The Incantatory City: Kuru-Kuru Svaha

by Gautam Pemmaraju

I was once arrested, detained for a few hours, and then let off with a malevolent bubblegum pop song stuck in my head. The very first time I had the occasion to visit an after hours club in Bombay, in mid 1997, having ventured out but a few times with work colleagues, the place was raided by the very same cop who had asked us beforehand if we wished to enter. As the hundred odd people there were being let out one-by-one, under the watchful gaze of two male cops and the lone policewoman clad in a khaki sari, a small group of ten men, including yours truly, was detained and led to Vile Parle police station. At that hour, 3 AM, I was too bemused, bleary-eyed and somewhat tipsy to grasp the situation; it was only later I surmised that my appearance, a poor advocate of my peaceable nature, proved to be my undoing and, unsurprisingly, my turpitude. Consequently, I found myself amidst a bunch of pimps, social outcasts, suspect criminal types and baleful degenerates. After a few hours of erratic verbal abuse, nothing too harsh I must concede, a few slaps directed at a defiant detainee, an inqilaabi 1in my mind, we were corralled into the Sub-Inspector’s room to be personally questioned (and abused) by him for a bit, and thereupon lined-up outside the little courtyard-facing cubicle where the dastardly arresting officer was seated to note down our contact details. Abdul, the only other ‘media type’ in the group and a true Bombay chaava, a filmic fast-talking, smooth hustler, who had characteristically skipped ahead, emerged with a raffish smirk and ushered me in. I respectfully furnished the sparse details of my recent Bombay residency. As I exited the room, expectant friends in the courtyard watching on, the cop, a mere step behind, proceeded to sing the hook and chorus of the hit single by the Danish-Norwegian group Aqua, I’m A Barbie Girl,2 to me.

In many more ways than I can articulate here, Bombay/Mumbai is incantatory in tone and spirit. Its PRAYER1 emanations, at once surreal, primordial and metronomic, cast many a curious spell on its residents. The perceptual city3, with its countless sensorial attributes, is richly textured, particularly to those who seek to ‘imagine’ it. I posed this proposition to a few people and several descriptions came forth – transient, multiple interlinked realities, portal, hypnotic city, fast-paced, dark clouds, drum, percussive, bubbling cauldron, organic entity, fickle friend, tempestuous lover, etc. One friend said she and the city conversed. Another described it as a city of ‘practical magic’ wherein its residents conduct and receive discrete, accumulative acts of magic – from its many temples, churches, mosques, dargahs, to its cricket pitches, empty mills4 (no longer one might add), quarter-system bars, financial markets, race track, gambling joints, and entertainment industry. The promise of lucre is invoked alongside cautionary chants – mayanagari, the illusory city, is to then be negotiated by propitiating the appropriate ‘gods’ and the consequential fortune if any, it is advised, is to be put to good use. Mumbadevi, the patron goddess of the city (and its original residents, the koli fisherfolk) and mythical tamer of the marauding demon Mumbaraka, steadfastly keeps her divine glance upon the city – the money made here must remain here, it is often proverbially chanted. At a recent book launch, when one of the panelists declared to the audience that ‘Bombay smells of sex and money’, it begged the protest of other formidable claimants: what about the smell of rotting fish and public defecation?

The incantations, inward and voiced, speculative and substantive, imagined and real, visual, aural and olfactory alike, constitute a literary construct of the city: the very city itself as an incantation. The city as a chant.

A fabulously imagined example of this construct, irradiated with sharp original thought, slick irony and deft technique is Kuru-Kuru Svaha, Hindi writer/journalist/screenwriter, Manohar Shyam Joshi’s uttaradhunik, post-modernist masterpiece5.

The idea is held within the book’s very title – a common concluding phrase to many Vedic mantras, particularly used in Tantrik ritual, and often found in certain forms of spells known as Vashikaran Mantra which are cast in order to wrest control over a person, lovers and enemies alike.

