City of Incident by Annie Zaidi tells the story of six women and six men, each of them struggling to keep their balance in a metropolis. An excerpt:
This woman is so transparent, the evil eye cannot fall upon her. Perhaps the evil goes right through her body, falling on the person standing right behind her in queue for the renewal of a second-class pass.
Not that she travels second class. She travels first class, bindaas. Who can challenge her? She wears sleeveless tops and big dangly earrings, just like a college girl. She has an office job and a faux leather handbag with a Hello Kitty clasp that she polishes once a week with Brasso. Nobody would look at her and say that she doesn’t look first class. Besides, in the terrible crush of the morning, no ticket examiner dares enter the compartment. No commuter could be expected to reach into her purse to extract a ticket or a pass. All arms are trapped, pressed, and pinned down by a dozen other arms and shoulders. All the ladies must suck in their bellies and squash each other’s breasts as they make their way from seat to aisle to door. There is safety in such crowds.
Even so, she is aware that luck is on her side. Night after night, she travels in the first-class coach when it is near empty. In four years, not once has any ticket examiner shown up and asked to see her ticket. For this, she is grateful. Also, for the cop who is on duty in the ladies’ compartment after nine o’clock. His khaki uniform made her nervous at first, she being a law-breaker of sorts. However, as the weeks went by, she decided that his presence was further evidence of her good luck. She feels safe, no matter how late she travels.
The best time to travel in this city is between 9.30 and 10.30 p.m. After that, it feels like rush hour all over again. At 11 p.m., gents are allowed to board the second-class ladies’ coach, but the ladies refuse to be squashed into any coach with gents, tickets be damned. So they come pouring into the neighbouring coach, the first class, which is reserved for ladies all twenty-four hours. This is usually the family crowd, mothers with children in tow. Big noisy groups. These women know none of the unspoken rules of train etiquette—how to sit, how to stand, where to get off. If you snap at them, they expect sympathy. They expect you to give up your seat just because they’re carting babies.
She makes it a point to turn her head away, smiling the barely-restrained smile of the long suffering. She has learnt how to do this from the first-class ladies. They rarely scream or shout when the irregulars invade the compartment. Instead, they exchange glances and roll their kohl-smudged eyes. They think they can tell who is, and isn’t, first class at a glance. Tacky gold lace edging a sari. Lots of bracelets. Flashy red sindoor in the parting of their hair. Polyester burqas. Flushed faces, high-pitched voices and, above all, their easy excitability. It’s a picnic for them, being out in a local train.
Some nights, a first-class pass-holder will lose her cool. She will snap at one of the second-class ladies, asking her to mind where she steps, pointing out that this is first class. then some of the other ladies will chime in. How much we tolerate, but these people take advantage of our silence. Now if only a ticket examiner would show up. the way we are suffering! We don’t get to sit down even at eleven at night! What’s the point of paying for a first-class pass? Pointless!
Some nights, the ladies turn on the cop who is travelling with them, their indignant voices rising. What’s the use of having a policeman with us if he cannot enforce the law? Why doesn’t he throw them out? They’re not satisfied with getting into first class, now they want a seat too! All of us fools who pay for the first class, we stand here and look at their faces. Just look at them, they’re sitting there grandly as if their father owns the railway.
He can hear them, despite his earphones. She can tell from the way he carefully keeps his face averted, the way he stares out into the dark night. He ignores their indignation, doesn’t say a word. She likes this about him. She knows he boards the train at Churchgate. She herself boards at that station and is careful not to look him in the eye as she enters the coach. She picks a seat so she can sit with her back turned to him.
She kicks off her yellow slippers with their bright blue straps, puts up her feet on the empty seat across. Idly, she speculates on the shape of his wife. His moustache suggests a wife. His belly suggests a wife. What does she want with a man who has a wife waiting at home?