Book review: Shadow City, A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran Khan
Shadow City, A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran N. Khan. Penguin Books.
Taran Khan`s logic is beautiful in its simplicity: her way of getting to know a city is to walk the city. In this case, the chosen city is Kabul (not the best place to be walking about, you`d imagine) which she says `shimmered like a promise….the more I walked, the larger it revealed itself to be.`
And so we walk with the author, taking in this amnesiac city, this city which holds a lot more than is visible to the casual eye, this city that calls for a recognition of the unwritten memory maps within it. As we walk, we absorb something of the history, literature, politics and ways of living in Kabul.
We learn of poppy palaces, ostentatious mansions built from funds the provenance of which is poppy cultivation; we learn of people who are still waiting for loved ones lost when Afghanistan`s era of peace ended; we watch as Khan walks amongst the graves large and grand, small and nearly missed, of the many shaheeds, martyrs, of the city; we meet Zafar who tries his best to preserve Buddhist sites. Why, asks the author and Zafar replies: `Because all this was Afghanistan also. Because the Buddha was ours also.`
We learn of films made in Afghanistan, was well as the people`s fascination with Bollywood fare, (offering as it did an escape from the sounds of war) and how people risked the wrath of the Taliban and smuggled in Hindi film videos. We see how succeeding generations of traumatised Afghans are desperately in need of mental health care; how drug abuse lays waste the land and its people. This last had its own twist: earlier, says a doctor to the author, people in villages used to consume opium with no attached stigma. Then came war and displacement, as well as different drugs, all adding to Afghanistan’s massive production of opium, which now was consumed by the younger generation and sent out to the world, too.
We read with delight of the ostentatious weddings of Kabul and how the number of sugared almonds that came with the invitation was an indication of how many family members were invited to attend.
Khan`s writing is so emotionally laden, it evokes an immediate response, even from those who have never been to Kabul. Being in Kabul, she says, is like entering a room in the middle of a blazing summer day. As your eyes slowly adjust, the room starts to take shape, dim interiors opening up slowly, expanding with each step to reveal furniture and nooks. Elsewhere, she states that seeking refuge is a difficult road to travel, as also a fraught gift to offer.
Then in the closing chapters of the book, there`s this haunting stanza of a poem by Iqbal:
Ghurbat mein hon agar ham
Rehta hai dil watan mein
Samjho wahin humein bhi
Dil ho jahan hamara.
Even in exile
Our hearts dwell at home
Think of us as being there
The home where our hearts live.
Memoir, travelogue, essays on a fascinating place, Shadow City is an evocative read.