When first asked what it is about pre-pandemic life that I miss most, I found “public transport” roll off the tip of my tongue as though the words had been impatiently waiting there. It wasn’t just me – I found this yearning for metros and trains echoed online in numerous tweets and captions. It is one of those rare shared spaces that makes you cognisant of the volume of people that shares the city with you.
When I finished City of Incident by Annie Zaidi I found she had dedicated the first paragraph of her acknowledgements page to public transport systems – “Cities are organisms of which trains, buses and ferries are the veins and arteries and nerves. I know what I know about any large city only because of affordable, often subsidised, public transport.” I spend much of my time in public transport with my earphones plugged in and my music muted in order to eavesdrop on conversations, and the twelve stories in “City of Incident” seemed like they would feed that craving of mine.
To begin with, this was also my apprehension – that the brevity of the stories would provide nothing more than a quick dip in and out of the lives of these nameless characters. However, the interlacing of the narratives meant that by the end of the book – although I didn’t know any of their names – a kind of web had been woven. I don’t think City of Incident is intended so much as a portrait as it is as a panorama of a disquieting, crowded landscape.
Discomfort is often a marker of a good read, and Zaidi’s persistent confrontation with class douses the book in a sense of unease and disconnect between characters. From some characters we see aspirations of social mobility – like a salesgirl resolutely riding first class on the local train and carefully mimicking the etiquette of the other women. “Nobody would look at her and say that she doesn’t look first class.”
We see authority born from powerlessness – such as a bank teller who cannot have children threatening a man asleep under an elevated railway when she sees he is holding a dust-covered baby. Even the more privileged members of Zaidi’s cast are wallowing in helplessness, and those at the bottom of the pecking chain are outlets for their personal resentments. A beggar reflects that “the wrong sort of look on his face, a grin at the wrong cop, a scowl at the ragpickers’ gang leader, next thing he knows, there’s another bloody incident in the city. A man like himself? He won’t even become a statistic. He is not one of those who are counted.”
Most of all, we see a careful and intentional distance, such as a woman and her kitty party awkwardly navigating an interaction with a security guard. “She had smiled back at him even though she knew what the others were thinking. This fellow is a bit over. Over-what? None of them has the right word for it. Not over-friendly. Not over-smart. Just something over and above his job. It is embarrassing, this over-ness.” People in the city must be careful to occupy the right amount of space.
Anonymity and narratives
Haruki Murakami once asked, “Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves.” Zaidi posits a painful answer to this question, unflinchingly marking the social divisions that proliferate her web.
Some of these social markers inevitably crisscross – like gender complicating class relations. Zaidi also pays attention to how these divisions are uniquely manifested in the space of a city, which is as merciful as alienating in its bequeathal of anonymity. Whether for better or worse, “people in this city know how to mind their own business.”
It is perhaps in this context that Zaidi chose to leave her characters unnamed. I found myself noticing the absence of direct references to religion or caste – but this could be because these are the facets of a person less evident in the absence of names. These are facts that must be wrested out through seemingly innocuous questions and conversation.
There is, however, a script for social interaction that Zaidi observes. We see, for example, a trinket-seller who migrated to the city from her village gradually adapting to this language. “Words are the long rope people give each other in this city. Cursing takes the edge off their rage. Warning others not to get above themselves allows them to look past the daily humiliations they are subject to.” It is not a uniform script, of course. The women in the first-class ladies’ compartment have their own vocabulary of annoyance – “They rarely scream and or shout when the irregulars invade their compartment. Instead, they exchange glances and roll their kohl-smudged eyes.”
I have a weariness of books that take on a wide assortment of perspectives. It can be an ambitious task for a writer, especially because it can be difficult to drastically change your voice enough to give the reader the impression that we’re travelling through different viewpoints. Zaidi sidesteps this criticism by refusing to adopt a first-person point of view. The opening sentence of each story begins with or contains the words “this woman” or “this man” (except for one which is written in second person).
This serves to act as a degree of separation from the character – keeping them close, but never presuming to totally inhabit them. This does create a certain repetitiveness, but also a uniformity that seems fitting for a book that is as much about the commonalities of human experience as it is about diversity.
The decision to have twelve overlapping perspectives called to my mind the six degrees of separation, the idea that all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other. Maybe it is because of this that the most touching stories were the ones with human connections, fraught as they might be.
In one story we examine a married woman’s suicide through her also married lover. In another we view the lover’s wife talk to the dead woman’s husband. The strange and unfortunate entanglements that brought these two together (somewhat reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love) cast light on the befuddling, knotted nature of human relationships.
Connections do not act so much as redemptions as they do as necessary lifeboats – and I often found myself rooting for characters to connect even if I didn’t particularly like them. These fumbling moments of identification act as beacons of respite in the book. In a world where the motto “write what you know” has taken on a political edge, Zaidi is daring in her endeavour to step into other people’s shoes. Yet, this is a book that should contain moments of identification for readers from varied contexts. And when you find yourself empathising with a character even in moments of disidentification – that is when the book is most compelling.
City of Incident: A Novel in Twelve Parts, Annie Zaidi, Aleph Book Company.