Set in Bombay of 1962-63 soon after the Indo-Chinese War, the narrator of this bewilderingly inventive novel Manohar Shyam Joshi, a struggling writer employed with the Films Division to translate into Hindi government post-war propaganda documentaries (such as “The Call for Unity”), lives with two elderly pensioners in Room No 5, Rimjhim Guest House, Breach Candy, Warden Road. Soon enough the narrator reveals to readers his secret (a critical device): “Ah but, I, dear sir, am not me. Two others besides Manohar Shyam Joshi reside here”. Residing within his mind, we are told, is also Joshiji, an older pedant, writer, ‘Idiot-Eliot’ type, profoundly influenced by western literature, who scribbles some stuff in Hindi off and on in the hope that one day his writing will be translated into English and he will be showered with international acclaim. As his literary legacy, he wishes to leave behind a War and Peace in prose, a Wasteland in poetry, and in competition with the screen-writing aspirations of the narrator, the self professed left-wing progressive Joshiji, wishes to make a film on ‘Sweet Decadence’, the object of which happens to be the female character of the novel. His favourite word/situation happens to be vidambana or ‘irony’ – he constantly invokes it, never failing to point out its ubiquitous presence. Also residing within the ambitious and insouciant young upstart, is the adolescent Manohar, fragile, naïve, and in constant need of his mother’s protective embrace and the comfort of the small town. The three inhabitants of the one body are in persistent dialogue with one another – the young man and the pedant are competitive, snarky, forever remarking on each other’s thoughts and actions; whereas the older man provides a running intellectual commentary through tireless literary context, referring to contemporary writers, Indian and western alike, the glib, cock-sure younger man dismisses his ‘intellectual martyrdom’ while mocking his desire to only drink alcohol in the company of French philosophers and avant-gardists.

CART1 The meta-ironies of this convoluted tale, self-generative, commuting between reader and written text, are deliciously Bolañoesque in nature. The book, also populated with poets, pimps and prostitutes (like The Savage Detectives), deftly embraces many kinds of speech registers, literary Hindi, liturgical Sanskrit, colloquial Hindustani, street slang, Urdu, Gujarati, bits of Marathi and Marathi inflected Hindi, high and low prose alike, whilst thematically racing through, in sublime-profane catatonia, a hedonistic Bombay and the noirish pursuit of a mysterious women – a rahasyamayi, a pahuncheli,6 who, we are told at the outset, is ‘out of course’7, or ‘not to be worked on’/difficult, as discussed with the pimp Babu, whom the narrator befriends in the course of conducting ‘an informal investigation of pimps and whores’ at Chowpatty Beach. The pensioners, perpetually clad in ‘national dress’ (loudly striped underpants and white vest), often refer to this research project, to great comic and ironic effect.

Chowpatty Beach, Juhu Beach, Bandra Bandstand and Gorai, Aksa, Madh, Marve – these are where couples gather to share private moments. In the dense concrete caverns of this claustrophobic city, families of double digits are packed into one-room tenements. The seaside offers respite for what is possible there is not possible within the lascivious, voyeuristic city. They can, to curative psychological effect, turn their back on the city. They can hold hands, speak of their troubles, tenderly kiss, make plans, desperately grope, or furtively fuck if they so desire, away from all intrusions. Except for the moral police. A few years ago the civic authorities, at the prompt of right-wing political elements, tried to enforce a strict vigilance of ‘obscene behaviour’. Couples were reprimanded, insulted, shamed and fined for touching whilst facing the sea. It was permitted, the moral policed generously granted, to sit at the seaside as long as couples did not face it.


The temperamental sea, at times relinquishing its familiar cadences, can get quite restive. And downright angry as well. Which is what musician Adrian D’Souza thought to himself as he looked out of his window on the morning of 26th July 2005. Within a few hours a deluge like none other began to pound the city. By mid afternoon, as impenetrable dark clouds gathered in cinematic time-lapse, the skies turned pitch black, and aside from the sibilant shrieks of news anchors on television, not much else could be heard. Fearing for his life and for the lives of his mother and grandmother with whom he lives, Adrian began saying his prayers, fearful of a biblical outcome. There was knee-deep water in the compound of his apartment block, ground floor residents were in panic, and as he incredulously recalled, “bro, can you imagine, a sofa was floating around.” The only option he figured was to get to Mount Mary Church8 located atop a hill, normally a short walk from his flat, but even that seemed to be out of the question. The streets were flooded. Most of the city had plunged into darkness. It received over 900 mm of rain in 24 hours. There was an unprecedented loss of life and property. The city had never sounded that way before – white noise turned black. A spell had been cast on it. PYDHONIE

