The theatre of conflict, a witness to treacherous ploys, perched in a valley between the Hindukush mountains, is also an ancient city with a rich history and culture that have been badly mutated over the period.
The last four decades have seen Kabul becoming the grand laboratory of world powers to achieve their strategic goals. The theatre of conflict, a witness to treacherous ploys, perched in a valley between the Hindukush mountains, is also an ancient city with a rich history and culture that have been badly mutated over the period.
Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul traces the lost glory of the city and narrates contemporary miseries. A moving memoir, a sensitive reportage, an exploration of Kabul’s literary heritage and a subtle dive into history, the book is an intimate conversation of the author with the city. Taran Khan terms it an ‘amnesiac city’ that she discovers through long walks: “Walking showed me a way to read the city, just as reading guided my walks through the city.” The city, like mystical Persian poetry, resides in metaphors and covert images and “what is being said is an allegory for what is meant”. “To talk of the moon, for instance, is to talk of the beloved; to talk of clouds across the moon is to talk of the pain of separated lovers,” is one of the many marvellous sentences in this book.
Khan made her first trip to Kabul with her husband and a friend in 2006 on an assignment to teach video production techniques to the staff of the Afghan government’s radio and TV station. The city went on to call her repeatedly over the next seven years on different projects. In a way, it’s the tale of two cities, Kabul and Aligarh, her hometown. Both the cities co-exist in her memory, one illuminating the other. “Being in Kabul was like entering a room in my family’s home in Aligarh in the middle of a blazing summer day.”
Shadow City resonates with the memories of the books she had read, Tagore’s Kabuliwalah, Anton Chekhov, Issav Asimov and others, besides those she found in Kabul such as Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid’s work on Taliban, Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and Khaled Hosseini’s famous novel. Amid these books is Baburnama, her Baba (maternal grandfather) had gifted her in Aligarh, which she finds a wonderful guide to Kabul. Baba, who lived back home, introduced Kabul to her. Baba and Khan’s maternal grandmother died in quick succession two years after her last visit to Kabul in 2013. “It was as if I had been describing Kabul for him, and he had been dictating the city to me. Now, I had lost my maps and my stories, my audience and my guide,” she writes.
A poignant section is about the decay of Kabul Public Library. In 1977, when the conflict had just begun, the library had 14,000 members for a city of five lakh population. In the subsequent decades, the city came to accommodate a million people but the library membership fell to just 1,300. “Poetry has fled Kabul,” the librarian says wryly. The war ensured that readers as well as books vanished from libraries. Another assault was on cinema reels. A few years after the Taliban took control of Kabul, it ordered the destruction of all the movies and footage stored with the state-run Afghan Film. The Taliban burned down thousands of reels in a fire that raged for two weeks. But in a remarkable display of tact and courage, some staff managed to save a significant portion of the archives.
The Soviet army entered Afghanistan in the late 1970s and before it withdrew, a decade later in 1989, the city had been badly damaged. A large number of Kabul’s elite left the city after the Soviet invasion; Kabul’s cultural life could never recover. Khan retrieves Kabul from the debris and trauma of history. It’s an endearing tale by an author who is deeply in love with the city, its past, myths, landscape and people. On one scale, it’s also the story of a woman who sets out, perhaps fortuitously, to find another home for herself, another city. Guided by the tales Baba narrated her, it’s a journey to a distant city to learn what she never had. An attempt to realise and recover a life that lay beyond her.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an award-winning writer and journalist
Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul
Taran N Khan
Rs 599, Pp 304