, a.k.a Mansukh, who transliterated Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma in Gujarati characters. Bomanji Kharshedji Framroze (1846-1920) was popular for writing novels, stories, sketches, and verses.Many Parsis then started writing poems and other art forms like scripts for theater that grew popular in the early 1900s. Parsis also initiated weekly newspapers like “Bombay Samachar, now Mumbai Samachar, Kaiser-e-Hind and community mouthpiece called Jam-e-Jamshed.
With the advent of British, Parsis focused on English and mixed them up to create another dialect which is better known as “Parsi Gujarati”. Although, Parsis speak Gujarati, the style and certain words differ making it sound distinctive from the regular Gujarati dialect. With better education and business-mindset Parsis worked side by side with the British to build schools, colleges and educational institutions for the upliftment of the Indians. However, Parsis have contributed immensely towards Urdu theatre in pre-partition India with the introduction of Victoria Natak Mandli (Victoria Theatre Group) started by Dadabhai Sohrabji Patel. The Urdu theatre in Bombay flourished from 1860 to 1925 where dramas were infused with melodrama and a social message.
To conclude this answer, I would say that Zoroastrians didn’t see any reason or purpose why they would continue to emphasize on learning Persian. They were doing well with the local Gujarati traders before the Mughals invaded India. I would also like to highlight that many Iranis do speak Persian today and there are few schools that do offer to teach Persian as an optional language, but the response is not very encouraging. So, I believe that somewhat answers the question why Parsis decided to opt for Gujarati as their native language over Persian.
On a lighter note, Parsis are known for their humor and sarcastic lines that can tickle your funny bone. The community loves to crack jokes on oneself and on the entire community as well. The Jam-e-Jamshed newspaper that I mentioned above, which is the community mouthpiece has an entire page dedicated to funny humor based on the life of a common Parsi man or a family. This indicates that we love to make fun of each other on a grand scale publicly. Certain slangs and phrases might sound odd, but it is an extension of Parsi’s imagination, and of how they perceive the world and people around. Even in Indian movies, Parsi characters are usually eccentric and funny. One odd thing that you might find strange about Parsis is that our humor quotient never dies down, even when someone dies around. Yes, you might hear a joke or a two at the funeral as well or soon after the procession. It’s not that we don’t respect the dead, but the words itself are funny.
I am stating few below, excuse me for language used, especially ladies. For instance, when Mr. A meets Mr. B somewhere and informs that Mr. C passed away. He might say, “E-van toh photo-frame thai gaya” which translates (Did you know Mr. C just turned into a photo-frame) OR he might say, “E-van toh kolmi thai gaya” (Mr. C turned into a dead prawn). OR “E-van-ni wicket padi gayi” (Oh, his wicket fell).
Similarly, when a foodie is offered very small quantity of meal, we say – “Oont ni gaan ma jeera no vaghaar” which translates (Tempering a cumin seed in camel’s ass). While describing an average size woman with large breasts – “Nalla amba par moti keri” which translates (large mangoes on a slender plant). Note: Sorry ladies, but men are like that.
On the other hand, describing a profitable deal – “Lindu aapi-ne indu lidhu” (Got an egg in exchange of goat-droppings). Describing exhaustion – “Gaan ne garden ek thai gai” (My neck and ass are in complete unison). Another funny line we say when we see someone sad or depress is “Aediya ni jaaykhabar jevu monu”which translates (You look like a poster-face of advertisement for castor oil).
Other few lines are “Taddan bailo che” (He’s a complete loser/coward).
“Tarela kera per eedu” (He is a sweet fried banana on an egg) indicating someone who is weird.
“E toh motaai no maso chhe” (He is a haemorrhoid of greatness) indicating someone who has delusions of grandeur.
Well, to conclude, I would like to say that Parsis are very discipline and they definitely know how to behave in public. These slangs are generally used within the community and on a lighter note, not to insult someone. Parsis also use lot of cuss word in their sentences that indicate the level of friendship and bond. Parsis still are active in the theatre industry and most of the Parsi dramas are sarcastic and cheeky. These dramas revolve around a funny husband-wife situations, family matters, community issues and even how some national issues are affecting the life of a common man, but these serious issues are presented with quirky and naughty dialogues to keep the audience smiling. Some believe that the dialect we speak in Gujarati itself is very funny and sweet, so Parsis are eccentric and use funny phrases to describe situations, but everybody in the community understands when to use the phrases and when to not.