by Annie Zaidi City of Incident: a novel in twelve parts is essentially snapshots of 12 (loosely) interconnected people in an unnamed town, who “will forgive anyone and everything except those who delay trains” (Mumbai).
Disparate characters — a cop, a bank teller, a security guard, a fragile woman having an affair, her lover, her ex-wife… — introduce themselves and, one by one, reveal parts of themselves : their thoughts, their observations, how others see them, how they see others, a significant life-changing incident. The local train passes in the background.
These don’t sort of come together like a novel – but are more like 12 parts of a work in progress. Some stories are essentially a synopsis of a lifetime featuring a transformative or cathartic incident, culminating in death. And yet, you don’t quite understand who this person is. Other times, you know her in one sentence: “Everyone remembers her running into the frame and saying, ‘Hold on! Me too! Take one with me too!”
Each part has its own vibe. Some contain the wise and whimsical beauty of Zaidi’s writing. My favorite sections are about love and loss: “But then she was floating on her own cloud. Dreamy pink cloud, her mother said. That’s all it is. You are sitting on a pink cloud. It will rain emptyly during the next monsoon… Better than a gray cloud that never rains. It was the first reply she addressed to her mother. First and last.”
In contrast, the unrelated section that precedes is the very trusting and oblivious inner monologue of male selfishness. A middle-aged man, after losing his wife and her lover, finds relief in what he sees as his narrow escape from the seemingly clutches of the horrors these two women could hypothetically have inflicted on him. “Luckily his wife didn’t make a scene or threaten to press charges for domestic violence. Luckily also he never got his hands on her. The laws these days are all geared towards women. As for to her former lover, she “had a tongue on her. Worse than his wife perhaps. He should have been warned. She was not one to whine and whine. Her voice was light, soft as bubbles soap.
In Zaidi’s excellent first novel Prelude to a riot (2019), which was a compendium of anxieties in an increasingly hyper-nationalist small town, there were asides about relatively minor things like love. It rarely comes back because there are so many other things that seemed more important to me in this outstanding little novel, but some of these lines have stuck with me ever since: “He spins a long thread of honey crumbs around me, but he never tells the truth.”
City of incident is built around these small things, but they are not enough to hold the novel. It’s a deliberate stylistic choice to offer just more than a glimpse of “people you’re not particularly interested in until a fragile moment breaks.” The book’s blurb also states that it presents “a disturbing view of a great city and its most helpless inhabitants”.
But these are voices that just don’t match. Zaidi’s middle class characters come to life with ease, there is a lightness to their emotional vulnerabilities. But his marginalized, working-class characters have a misplaced earnestness, which makes them feel like mere props — as if they view each other with disdain and lack agency even in their minds.
The security guard, for example, thinks “his job is just to keep his eyes open”. Surely he knows it’s more than that and there’s more at stake – it’s obvious he does because throughout the section he takes his job seriously. We are told that the inhabitants of the building would rather he looked down. But Zaidi doesn’t quite reveal who would want security to look the other way and why. But only that, “Some of them complain that he is insolent. When they pass by, he looks them straight in the eye. They don’t like his scrutiny, gauging, pondering, staring eyes. He should lower your eyes. A nod would be nice, a hello, a greeting. He doesn’t have to smile and nod his head in that familiar way, like a friendly neighbor would. He should have been trained in these things. He doesn’t know, of course, that they say such things. He thinks he’s doing a good job as a security.
Aesthetically, the book looks fine, if dated. The cover is in lowercase, the 12 parts are separated by black pages with titles (large, serif) that sound mysterious — “A woman finds love in illicit places and watches over her lover’s wife“- and would be on a tote bag, but here’s the literal plot. This minimalist ambiguity went out of style with millennials just before the pandemic hit, which wouldn’t matter if she wasn’t that disconcerting.
Zaidi, also a journalist and playwright, has been churning out work — much of it important, quality work — over the past few years with impressive speed. In 2019, she won the Nine Dots award for an essay on the idea of home, which led to an insightful exploration of roots and displacement in Bread, cement, cactus: memory of belonging and dislocation (2020).
I entered City of incident about halfway through the 120-page book. The characters had started to come together and some of them were closely related which has a consistency. It made me curious enough to go back to the start – but again I was disappointed.
In the end, I wish more parts of this novel were like the last, A manager collects snippets of other people’s lives and tries to restore his ownin which a manager recovers scraps of other people’s lives and attempts to restore his own.
Saudamini Jain is a freelance journalist. She lives in New Delhi.