On Solitude and Discovery, in “Shadow City” – Chicago Review of Books

Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul by the Indian writer Taran Khan is exciting in the way unclassifiable things are exciting. It’s no surprise that it was recently announced as the winner of the 2021 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. It is a refreshing work of nonfiction, but also an exercise in theory, cultural anthropology, and memoir. Written in the first person, the book takes the reader on a peripatetic journey through the Afghan capital. A few pages in, we know that the writer moves with a hungry eye and an unappeasable, almost divine urge to see the city she is in. The result is a book full of several peculiar parts: there are essays on graveyards, cinemas, bookshops, cafés, weddings and film sets. Put together over various visits to the city in eight years, the book is a misty mosaic of riffs giving us a view of the city as it remodels itself out of and back into conflict.

Reading Shadow City during the extended days in lockdown, I walked in Khan’s footsteps through places that have often been at the center of storytelling. Volumes have been written by foreign correspondents about their “outsider” experiences in Kabul, but Khan’s depiction is original, brimming with smart impressions of various aspects of life there, ranging from the glitter of wedding halls to the fractious sounds of cafés. Engaging with the prose brought back memories of my own walks in a faraway place, encouraging me to pick up my pen and put down words as a way of traveling mentally to those places and filling pages with a different curiosity.

On some rare occasions I come across a book that is such a moving, dizzy, deep, theatrical, and emotional gathering of thoughts that I experience what Parul Sehgal describes as “the dishonorable and squirrelly impulse to hoard the book in question, to keep it my secret.” Galloping through the first couple of chapters of Shadow City, I found the book was one of those. The tenuous threads running through it bound me to its narrative in a brand new way, making it special, close to my heart. In the foreword Khan writes: “Memory returns in fragments. I remember walking through the half-empty streets feeling the sun on my back. I heard snatches of song on a radio, passed a group of young men lounging on a broken sofa they had pulled onto the street. I saw walls with bullet marks, and barriers across gates… Under my feet was the slush of the spring.” Reading this I almost felt as if I was walking with her, peeping at the roadsides, gathering thoughts and deliberations.

Khan was exploring her way in Kabul, relinquishing her desire to stick to any suggestions she got from people around. An exhausted young woman far from home, she was busy taking in her new environs. She writes, “Kabul is an island, or so it appears to the outsider standing on one of its nondescript, potholed streets. It deceives you with its high walls streaked with brown mud, punctuated by steel-topped gates. It hides behind the fine mist of dust that hangs over its streets and homes, so that the city appears as though from the other side of a soft curtain.” This reminded me of the day I arrived in Cardiff in the spring of 2015. In the four months I would spend there to write my dissertation, the small university town was barely accessible to me. Years later I realized that this was because I was too reluctant to open up before the new place, to let the city work its magic upon me.

Much like Khan, I too was warned, well before I moved to Wales, to not wander outdoors after sunset. A couple of weeks into my time there, I started pushing the boundaries. I had been told the same in my hometown Kanpur, by parents, well-wishers, friends: not to walk the city at night. In Cardiff, I decided for myself, à la Khan in Kabul, that I would dictate my own ability to walk around the city’s perimeter. Growing up in the northern Indian city of Aligarh, Taran had already navigated a sea of challenges. She was under a constant male gaze, being told repeatedly to not venture out alone. Comparing her walks at home with those in Kabul, Khan writes, “Being told not to walk was another way in which Kabul felt familiar. To map the city, I drew on the same knowledge and intuition that had helped me navigate the streets of my home town…. These were routes of discovery—maps of being lost. To be lost is a way to see a place afresh…. To be lost in Kabul is to find it—as a place of richness and possibility.”

By September 2020, the pandemic blur had hit its peak. One Friday night I scoured YouTube for walking tour videos from across the world and chanced upon one of the Cardiff City Centre. The vlog took me from the City Centre to the Queen’s Arcade, as I recalled my time in those pockets of the city. That tiny hole-in-the-wall establishment where I had my first ever taco, the shop where I had Chinese food in takeout boxes on the go, the bookstore I skimmed for latest titles and bought High Fidelity from. The video had me transfixed. It was as if I had never left.

While watching the video, I realized that walking then had allowed me a measure of freedom and detachment from my daily life. As a 25-year-old away from home, alone in a foreign country, I ebbed and flowed on the routes of my own making. It did not matter that there were places that were male dominated. I tried to get Cardiff inside my body, by measuring how much time it took to get from one point to another on foot. In 2017, when I discovered the writing of urban flâneuse Lauren Elkin, it would open a whole other dimension of looking at walking. Elkin’s definition of walking is reflected in both Khan’s and my walks. She says, “You just go at the speed of life through a city when you go on foot,” and nothing could summarize our peripatetic roving better.

