If you are a woman who has lived in India, here’s a truth you have known all your life: walking can be an act of complication. Whether it’s a quick stop at the shop around the corner or an amble along the perimeter of a park or a hike in a forest or a post-dinner stroll, the duration, quality, and enjoyment of your walk need not rest on you alone. In fact, you must take into account where you live, whom you have stepped out with and why, what time of day it is, and what you are wearing.
Taran Khan, the author of Shadow City, grew up in a conservatively liberal home in Aligarh. As she writes in the Foreword of her book, “I have a complicated relationship with walking. This has a lot to do, I suspect, with having grown up in Aligarh…where walking on the streets came with intense male scrutiny, and the sense of being in a proscribed space. I learned to display a posture of ‘work’ while walking, and to erase any signs that may hint at my being out for pleasure, for no reason at all other than to walk. I see walking as a luxury, not something to be taken for granted.”
And yet, in spite of this, or perhaps, precisely because of this, Khan’s first book is not about her walks through enchanting, pedestrian-friendly destinations such as Reykjavik or Helsinki, cities in Europe that routinely appear in listicles under titles such as “the fifteen safest places in the world.” Instead, she takes us to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
Through its many stories, some about 3,000 years old ruins and poems, others from as recent as 2013 about beauty salons, Parisian-themed wedding halls, and the lives of Afghan filmmakers, we too might take the first steps towards understanding a much misunderstood city. Khan spoke to Scroll.in over email. Excerpts from the interview:
Early on in the book, you tell the reader of your family’s fascination with Afghanistan given your Pashtun/Pathan background. Do you suppose even if work hadn’t taken you to Kabul, you would have still landed there somehow?
I don’t know the answer to this, because who is to say what could have happened. But I can say that going to work in Kabul was quite important in how I experienced the city. From an early stage, I was able to wander its streets and stories in the company of my colleagues, many of whom soon became my friends. Thanks to this, I was able to get a perspective of intimacy and access, that I think fuelled my fascination for the city.
One of my favourite aspects of the book is the close relationship you shared with Baba, your maternal grandfather. He was a reader; a poet; he valued education; and he was comfortable in multiple languages ranging from English to Persian to Urdu. It reminded me a lot of the relationship I shared with my paternal grandfather, a bureaucrat-poet, fluent in languages as diverse as Sanskrit, Nepali, and English. Did you write Shadow City imagining Baba as your primary audience?
It’s really wonderful to hear this response. As a writer, but also as his granddaughter, it means a lot to know that Baba is touching so many hearts. Your description of your relationship with your own grandfather is beautiful and evocative. I think it’s important to acknowledge how having such people around in our lives can impact the way in which we perceive the world, and eventually write about it.
I did sometimes feel I was describing Kabul for Baba, and often it seemed like he was opening up the city for me. He passed away before the book was finished, and a few weeks after his death I found myself reaching for the phone to check something I was writing with him. That was the moment when the reality of his absence sunk in.
On one of our last evenings together, I read out parts of the chapter I was working on then. It was about the remains of a Buddhist monastery that was being excavated in the heart of a massive cemetery. Baba was captivated by the passages about the region’s Buddhist heritage. I’ll never forget this quality of intellectual curiosity, and his ability to experience wonder until almost the very last moment of his life.
For most of your book, I would argue that your tone is more of a journalist’s than a memoirist’s. You are objective, you are presenting the story, its context, and the events as they are unfolding, letting the reader make up her mind as she reads and discovers things for herself. Were you ever tempted to turn your material into fiction – a novel perhaps – or a memoir that was more intimate? (For example, your husband appears only in the first chapter. In a conventional memoir, he might occupy a more prominent place.)
I never considered fiction, as I felt these stories and voices were compelling as non-fiction. I also feel non-fiction offers incredible possibilities; I get a thrill out of reading good reportage and creative non-fiction work. What I did find was that the longer I spent in Kabul, the less satisfying it felt to write only traditional news or even feature stories. To me, they seemed to leave out the most interesting bits, like the feeling of being in the city, or the small details that added up to something quite revealing.
I began working on longer pieces with more abstract themes, and also experimented with form, as an attempt to communicate what I felt was important and vital about the city. This process continued with the book. I didn’t take these decisions as conscious moves, or as an attempt to cross genres. All I knew at the time was that I was searching for a structure that would allow me to move across different spaces in the city, weave connections, voice the emotional heft of moments, and describe the frisson that came with a conversation or while looking at an image.
I also wanted to leave space for readers to wander in their imaginations, fill in the silences, and shape the city with their own stories. The book is really the result of this search.
On the second part of your question, I didn’t approach it as a conventional memoir as I didn’t want it to be a story about me. The reason being that there are many stories about journalists going to Kabul or other conflict zones, and I didn’t see the need to centre that narrative. This was not a book about the writer, but about the city.
What assumptions did you have about Kabul the very first time you were there? In what ways has your relationship with Kabul evolved over the years? Has it had an impact on your relationship with your own city, Aligarh?
My impressions were much the same as most people’s, I suppose. I thought of it as a city marked by war and suffering, but also a place that had managed to hold on its humanity and hope. Often, I think, stories about Kabul tend to hover around these two positions – between accounts of tragic suffering and loss, and the “hope against the odds” kind of narratives. And of course much of life happens somewhere in between these two extremes.
