Shadow City is a beautiful book that takes us to the city of Kabul. It is in news either from some childhood stories or from the violence that is reported from there. If one image is from the dream world, the other makes us shut our eyes. A few years back I met a young MP from Afghanistan and for the first time heard about the city. We even discussed the possibility of promoting tourism there, however silly it may sound.
My biggest reason to pick the book Shadow City – A Woman Walks Kabul was the fact that the author walked around the city. This is exactly how I discover cities, by walking around at my own pace, letting the city open up to me. Add to this the fact that, the city here is Kabul, where one is advised not to walk around. Especially if you are a woman and that too a foreigner.
The book starts with a lovely map of the city that you slowly explore as you read the book. It starts with a quote that translates as – there was one, there was no one. This kind of haunts you as you walk around the city ravaged by repeated violence, where weapons to kill are a part of attire in a way.
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Author Taran Khan comes from Aligarh, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, best known for being home to Aligarh Muslim University. She claims her ancestors have roots in Afghanistan and the feeble link existing is her grandfather, fondly called baba. Through her conversations with him, their shared love for poetry, she brings out the threads that join India and Afghanistan. She does not go back in history when it was indeed a part of India, except at one place where she mentions an old Devi temple on top of a hill.
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Departures & Returns
Taran has chosen a few lenses to look at the city. The most poignant is the lens of departures and returns. In the recent past of the city, many have left the city and some have managed to return to the city. It creates a strange sense of belonging to the city and yet a disconnect exists from the years you have spent away. I wonder when we yearn for our homeland but then return to it to find a changed place. You know a part of it but you don’t know a lot about it. Being a nomad, I have personally faced this contradictory emotion when returning to a place I once called home.
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In an earlier book by Mishi Saran, I had read about the luxury bubbles of aid workers in Afghanistan. This book in a way zooms into that experience. Hope more and more authors write about these to uncover the luxurious lives of NGO workers amidst all kind of devastation. A sorry state that would hopefully change when enough light is thrown on it.
The lens of books is endearing, as you go walk in and out of bookstores and libraries. They are anyways my favorite places in a city. However, we rarely imagine that books, libraries, and film archives can also be attacked even when we have examples like Nalanda from history. The knowledge that has to survive though manages to survive somehow.
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The lens of weddings that are like an oasis in the desert is amusing and reassuring at the same time. You want to question the immense show of wealth at weddings. But you also feel these are the moments that people work for all their lives. Hall weddings that let women let their hair down and let families enjoy their good time are lovely to hear about. Of course, they come with security checks and restrictions for service providers like photographers and beauticians.
The author has covered the narrative over her multiple visits to the city of Kabul. This allowed her to stay in different parts of the city, work with locals, make friends, and see the city as participant-observer to use the words of an anthropologist.
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I do not agree with the author’s attempts to draw a parallel between Kabul and Aligarh. It’s possible that women in her family were not allowed to go out to watch films or mingle with people. It is definitely not a norm in India. We grew up with all the freedom.
Having said that, I enjoyed reading the book. Language is conversational. Narrative intersperses the walks with bits and pieces of history and trivia about the city and the state. It was a very different world from what I had read about in earlier books on the region. This was more real and had multiple dimensions.
If cities intrigue you, read Shadow City – A Woman Walks Kabul.