Updated: February 26, 2021 12:39:32 pm
Cities, like people, withhold a story. And just like people, they assume the storyteller’s vision. For instance, Charles Dickens not only used London as a setting but as a character in his novels, using the darkness, hunger and desperation of the city in his world-building. Similarly, it is difficult to read James Joyce’s novels and not be familiar with Dublin. In fact, one of the most enduring descriptions of his 1904 magnum opus Ulysses is “man goes for a walk around Dublin. Nothing happens.”
In non-fiction, cities become a site for reportage, a source of information more than solace. In her 2019 book Shadow City, Taran N Khan departs from this bare approach, gathering instead instances of her journeys in Kabul after arriving in 2006. She does not weave a story around the war-ravaged city, but finds stories in the place.
The author is one of the speakers at the ongoing digital version of Jaipur Literature Festival. In an e-mail interview with indianexpres.com she spoke about her work, narrative decisions she took along the way, and what is it to be a writer today.
In Lonely City, Olivia Laing translates her loneliness through the loneliness of the city — New York. It is part memoir, part journal, revealing as much about the writer as about the city. In Shadow City, however, it is the city that takes centre stage. Did your training as a journalist help in maintaining an objective stance?
From an early stage in the writing process, I knew that I wanted the book to be about the city, rather than go in the direction of a traditional memoir. The reason was that there have been many books about journalists going to Afghanistan or to other conflict zones, and I didn’t feel the need to add to those narratives.
At the same time, I am present in the book, and this was partly because I wanted to make it clear to readers that it was my voice and my reflections that I was sharing. I also wanted to use the special connection I felt with Kabul, and draw on the shared culture of the region that influenced the way I experienced the city. So part of the process was finding a balance between these elements. The key, for me, was to ask whether my presence added a layer of insight into how the reader saw Kabul. The city, as you say, was to take centre stage.
You credit your Pathan background as a reason for your early fixation with Afghanistan. Can you shed light on the way your relationship evolved with Kabul?
My initial sense of excitement about coming to Kabul meant that I arrived in the city with a feeling of happiness and affinity, that I think turned out to be quite central in how the relationship developed. I was fortunate to be working with people who helped me explore the city with intimacy, and who indulged my curiosity about it.
Then, there was my maternal grandfather, who I called Baba, who deeply influenced my time in the city. He had never been to Kabul, but as he told me, ‘Some cities I have never visited, but I know well’. His familiarity with Kabul came through books and reading, and through an immersion in the shared cultural continuum of the region. He opened up many paths for me into the city, from his book lined study in Aligarh.
All of this made a difference to how the city appeared to me, the conversations I sought out, the moments of connection, and everyday gestures that impressed themselves on my memory. For instance, Baba told me about Rudaba, a princess of Kabul in the Persian epic Shahnama, and about her love story with Zal, whom she is determined to marry despite initial opposition to the match. Their child is the famous hero Rustam. Seeing Kabul through this story revealed it as a setting for romance and longing. It also showed how the city was a part of the literary history of the region. Finding such links and layers to the past and present of Kabul was beautiful and transformative for me.
If asked to look objectively, do you think your experiences as a woman shaped the narrative or the gaze you adopted in the book?
When I arrived in Kabul, I was asked not to walk on the streets, not because I was a woman, but because I had come to the city from abroad. But as a woman from India, I already had this complicated relationship with walking and with being told not to walk, so that idea affected me differently. It was also another way in which this new city felt somehow familiar.
I realised that as an Indian woman, I had access to certain spaces and stories that were really interesting and valuable, like going into the ladies’ side of wedding halls or spending time with young working women talking about their aspirations. All of these experiences informed the book in different ways. Having grown up in a relatively sequestered home in north India, I was also comfortable with inhabiting interiors, which meant I often ended up spending evenings listening to the stories and memories of old Kabulis. These, too, formed a rich terrain for me to wander through and added a different landscape to the book.
In the same vein, how did you choose and decide on the voices to be included in the book? If you can take us through the decisions you made regarding that.
There were some people I was sure I wanted to include in the book early on in the process, like Zafar Paiman, the archaeologist who had excavated on a Buddhist monastery on the edge of Kabul. Or Saleem Shaheen, a filmmaker who is heavily influenced by Bollywood movies, and made popular films on a low budget.
Eventually, the process of editing was determined by the structure of the book, and the idea of wandering around this shifting city. It became easier then to retain the elements that served to open a window into the city; to highlight those stories that revealed a different layer to Kabul.
This decision was key also because it freed me of the need to go through a checklist of ‘issues’ that are associated with the city, and instead focus on what I found interesting and compelling. As I wrote in the book, these are maps of exploration and wandering rather than explanation and control.
Your book won an award for Non-Fiction in 2020. How is it to be a female writer in the country at this time?
It’s a challenging time for all kinds of writers, I think. The pandemic has made it difficult to get out and report, or even just meet people, which I feel is an important part of the creative process. Politically, we are living in a time of intense polarisation, and I see many of my colleagues, especially independent women journalists, exposed to vicious attacks online and in their everyday lives, simply for doing their jobs.
At the same time, there are people who continue to speak out and are committed to the idea of journalism or art as public service, which is very powerful to witness. In terms of books, I think people are now more aware of the power of good non-fiction writing, and are interested in exploring the range of these narratives, which is good news for a writer like me.
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