Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Laughing Through Surnames: A Parsi Comedy of Suffixes

As Bombayites, or now Mumbaikars, we live amongst the largest congregation of Parsis anywhere in the world. And, most of us must have noticed, with some amusement, the funny surnames some of them bear. Probably, the first such surname that comes to mind is Sodawaterwalla. Well, it is a no-brainer that it was given to a Parsi gent in the carbonated water business. Much before colas were invented, we had Raspberry, Orange, Lemon and Pineapple flavoured carbonated drinks. This surname was fictionally elongated to Sodawaterbottleopenerwalla by Adi Marzban in his popularly funny Parsi Nataks.

The next one sounds a bit embarrassing – Boywalla. Whilst in today’s lingo it sounds quite Gay, it has nothing to do with one’s sexual preferences. This surname comes from the Boi ritual which involves feeding the sacred fire in a fire temple with fragrance and fuel. And the persons who performed it were referred to as Boiwala or Boywalla.

A Ginwalla would probably be the lucky bloke dealing in liquor. Sadly, no. On the contrary, those who were referred to as such were textile mill employees in charge of the Ginning machines. Similarly, the highly erotic-sounding Screwalla surname was suffixed to those whose job was quite boring – overseeing loads of fluffy cotton pressed tightly into bales by a screw-operated mechanism. And, while Daruwalla indicates liquor trade, the word Daru was also used to refer to gunpowder.

Fanibanda may tickle your funny bone but it refers to Parsis from a place in Hubli (Karnataka) called Faniband. Similarly, Dhondys were residents of Daund near Pune. While Parsis are known anglophiles and have anglicised surnames like Cooper, Nicholson, Driver, Doctor, Engineer, etc., a few even had European-sounding surnames like Petit, Sinor and Italia. Not that they have any connection to France, Spain or Italy. Petit is the French equivalent of the Parsi-Gujarati Nalla meaning short or small, whilst Sinor and Itala are villages in Gujarat! Another village that has given a rather unpleasant-sounding surname is Gharda, meaning old in Gujarati.

A lot of Parsis made their money in the 18th,  19th and early 20th centuries due to their business links with the British in India, though this association was not confined to cities like Bombay, Calcutta, Surat and Madras. Many Parsis travelled to, and later settled in, military cantonments at Deolali, Nagar (Ahmednagar), Belguam, Poona and called themselves Deolaliwalla, Nagarwalla, Belgaumwalla and the most famous of all since Covid, Poonawalla. And from one such cantonment in Karachi comes the story of a particularly derogatory but laughable surname. A Parsi contractor desperate to win a contract for military supplies adopted such patronising behaviour towards a particular British officer in charge of procurement, that the hassled official told the contractor that he would consider his proposal if he changed his surname and the name of his company to Bumsuckerwalla! Evidently, the Parsi complied!!

The Bumsuckerwalla family of Karachi

And finally, when it comes to the most famous Parsi surname of all, TATA, which is associated with their fair treatment of employees, their commitment to the nation, and winning the trust of its customers in India and abroad, one would be surprised to know that it is a corruption of the word Tartar, meaning hot as in hot-tempered, referring to an ancestor of Jamsetji who, so it seems, was quite irritable!

PS: I was inspired to write this piece after attending a talk on Parsi surnames by Kaevan Umrigar at Khaki Labs in Fort, Mumbai. Burjor Daboo’s compilation of Parsi surnames on Zoroastrians.net has also been a point of reference. The image is from Parsikhabar.net








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