mid-day anniversary: 37 words Mumbai gave to India and the world

Updated: 24 June, 2016 11:17 IST | Farrukh Dhondy |

To mark 37 years of mid-day, noted writer and playwright Farrukh Dhondy, on invitation, gets to the root of 37 words that capture the essence of this great city to its fullest

The Internet is undoubtedly the greatest communicative tool ever invented. It is of course, an extension of the human discovery of writing and then printing. It has, as evidenced by the omnipresence of Google, of Wikipedia, of Facebook and a hundred other ‘applications’, revolutionised communication globally. It has also given rise to the greatest outpouring of triviality and foolishness that the world has ever known.

Small talk is not new. It has sustained dinner parties and gatherings from the beginning of human time. In the beginning was the Word, as the Bible puts it, but it doesn’t say if it was meaningful, purposeful, and truthful or had passed through a process of relevance and verification commonly known as editing. Newspapers in general have points of view and however much they protest their neutrality and objectivity, are biased towards those editorial (and sometimes proprietorial — step forward R Murdoch!) views.

The Internet is exciting and unreliable. Bloggers and conspiracy theorists, preachers of hate, seekers for love, fraudsters, and people with more vanity than sense, idlers and charlatans fill cyberspace with their unfiltered contentions, ploys and babble. Like newspapers and periodicals, they build up a ‘following’ whose extent depends sometimes on the viciousness of the blog and sometimes, regardless of the worth of the words, on the celebrity status of the blogger.

Words are born, live and die.
To mark 37 years of mid-day’s record of words from Mumbai, here are 37 words that I associate with The Big Mango, as Americans would call this city if it belonged to them. And aren’t we glad it doesn’t.

BOMBAY The name itself has disputed origins. It was first used as a harbour for Portuguese trading ships and they called the islands that sheltered them from the Arabian Sea's vicissitudes and tides and the harbouring inlet ‘Bom Baya’. In Portuguese, this would not mean a good bay but rather a good ‘beach’. So is the Shiv Sena’s insistence that the word Bombay is a perversion of Mumbai, so called, because of the temple of Mumba Devi, which existed here, long before Portugal was a nation? The island/islands have given their name to various foods.

BOMBAY DUCK isn't a duck, it's an eel, bit it's so called because the Brits who built the railways in the 1840s and 50s had consignments of the stinking fish packed in railway compartments to be transported inland. And since the British disdained to call the consignments stinking fish, they called them Bombay Dak - the Bombay Mail.

BOMBAY ALOO. Open any popular book of Indian recipes and there it is, the concoction that was probably one of the first street foods. Of course, it should be called Bombay Batata, which is the Portuguese word adopted into Marathi for potatoes.

PAOON or a loaf of bread, the dough for which was kneaded on an industrial scale by stamping on it with, we hope, clean feet. Hence, "paoon (foot) roti". The Portuguese adopted the word after it was invented on India's West Coast, though some would hotly dispute that chronology.

PAO BHAJI is another Bombay street food, the equivalent of the Italian Panini (which I always thought was the name of the renowned Sanskrit grammarian) and now popular all over India and internationally in Indian restaurants.

BUNGALOW was invented in Mumbai to mean a 'Bengal-style' house as the British, on acquiring Bombay as part of Charles II's dowry, transferred this architectural style from their earlier settlement in Bengal. In what were then the far-reaches of the island, away from the Fort area, there were respectively seven bungalows and four bungalows and the neighbourhoods around them still retain those names.

MUTTON is the word my mother and grandmother and all of Bombay used and uses for goat's meat. The word in English literally means 'old sheep' - nothing to do with goats - which is another species altogether. British memsahibs probably began calling goat's meat "mutton" when serving it to their sahibs, who may have been reluctant to eat goat chops - of which there are none in England but would readily dig into mutton ones. The West Indian colonies were more honest. In Trinidad and Jamaica, they eat "curry goat" with relish.

COOLIE is the universal and rude word for an Indian labourer who lifts loads. In Bombay, and later Mumbai, it became the specific and partially sanitised word for the red-shirted baggage attendants at the great railway terminus now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus but formerly Victoria Terminus and colloquially Bori-Bunder - the place where sacks (bori) of cargo were unloaded.

BUD BUD is the Marathi colloquialism for talking rubbish, a sort of 'blah blah' or 'yackety-yak'. When I first taught in a London school, the racist kids would say, 'bud-bud' as a parody of Indian accents. Interestingly, the cook of my household in Pune, when I was but a boy, would parody English, which he didn't speak, with the sounds "feesh-fosh peesh posh" and on occasion "Waat ees dees? Komdee Ka piece!"

BOLLYWOOD is a word for the popular films of the Mumbai industry. Its genesis is clear but if usage were consistent and logical, as no language's usage is, the industry and its products would be labelled Mollywood. Though it would be outrageous to call, collectively, the films of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Rituparno Ghosh and others ‘Kollywood’.

BHASSEIN was, according to my school history books, the northern part of Bombay where the islands joined the mainland. Throughout my adolescence, I looked in vain for the fragment of the city that retained the name and only realised later that Bhassein was the anglicised perversion of Vashi where the creek separating the ‘island’ from the mainland is still called by that name.

BOMBAY DREAMS was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s failure of a London musical that lost money in the UK and closed early in the USA as there were not enough Indian tourists to fill the theatres. Bombay Nightmares may have haunted the losers.

