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Life In A City

Anjali book experiences

City of Incident by Annie Zaidi is a collection of stories featuring nameless people who struggle to stay afloat in a large metropolis. Read on for a personal essay by Anjali on her experience of reading the book in the place that it is set in!

Set in an unnamed city that can be easily identified as Bombay, City Of Incident is a novella written in twelve parts. With each part, author Annie Zaidi introduces us to a new protagonist. Among others, we meet a policeman, a salesgirl, a trinket seller, a man guilty of adultery, his lover, a housewife — all of whom are closely connected by the misplaced expectations they seem to have had of their lives. In a strange, but beautiful metaphor, the city’s most dependable asset — the railway line that connects people from home to work on a daily basis — becomes the central thread that weaves these stories together. 

I read this book on Saturday afternoon, in the ladies coach of a local train in Bombay — a city that I’ve moved out of. I’ve spent enough time in the past commuting from one end of the city to the other to know which train goes where, but I can no longer keep the exact change ready because ticket prices inevitably rise each time I visit. I know where to stand in order to board the ladies coach, but I never step foot on the escalators because I’m still unsure of where they lead to. 

On that particular Saturday, when I entered the ladies coach with Zaidi’s book in my hand, I unquestionably looked like an outsider. I had chosen to leave my hair open, had coloured in my lips and cheek, and was wearing a rather long pale orange summer dress. The girl seated to the left of me was identifiably a regular traveler. Unlike me, she had her hair up in a tight bun. She knew that even the darkest lipstick shade would succumb to the city’s dust and wind. She watched a movie on her phone throughout, and coloured in her lips exactly five minutes before she got down, unbothered by the train’s jostles. At every station, an automated lady’s voice on the microphone would announce the helpline number women must dial if they are harassed. She would request passengers to not touch any unknown, foreign objects that were spotted. They could be explosives, she calmly reminds us. The woman opposite me had her head resting on the window, she was fast asleep. She had no interest in the announcements, or the view outside. There was another woman, not so far away, who was engrossed in her phone. She had light blue earphones strung around her neck, and looked slightly upset. As I continued surveying the women who kept tapering in and out of the train, it felt as though the book had come to life around me. 

City of Incident reads exactly like a train or metro journey. Characters are revealed to us in meaty glimpses, their names remain unknown. The identity of each of these people is absent as well as present. They are defined by everything the city has failed to give them, everything it has taken away. In one chapter, Zaidi tells us the story of a skilled woodworker who finds himself sleeping under the elevated railway bridge after his home and land was bulldozed and taken away by the government and a corporation. She writes, “Walls, roof, bed, stool — nothing he can’t do with bamboo. It is a great thing, his mother used to say, jiggling his baby sister on her scrawny thighs, to be independent. Freedom! That was the meaning of manhood. To be able to make your own hut with your own hand. But for all his skill, when it was time, there was nowhere to put up his hut.” 

Unsettling “incidents'' as they are called, occur throughout the book. Nobody has the time to ponder over them. They are processed only unknowingly — in intimate encounters that are rushed and rare. In one such encounter, towards the end of the novella, a recently separated woman and a man who’s wife has died by suicide share an awkward elevator conversation, and later on a cup of tea. After the man leaves, the woman, hoping to see him again, thinks to herself, “While leaving, he said, See You. Not Goodnight. Not Goodbye.” 

City Of Incident is easily my most favourite Bombay book. Moving away from the city’s usual indulgent, larger than life portrayal, Zaidi offers a solid portrait of the city’s people — who are constantly troubled by their gender and class, and rendered powerless in more ways than one. 

I finished reading the book about ten minutes before I got off the train. My book was full of dog eared pages, and shaky underlines. The last page I read was the acknowledgements section, in which Zaidi thanks everyone who “planned, built, conducted, drove, fought for, and repaired” the public transport systems in big cities. 

Every page of the book, she says, is rightfully owed to them. 

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