Nearly a decade ago I paid a visit to St. Stephen’s, a pretty little Protestant Church under the auspices of C.N.I9, consecrated in 1845. The registers for the record of Divine Services dating back to 1880, dog eared, dusty, and yellowed, were divided into several columns – date, Ecclesiastical day, hour of service, name of service, celebrant, reader, preacher and text, offertory, number of communicants, number of congregation and finally, remarks. Over the years the width of the column for remarks steadily reduced. Whereas earlier the column was a good two inches broad, it eventually shrunk to a slim three quarters of an inch. Perhaps it had to do with the glaring paucity of entries. But they increased in frequency during the monsoon months of June to September where the entries took on hymnal form: ‘wet day’, ‘very wet day’, and ‘dark gloomy morning’. It was on such a day, at 11.00AM on the 1st of August 1920 during a morning of Prayer and Sermon, the unnamed preacher spoke on the subject of Transfiguration, an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change. An offertory of ten rupees and ten annas was collected from the congregation. It was a ‘very wet day’.

An indolent, voluptuous drizzle sets the mood for an early encounter between the narrator and the unnamed mysterious woman. The whore that she is, both the young man and pedant surmise, she has to have a price. But she is no mere whore, out of reach though she may be; she is his match and the literary, intellectual, sexual quest that she represents is also, for the three schizophrenic personas of Manohar Shyam Joshi, a tantric riddle that requires unravelling. Whereas his sexual idiom is defined by the indirect suggestions of the small town, salacious laddish quips, conspiratorial, illicit and counter-brahminical, the mystery woman’s confrontational sexuality, overt, challenging and at once whore-like, goddess-like, is profoundly exciting. It is out of reach, he wishes to grasp it and penetrate this electric sensation. The whore/goddess embodies the sexualized city.

He follows her to an Irani café at Walkeshwar, commenting inwardly on her ‘excellent bottom’, where she sits at a table by herself. The jukebox is playing, in ironic suggestion to the pedant, a current hit from the Hindi film Gumraah – the words chalo ik baar phir sey ajnabi ban jayee hum dono,10 urges the familiar lovers to once again become strangers. The banter between the two, an incessant back and forth, uses filmic cliché to brilliant effect. Not just engaging to read, much of it is incredibly funny. The writer employs cinematic metaphor throughout, setting up shots here and there, referring to timely close-ups, camera pans, specific lighting for particular moments, and ‘clichéd dialogue’. In a taxicab, about to part ways, she says to the young man who is affecting nonchalance, that he may get off there for “it’s a beautiful fork in the road”, to which her sparring pursuer replies, “a beautiful fork in the road is where you bring and leave the story at”, referring, not so obliquely, to a certain style of literary romanticism.

The many peculiar and densely written encounters build up several layers of surrealism. Joshiji, in order to analyse the situation, is prompted to consult ‘Baba Freud’11 with whom he walks the streets of Vienna in silence. Fearing this consultation may anger ‘Baba Marx’, the pedant promptly accosts him at the British Museum Library, who, annoyed at having been woken up, chides him with a dismissive “So you’re a writer are you? Read Caudwell, read Lukacs, don’t disturb me”.


There is no dearth of surreal encounters in Bombay/Mumbai. The revisionist renaming, is in one sense, a triumph of one city over another. That the two cities have been at battle, and still are in many ways, is a fact every resident is accustomed to. The right wing Shiv Sena and its truculent sibling, the MNS, both periodically shake the city down with threats, fighting words and street violence. Ajmal Kasab, the lone gunman who survived the 2008 terror attacks, is speaking Marathi, several newspapers exhorted a while ago, invoking the political demands to enforce Marathi as the main language of city. The familiar rhetoric of migrants, their arrogance and disrespectful ways, is inevitably reinforced. Business establishments, shops, corporate offices under threat, were forced to display signs in Marathi as a result not so long ago.

