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Home > How To Lounge> Books > I think of cities as people's spaces: Annie Zaidi

I think of cities as people's spaces: Annie Zaidi

Writer Annie Zaidi on her new book, City Of Incident, and how public transport systems can be spaces for friendship in big cities

Most of our interactions in the city are with people whom we see only once, says Annie Zaidi
Most of our interactions in the city are with people whom we see only once, says Annie Zaidi (Mint)

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In 2019, when writer Annie Zaidi’s book Prelude To A Riot came out, the freshest thing about it was the form itself. One yet-to-happen incident was told through the soliloquies of a different character in every chapter. Three years and one memoir (Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir Of Belonging And Dislocation, 2020) later, she returns with City Of Incident: A Novel In Twelve Parts, written in a format similar to her previous novel. About no one and nothing in specific, the book is a collection of vivid vignettes, each linked to the other through a sight or incident.

The book is slim but every minor moment, seemingly stray thought or fleeting conversation sizzles with meaning—if not in this, then in the next story when the moment is recalled, revisited in a different context. It makes one wonder how many stories the city holds, how many more it will be able to. Zaidi does not name any of the characters in this city. Yet each of them is strong and distinct, each the heroes of their chapters.

She talks to Lounge about the format she has used for this and her first book of fiction, why she first thanks public transport systems in the acknowledgements in a book whose emergent protagonist is the city, and the moralistic arguments about writing stories that aren’t from one’s social experience. Edited excerpts:

The format, in ‘Prelude...’ too, is a bit like an anthology film. Why do you use this form to tell the story of people in a city?

I was writing Prelude and City Of… almost side-by-side, approximately between 2014 and now. The format wasn’t a conscious decision. I often find that the way I am approaching stories has become kind of fragmented—a fractured lens kind of approach. And I am the kind of writer who tends to work from instinct—I don’t very often plan my plots or know ahead of time what shape the story is going to be. But once I begin, I go with it. After a few sections, I see the shape emerge, and then I know what I am doing.

With City Of ... I had started with just little flashes of incidents (in Mumbai) that I remembered, little scraps of detail that I saw/read somewhere, sights that haven’t quite left me, things I have been carrying around for years and have never forgotten. And I was unable to make sense of them, vis-a-vis my own relationship with the city and its people. With this book, I was aware that I needed to tell a story, that it had to capture the essence of all these little things—for me they are memories, but in literary terms they are just images. I wanted to construct a sense of what it means to live in a city, where so many things happen—small and big tragedies.

I think of cities primarily as people’s spaces and not so much as geography or an urban plan. And when you tell the story of a city through its people, you are bound to use a kind of fragmented approach because that’s just what the city is. It’s just a lot of people who do not encounter each other in any long-term way. Most of our interactions in the city are with people whom we see only once. Or there are people whom we know for a long time, but equally there are also friendships that are dissolved after some time, and relationships that happen and break away. I wanted to write something that captures the emotional quality of a city where connections are constantly happening, but are fleeting.

Do you see this interlinked episodic form, perhaps a hybrid between a novel and a short story, as an effective one for a world with shortened and fragmented attention spans?

I think every (form) has its limitations. If you ask me if I would do this form of writing again, I would say no, not in the near future. Usually, you need certain preconditions for interconnectedness or multiple-perspective stories to work: There’s this central incident and you come to it from different ways—what happened before it, what happened after it; and all the characters involved have a role to play. In film, you would see this often; the most famous one is, of course, Rashomon (directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1950).

City Of Incident does something similar, except that there is no central event. Bits of the information of one chapter will feed into the next chapter, and you will know a little bit about the characters, but ultimately, the only thing you will know a lot about is the city itself. So you can (use this format to) talk about an event or a particular landscape or city, or a historical moment in time. It’s a very fine balance — a writer should be conscious about how she wants to write, basically.

City Of Incident—A Novel in Twelve Parts: By Annie Zaidi, Aleph Book Company, 144 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499.
City Of Incident—A Novel in Twelve Parts: By Annie Zaidi, Aleph Book Company, 144 pages, 499.

In 2019, when writer Annie Zaidi’s book Prelude To A Riot came out, the freshest thing about it was the form itself. One yet-to-happen incident was told through the soliloquies of a different character in every chapter. Three years and one memoir (Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir Of Belonging And Dislocation, 2020) later, she returns with City Of Incident: A Novel In Twelve Parts, written in a format similar to her previous novel. About no one and nothing in specific, the book is a collection of vivid vignettes, each linked to the other through a sight or incident.

The book is slim but every minor moment, seemingly stray thought or fleeting conversation sizzles with meaning—if not in this, then in the next story when the moment is recalled, revisited in a different context. It makes one wonder how many stories the city holds, how many more it will be able to. Zaidi does not name any of the characters in this city. Yet each of them is strong and distinct, each the heroes of their chapters.

She talks to Lounge about the format she has used for this and her first book of fiction, why she first thanks public transport systems in the acknowledgements in a book whose emergent protagonist is the city, and the moralistic arguments about writing stories that aren’t from one’s social experience. Edited excerpts:

The format, in ‘Prelude...’ too, is a bit like an anthology film. Why do you use this form to tell the story of people in a city?

