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• Friday, March 31st, 2017

Kamila Shamsie was born in Karachi, Pakistan in 1973. Her family includes several women writers: her mother Muneeza Shamsie is a journalist and novelist and also her great-aunt Attia Hosain. Kamila Shamsie was educated at Karachi’s English Grammar School and later obtained a BA degree in Creative Writing from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, where she has also taught Creative Writing. She obtained an MFA for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and writes articles for The Guardian, The New Statesman, Index On Censorship and Prospect magazine. She also broadcasts on radio.

Kamila Shamsie has received several awards and has written six novels to date. Kartography, her third novel, which was published in 2002, received considerable critical acclaim and was short-listed for the John Llewellyn Rhys award in the UK. It also won the Patras Bokhari Award from The Academy Of Letters in Pakistan. Having dual nationality, she lives between London and Karachi but is mainly based in London.

The “K” in Kartography is intentional, being taken from the “K” in Karachi. In 1986, when Karim was thirteen, he became passionate about cartography. His interest in the subject was triggered by his uncle Asif’s history lessons at the dinner table. Manipulating the food on his plate in a geographical way and turning it towards Raheen and Karim, uncle Asif said: “In 1947 East and West Pakistan were created, providing a pair of testicles for the phallus of India. He had moulded his rice into the subcontinent”. His wife interrupted his demonstration to the thirteen-year-old children by saying: “No genitalia in the dining room”.

This takes place during Karim and Raheen’s winter school holidays, when they were sent by their parents to stay at their aunt Laila and uncle Asif’s farm in Rahim Yar Khan in order to get away from the resurgent tension and violence in Karachi. Nevertheless, Karim will not draw the map of Karachi until later, from memory, while living abroad. He then realises how maps play a big part in people’s mental perception of their land and country as well as their ethnicity – also how maps, which redefine borders, can divide as well as unite people.

Raheen, the narrator of this novel, is Karim’s inseparable friend from birth. They are soul mates, excel at anagrams, neologism, witticisms, wry humour and share the same thoughts. Their parents are also very close friends. Raheen and Karim are united by a strong friendship with their schoolmates, Zia and Sonia. They all come from privileged upper middle-class families.

Kartography is a fictional story enclosed in a realistic background with a strong binding love between the two protagonists. Raheen says: “there was no falling in love”. Karim and herself “were born in love with each other”. Throughout the novel the author uses several flashbacks between the 1971, the 1980s and the 1990s.

In 1971 the civil war between East and West Pakistan created Bangladesh out of East Pakistan. The war was about land and ethnicity between native Karachi people, the Bengalis and the Muhajirs, who are Muslim immigrants from different regions of India.

The ethnic tension during this period is illustrated in the story by the “fiancées swapping” in 1971, when the two best friends, Zafar and Ali exchanged their fiancées: Maheen being Bengali and Yasmin Pakistani. This event will have many implications on their offspring later in life.

Raheen and Karim’s cherished relationship and Raheen’s special relationship with her beloved father will suffer upon discovering this long-hidden mysterious, intriguing secret. The terrible, concealed secret behind the fiancées’ exchange reveals Zafar’s fear and racism at the time against Bengalis. Zafar consequently feels obliged to put an end to his engagement with Maheen, despite being in love with her, which is indicative of the pressures put on people during one of Pakistan’s most turbulent periods of its history,

Throughout the novel Raheen evokes the events of a life that is not lacking in twists, disappointments and in comprehension, despite love and loyalty. The author deftly intertwines the story of Pakistan’s early bloody years with its inter-ethnic hostilities and the personal destinies of the characters.

Karachi is one of the main characters in the novel and despite its pollution and the persisting corruption, violence and prejudices, it is loved as well as admired. In fact it is considered unparalleled to any other city by the two protagonists. It is a hymn of praise and a tribute from the author to her beloved native city.

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