The embattled, besieged city, of communal riots and serial bombings, reached a psychological peak with the November 2008 terrorist attacks. There too, the surreal moments were many. At the funeral of the slain Anti Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare12, a news journalist spoke to two placard holding young men. As they registered their protest on government apathy, lack of preparedness and their disappointment in elected leaders, a lookalike of the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, in full kit, trademark wraparound dark glasses to boot, was seen right between the two. Betraying no emotion, much like his hero, he too, one presumes, was mutely offering some manner of commiseration, as he kept catching sight of the camera lens.

A devoted fan of Sachin Tendulkar, one amongst millions, was Chotu, a migrant cab driver13 from the northern state of UP, who had made Bombay his home over twenty-five years ago. About eight years ago, I hailed his cab from the northern suburb of Chembur to Bandra, where I stay. En route, commenting on my accent as being ‘not from Bombay’ and having an Urdu flavour to it, he informed me that the first few years of Bombay life were very tough for him. But then, miraculously, a kind-hearted woman took him in and they became lovers. She supported him tirelessly over the years he said, despite her being a local and him an outsider. It was because of her that he was able to purchase a taxicab, make a respectable living, and, send money back home to support his wife, two children and ailing mother. But now, he continued, time has come for him to make a decision since she was urging him to marry her. His wife, who had never once come to Bombay, had no idea of his Bombay life. Stickers of the Sufi shrine of Ajmer, of the Kaaba, and Quranic verse, adorned the inside of his taxi. “Sir, you are an educated man, you will know how to solve my problem. I don’t want more than one wife, I can’t divorce the mother of my children, and I am indebted to my lover for generations to come. What am I to do?” Chotu asked me.


Another fascinating layer of Manohar Shyam Joshi’s novel is the rivalry between Urdu and Hindi writers. Joshiji chides the younger man for spending too much time with Urdu writers, and the narrator in turn, smirks at the pedant’s stuck-up, Sanskritic/Brahminic posture. That there is a psychological confrontation of Brahminic identity is palpable; the narrator and pedant are clearly negotiating it – repudiating, embracing and examining it from time to time. Urdu has significantly declined in post-partition India. Aside from state sponsored language both sides of the border, there has been significant debate on the distinctions between the two languages, rightful claimants, comparative literature, and shared traditions14.

Early on in the book, Khaleeq, a rancorous, boozed out, unwashed, foul-mouthed reprobate Urdu poet living in the northwest suburb of Andheri, accosts the narrator at Churchgate Station. A self-proclaimed genius waiting his day in the sun, he persuades the narrator to visit his filthy hut. Khaleeq, in competitive camaraderie, pushes the narrators face into this matted hair, asking sarcastically if he was able to smell the scent of a hard-working Hindustani, to rid the narrator of his ‘bourgeois stench’. Failure has made Khaleeq somewhat more militant, the narrator and the pedant discuss. An ulterior motive exists – the narrator has it on good authority that Khaleeq is also involved with the very same mysterious woman he is after. The whore. Utter miscasting, Joshiji declares this situation to be. Reciting Hart Crane’s Ave Maria, the lowlife poet orders his houseguest to make tea and in ironic lasciviousness, says to him: “By the chest-hair of Hemmingway, you look so pretty doing housework my dear”. This form of sexual teasing, with its homoerotic undertones, is more to do with feminizing a competitor than anything else. Characterized as an effete, the competitor is less of a man, can be easily ‘had’, and is therefore, less of a poet/writer as well. Khaleeq’s masterpiece, which he brings out after having his fill of the local brew – ‘not worthy of you Hindi types' he adds – is going to shake up the world, he informs the narrator. Its title is a mother-related abuse (maa ki gaali), and it is precisely that in its entirety Khaleeq declares proudly: “It is an aggregation of the countless ways I have abused elders, mentors, predecessors, ancestors with mother-related abuses – in what situation, under what circumstances and including all mothers, mother earth too.” Reeling with drunkenness, Khaleeq dismisses the author and promptly vomits all over his manuscript. He then starts to cry, fearing that his health and talent will be destroyed by his own toxicity, and makes the author promise that his masterpiece will be published posthumously, for he fears that he is to meet a most tragic, untimely end.