SANDRA FROM BANDRA was the slightly ironic, teasing name given to any young lady of the Catholic faith. There were other rude terms for the Christian girls of Bombay, Goan, East Indian or even of Anglo-Indian descent. ‘Chutney Mary’ was one of them, and paradoxically, it was adopted as the name of a now famous and prosperous Indian restaurant in London.

TOWERS OF SILENCE is the English name for the structures on which we, Parsis, expose the bodies of the dead to be disposed of in an ecologically- friendly manner by being eaten by scavenging birds. The English phrase was undoubtedly coined in Bombay, the Persian term dokhma being used before Parsi migration to Brit-ruled Bombay.

VILE PARLE in north Bombay is named, they say, after the two temples of Vileshwar and Parleshwar, but it also housed the factory of Parle confectionery, making sweets and biscuits started by the Chauhan family in 1929. So, was Parle named after the district or was the term ‘Ville’ the Frenchified usage meaning Parle Township?

In my boyhood, the ‘street’ word or phrase with which to tease bald people was taklya, which of course, was literal. The metaphoric usage was calling a bald person (or shouting after one in the street) CARROM BOARD — the shiny surface of the striker game.

DISHOOM is the onomatopoeic sound for Bollywood violence, shootings and beatings-up - the “bang bang” or “sock, pow!” of Indian cinema. The word has now been adopted as the name of a chain of very popular restaurants in London which, intentionally feature Mumbai cafe themes and menus, their furniture being modelled on the Irani restaurants of Colaba and Byculla.

TENSION NAHIN LENEKA is another Anglo-adopted perversion attributed to Bollywood scripts and Bambaiya (a verbal invention itself) slang. Its meaning is abundantly clear, though the strategy of avoiding stress is not explained.

ITEM NUMBER is another Bombay Bollywood invention for the song-out-of-context added to a film for purely commercial reasons. I have now even heard cosmopolitan filmmakers in the West use the Mumbai-originated term.

SHRI 420 is the name of a famous Raj Kapoor film and refers to the characterisation of a rogue, the numerals referring to Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code covering offences relating to cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property, and leads to punishments of fines. It is universally used in India but was elevated in status by Kapoor’s film and turned into the romantic myth of the lovable rascal.

BREACH CANDY has nothing to do with a sweet with attractive gaps. It was where the Arabian Sea breached the land towards the south of Bombay Island and the candy is probably an anglicised perversion of the word ‘khadi’ meaning a watery gap.

TIME PASS is what the peanut sellers on Mumbai's suburban trains shout to sell their paper-cones of unshelled, roasted produce. It's probably the first time a food has been called by an activity that characterises its preparation for consumption.

PREPONE, UPGRADATION and even MATRIMONIAL are words invented or pioneered by English language newspapers and publications, I would guess first from Bombay. You won't find them in the Guardian or in the New York Times though all three words are functional and useful. So also with the Indian-newspaper expression of MISCREANTS ABSCONDING for criminals who have escaped the police.

TAPORI. Leaving the erudite offices of Mumbai's publications and wandering into the street, one encounters, as I have all through my short and happy life, the argot of the Tapori. It's a word that some translate as vagabond, but is closer in meaning to what in the US is known as 'street'!

The words generated by the Mumbai street — from BOSSY to address any familiar or even unfamiliar male, to the slightly sly and insinuating, very Parsi but now universal, SAALA — have, as we say in the Internet age ‘gone viral’ at least in parts of India. Delhi University would substitute ‘guru’ for ‘bossy’ and the street form would inevitably be ‘yaar’. The other phrases of Tapori-talk that come to mind are the very Mumbai KHALI PILLY which sometimes comes welded to BOM MARTHAI — which put together is the accusation that you are full of sound and fury signifying nothing - as Shakespeare would say.

The TAPORI enquiry may begin with the word, ‘KAIKO’ which, fascinatingly was adopted by Rudyard Kipling in a poem called Route Marchin' in which the chorus goes:

“While the Big Drum says With ‘is ‘rowdy-dowdy-dow!’— Kaiko kiskeywaasthey, don’t you humsey aagey jao?”

And betting on New York Cotton figures was invented on Bombay street corners and the game was known as SATHTHA PUNCHA. It came to an end when the Russians launched Sputnik and the rumour spread that the satellite was transmitting the real numbers in an instant to the street bookies.

KUT LEY is the Mumbai word for ‘get lost’. It can be translated if expressed mildly as meaning ‘experience a departure’ or, in its more aggressive form: “go some distance and fornicate”.

Not to be confused with CUTTING which is a graphic word for filling the purchased cup with only half a cup of tea — what we used to call “Single Cha” in the cafes of Pune.

And those that can be put together in a Bollywoodish plot involving corruption, larceny, conflict and of course, song and dance are HAFTA, the word for a bribe, possibly as payment for concealing the cause and suppressing the prosecution of participants in a fracas or incident known as a LAPHDA. Or if it's deliberately complicated or made to disappear in a rounded fate it would be called GOL MAL. Here endeth the etymological (ly questionable) lesson.

Indian-born British writer, playwright and screenwriter Farrukh Dhondy's latest book is Words: My private Babel (Harper Collins)

First Published: 24 June, 2016 11:08 IST

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