Walking Kabul: An Interview with Taran N. Khan

Photo: Jonathan Page

Taran N. Khan’s book, Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul, won the 2021 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award and the 2020 Tata Literature Live First Book Award for Non-Fiction.

The book is about Taran’s trips to Kabul from 2006 to 2013 during which she set out—against all advice—to walk the city and discover the real Kabul, not its one-dimensional portrayal by the media.

Taran is an Indian journalist and writer based in Mumbai.

Talking About Books interviewed Taran on her links with Kabul and her impressions of the city.

TAB: I love the way your book moves between Kabul, and your growing up in Aligarh, India, and your close relationship with your grandfather, Baba. You say your book was inspired by him because, although he had never been to Kabul, he knew it well. Can you tell us a little about your relationship with your grandfather and his links with Kabul?

TNK: I always saw Baba surrounded by books and writing, and words and literature formed a large part of our relationship. Each birthday, for instance, he wrote me a poem as a gift—I can’t say I appreciated it much when I was younger, but in hindsight I see what a beautiful gesture it was. One year when I was around ten or eleven I wrote him a poem in return, and he was delighted! Both he and grandmother were unusual in that they had a streak of irreverence running through their lives and conversations. I really loved that about them.

Baba’s relationship with Kabul was an extension of this worldview, I think. He related to it through books and poetry and mythology—all a part of the shared cultural arc that links our region, and that he saw far more clearly than I could. I think Kabul was a city he felt closer to than I did even after I had been there, because he saw intuitively the layers I had to really work to discern. He saw it as a place of creativity and diversity, of imagination and depth, of music and the web of human connections. 

TAB: You “sought out what was forgotten in Kabul as a way to map this batin[hidden] city.” What drew you to this and were you surprised by what you found?

TNK: Partly this was prompted by Baba, who told me things about Kabul that I could not find on my own. He would guide my walks despite never having been there himself. It was also prompted by the people I was fortunate enough to experience the city with, who helped me explore it with intimacy and insight. Often they would remark on things almost in passing, and I would be stunned by the layers their words revealed. I suppose it was a surprise until it wasn’t—until I grasped that there was no reason why Kabul shouldn’t have layers and complexity, like other cities I knew. One of the most important lessons I learnt was that things were always more nuanced and complicated than they appeared in this city.

I also realized that a different kind of batin city emerged later in the writing process, in that the things that appealed to me, or stood out to me as an Indian woman, were often irrelevant or invisible to other writers. It took me a while to see this as an asset, because there is often a sense that the things worth writing about are those that are addressed by western journalists or visitors. So mapping these aspects of Kabul was in part an acknowledgement of difference, of diversity in ways of seeing as well.

TAB: What stood out most for you during your visits to Kabul?

TNK: Always the people I met. We often see Afghans described in a series of clichés, either of suffering or of a ‘hope against all odds’ kind of emotion. The people I met lived through the full range of human emotions, from despair to hope to love to grief. I was drawn to their readiness to embrace life, to live in the moment, and to their generosity even when they faced difficulties. In the current situation, with the news becoming increasingly heartbreaking, it is even harder to think of this.

TAB: You talk about Kabul being a city marked by absence. Could you elaborate on this?

TNK: Often while talking to people or wandering through memories and the streets of Kabul, I would encounter this theme of loss, manifested in different ways.

The simplest form of such absences was often a grave, but in Kabul there are monuments and markers to loss everywhere—in the facade of a ruined home, for instance, or a framed picture on a wall of a missing family member. In a busy housing colony, I found a shrine to a young girl killed during the dark years of the civil war. And in the public library, I found the famous poet Haideri Wojodi, surrounded by the fading documents of Kabul’s literary past. I felt these shades of loss shaped the city’s terrain deeply.

An astute reader recently pointed out to me that as South Asians we are intimate with loss—it has shaped our geographies and histories, flowing from our colonial-era borders, to the rupture of Partition and communal violence. Perhaps that’s why this aspect of the city spoke so clearly to me.

TAB: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you start writing? Have you always written?

TNK: I was drawn to writing quite early because it was adventure, it was travel of a different kind, it was freedom to inhabit all these lives that were out of reach for me. As a young girl in Aligarh, this was all heady stuff.  I spent most of my vacations working my way through the wooden almirahs in my family home that were stacked with books inherited from different aunts and uncles. I count these long hours as one of the blessings of having grown up in pre-liberalization India, before ideas of productivity took over such languid pleasures.

I decided I wanted to be a journalist when I was still in school, because I wanted to explore the world through writing. This may seem terribly old-fashioned but I also believed in the power of journalism as public service. I belong to a generation of Indians that saw the rise of print and TV journalism and the impact it could have on lives.  A lot of my work draws from this grounding in journalistic craft, though I often use the devices of narrative nonfiction.

TAB: What advice would you give to writers who are starting out?

TNK: Make friends with self-doubt, especially if you are a woman. Recognize that what you have to say is valuable, especially if you don’t see a lot of people like yourself on the bookshelves. Most importantly, don’t try to make your work fit any publishing formulas. Be open to being different.

It’s also a good idea to switch off the Internet when you work.

TAB: I lived in Kabul during the early 1970s and Shadow City brought Kabul vividly back to me. Thank you, Taran, for that, and for sharing your impressions of the city.


Read my review of Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul for Women on the Road.

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