Atmazagaon The presence of death is always in the air. Joe Vessaokar is a 61-year-old self-taught trumpet player and bandleader. Right from a young age he found funereal music very moving. He used to accompany his father, also a bandleader, to funerals. Entranced by the uniforms, the atmosphere, he would carry cases just to be with the band, watch the proceedings, and take in the ‘feeling’ of the music. He too, apart from celebratory functions, some teaching, and occasional chamber music performances, plays at funerals. There is ‘no bluffing’ at funerals he says to me, everyone can hear what you play; every discordant note is heard and registered. The music of a ‘last farewell’ (he loves ‘Abide With Me’) is very important Joe goes on, we must send the soul on with emotion in the air and the mourners must feel it so that “their hearts burst out”.

Bombay/Mumbai is rife with all manner of incitements –sensory and otherwise. On occasion they all collapse into one discrete unit. From the annual Ganapathi festival celebrations, ‘vegetarian only’ housing societies, eye models who specialize in Hindi film rape scenes to downing shots with Blackwater employees – the surreal city incessesantly generates a tone. It is this very tone that is the chant of this ravenous, urgent, bewildering city. And it is Kuru-Kuru Svaha, an astonishing literary achievement of great latitude, candour, urgency and spirit, which succeeds in seizing the city’s essential, unfathomable essence and infecting the reader with its feverish mania – a psychological affliction that is not easily rid of. The city, much like the impenetrable whore/goddess constantly chants: “Look, I am like you but I am not like you”.

1 Generally meaning revolutionary, the word has had a positive literary connotation, particularly in its support and admiration of the marginal underdog and the conscientious rabble-rouser.

3 ‘A mental mapping’ is Kevin Lynch’s seminal work

5 First introduced to me by director, screenwriter and author of The Art of Bollywood, Rajesh Devraj (to whom I’m indebted), over a decade ago, the book presented a great dilemma to us in considering a screen adaptation. While stunningly cinematic, the character complexities and nuances, constantly cross-referenced, proved to be terribly confounding, insurmountable even, amongst so very many other things. Intermittent discussions over the years have provided some level of insight although each reading presents newer challenges. The book itself is regarded very highly but is not known as his greatest work. Here is an extensive interview with the late Manohar Shyam Joshi for those who read Hindi.


6 While rahasyamayi can be readily translated as ‘mysterious/enigmatic woman’, pahuncheeli presents a bit of a dilemma. The Hindi root pahunch means reach, the word itself is a personification of the root but is suggestive instead of a woman who is super-slick, so much so that she is beyond reach – a supreme, cunning conwoman whose duplicity is to be admired. It is also in Bombay slang form and inflected by Marathi.

7 The ‘out of course theory’ was first proposed, the narrator tells us, by Banney Mian in Habibullah Hostel of Lucknow University in 1949. Only those young men manage to ‘warm their beds’ who quickly realize which girls are ‘in syllabus’, and which are not, i.e. which are attainable and which not. ‘Reading’ an ‘out of course’ girl takes time, one loses sleep, health, money in the process and the desired outcome is not guaranteed in such cases.

8 The Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount dates back to the 16th century and has an iconic, not to mention, mythic presence. It has featured prominently in Hindi cinema, particularly the blockbuster 1977 hit, Amar Akbar Anthony, featuring Amitabh Bacchan in the role of Anthony Gonsalves.

A subtitled online version…

11 Baba is common parlance for father but also implies someone older, wiser. It can also be used casually, by both sexes, as an endearment. In this context though, the former is more appropriate.

12 At the time of his death Hemant Karkare was investigating Hindu extremist elements. Recently, Swami Aseemanand confessed not only to his complicity in several bombings but also implicated many others, some linked to the RSS.

13 A large number of cab and rickshaw drivers in the city are from the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Both the Shiv Sena and the MNS have ongoing tussles with them, aside from other migrants in general. The issue of migrants, as is the case everywhere, is a hugely emotive one and often escalates into tense stand-offs.

14 An interesting debate between Shahid Amin and Alok Rai

The rights to all the images used here are held by the author.