Halfway into Shadow City, I realized at their core, both our walking experiences are those of women from north India trying to find a place for themselves on the street as urban flâneuses. Like Khan, I too was born in a North Indian city, Kanpur, about 350 kilometers from Aligarh. Even as an adolescent, I was not allowed to venture out of the house alone. There was a sermonizing tone in which I was reminded of my being a girl and the dangers it entailed to be outdoors after sunset. If I was meeting with friends, and someone offered to drop me back home, I would politely ask to be dropped at least a couple of streets before my house. I was afraid of being seen outdoors with male friends by someone in the neighborhood—a cousin, uncle or my father. Being outdoors was dangerous but being caught outdoors with friends was asking for more trouble. Khan’s challenges in Aligarh mirrored mine. As grown-up women who had taken to walking, we were both trying to find answers to questions that kept changing with time. What does it mean to walk through a city as a woman? How does walking make a city immensely more livable for a woman? While walking, what is it that we are walking towards?

Something seethes within the limited number of chapters in the book, exerting a precise fascination. The bare prose, devoid of any pretence makes for a windswept read. By marrying history with first person narrative, Khan elevates the prose above the mundane. The past never leaves her words, almost as if lingering like a ghost in the background of the present, much like in the real world.

The section on cinemas of Kabul stood out for me. In our plague year, when for months I longed to visit the cinema halls in Delhi, this section drew me to it like a moth to a flame. Khan writes that even though there are few cinema halls in the Afghani capital, films are a big part of life there. Khan lifts the veil on the storied Ariana Cinema that has been the target of several Taliban attacks over the years and was even shuttered by them while they were in power. After reopening it was struck by a suicide bomber in 2010 and survived till date to tell its tale. I fell in love with the cinema hall as Khan described her visit to it:

When I walked in, I saw posters for Pashto films made in Pakistan, Indian blockbusters of thirty-year vintage, Hollywood action thrillers, horror films and lurid creature-features. There was a long gallery where sunlight fell in shafts through the windows. On the ground floor were family boxes each named after a famous international director.

I looked inside the hall. The audience was all men. Most of them, I was told, were either unemployed or worked as manual labourers for low wages. There were also several young boys—schoolchildren who were not in school.”

This section of the book called “Map of Moving Images” moves through the various aspects of the cinemas in Kabul. From filmmaking, to the shape of cinema halls, to being on location with a crew, Khan charts these territories with a terse composure. This made me realize that while in Cardiff I never went to the cinemas. Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy played on the screens then, but I was oddly nervous about being in the dark of the cinema hall in a new country.

Khan describes Kabul’s salons as the perfect spot for “conviviality and conversation.” She writes: “…it was only in 2013 that I watched a bridal party being prepared, at a parlour in the northern suburb of Khair Khana […] The parlour was in a different part of the locality, on a street lined with several salons and other wedding-related businesses. The shops stretched away in parallel lines of white gowns and ribbons, giving it an air of perennial celebration. Inside, gauzy curtains blocked off the glass storefront and no men were allowed beyond the threshold.” 

This reminded me of the only time I visited a salon in Cardiff. It was located near the student’s union, its front looking into the main road. The glass walls showed off the cool interiors, inviting curious students like me. I had placed an enquiry for an electric blue hair highlight session and was surprised at the straightforwardness with which the student volunteering there had told me that it would not suit my complexion.

The book is packed with Khan’s awe at the workings of a city. She presents it everywhere for the taking, in her relationship with her Baba, echoes of Kabul in Aligarh, in the mud, in the nostalgia and longing for a place she once was a regular to. The book toggles between cool immersive readings and feverish interpretations. The writing is moody and humid, kindled by lust and longing for a place. With the long, indulgent essays Khan successfully evokes a sharp sense of the city. In each chapter, there exists a sense of allure; she teases the reader with details that are just enough.

Khan doesn’t just relegate Kabul to a mere character in the book. Through her rich observation, she creates a deeply felt sense of place. Using sensory details like smells, tastes, sounds, sight and touch, she sets the reader in motion, almost as if walking with her in the city. What makes Shadow City so compelling is its ability to bridge seemingly disparate literary techniques. She’s a meticulous researcher, a process that yields fascinating pieces of history that she offers to her readers. She’s a deft prose stylist; one could read Shadow City without caring at all for the historical context and probably still be delighted. And, without much editorializing, she shares a perspective—in Shadow City, there’s a sense of palpable loss of the aspects of Kabul that were destroyed over the last few decades. And so, there are strange seductions to be found in her writing, which is at once contemplative, braiding personal history with her substantial knowledge of politics, the city and culture.

Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul
by Taran N. Khan
Penguin Random House
Published December 5th, 2019

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