“Beauty and creativity coexisted with all the difficult realities of the city!” – Taran N Khan

Team Kitaab is in conversation with Taran N. Khan, the author of Shadow City (Published by Penguin India, 2020) where we discuss Kabul, her love for the city and her fascination for it which led to this book.

Taran N. Khan is a journalist and non-fiction writer based in Mumbai. Her writing has appeared in GuernicaAl JazeeraBerfroisHimal SouthasianGulf News and Dagsavisen, as well as in leading publications in India like The CaravanOpenThe Hindu and Scroll.in. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Logan Non-Fiction Program, Jan Michalski Foundation and Pro Helvetia. From 2006 to 2013, Khan spent long periods living and working in Kabul. Shadow City is her first book.

Taran N. Khan’s Shadow City is a fascinating read on Kabul. Interestingly, the first thing, Khan, was told when she reached Kabul, was to never venture for a walk. And that is exactly what she did- explore the city through walks, which further led to this book.

From “I have a complicated relationship with walking…” to writing a book on exploring an entire city through a series of walks. Has writing this book redefined walks/walking for her, we wondered. To which Khan says, “The book was shaped in part by this complicated relationship, which is still evolving. During the recent lockdown in Mumbai, for instance, I was not able to walk as often as I used to. When I did go out, it felt like a different terrain. Emptied of its crowds, the bare bones of the metropolis emerged, and I could see features that had always existed, but had been invisible to me.”

Avoiding the labels of memoir and travelogues, she manages to write a book which is neither and yet is extremely enigmatic. Team Kitaab got the opportunity to chat with her recently about her debut and the fascinating story behind it.

Team Kitaab: As mentioned in your book, Afghanistan always fascinated you since childhood due to your Pashtun background. Did you always dream of exploring Kabul the way you did through this book? How did the idea of this book take birth?

I was always fascinated by Kabul, so when the opportunity arose to live and work in the city I didn’t hesitate to take it.  I arrived in 2006 and was writing for Indian publications from that time. Gradually, as I kept returning, the nuances of the city appeared and I began searching for a way to communicate these layers of its past and it’s complicated present.  I wrote longer essays and began exploring more abstract themes, and these revealed the potential for a book.  

It’s interesting to realize, as I did, that there aren’t many books on Kabul from an Indian perspective, and that most of these take the lens of strategy or politics.  I was more interested in other things, like the feeling of being in Kabul, of the frisson of moments of connection, and how the landscape shifted with an insight into our shared culture. This also motivated me to write.   

Team Kitaab: Though Shadow City has been called a memoir, it isn’t exactly a memoir. It would also be wrong to call it a travelogue. It is somewhere in a unique space where it is neither into personal space nor a generic travel guide on Kabul. Was that a deliberate attempt?

This crossing of genres happened because I wanted to find a structure that allowed for the idea of wandering. I think it’s a powerful notion: one that offers freedom from accepted discourse and ways of exploration. It allowed me to  talk about the things that I found interesting and important, and also let me venture into spaces that seemed irrelevant or invisible to others.  As an Indian woman writing about a place that is so deeply inscribed by western writers,  I found this to be an empowering position, full of possibilities.

In some ways, the book changed over the years I worked on it. What remained constant was my belief that it was not a memoir, in the sense that it is not a story about a journalist in a war zone. It was always going to be a book about the city. 

I also wanted there to be space for readers to bring in their own connections to what they read on the page.  I had to allow for silence, for a beat where things could rearrange themselves and they could imagine the city with a feeling of familiarity. The decisions about the book’s form were in service to such ideas. 

Team Kitaab: Though the book is predominantly about Kabul, there are many underlying themes of childhood, family life, inheritance, legacy, the sense of belonging, the feeling of calling a place ‘home’, a strange longing, nostalgia and also about tracing one’s roots. Has exploring Kabul changed the way you look at all these things now?

I would say it’s more of a linked process, with each blending and connecting with the other. I returned to Kabul over a period of seven years, and during this time many things were changing in India and in the world, as well as in my life. All of this inflected the way I saw the city, and what I saw in the city informed how I made my way into other places. 

I also wanted there to be space for readers to bring in their own connections to what they read on the page.  I had to allow for silence, for a beat where things could rearrange themselves and they could imagine the city with a feeling of familiarity.

Team Kitaab: Afghanistan has been through so much in the last few years/decades. How has it evolved? Do you see any major changes in the then-Kabul which you saw on your first trip and the now Kabul, which you must have seen in your recent trips?

From 2006 to 2013, the population grew rapidly, and the city pushed beyond its traditional physical limits. There were informal colonies on its hills, as well as new apartment complexes, massive wedding halls and opulent villas known as ‘poppy palaces‘ on its streets.  At the same time the city also shrunk into itself, as a response to the deteriorating security situation. Barriers and sandbags encroached on pavements, and entire roads vanished behind checkpoints. More positively, people who had moved back to Afghanistan after living as refugees abroad built homes for themselves, and areas that had been destroyed during the civil war were rebuilt. 

Team Kitaab: Kabul underwent quite a few turbulent times in the recent past. How difficult was it to keep the enthusiasm/momentum/narrative upbeat?

Things happened quite suddenly, and people learned to carry on with their lives despite the turbulence. Which doesn’t mean that they were not affected by it, of course.  In my experience, the mood of the city kept shifting- there was joy as well as fear, sadness as well as pragmatic activity- like there is in other places.  I was also fortunate in having people around me who helped me recognize the beauty and creativity that coexisted with all the difficult realities of the city.  

Team Kitaab: During your explorations of Kabul, any particular incident which has stayed in your mind for various reasons. 

There are many such instances. I have very special memories of my visit to the remains of a Buddhist monastery, excavated in the heart of Kabul’s largest cemetery. From the excavation site on a hill, it was  possible to see the many layers of the city’s past laid out clearly, like a map.  I also enjoyed spending time with the popular filmmaker-actor-producer Saleem Shaheen, and accompanying his crew on their shoots. Most evenings I drifted in and out of fascinating conversations with Afghan friends, who spun out tales from the city’s past. 

As Raja Shehadeh, author of Palestinian Walks says, ‘Any reader of this book is sure to discover a Kabul so unlike what the media portrays. Taran’s love of her city comes across in her enchanting evocation of a city where so many tragedies echo from across Kabul’s decades of war. On her last walk, she writes: “to leave Kabul was to take it with you.” This is what happened when I finished reading this book, I took Kabul with me. ‘

Traversing through those lanes of Kabul through her words and trying to recreate her journey in your mind, is a treat for any reader through this book.

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