Team Kitaab is in conversation with Taran N. Khan, the author ofShadow 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 Guernica, Al Jazeera, Berfrois, Himal Southasian, Gulf News and Dagsavisen, as well as in leading publications in India like The Caravan, Open, The 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 complicatedrelationshipwithwalking…” 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.”
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.
He is a well-known figure on television. He is a prominent actor in films… a good friend to famed actor Nasseruddin Shah and actress Ratna Pathak. He is kind to young filmmakers who start their career and does short films for them as he recently did in Singapore. He starred in Kitaab and Filmwalla founder Zafar Anjum’s first short film that has been shown to the public — a fourteen-and-a-half-minute movie called The Sacrifice with a talented actress from Singapore, Renita Kapoor.
And yet this man has a secret, a small office in Mumbai where he spends time by himself and writes. Meet Shishir Sharma, the character actor who can be seen on stage in theatre, on the silver screen, both in Indian television and cinema.
And what does the actor write?
You would think… it would be something for the screen or maybe about his life. But no, he writes about his parents and his father’s past. For spoilers, the story starts as a romantic one. Picture this: 1951 — in sepia tone — A young man in his early twenties goes off to get milk as does a fifteen-year-old girl. This would be a common thing but, wait, the story does not end there. The two meet and they travel in the opposite direction from their home on train to spend time with each other unbeknown to their families and, a few years later, they are married, and they have their first child — Shishir Sharma.
Talking to Shishir Sharma was not just a privilege but like a walk through the annals of Indian theatre and film history. His parents were involved with theatre and films, including the Leftists IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association founded in 1943 to bring cultural awakening among Indians during the independence struggle). Though his father earned a living through his small business, the interest in theatre and films stayed. He was even part of the production unit of NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) when the legendary film Garam Hawa was filmed in 1970s, says Sharma. Based on an unpublished story by the noted Urdu writer, Ismat Chugtai, this award-winning film gives a poignant telling on the impact of the 1947 Partition.
Living in Mumbai moving around with friends Naseeruddin and Ratna Pathak, Sharma was cajoled into theatre in 1974 by a person no less than Satyadev Dubey, an Indian theatre director, actor, playwright, screen writer and director and winner of numerous national awards ultimately crowned by the fourth highest civilian honour in India, Padma Bhushan. He had trained outstanding actors like Amrish Puri, Amol Palekar and, later, Nasseruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak and Neena Kulkarni, says Sharma. He was picked together with Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak. He tells a story of how Dubey came into Pathak’s house and found the three friends having a meal. He asked them to join his group. Sharma refused initially but eventually gave in.
From theatre he moved to television in 1993 with Swabhiman that came after Buniyad, both popular television serials in the early days of soaps in India. They were very well paid in those days, says Sharma.
Satyam, his first film was in Telugu. That came after some more years. Sharma started acting in a number of Telugu movies. And he actually has a Telugu tutor coming in to teach him the language. “All the characters I play are not really Telugu. They don’t want the pukka (pure) Telugu accent.”
Raazi… courtesy Democracy News Live
Then came more films, this time in Hindi; among them, the national award-winning films, Uri and Raazi, and short films, like Roganjosh, where he and Naseeruddin Shah, were back together. Roganjosh, written and directed by Sanjeev Vig, won the Best Filmfare Award in the category of short films and is an emotional telling of how the terrorist bomb blast of Bombay Taj in 2007 destroyed the lives of everyday men and women. He was picked for this movie, Sharma says, because of his forty-four-year-old friendship with Naseeruddin Shah. Their mutual camaraderie was an asset to the film.
It’s tempting to blame it on inner impulses that would devour me if I didn’t, but that wouldn’t be the whole story, especially with non-fiction. Simply put, I’m better at writing than I am at most other things I’ve tried my hand at (though not necessarily better at writing than most other people), and the act gives me pleasure of a laboured kind. That’s more than what you can say for most kinds of work, and believe me, the complete act of writing – from conception to execution to almost-perfection – is work.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
Speaking Tiger has just published my second book, Thamel:Dark Star of Kathmandu, a biography of the tourist quarter that grew out of a medieval Buddhist settlement in Kathmandu. Writing about a place like Thamel is not, on the face of it, an urgently necessary task. At least not as obviously so as a book on our relationships with Nature (my next writing project). Nonetheless, I feel it’s useful to obtain an understanding of the totality of the environments we have spent significant time in – past, present and future. This is what Thamel means to achieve, as much as the book on Nature: to deepen our understanding of our built and natural environments, and thereby of ourselves, so we can reconsider and improve on our interactions with them.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I’m no fan of bald writing that means to drive home a social message, nor lazy writing dragged along by a pacy, racy narrative. With both fiction and non-fiction, I hope to provide serious reading pleasure, without being carried away by either the message or the medium.
Who are your favorite authors?
Those I haven’t read – names I know, names I don’t know, names that haven’t seen the light of day. They represent the titillating totality of my ignorance.