122. Kartography by Kamila Shamsie

Hello dear reader,

For the review of the book you clicked for, I thought I’d preface this post for the special day that is today: 14th August.

When I first came across Kartography by Kamila Shamsie in the used books shop, I snatched it without thinking twice, asfinally I got my hands on a book by a Pakistani author.

I miss Pakistan terribly at times, and despite my love-hate relationship with authors from back home, I couldn’t let this one go.

And as we commemorate independence day for Pakistan around the world today , I thought it quite fitting to review a book that takes you on a whirlwind trip into the streets and chaos of the lovely Karachi.

Still have to visit it personally though, but this book made me wanna pack up and leave immediately.

Kartography is a story of friendship and love between two childhood friends: Raheen and Karim. They belong to the Upper-Class of Karachi, the crème de la crème. The friendship between their parents goes back way before they were even born, with a very unique twist.

The parents used to be engaged to each other’s spouses, before they got married. But circumstances, political tension, race, and social standing led to a fiance swap.

“I didn’t tell him that I grew up in an ugly city that taught me how to look between dust and rubbish and potholes to find a splinter of glass that looked like unmelting ice, beautiful in its defiance of the sun.”

But here is the main part that I haven’t mentioned.

The story is set some twenty years later after the consequences of The Civil War of 71 that lead to the separation and formation of Bangladesh, in a volatile Karachi.

“… I knew that every other city in the world only showed me its surface, but when I looked at Karachi I saw the blood running through and out of its veins; I knew that I understood the unspoken as much as the articulated among its inhabitants; I knew that there were so many reasons to fail to love it, to cease to love it, to be unable to love it, that it made love a fierce and unfathomable thing… “

The plot moves back and forth between the effects of the war on the relationship between the four adults and friendship, and between Raheen and Karim, as the latter moves away to London when his father cannot take the insecure situation of Karachi.

“For a second I was almost jealous of the clouds. Why was he looking to them for an escape when I was right here beside him?”

Before he leaves, Karim expresses a desire to make maps and leaves Raheen with a map of all their favourite spots in Karachi. Their friendship takes a toll as letters and phone calls aren’t enough to salvage their need to see each other.

“… at the heart of the romance is the knowledge that those hands may wander off elsewhere, but somehow through luck or destiny or plain blind groping they’ll find a way back to you, and maybe you’ll be smart enough then to be grateful for everything that’s still possible, in spit of your own weaknesses- and his.”

However, they meet when one of their mutual friend is getting engaged, and like the phrase “all hell breaks loose” they get to know what really happened to their parent’s relationship during the Civil war, what being a Muhajir and Bengali meant at that time and how toxic the Upper Class can be.

Being my first time reading Kamila Shamsie, I was quite enamoured and confused by her writing style. Confused, because I couldn’t figure out the sentence structures, like where one character’s thought ended and where the other character’s thought began.

It took a few pages to figure that out, but afterwards I was hooked.

I did have one issue though, and despite the excellent plot, the confused characters who can’t express their feelings to one another, and the very very accommodating parents, I just couldn’t accept that this could be a Pakistani story.

It seemed foreign for me to even imagine, and that too during the 70s, just seemed delusional.

Hailing from the middle class, I have yet to come across a story that paints a true picture of what life as a Pakistani is, to which I can relate to.

By far, I haven’t come across one single narrative that can be relatable, and so my quest will go on till I find that one book.

Other than that, this book and it’s storyline was fantastic. Just not realistic in my point of view. I did laugh at many points, tore up at some and learnt quite a bit about Muhajir’s and the 71 war to which I was rather oblivious.

So over all I was happy.

Onto the basics:

  1. Rating: 3.5/5.0
  1. Favorite quote: “Somewhere deep within the marrow of our marrow, we were the same.”
  2. Reader level: Fairly easy. Many 80’s references.
  3. Should you read: Yes, would recommend.
  4. Would I read it again: Probably not.

Till next time,


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *