Annie Zaidi’s City of Incident tells the story of six women and six men, each struggling to keep their balance in a metropolis. An extract:
This woman is so transparent that the evil eye cannot fall on her. Perhaps the evil runs through her body, falling on the person standing right behind her in the queue for a second class pass renewal.
Not that she’s traveling second class. She travels first class, bindaas. Who can challenge her? She wears sleeveless tops and chunky dangling earrings, like a college student. She has a desk job and a faux leather handbag with a Hello Kitty clasp that she polishes once a week with Brasso. No one would look at her and say she doesn’t look first class. Moreover, in the terrible morning crush, no ticket inspector dares to enter the compartment. No commuter could be expected to reach into their purse to extract a ticket or pass. All the arms are trapped, squeezed and immobilized by a dozen other arms and shoulders. All the ladies have to suck their stomachs and crush their breasts as they make their way from the seat to the aisle through the door. There is security in such crowds.
Despite everything, she is aware that luck is on her side. Night after night, she travels in the first class coach when it is nearly empty. In four years, not a single ticket examiner has shown up and asked to see her ticket. For that, she is grateful. Also, for the cop who’s on duty in the ladies’ compartment after nine o’clock. Her khaki uniform made her nervous at first, she was sort of a law breaker. However, over the weeks she decided that his presence was further proof of her good luck. She feels safe no matter what time of day she’s traveling.
The best time to travel to this city is between 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. After that, it’s rush hour again. At 11 p.m., the gentlemen are allowed to board the second-class ladies’ bus, but the ladies refuse to be run over on a bus with gentlemen, to hell with the tickets. So they flock to the next car, the first class, which is reserved for women every twenty-four hours. It is generally the family crowd, mothers with children. Large noisy groups. These women don’t know any of the unspoken rules of train etiquette: how to sit, stand, where to get off. If you laugh at them, they expect sympathy. They expect you to give up your seat just because they are carrying babies.
Have you ever wondered why diets don’t seem to work?
She makes a point of looking away, smiling the barely suppressed smile of the long suffering. She learned to do this from the first class ladies. They rarely call or cry when the irregulars invade the compartment. Instead, they exchange glances and roll kohl-smeared eyes. They think they can tell who is and is not First Class at a glance. Sticky golden lace edging a saree. Lots of bracelets. Flashy red sindoor in the hair part. Polyester burqa. Reddened faces, shrill voices and above all their easy excitability. It’s a picnic for them, being on a local train.
Some nights a holder of a First Class pass will lose his temper. She goes after one of the second class ladies, asking her to be careful where she walks, pointing out that it is first class. then some of the other ladies will step in. How much we tolerate, but these people take advantage of our silence. Now if only a ticket reviewer showed up. the way we suffer! We can’t sit even at eleven o’clock at night! What is the point of paying for a first class pass? Useless!
Some nights the ladies turn on the cop accompanying them, their indignant voices rising. What’s the point of having a police officer with us if he can’t enforce the law? Why doesn’t he throw them away? They don’t just come in first class, now they want a seat too! All the fools that pay for first class, we stand here and look at their faces. Just look at them; they’re setting there like their daddy owns the railroad.
He can hear them, despite his headphones. She can tell by the way he carefully keeps his face away, the way he gazes into the dark night. He ignores their indignation, does not say a word. She likes it about him. She knows he’s boarding the train at Churchgate. She gets on at this station herself and is careful not to look him in the eye as she gets on the bus. She chooses a seat so that she can sit down with her back to him.
She takes off her yellow slippers with bright blue straps, rests her feet on the empty seat opposite. Lazily, she speculates on his wife’s form. His mustache suggests a woman. Her belly suggests a woman. What does she want from a man who has a wife waiting for him at home?
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