I was writing Prelude and City Of… almost side-by-side, approximately between 2014 and now. The format wasn’t a conscious decision. I often find that the way I am approaching stories has become kind of fragmented—a fractured lens kind of approach. And I am the kind of writer who tends to work from instinct—I don’t very often plan my plots or know ahead of time what shape the story is going to be. But once I begin, I go with it. After a few sections, I see the shape emerge, and then I know what I am doing.

With City Of ... I had started with just little flashes of incidents (in Mumbai) that I remembered, little scraps of detail that I saw/read somewhere, sights that haven’t quite left me, things I have been carrying around for years and have never forgotten. And I was unable to make sense of them, vis-a-vis my own relationship with the city and its people. With this book, I was aware that I needed to tell a story, that it had to capture the essence of all these little things—for me they are memories, but in literary terms they are just images. I wanted to construct a sense of what it means to live in a city, where so many things happen—small and big tragedies.

I think of cities primarily as people’s spaces and not so much as geography or an urban plan. And when you tell the story of a city through its people, you are bound to use a kind of fragmented approach because that’s just what the city is. It’s just a lot of people who do not encounter each other in any long-term way. Most of our interactions in the city are with people whom we see only once. Or there are people whom we know for a long time, but equally there are also friendships that are dissolved after some time, and relationships that happen and break away. I wanted to write something that captures the emotional quality of a city where connections are constantly happening, but are fleeting.

Do you see this interlinked episodic form, perhaps a hybrid between a novel and a short story, as an effective one for a world with shortened and fragmented attention spans?

I think every (form) has its limitations. If you ask me if I would do this form of writing again, I would say no, not in the near future. Usually, you need certain preconditions for interconnectedness or multiple-perspective stories to work: There’s this central incident and you come to it from different ways—what happened before it, what happened after it; and all the characters involved have a role to play. In film, you would see this often; the most famous one is, of course, Rashomon (directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1950).

City Of Incident does something similar, except that there is no central event. Bits of the information of one chapter will feed into the next chapter, and you will know a little bit about the characters, but ultimately, the only thing you will know a lot about is the city itself. So you can (use this format to) talk about an event or a particular landscape or city, or a historical moment in time. It’s a very fine balance — a writer should be conscious about how she wants to write, basically.

The author
The author (Harneet Singh)

You have thanked public transport systems in your acknowledgements. City train systems are by turns romanticised, seen as a not-very-convenient necessity, as a safe space for some much needed solitude, or even a centre of community. We see this playing out in the book in snatches too. Can you talk about this vis-a-vis the fact that big cities are often seen as unfriendly and easy to get lost in?

In Bombay (Mumbai), there are multiple transport systems—the buses, the newer Metros, and the city trains. Lots of people talk about cities as lonely places, and they can be. But for many people, the train, and longer train journeys specifically, have afforded them a kind of safe space, a bubble where you either retreat into yourself, or you can find connections with other people. On shorter commutes, you are unlikely to pick up friends along the way, or have too much of a relationship with the train. Your association is so brief with it; it is just a means of getting to somewhere. In cities like Mumbai, you are travelling longer distances, often an hour. What happens is that within the first few minutes, certain transformations happen—your inner state changes, you look around you, you will then read a book, or talk to people, sing, share food. In the local trains, people start chopping vegetables, many women bring tiffin boxes; they have train friends and will exchange things.

With women particularly, that little women’s compartment is theirs in a world where they have so few external spaces where they can just go hang out—especially women from lower-income groups. So, this hour each way becomes a way of nurturing their relationships with other women and friends. Men similarly play cards, sometimes they will sing bhajans…and this requires that you travel with the same set of people quite often; very often, that happens organically as everybody needs to get to work at the same time every day, so you end up taking trains at more or less the same time. That way, the relationships deepen—all it takes is just a conversation, where you are heard and feel emotional relief. Sometimes, a stranger might see you struggling, and if they can offer you nothing else, they will offer you a word. So, in this way, multiple levels of connections happen.

In the book, you are telling stories of all kinds of people—from the homeless to those in high-rises. As we contend with issues of appropriation and who gets to tell whose stories, did you feel self-censure as a writer in depicting the lives of those whose class struggles may be far removed from yours?

I did think a lot about this. Broadly, I think writing becomes impossible if you constantly think about who gets to write about whom. The act of writing fiction is about inhabiting a space inside your head where anything is possible. This (idea of appropriating stories) operates from the position that nobody actually gets to imagine what other people’s lives are like. If that’s the case, then all fiction is impossible. That is my first and immediate response.

Secondly, in India (the appropriation argument) is typically caste- or class-based, and about people who were historically denied the right to tell their own stories. My response to that is that of course they should be telling their own stories, but I would also not, as a matter of principle, agree with the argument that a writer does not have the right to tell stories about people or lives they haven’t experienced themselves, simply on the grounds that then the historically underprivileged will be the first to be denied the right to tell the stories about other people.

I would be very cautious about telling someone not to write about this or that. I would be conscious of it though—to the extent that I am...sensitive and intuitive about whether I have a sense of when I can’t get into a character I am writing. If I have done the work and the research, potentially the imagination will take off at some point.

 

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    27.02.2022 | 09:00 AM IST

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