IT’S BEEN 20 months now that most of us in Delhi, India, have been living with a public transport-shaped hole in our lives. With work from home becoming the norm, and the outdoors being the repository of anxieties and infections, I’ve not taken a ride in the Delhi metro since January 2020. It still takes more than a minute to allow that to sink in. Through this time, I have continued to take autorickshaws off and on. As I look at the world whizz by me from that vantage point, I have felt the pang of missing the company of a co-passenger, the sweet serendipity of seeing a friend from a distance, the windfall of odoriferous memories as the autorickshaw speeds past a once frequented part of the city.
Such bittersweet moments, albeit in a different corner of the world, are on view in Lauren Elkin’s latest offering, No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus. According to the author herself in the introduction to the volume:
The following entries were composed in the Notes app on a yellow iPhone 5c over a period of seven months, from September 2014 to May 2015, while riding the 91 and then the 92 bus in Paris to and from the university where I taught twice a week, and occasionally during other trips on public transport. The goal was to observe the world through the screen of my phone, rather than to use my phone to distract myself from the world. Along the way I thought a lot about how people live together, and experience trauma on an everyday level.
Called a love letter to Paris, the slim volume packs a good hit of public transport nostalgia. Through contemplative page-length scribbles, Elkin allows her mind to wander, thus taking us on an unprecedented journey on which we encounter thoughts, places, and people, as we do her ruminations, knee-jerk reactions, under-the-breath mutterings, and personal contemplations.
I, too, used to do this. There was a world outside the window of my metro ride and yet another inside my phone. There is something about a shared commute that makes you write, scribble, note, record everything that is happening around. Elkin, too, notes this tendency when she muses, “What is it about the bus that makes people not want to read the newspaper or a book but only their phones. Down below they still read on paper. Up here on the surface it’s only screens.” Having stayed in six cities in India, I have walked, taken public transport and private cabs, all the while making copious notes about all that was happening around or within me, sometimes simultaneously. On days, much like Elkin, when I was able to step briefly into the inner world of my co-passengers — through a stolen glance at a phone screen or an overheard snatch of a fight — my emotions would run high. This one time, as the metro came to a screeching halt at my stop, Rajiv Chowk, I saw a girl sitting on the platform with her back to the metro just moments before the gates opened. She cupped her face between her palms, sitting in a slouched posture. I had never seen anyone sit like that, with their backs to the metro. Her posture intrigued me, and I quickly unlocked my phone and made a note to myself. Like Elkin, tapping those seemingly irrelevant details then meant a freeing acceptance of what was beyond my control, of the fact that some questions were destined to remain unanswered.
The book is a treat, and Elkin’s circumambulatory bus journaling makes it rather charming, if whimsical. Her style is imaginative, engaging, and conversant with the current lot of us perennially complaining about attention deficit. The language — peppered with French intermingled with English — reflects that it was written in a way to have fun, to record, and to pause time. She records in the book her annoyances, discomforts, and breakdowns while using the bus. Elkin makes for a great, albeit unintended, case for the importance of public transport in Paris — adding it to the list of quintessential experiences to have in the capital.
In her notes, Elkin also touches upon issues of identity, recognizing herself as the outsider forever looking in. At one point, she writes:
Thinking about what it means to be asking to be French because I have my citizenship interview tomorrow. Why do I want to be French? Who the hell knows? Because I’ve lived here for years and still have to go to the prefecture once a year, or every couple of years, and provide all the papers, only to find I’m short this one or that one. The anxiety of those encounters, being judged and found wanting, guilty of the offense of not making the right photocopies. And by this time I think I’m almost the last of my American friends not to have married a French person or found some job to sponsor me. I remain unaffiliated, or otherwise affiliated. I just want to be able to stay here and not to be hassled, not to be judged on my photocopies. And it would be nice to be able to vote. To have some say in things however small.
These bits gain renewed importance in light of the ongoing migration crisis. In conversation with issues of belonging and not belonging, Elkin identifies as someone struggling. She writes:
The other day when I was here waiting for the bus a woman asked me if her scarf looked ok. I told her yes yes it did, and quivered with joy at having been mistaken for a French girl who might know anything about scarves. Then I worried there was something wrong with her scarf, something I couldn’t see, and that someone at her work would notice and either not tell her, and judge her for it, or tell her, and then she would think back to what I said, and revise her opinion of me.
Threaded into the prose are throwaway bits of poetry, overheard conversations, and an array of smells. An impressive use of visual imagery determines how the city is seen from the window seat. “The world outside looks like it’s been passed thru an Instagram filter the darks are darker the stone more wet.” She captures the frayed nerves of the city after the Charlie Hebdo attacks: a peculiar skittishness cutting through the city and its people, highly palpable in the thick of public commute. She writes,
[B]ut there’s nothing pointy about rush hour, just a press, warm people pressed against each other’s bodies, like some kind of wordless woolly love-in. I guess we need each other. People are dressed too warmly for the weather. It’s pretty warm for January but we’re all wearing scarves and fur hats as if a Siberian wind were blowing.
Throughout her book, there is a renewed emphasis on the importance of smartphones. She calls them “glowing oracles in our hands” that allow us to observe more than just the immediate, “what’s just outside his peripheral vision, threatening to undo the whole.” Riding the bus during her pregnancy, Elkin is highly attentive to sensory stimuli as she goes from one day to another. She describes the olfactory assault at one point with “the smells are in high definition, if high definition could make you want to hurl.” Her pointed notes, about women co-passengers, made me wonder if more women use the buses in Paris than men.
In May last year when Elkin had taken to Twitter to announce the signing of her book, she had called it a “Perecquian tribute to Paris as viewed through the window of my commute.” I had wondered then what the book would comprise, and when I read it almost a year later, it was a befitting response to our continued exile from public transport. I felt a relief while reading it, a release from the tension of being cooped up indoors for so long and being momentarily transported to the world of public transport, however briefly.