I think this is what I learned over my time in Kabul, that things are far more layered and complex than they seem; that pleasingly simple narratives of Kabul and Kabulis being “saved” can be far more nuanced than they appear. If you tease the surface a bit, complicated truths begin to emerge.
I’ve written about how echoes of Kabul accompanied me over the years, in different parts of the world. It is a relationship that has endured in many ways, both in terms of personal connections and also in terms of work. For instance, in 2019 I published a series of articles about Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in Germany. These included people I knew from Kabul. So the reporting arc spanned across our time in Afghanistan, to the time I spent with them in Germany.
Part of the book is about how I saw echoes of Kabul in Aligarh, and how Aligarh helped me navigate the experience of being in Kabul. Of course, over the years Aligarh has changed a lot. Walking through its streets recently I was struck by how there are fewer open spaces in general, and also how spaces for rest or pause have been erased from the streets.
For instance, as a child I remember seeing rickshaw pullers wait out the blazing afternoon heat under the shade of trees by the roadside. Such spots are hard to find now. At the same time, there are more women in public spaces, and women out late into the evenings, enjoying the city in different ways.
It’s interesting to note that Aligarh – like many other parts of India – is in the news right now [at the time of the interview] for protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens. Many of these protests are led by women, who have been staging sit-ins in public spaces. Essentially, they have been putting their bodies on the streets as acts of resistance, with all the power and all the risk this involves.
When writing the book, did you ever worry that your friends and readers in Kabul would have wondered if as an Indian woman from a comfortable background you might not be able to do justice to their stories or their city?
I think my concern was to be able to tell the stories as best I could, and I worked hard to achieve this. This is the case with most writers I know, and we take this responsibility quite seriously. And I was also aware of my privilege, both while I was in Kabul, and also in having the option to leave whenever I wanted to.
This was partly why I foregrounded my own position in the book, and made the perspective so clearly my own. Since it is my own connections and impressions that I am recounting, I could be confident in telling them. As I say in the book, these are maps of exploration and wandering, rather than explanation or control.
My friends have been very supportive. My hope is that in some small way, this book may contribute to more writing about Kabul that isn’t defined by the western gaze, or even the narrative frameworks that are so closely associated with writing on Afghanistan. Most of the recent books by Indians on Afghanistan tend to focus on strategy or geopolitics or some kind of “issue”. I would love to see that path being broadened.
Your writing is filled with longing and nostalgia for Kabul. I am astonished by how much it made me long for Kabul, a city I have never been to, and do not have any familial ties with. I wonder if you could talk about the books where you have felt most at home. What is your literary homeland so to speak?
It’s interesting to realise now that so many books that formed a part of my early reading were volumes I did not choose, but simply found in my home in Aligarh. Buying new books was a rare luxury in those days. I spent afternoons browsing the cupboards in different rooms and came out with all kinds of reading material. Books that had belonged to my aunts and uncles when they were in school, for instance, or that my older cousins had got as gifts, or that belonged to my parents. These expeditions led me across diverse terrain.
I found the works of Leo Tolstoy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I read lots of PG Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer and Arthur Conan Doyle and JRR Tolkein. They are my “comfort reads” even now. I found Amitav Ghosh and Ismat Chughtai, and on Baba’s shelves I discovered Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca, Mahmoud Darwish and Anton Chekhov.
Like many children of that generation in India, I also heard a lot of stories. My aunts would sometimes indulge us kids by reading aloud from humorous Urdu novels and detective thrillers, or would recount fantasies or folk tales for us. From Baba I heard the beauty of verses being recounted from memory, especially his favourites – Ghalib, Iqbal, and the riddles of Amir Khusro. Years later, in Kabul, I came across Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys, with its testimonies of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. It was like a revelation of empathy and imagination, a book that managed to lay bare the things that were so often left out of the news.
There are so many colourful characters in the book, such as Ismail Khan, your landlord, and Zafar Paiman, the archaeologist. Could you talk us through how you decided which characters to include and which to exclude? Am I right in noting that there are many more prominent male characters than female?
Some people I knew quite early I wanted to have in the book, like Saleem Shaheen, a popular filmmaker who is enamoured of Bollywood and makes movies packed with dramatic fight scenes and songs. Or Zafar Paiman, who was working to preserve the Buddhist monastery I mentioned earlier. The challenge was in determining how a character’s narrative informed a way of seeing the city. This was key in taking decisions about who populated the pages.
I think there ended up being a strong current of women’s voices present in the book. Some of them appear across chapters, others form a set of voices specific to a particular space or experience. I didn’t consider doing it a different way, by trying to create some kind of numerical balance of gender, and I think the book as it stands is more organic for that reason.
What was behind your decision to not include photographs?
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.
You witnessed and heard many horrific stories about the loss of innocent lives; the destruction of schools, neighbourhoods, books and libraries; the nature and extent of opium addiction. How did you take care of yourself in the midst of all this devastation?
This is a difficult question to answer, because I didn’t really think of myself as being in the midst of only devastation. I think one way to respond is to record my gratitude to the community of friends and colleagues who guided me through the everyday of Kabul, and who made it possible for me to see the beauty and humour as well as the difficult realities present around us. They watched my back and indulged my demands. They are the reason why I carry so many joyful memories of Kabul.
An alumna of St Stephen’s College and JNU, Sayantani Dasgupta is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between – a Finalist for the Foreword Indies Awards for Creative Nonfiction – and the chapbook The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and has also taught in India, Italy, and Mexico.