Can a novel compete with OTT platforms? City of Incident by Annie Zaidi shows the way
“Who can refuse to live their own life? the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova once wrote in a letter to a friend. I remember
carefully copy these words into a notebook, at the height of my Akhmatova
Some fifteen years later, as I read Annie Zaidi’s new book, City of Incident, a slim little novel, in which we meet – briefly, scorching – six men and six women as they navigate the life, these words, long buried in the mound of memory, arisen from somewhere.
But who can refuse to live their own life? What happens when they try?
I ask myself this quietly, almost ritually, as I turn the pages and revisit the chapters again, pausing at their intriguing titles: “A Housewife goes out with his children but does not get on the train”; “An adulterous man reconsiders the truth after his lover falls on him
Deaths”; “A trinket seller accepts treats from a snake charmer while her husband languishes in prison”; “A bank teller sees a happy baby on the street and wants to die”. Reminiscent somewhat of the structure of his previous award-winning novel Prelude to a Riot (2019), where the main characters each had a soliloquy, to tell their story and move the novel as a whole forward, here too, we find each character as the protagonist of a single chapter. All but one of the chapters are told through an unblinking over-the-shoulder camera that captures, almost laconically, every tic, every wail, every cry of hope or bubbling of despair of its subject – “that man” or “that woman.” . The silences in the noisy, never-sleeping city are teased.
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The solitudes of men and women unfold against the smoky skywhether they come from over-decorated apartments on the 16th floor or from
on the “bare earth, under the new elevated rail”. (The only chapter says in the second person – “[y]our car is in the garage and you had to take a rickshaw home today…” introduces a delicious change of flavor, precisely because it takes the reader by
However, that’s where the similarity to Riot ends. Although Riot’s cast of characters was introduced from the start, as was the
dramatis personae in a play are, and there was a chorus commenting on the turn of events, Riot was more recognizably a novel, set in a
small, self-contained town, with the characters all part of an overarching story, despite the clever little sidebars.
In City of Incident, the canvas – the eponymous city – is incredibly vast. (Although it remains unnamed, from the first sentence it is
immediately recognizable as Mumbai: “Between nine o’clock and midnight, this man rides in the twenty-four-hour ladies’ first class
bus on the West line. “) Against the impossible dimensions of this city, the 12 small lives waver bravely under the razor-sharp gaze of
the author’s goal. It starts with a moment, an image, an atmosphere that turns into a story. One life is linked to another, seeds are sown in an early chapter that will sprout in a later chapter. Sometimes it’s a vague intersection, the kind of thing that’s natural in a buzz
metropolis, sometimes a deep connection is forged. But above all, everyone is sent back to their own life – who can refuse to live it?! – speak
metronome of their own situation.
The riot was urgent and political; The city is understated and almost entirely focused on the individual. We don’t have to know any names; the identities are
primarily related to class. A sin Greek tragedythe moments of the greatest dramas all take place offstage and we only hear about them
through the casual words of others. In my opinion, it’s the economy of this stylistic choice that makes City so compelling.
At a time when novelists are – unfortunately – forced to compete with Netflix, not only for their readers’ time and attention spans, but also for the
overall inclination towards a certain type of narration, with its long and hyper-detailed episodes, stories-in stories, listening to the kind of realistic world built by novelists of the past, over six hundred pages, how can the novel defend itself to remain relevant?
This is perhaps a question that novelists have to grapple with more and more today.
It is safe to say that Zaidi, one of the most talented writers of our generation, has successfully solved this thorny problem through
City of the incident. As the chapter titles – “A Police Officer Reflects on Accidents, Negligent Women and Infanticide”; “A manager picks up
Snippets of other people’s lives and attempts to restore his own” – tell us the sum of the chapter with tweet-like conciseness, the reader,
deceived from the familiar high of “hooks”, has no choice but to look beyond the “what” to the “how”. We are reminded that the author
the voice, shining through the narrative, illuminating the prose, is what keeps the novel vital and alive. While binge-watching leaves us
exhausted and glassy-eyed from a streak, when we dive into calm, transformer pool from a powerful prose, we emerge renewed.
Devapriya Roy is a Delhi-based author. His most recent book is Cat People, an edited anthology with contributions primarily from cat lovers,
but also some haters