Taran Khan’s book Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul lingers somewhere in the comforting calmness between documentary and fiction. Don’t get us wrong, it’s all true, but it feels just a little better than the bleak musings of Kabul we’re used to reading—almost unreal. The book has won The Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award as well as the Tata Lit Live First Book Award for Non Fiction.
For years she wandered the streets of the city, documenting its anecdotes, analogies and mysticism. “Exploring Kabul, I found, required the same principles that help in the reading of mystical Persian poetry, in the relationship between the zahir, or the overt, and the batin, the hidden or implied,” she said. “This works on the tacit understanding that what is being said is an allegory for what is meant or intended.”
Khan drew parallels from her life in India, and the book spoke of history, politics, art, and most importantly, of love. Her understanding of Kabul changed with the city and what she brought back with herself was an atlas of Kabuli experiences.
But these experiences weren’t the only thing she brought back from Kabul, or any of her other travels. And those objects are what this piece is about, the souvenirs we bring home as little time capsules of our own experiences around the world.
Souvenirs can mean different things to different people. For some, they are the token ‘been there, done that’ stamp of approval, some like to buy them, some like to find them, while others like to “borrow” or steal them. There are people who buy a shot glass every time they visit a new country, there are others who steal one every time they visit a new bar. Whatever the case may be, souvenirs play a role in each of our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not.
For Taran Khan, souvenirs are tactile guides that remind her of her journeys. “They serve as concise flashbacks, and embody our paths through our travels,” she said. “I have bought or picked up souvenirs in most places I have visited, but I have never ‘borrowed’ one.”
What’s the one thing you’ve picked up on your travels that is closest to your heart?
A set of Herati glasses, which I bought from a cavernous shop in Kabul’s Chicken Street, an area full of souvenir and handicraft shops. They are a sublime shade of blue, and are blown into different shapes—some elegantly curved, others wide mouthed and slightly asymmetrical. I love looking at their colours and admiring the craftsmanship that created them. They are fragile and imperfect, which is what makes them beautiful.
Here’s the thing about a good souvenir, it doesn’t really need to be about a place at all. If it can take you back to an experience, or even better, bring the experience to you, it serves its purpose. For Khan, it was something she bought from a street market in San Antonio, Texas. “I bought a toy rifle made of wood that popped a cork on a string each time I pulled the trigger,” she said. “I had a lot of fun with this, and so did my friends. We used it like a prop, to add flourish to our conversations. It eventually broke and I was really quite upset. I would love to replace it if I could.”
These little trinkets of memories remind you people, places, experiences and moments in your life. Or, as Khan added, it could be an amalgamation of all these remembrances. “For instance, I still have the coasters from a terrace cafe in Male, where I spent several evenings watching the world go by,” she said. “Or a tiny figure of Mulla Nasruddin, the colourful character I had heard stories of as a child, that I bought in Dushanbe, where he is also part of popular folk tales. It was nice to have something that connected our cultures in this way.”
Some of us go the tattoo route to etch something for permanency (me included), but Khan does it a little differently. “I got a suzani—a beautifully embroidered cloth—from Kabul that is very dear to me,” she said. “I bought it so I would have something that would remind me of the city.” And no matter which city she’s in, you can most definitely find her buried in a tourist map, annotating her wanderings. "And postcards, usually with illustrations or interesting designs."
As for the go-to mementos, “I usually pick up a selection of local spices or candy, and try to get them from shops recommended by residents rather than from touristy areas,” she said. “Like the fabulous coffee beans I got from a tiny place suggested by a friend in Addis Ababa.” But for close friends and family, “I spend time and effort finding stuff that is more personal,” she added. “A lot of my friends appreciate good design and graphics, sometimes more than the actual gift. I once bought some rolls of beautifully printed wrapping paper for a friend, who loved it!”
Where do you usually keep all the souvenirs you collect?
Around my home, where I can see them! I did stop hoarding ticket stubs and travel passes after I found them cluttering the bottoms of several drawers.
While souvenirs can remind us of the times we hop, skip and jumped our way across the world, there’s often a yearning for home that surfaces on our adventures. Khan has a little tip for that, “For longer journeys I make sure to include something that immediately makes me feel comfortable,” she said. “Like my favourite kind of tea, or a colourful scarf to brighten up a room.”
Take a look around you, find all the things that take you back to a different time and differed place. What was your colourful scarf there?