Shadow City: All about childhood, ancestral roots, heritage, culture and familial ties

Namrata explores Kabul through Taran N Khan’s Shadow City which according to her isn’t just about a city.

Stories in Kabul begin with the phrase ‘Yeki bood, yeki na bood.’ There was one, there was no one.

Taran N Khan (Shadow City)

Taran N Khan’s first book, Shadow City takes us around Kabul highlighting the varied experiences the city and its people have been through over years. It is neither a memoir, nor a travelogue. Lying somewhere in between, Khan has found the perfect voice to depict a place which has been through so much and yet continues to thrive in various ways.

Growing up in Aligarh, Khan grew up with a fascination for Afghanistan due to her Pashtun background. After completing her education in Delhi and London, she has now decided to call Mumbai her home for the time being. 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.

Khan spent a lot of time in Kabul from 2006- 2013 , living and working, helping her explore the city like an insider, a true inhabitant who was able to absorb all the smells, flavors, traditions and its culture to the core. Though one might argue, her tone in the book sounds like a journalist’s voice to a large extent, one cannot ignore the personal voice which peeps in at many places. It is this personal voice which lends a compelling tone to the overall narrative. Shadow City isn’t just about a city. It is about childhood, ancestral roots, heritage, culture and familial ties.

With a striking cover in hues of mustard yellow and indigo, the backdrop of hills and tall trees accentuates the title, Shadow City brilliantly. The meaning of the title is equally fascinating. Shadow City means an area of a city that a very large number of people who have travelled there to work are living, and the places that they live in, which are not usually houses but temporary structures made of wood, cloth, plastic, etc. (Source)

When Khan says,

Each day, I found a different aspect to this growing city.

Taran N Khan (Shadow City)

I felt those words. Having lived across multiple cities and countries, to explore a city on foot , traversing through its lanes and streets, absorbing its culture and meeting strangers who feel so familiar and warm has always been a welcome experience. Growing up in India, this wasn’t something that was encouraged a lot – thanks to my gender. Something that has also been highlighted by Khan in her introduction in this book. So when I got an opportunity to live in Sydney briefly, the sheer experience of witnessing the city with such freedom was liberating.

This very freedom is strewn liberally across Shadow City and leaves a reader with an unforgettable experience of having known a city so intimately. Her descriptions are one that make you ponder and then re-look at your surroundings, at the city which perhaps has been your home for years now but hasn’t been explored yet. And her descriptions make you yearn for Kabul, a city you might never have been to but will fall in love through this book. (P.S: You have been warned!)

Shadow City has many characters gliding in and out of the chapters, who guide Khan (and the readers) by sharing stories, anecdotes and folklore about the places. Strangely, only a few of them stay in mind for long though. It could also be because the prominence in the narrative is to the place rather than the people. Nevertheless, every character’s narrative formed a different way of looking at Kabul, recreating a new image every time.

One cannot ignore the many devastations that have shaken Afghanistan in the recent years and yet here is a city that gathers its spirits and continues to strive harder. It is difficult to not notice the positive mindset of the people living there and their attitude towards life. Their enthusiasm and energy is infectious. The love for all good things in life, starting from food to music and books, is clearly evident from the descriptions in the book.

Amidst the many stories that Khan narrates within the book, she strings them together with hope radiating through each one of them.

Long after finishing the book, a thought that lingers on your mind is the absence of any pictures or photographs from this book. I loved the author’s reasoning behind it.

“I was not sure they would add anything to the narrative. And I would rather have readers imagine the city for themselves, rather than get trapped in literal images. That’s why I am happy that the cover images – both in India and the UK – are illustrations. They evoke the mood of the book, rather than impose a trope on the reader.”


On a personal note, I enjoyed how the travel experiences are interspersed with memories and anecdotes from the author’s childhood and/ or her family. These portions of the book are my favourite as they lend a certain poignancy to narrative.

As a travel writer, I associate cities with smells and label them basis the first waft of breeze that I inhale. Khan manages to make me experience Kabul like none other and if I had to associate a smell to it, it would be Oudh – musky, broody and exotic.

Reviewer’s Bio: Namrata is the editor of Kitaab.

Namrata is a lost wanderer who loves travelling the length and breadth of the world. She lives amidst sepia toned walls, fuchsia curtains, fairy lights and shelves full of books. When not buried between the pages of a book, she loves blowing soap bubbles. A published author she enjoys capturing the magic of life in her words and is always in pursuit of a new country and a new story. 

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