Book Excerpt: Shadow City by Taran N. Khan

Taran N. Khan takes us through the lanes of Kabul, creating an elegant cartography of poets, museums, archaeologists and local book markets.

Written on the City

The road to Kabul is made of stories. A fragment of a memory leads me to the afternoon when I first read about the city, in a book I found on Baba’s shelves. The adults were deep in sleep; the house filled with the kind of stillness in which fables begin. The short story I perused was written by the legendary Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore in 1892.

It sketched the anatomy of an unusual friendship set in Calcutta (now called Kolkata), between a little girl called Mini and a kabuliwala—a trader from Afghanistan. He brings Mini treats of almonds and raisins in his big bag. They play and laugh together. Each time he visits her street, she calls out to him: ‘O Kabuliwala!’ We learn that the kabuliwala loves Mini because she reminds him of his own daughter, back in his faraway home. In his pocket, he carries a piece of paper with his child’s tiny hand printed on it. This is the closest he has to her image. As I remember it, this was the first time I had heard of Kabul—through the story of an impoverished pedlar, seeking the familiar face of his child while wandering a distant land.

Growing up, I read a lot. Partly because I loved it, and partly because there wasn’t much else to do as a teenage girl in Aligarh. Given the tacit boundaries of my conservatively liberal Muslim family, the world outside my door was as distant as a faraway continent. I ventured into it like a tourist. To school, family outings to the cinema, a few social events with friends. All of these expeditions were monitored and supervised. Crucially, they all required reasons—a sanctioned purpose that permitted my presence on the streets, which could never be aimless. My male cousins roamed the thoroughfares of Aligarh freely, spending late nights at buzzy tea shops, leaping over walls, gazing at the stars. I cultivated a fluency in occupying interiors. Reading, then, was a path into possibilities; it offered a parallel terrain which I could stride through boldly.

Photo by Min An on

Books were thus my private continent, providing both excitement and safety. They were my maps to navigating the world, and also the way I created a sense of belonging, of being at home. They opened up worlds for me, without my leaving the house. The rambling bungalow I grew up in was full of books. Most of the volumes in the cupboards lining the high-ceilinged, dimly lit bedrooms had belonged to aunts and uncles, marking their passage through the boarding schools of northern India during the 1950s. These included wholesome volumes handed out as prizes for moral science, English elocution and attendance. Musty and haphazardly stocked, these cupboards always contained something new to discover, or something familiar to return to. This was where I found my first copies of P.G. Wodehouse and developed a taste for the romances of Georgette Heyer. I read Anton Chekhov and Isaac Asimov, Daphne du Maurier and Ayn Rand. I read through afternoons with power cuts, peering at the printing by the light of a window open just a crack, one hand turning the pages and the other swirling a fan over my grandmother’s sleeping form. I read through long winter evenings when there was nowhere to be but home. Books were all the social life I got, and all that I ended up needing.

Years later, I found this upbringing to have been perfect preparation for life in Kabul. The carefully cloistered routines of my adolescence corresponded seamlessly with the rhythm of the city in 2006. Expatriate workers banded together in guest houses that were often converted bungalows, their high walls enclosing lush lawns, creating the perfect zenana. In my own guest house, the room I occupied overlooked the inner courtyard, just like it did back in Aligarh. So the things other women from abroad found difficult about the city often seemed quite natural to me.

‘There’s nowhere to go out in the evenings.’ We never did anyway. ‘What do you do for fun here?’ I answered by rolling my eyes and turning to my books. Reading was how I learned to inhabit Kabul, a large part of how I made myself at home there. Until one trip, when I realized that I had forgotten to pack my usual stock of reading material. Without books, I was lost. The evenings loomed dark and frighteningly long unless I found myself something to read. I began looking and asked for help. The responses I got from people like myself—expats who had come to work in Kabul—ranged from amused disdain to baffled attempts at helpfulness. It was as though I had set out to look for exotic fruits or designer swimwear in a Kabuli market. (Except that those would probably have been available in the swish shops of Shahr-e-Nau, or the sprawling ‘Bush Bazaar’ market, named after the US President who ordered the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.) Friends who often travelled offered to bring something back from Dubai on their next visit. Others gently suggested that I prepare better for hardships the next time I packed for Kabul.

What began as a light-heartedly desperate search for books to fill my evenings turned into a series of walks through spaces that were shaped by the written word. As I wandered its streets in search of something to read, I began to read Kabul like a story, cast in a script that is embossed on to its alleys and stones. Like a palimpsest: heavy with inscriptions and erasures, written over and over again.

Walking showed me a way to read the city, just as reading guided my walks through the city.

During my first trip to Kabul, I had walked through my neighbourhood of Kolola Pushta to a nearby guest house rented by an international NGO. The locality is framed by the ‘round hill’ that gave it its name, topped by a mud fort on the summit. That spring day, after a shower of rain, it stood clear against a blue horizon, free of Kabul’s notorious dust.

This fort was a key location during the revolt against King Amanullah in 1928. It was captured in December by the rebel leader Habibullah Kalakani, who then gained control of Kabul in January 1929. As Amir of Afghanistan, Kalakani rolled back Amanullah’s controversial modernizing measures. Many of the court elite switched loyalty to him during his brief reign. But by October 1929, Kabul had fallen once again and Amanullah’s cousin was proclaimed king. Kalakani surrendered against a promised amnesty, but was executed along with his close associates in November. The silhouette of the fort above the wide, pleasant streets I wandered on was a reminder of this interlude of tension: between city and countryside, between the desire for modernity and for tradition.

The excerpt has been published from Shadow City by Taran N. Khan with the permission of Penguin Random House.

About the Author

TARAN N. KHAN is a journalist and author based in Mumbai. She grew up in Aligarh and was educated in New Delhi and London. Her works have been widely published in India and internationally, including in Guernica, Al Jazeera, the Caravan and Himal Southasian. Her writing has also received support from the MacDowell Colony, the Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing and Literature and the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, among others. From 2006 to 2013, Khan spent long periods living and working in Kabul. Shadow City is her first book.

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