A space for tenderness: Gautam Bhatia reviews Annie Zaidi’s ‘City of Incident’

Haunted by constraints, the characters in these interconnected vignettes yet reach out for some ineffable meaning

Published - February 26, 2022 04:01 pm IST

Inhis novel, The Master, Colm Tóibín writes of an English house that, “in its detail and its dialogue, its slow movements and its mystery… stood against abstraction, against the greyness and foolishness of large concepts.” In the slowness of detail, Tóibín finds a fragility, something “barely present”, but something that is nonetheless “closer to the range of human feeling” than abstraction and large concepts. The Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert, writes equally of “the meanness of speech the kingly power of gesture/ the uselessness of concepts.” Both Tóibín and Herbert come from a place of containment, a mistrust of metaphor and abstraction, a commitment to seek meaning despite the resistance to grand ideas.

Annie Zaidi’s City of Incident a novel composed of 12 interconnected vignettes — belongs to this literature of containment. The setting is a city that is formally unnamed, but clearly identifiable as Mumbai. All the ‘incidents’ happen in or around the city’s railway line, in stillness or in speed. They are told through 12 different eyes: policeman, salesgirl, bank teller, wood-worker, housewife, beggar, among others. They concern the warp and weft of the fabric of urban existence: half-meaningful encounters in the train, different social classes awkwardly rubbing up against each other, the tedium of daily routine, ennui, abandonment, loathing, delay, desire and death.

Slipping unobtrusively

While ostensibly narrated by different protagonists, the stories are bound up with one another. To bring them together, Zaidi adopts a technique that is reminiscent of Hoda Barakat’s 2019 novel, Voices of the Lost, where the protagonist of each chapter writes an intimate letter, which they abandon unsent, only for it to be found by the next person, who is then driven to write their own, similarly abandoned, letter. The book’s second part gives us a window into the lives of the intended recipients, telling the same stories but through different eyes. Barakat thus creates a kaleidoscope, where subject and object positions interchange, and the same story, when told by a different tongue, changes in the telling.

Similarly, in City of Incident, protagonists of one incident slip unobtrusively — so unobtrusively that you’d almost miss them if you weren’t paying attention — into the narrative of another. Sometimes there is ambiguity about whether it is the same person or incident. In the city, the novel tells us, our lives touch, brush against each other, perhaps even caress — but with meaning and fulfilment just out of reach.

Finding sanctuary

This sense of something just beyond — something nameless that is tantalisingly within one’s grasp, but recedes as soon as one stretches out a hand to it — unites Zaidi’s characters, all of whom labour under different forms of constraint: everyday constraints imposed by class, patriarchy, age. Consider, for example, the closing image of the story called ‘A Housewife Walks With Her Children But Fails to Board The Train’:

“The sun sends rivulets down her forehead, eye. It gathers between her lips and chin, glints in the pool of water she has made on the concrete roof, and offers her face back to her. Tilting her head, she feels the tightness in her chest loosen. It is like the opening of a fist. A flash goes off behind her closed lids, an echo of something shiny and nourishing in its absolute blackness. White lights bouncing off metal. Moonlight glinting on rail tracks.”

Zaidi’s characters, thus, are haunted by all the futures that have been denied to them, futures which they can only grope around for a language to imagine. Here again is that sense of containment: a contained language for contained lives. Zbigniew Herbert asks for words so that “the certainty we are waiting for/ casts anchor.”

It is precisely those words that are denied to the inhabitants of City of Incident, so that even death shall not leave anything behind that would “be worth a tragedy” (Herbert, ‘Elegy of Fortinbras’). The novel’s language matches the sense. We are told at one point that “words had dropped from his lips like pigeon shit on lamp posts” — an arresting simile, but somehow — once it seeps into you — the only one that fits. Zaidi’s spare, pared-down language is also one of containment, against “the foolishness of large concepts.”

This should not be taken to mean, however, that the novel is about futility or nihilism. Despite constraint and containment, Zaidi’s characters do find sanctuary in relationships, in physical spaces (especially the train), and sometimes in their own minds. It is a novel that, in the last reckoning, is one with Herbert when he writes: “So many feelings fit between two heartbeats/ so many objects can be held in our two hands/ Don’t be surprised we can’t describe the world/ and just address things tenderly by name” (‘Never of You’). City of Incident paints for us, deftly and elegantly, a world that is often bleak, but always has space for tenderness.

City of Incident: A Novel in Twelve Parts; Annie Zaidi, Aleph Book Company, ₹499

The writer is an editor and reviewer, and the author of The Wall and The Horizon.

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