Annie Zaidi's stories are at once warm and distant, violent and gentle - and, above all, untroubled by cynicism. This is a look at love, straight in the eye, to understand the alluring nature of the beast.
Here's an excerpt from her latest book:
Love Story # 10
(aka The one that was announced)
She was fifty-seven, going on fifty-eight, and the thought that she would be retired soon filled her with despair. It was her last year at work and she knew she would be offered a bye-bye package soon, no extensions please. She wasn't going to beg, of course. If they had asked her to stay on another year, even six months . . . but they had probably found a replacement already. She was sure of that. But they
were sure to give her good references. Perhaps, at another office. It wasn't impossible. There were all sorts of new companies and they needed someone. Taking calls, making calls, writing invoices, filing. Younger people didn't know all this. She wouldn't work for the salary, of course. But even a little something.
She had enough put by. There wasn't a money problem. Nor was she worried about what to do with herself. It would be nice, really, to have nowhere to go, nothing to do. Since the age of thirty-five, there was nothing she had longed for more. Read a tabloid over a long, leisurely breakfast, then the Today
before lunch, then maybe dig up a new recipe for the evening. She longed to drift about the house in a nightie, catching glimpses of her rumpled self in the mirror. She wanted to potter from kitchen to balcony to bathroom to sofa set. Watch TV. Oh yes, she would like that very much.
She would like it even better after her neighbours went off to work, or college, or school, or wherever they had to go. Then she could play loud music through the day. It was her greatest joy on Sunday afternoons, but she wasn't allowed to. There were slanging matches with the neighbours, and if she refused to turn down the volume, then those people would respond to her playing of sixties' hits, like 'Yahoooo!', by
putting on cricket commentaries at maximum volume. Not even music. Just cricket talk!
When she was at home and they were away, then she could listen to her music. And she would never worry about being late for work. There were few things worse in this city than her incessant, belittling commute. Sticking to a desk for nine hours, dealing with people who ignored her or shouted at her, being curt with strangers who wanted to speak to the bosses right away. No appointment, just like that. Glaring at her, as if she stopped them for the joy of it. Who would miss all those aggrieved, accusing faces? She would have enjoyed the idea of retirement if it wasn't for him. How was she going to meet him if she didn't get out of the house and go to work?
This was a serious problem. She had been trying to wrap her head around it for nearly eleven years now. Surely, there must be a solution. Surely, people didn't let go of people they loved just because they didn't go to office any longer. She did have the option of keeping up her commute. She could still take the 9.10, because that's where he was most often, although he could also be on the 8.22. Still, as retirement day drew close, a terrible thought had begun to haunt her: what if he too was due to retire? How, then, would they maintain contact?
Until now, she had never considered the possibility of his retirement. She hadn't thought that he too would have grown to a certain age, a certain build, with a certain kind of lined, baggy face. That he too waited for the day when he could stop working. She had spent twelve years wallowing in the luxury of making him whatever age she wanted him to be. The idea of his retirement seemed incredible. For the first two years, she remained fixated on thirty-five. She had decided that he was younger. He sounded like it, the way he fumbled with announcements; his hesitation before announcing timing or platform number, his obvious haste in getting away from the microphone. She had pictured him from the moment she first heard his voice. There was a softness around its edges. Maybe it was because he had been asked to speak at short notice, but his voice sounded high-pitched, breathless. Perhaps he could hear his own voice when he spoke. That must have made him even more awkward, for he halted at all the wrong points, stressed the wrong syllables so that the cadence of the announcement was distorted. Some passengers in the ladies coach had begun to giggle. They all guessed that the man was not used to making announcements. Usually, it was a mellow, confident woman's voice that shimmied along
their morning commutes, barely disturbing those who fell asleep.
There was something wrong that day - a signal wasn't working, or somebody had fallen down on the tracks again, who knows? It happened all the time. Everyone would fret, restless fingers, twitching knees, clicking tongues. Once, a train had been stalled for three hours, and nobody knew why. A bunch of passengers had hopped off, onto the tracks, and begun yelling. The train driver was beaten up. Some of
them were arrested later. It was all very frightening, but afterwards, the railways started making regular
announcements. There was a loudspeaker system in each compartment. If something went wrong, they would announce it, and tell you how long it would take to fix it. Of course, it usually took longer. But still, it was reassuring to hear a human voice say what was going on. A live, hesitant voice that suggested that you were going to be okay. Things got fixed. You didn't stay stuck forever. You would get to wherever you wanted to go. She liked the announcements.
Each time the train was late, she would make a note of the voice - how it sounded, the exact words used, who the announcer might be. She would retell it in office. Women her own age would gather to listen; they understood. They would even say something about the voices in their own trains. Little stories built up around the announcements. But more and more of those women had retired, or quit.
More and more, she felt foolish, trying to tell younger women about train announcements and voices. She never talked about his voice, of course. Not even to her older friends. That one was too special to be shared. She couldn't explain why he was so special. Maybe the way he had read out the delayed schedule that first time, foolishly racing through the whole announcement, then repeating it in three languages - Marathi, Hindi, English. His English was heavily accented with Marathi, and on days
when he was going to announce a cancellation, his voice sometimes cracked with sheer nervousness: 'Passengers, kindly pay attention . . . passengers . . .'
She could picture a young man, not yet confident in his own skin. Someone who wore grey pants and mixed-cotton shirts, blues and whites, to work. His eyes might be large, and if he wore glasses, they would look even larger. He probably blinked when he got nervous. And he probably had to write down the announcement in his own handwriting before he approached the microphone. That was what he sounded like, and her heart went out to the nervous young man.
Over the years, she got better at picking up voices. She began to pay close attention. There were usually three women announcers on her route, and one man who sounded older, more gruff. Then there was him, his voice utterly unsuited to the making of public announcements. Did they make him announce things just to hear him sound foolish? Did they laugh at him?
She could imagine that. Colleagues were like school children, so innocently cruel. That was why she never spoke about him to her own colleagues. One would tell the other, and then there was no stopping them. Meanwhile, the announcements grew more frequent. Somebody would announce the name of the upcoming station, then the name of the next station. This was when she developed an instinct.
The announcement system would bristle, crackle, the microphone would be switched off, and on again, and exactly two seconds before the voice began to speak, she would venture a guess - would it be him, or not?
Nine times out of ten, she was right.
It delighted her. It made her flush. This ability to pick him out, pluck him out of the radio silence. She whispered a name she didn't even know, and thought: 'There you are. I knew it was you.' It was like the game she had played as a child. Someone would sneak up behind you and put their palms on your eyes. Then you had to guess who it was. Sometimes, you used tricks - rings, wristbands, scars, nail-length would lend clues. Or smell, or even body temperature. Still, you mostly counted on your instinct. She remembered the thrill of being right, and also her longing to be known, to be guessed at. When she put her hands over a chosen friend's eyes and the friend somehow guessed correctly, she would feel fulfilled,
redeemed, whole. If a friend guessed you right again and again, it meant there was a special bond. And here she was, getting it right almost every time. It meant something, didn't it? Thrilled, she resolved to take the 8.22 every day. That was the train on which she heard his voice most often.
The 8.22 wasn't a good train to catch. Ideally, she would have taken the 8.16, which stopped at her stop. The 8.22 went further, was more crowded, and it left her with less time to look for a shared cab that would take her to office. But those were minor adjustments. You had to make adjustments, didn't you? Everyone makes some small sacrifices for people with whom they share a special bond.
Love Stories # 1 to 14; By: Annie Zaidi; Price: Rs. 350; Format: Paperback; Extent: 328 pages; Category: Fiction/Short Stories; Publisher: Harper Collins India