In a truly remarkable repetition of South Asian history, one more country in the region splits itself into two, leading to the formation of Bangladesh. Nothing about this fragmentation, however, was easy; blood spilled, lives were lost, families and friends wrenched apart, and only remnants of this history were articulated in years to come. Pakistan and Bangladesh still share a grating border and, often, the history of partition excludes this story, focusing on 1947.
Kamila Shamsie’s novel circulates the lives of Raheen, Karim, and, less frequently, Sonia and Zia, of upper-middle class Karachi in the 90s. The novel’s narrative fluctuates between then and 1971, during the youth of their parents, who, in their 20s, lived during the uprising racism and consequent violence against Bengalis. Utilizing the upper-middle class framework of Karachi, Shamsie writes about a demographic that, while aware of the genocide and partition, is mostly only impacted tangentially.
Told primarily through the perspective of Raheen, a girl who grew up in Karachi in the 90s, Shamsie uses the framework of 1971 to shape the relationships Raheen has with her family and friends.
At first glance, the novel seems to focus itself on the growing love between Raheen and Karim, her best friend since birth, son of her parents’ best friends, and whose life is inextricably tied to her own. Shamsie, however, disrupts Raheen’s narrative with flashbacks that circle her parents’ lives before and immediately after their marriages. Shamsie mirrors Raheen’s friends, Karim, badboy-but-Devdas-esque Zia and good-Muslim-girl Sonia, with the friendships of her parents, Yasmeen and Zafar, to Karim’s parents, Maheen, a Bengali woman, and Ali. Her trans-generational repetition of personal history reflects that of partition in South Asia, as a statement that we rarely learn from our pasts.
As Karim and Raheen’s relationship develops, changing from a shared childhood to a long-distance kinship maintained through letters when he moves away, so too do we see, through the flashbacks, how Yasmeen, Zafar, Maheen and Ali fell in love with one another, and how 1971 tragically distorted those relationships. Shamsie’s depiction of the superficiality of what remained of their connections speaks to the superficiality of the upper-middle class of Karachi during 1971.
The title of the novel, “Kartography,” is an amalgamation of ‘cartography’ and ‘Karachi,’ referring to Karim’s insistence on mapping out Karachi by memories he shared with his family and Raheen when he moves away. Karim’s maps name roads and streets that may not have had names before, depicting a kind of intimacy one can share with a city they have lived in their whole life. Karachi is a living, breathing character in this novel.
Shamsie has an ability to complicate and layer love of family, of romance, and of home, so that it does not live in the cliché. Love, in this novel, is not created between Raheen and Karim. In Raheen’s own words, there was no falling in love, they were born in love with each other. The falling in love in Kartography occurs for a city, and, largely, a country, that was once the site of immense grief and loss. She also has an ability to use prose that is poetry so that we are unwittingly craving the desires of the characters.
That being said, one can argue that Kartography exploitatively uses the framework of the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide to zoom into the lives of a few rich folks living in Karachi at the time. Shamsie’s intentional subversion of the true brutality of the events raises the question of whether this novel was really about 1971. If not, what right (and to what extent) did Kartography have to use the framework of the 1971 devastations?
While the novel has its flaws, Shamsie’s writing overall grasps the possibility of tumultuous love of family and friends after an immense tragedy. She tackles how people picked up the pieces after 1971, even people who were marginally affected by its events, and forgave one another. Kartography explores how love can bring out the worst in us, even the complicated love of Karachi. It is simultaneously (and perhaps paradoxically) a city of loss and suffering as well as childhood and joy for the main characters. Ultimately, Shamsie writes a vastly underrated novel about the idea of home.