experience Reviews

‘Shadow City’ review: A city of hidden abundance

Pashto writer Sher Zaman Taizi explained Afghanistan in three sentences in his very short story, The Field: Sultan Bacha was killed. Mir Bacha was sentenced to transportation for life. And that field for which the two brothers were fighting was taken by others. Afghanistan has a long oral and written literary tradition in both Pashto and Dari, its two major languages. Writers have explored its history of war and conflict, the ‘Great Game’ involving other powers, themes of home and exile, religious and ethnic tensions, the rise and fall and return of the Taliban.

From Rabindranath Tagore who wove his beautiful short story Kabuliwala around the friendship of Mini, a little girl in Calcutta, with a man from the distant land of Kabul selling dry fruits, to Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, a coming-of-age tale of two boys caught up in violence, and Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos, readers have connected with Afghanistan through fiction and non-fiction.

What lies behind

To this rich heritage of story-telling, add Taran N. Khan’s Shadow City which maps Kabul’s hidden spaces. One of the things she was told when she arrived in 2006 was never to walk. But it was five years since the overthrow of the Taliban and as spring arrived, Khan headed to Mandayi Bazaar south of the Kabul river. Winds of change would blow over Afghanistan again, but in her wanderings from 2006 to 2013, she unravels a city of abundance: “...what is seen is often simply one aspect of the truth. What lies behind — the shadow city — is where layers are revealed.”

On her first walk, Khan notices the mountains that encircle Kabul, Koh-e-Sher Darwaza and Koh-e-Asmai, and the new suburbs of Shahr-e-Nau, extending from the old city of Shahr-e-Kohna. “In the bluster and immensity of war… it is easy to forget that Kabul existed 3,000 years ago,” Khan writes, as she begins to “exhume history” and excavate the present in an ‘amnesiac’ city. There is a lot that wants to be forgotten – the debris of war is everywhere, walls are riddled with bullet marks, graves dot the land, addiction is rife, the divide between rich and poor immense, and in a heavily-mined city only stones marked in white are safe, red stones mean danger.

Growing up in Aligarh in a family descended from Pashtuns, Khan encountered Tagore’s story in her maternal grandfather’s library who also gave her a copy of Baburnama, the memoirs of the young emperor Babur who had conquered Kabul at 21, to help her discover Kabul. She found Baburnama in one of the city’s iconic bookshops, Shah M. Book Co., which has “remained open through each of Kabul’s shifting eras: Communist, Mujahideen, Taliban, ISAF [International Security Assistance Force].”

The owner, Shah Muhammad Rais, had contested the portrayal of him and his family in Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad’s best-selling tome The Bookseller of Kabul.

It is not surprising that in a land where Rumi is popular, poetry flows in the streets. Among the many people she meets is an old employee of Kabul Public Library, Haideri Wojodi, who believes “that words are important through the darkest times.” With her book, Khan has ensured that a part of Kabul will be kept alive.

Shadow City; Taran N. Khan, Vintage/Penguin Random House, ₹599.

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 6:52:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/shadow-city-review-a-city-of-hidden-abundance/article32637358.ece

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