A couple of days after the renowned travel writer Jan Morris died at the age of 94 on 20 November, journalist Taran N. Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul won the Tata Literature Live! first book award in the non-fiction category. As it happens, I have been reading both these writers recently, albeit provoked by different reasons.
Having given up on my annual travel plans due to the pandemic, I had resorted to what I—as a habitual recluse—have always considered the best way of getting around the world: by reading travel literature. And Morris, who I had not read much so far, proved to be addictive from the very first book of hers I picked up. Journeys is a collection of her reports from places as far apart as Shanghai and Sydney, each a priceless gem, a masterclass of travel writing and reportage. Keenly attentive to the idiosyncrasies of people and places, Morris is also an inveterate entertainer, a prose writer par excellence, who can show you a world in a grain of sand.
Soon after, following an invitation to speak with Khan at an online event, I read her fascinating first book, a luminous account of living and working in Kabul between 2006 and 2013, a narrative that shines for its multiple affinities with history, journalism, memoir and anthropology.
Shadow City belongs to that hybrid genre, delicately poised between doubts and uncertainties, that writers like WG Sebald and Italo Calvino are at the apex of. Khan defies the conventions of travel writing as handed down to us by a long line of (predominantly male) writers from the West. As the subtitle makes it clear, Shadow City is primarily focused on the specific experience of a woman walking through Kabul—an exercise that morphs into what Khan calls “bipedal archaeology”.
The scope of the book, however, goes much beyond exhuming the historical contours of the storied city of Kabul or reflecting on the gendered act of walking its streets. As Khan discovers through the course of her repeated visits to the city and the extended spans of time she spends there, getting to know a place is like learning to read between the lines, to notice the unseen, and see all that hides in plain sight. “Exploring Kabul, I found, required the same principles that help in the reading of mystical Persian poetry, in the relationship between the zahir, or the overt, and the batin, the hidden or implied,” she writes. “This works on the tacit understanding that what is being said is an allegory for what is meant or intended.”
Khan’s association with Kabul is as much kindled by her abiding interest in Persian poetry, a legacy handed down to her by her beloved grandfather, as by her Pathan family’s ties with the place. But far from romanticising it, she is alert to the real and present danger posed by a city whose streets are studded with landmines (“Red stones mean danger, white stones mean safety") and graves, marked or unmarked. Decades of war with the Soviets, and later with the Americans, have left a trail of devastation, both physical and psychological on its social fabric. At the same time, Khan’s gaze on Kabul isn’t that of a typical war correspondent’s. It lingers on the culinary and cultural delights of the city, the cinemas bustling with Bollywood hits and bookshops holding precious literary treasures. It takes in the opulence of big fat Afghan weddings, while decoding the sociological significance of these events. It also gently reckons with the nuances of modernity that hover on the edges of a society recovering from years of repressive Taliban rule.
Particularly arresting is Khan’s foray into the romantic lives of young Afghans, the fashion trends and aspirations spawned by internet and social media that keep millions of them on the cusp of “eastern” and “western” values. Through her friendships and acquaintances, she begins to comprehend the challenges that confront educated and professional Kabuli women every day of their lives—and the ways in which they navigate them with defiance and dignity.
Khan’s narrative gains credence from her own lived experience, having grown up in Aligarh in a milieu that is progressive and liberal but also keeps women relatively cloistered. The contradictions of her upbringing are played out, in a far more brutal light, in the scenes she witnesses around her in Kabul. As with Aligarh, patriarchy is a benevolent everyday reality in Kabul, but one that may also flare up into moments of untrammelled violence.
For a city that conjures up visions of suicide bombers and buildings lying in a rubble, the Kabul that Khan takes us through is a living, breathing metropolis, where the past lurks in every stone and the hope of a stable future simmers in every heart. Reading Shadow City is not going to fill you with a touristy desire to travel there, as travel books usually do. Rather, like Orhan Pamuk’s portrait of Istanbul, Khan’s peregrinations through Kabul opens up layers of dreams and desires, feelings that are best savoured through the slow passage of time, by learning to walk through the ruins and riches that pave its streets.