When Indian journalist Taran Khan arrives in Kabul in 2006, she imagines it as a return to the land her forebears hailed from centuries ago. It is a city both familiar and unknown. She finds an unexpected guide in her grandfather who – despite never visiting the city – knows it intimately through books and stories, poetry and myth. With his voice in her head, and falling in with poets, doctors, actors and other Kabulis, Khan uncovers a place quite different from the one she anticipated. Her wanderings reveal a fragile city in a state of flux: stricken by near-constant war, but flickering with the promise of peace, a shape-shifting place governed by age-old codes but experimenting with new modes of living. These walks take her to the unvisited tombs of the dead, and to the land of the living: the booksellers, archaeologists, intrepid film-makers and entrepreneurs who are remaking and rebuilding this ancient 3,000-year-old city.
Lost in its labyrinthine streets Khan reads the city more closely, excavating the ghostly iterations of Kabul’s past and its layers of forgotten memories – unearthing a city that has been brutally erased and redrawn as each new war sweeps through. And as NATO troops begin to withdraw from the country, Khan watches as her friends and comrades also prepare to depart, and the cycle of transformation begins again. Filled with unique insights about the meaning of home and the haunting power of loss and absence, Taran Khan conjures a magic that is spellbinding and utterly her own.
We connected with the author to know more about her and her debut book. Excerpts from our conversation follow:
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you were led to the world of journalism and writing.
I grew up during the pre-Internet, pre-liberalization years in north India. I loved writing, and travel, and journalism seemed to be the ideal combination of both. This was before the era of cable TV and 24-hour news channels, and print journalism was significant and carried weight. I remember spending hours reading the Sunday features sections of newspapers, and magazines. For me, there was a great appeal in the idea of exploring the world by writing about it.
Which authors or books were your early formative influences?
This is a difficult question to answer, because though I read a lot, new books were a luxury I got quite rarely. I grew up as part of a joint family, and the bulk of my reading was determined by what was already in the house. There were cupboards full of books that my aunts and uncles had got as prizes when they were in boarding school, or books my elder cousins had picked up, or that belonged to my parents- works that had somehow found their way into my life.
So some browsing expeditions would lead to wonderful discoveries-like the naturalist Gerald Durrell, or the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Leo Tolstoy. Others did not turn out so well, like Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which I read on a cousin’s recommendation, and then bitterly complained about! I also heard a lot of stories, like so many Indian children of that generation. Sometimes my aunts would read aloud from Urdu novels and detective thrillers, or would recount fantasies, or folk tales for us. From my maternal grandfather I also heard poetry, which he often recited from memory- from the verses of Rumi and Ghalib to Pablo Neruda and Mahmoud Darwish
You have had a long relationship with the city of Kabul. What propelled you to finally write a book about it?
I was writing from Kabul for different publications, and the longer I spent in the city, the more I felt the urge to write about it outside the format of news, or even feature stories. I wanted to be able to communicate not just the "issues", but the feeling of what it was like to be in Kabul through these years. I began working on longer pieces, with themes that delved into different layers of the city, and these eventually revealed the potential for a book.
What was the creative process like behind the writing of this book?
I was able to identify the themes I wanted to write about quite quickly. The writing process took on a life of its own. I had to work to find a form that allowed me to move through different spaces in the city, as well as excavate stories, and memories, and myths. At the same time I wanted to allow space for readers to make their own connections and discoveries. I spent time revising the drafts until I felt I had this balance right.
What kind of challenges did you face while writing this book?
Practically, I faced the struggle of time- of trying to dedicate long periods to thinking and working on the book. It took a different kind of discipline and immersion, and also yielded a different kind of satisfaction when things came together. The fact that the book does not fit into any one genre also sometimes made it a challenging process, to write as well as to describe to other people. I was fortunate to have a community of writers and friends who encouraged me nurture the book in the direction I believed in, until the work could speak for itself.
How hard or easy is it for you, as a writer, to pen down your travels true to your experience? How do you grapple with putting your experiences in words, knowing that a lot of their meaning might get lost in the process?
In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard describes this process of moving from the idea of the work to the actual work by saying: "Now the thing is no longer a vision: it is paper". I found that this line resonated with me.
There will always be a distance between the perfect, unwritten draft in the writer’s head, and the imperfect version that makes it to paper. Part of the creative process is making peace with this realization, and carrying on nonetheless, until you are done. I remember somewhere midway through writing a draft, I scrawled a note to myself and made sure to keep it in front of me wherever I worked. It said "Believe in yourself. (Switch off the Internet)". I still think this was good advice.
Why did you choose the title Shadow City?
The idea came from my editor, and I grew to like the name, as it encompasses the elusive nature of the city, and how its different layers appear and vanish. Shadows can appear out of nowhere; they are there and not there-- a thought that resonates while talking about elements of Kabul. As a title, it accommodated a lot of what I was addressing in the book.
What do you wish the reader takes away from your work?
I am curious to know this myself. I don’t have a list of goals for this book to achieve. But if people find they have more curiosity about Kabul than they did earlier, I think that would be a happy outcome.
What does the future hold for you as a writer?
Probably more work as a journalist, and more narrative non-fiction writing. Perhaps another book, maybe a novel.
Text Nidhi Verma