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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 , 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. I respectfully furnished the sparse details of my recent Bombay residency.
Its emanations, at once surreal, primordial and metronomic, cast many a curious spell on its residents. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. The streets were flooded. Most of the city had plunged into darkness.
It received over 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. Nearly a decade ago I paid a visit to St. I 9 , consecrated in The registers for the record of Divine Services dating back to , 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. It was on such a day, at An offertory of ten rupees and ten annas was collected from the congregation.
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.
It is out of reach, he wishes to grasp it and penetrate this electric sensation. 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. Not just engaging to read, much of it is incredibly funny.
The many peculiar and densely written encounters build up several layers of surrealism. 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 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 terrorist attacks.
There too, the surreal moments were many. At the funeral of the slain Anti Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare 12 , 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 driver 13 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.
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. What am I to do? 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 traditions 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. 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. This form of sexual teasing, with its homoerotic undertones, is more to do with feminizing a competitor than anything else. 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. The presence of death is always in the air.
Joe Vessaokar is a 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. He too, apart from celebratory functions, some teaching, and occasional chamber music performances, plays at funerals. On occasion they all collapse into one discrete unit. It is this very tone that is the chant of this ravenous, urgent, bewildering city.
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.
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. It has featured prominently in Hindi cinema, particularly the blockbuster hit, Amar Akbar Anthony , featuring Amitabh Bacchan in the role of Anthony Gonsalves.
It can also be used casually, by both sexes, as an endearment. In this context though, the former is more appropriate. Recently, Swami Aseemanand confessed not only to his complicity in several bombings but also implicated many others, some linked to the RSS. The issue of migrants, as is the case everywhere, is a hugely emotive one and often escalates into tense stand-offs. Skip to content. Like what you're reading? Don't keep it to yourself! Grasping for the Lunatic Fringe.
The Incantatory City: Kuru-Kuru Svaha
Kuru Kuru Swaha