by Kamila Shamsie

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Last Updated June 12, 2024.


Kamila Shamsie's Kartography (2002) is primarily a historical novel. It is set in Karachi, Pakistan, during the mid-twentieth century, a period marked by the partition of Pakistan and the emergence of the independent nation of Bangladesh (formerly West Pakistan). Twenty years later, the novel also explores the government genocide of Pakistan's Muslim immigrant population. Throughout the story, the novel explores how events that become history impact the lives of the people caught up in the chaos.  

Kartography is also a love story, or more precisely, love stories. In tracking the interrelated stories of two sets of four friends across two generations, Shamsie crafts a kind of fractal love story. Parents and then their grown children find love, lose it, and struggle to reclaim it, tragedies, at once familiar and unique, all distorted by the pressures of racism. Using mapmaking as metaphor (the title fuses "Karachi" and "cartography"), the novel reveals how, from generation to generation, love and heartache sustain patterns that create the shared narrative of people's lives.


In Karachi, Pakistan, in the summer of 1986, government troops struggle to quell flare-ups between Christians and Muslim immigrants known as Muhajirs. Raheen, 13, lives with her parents, Zafar and Yasmin. Her closest friend is Karim, whose father, Ali, and mother, Maheen, were childhood friends of Raheen's parents.

Both families are well-off and protected from street violence. As the violence escalates, the parents send the kids to Raheen's family farm outside Karachi. During their idyllic summer, Raheen and Karim find initials carved into a tree: "Z + M." Raheen has often heard the funny story about how Karim's father and her father had "switched" fiancées.

Karim confides in Raheen that he will never take over the family's linen business. He dreams of being a cartographer. Raheen, for her part, sorts through her feelings for the hunky Zia back in school. Her friend Sonia, a devout Muslim, nurses a crush on Karim. At summer's end, Raheen and Karim return to Karachi.

The novel shifts to 1970. Young Zafar courts the beautiful Maheen.  Their country of East Pakistan edges toward a civil war with distant West Pakistan, where Muslim Bengalis are agitating for their own government. Zafar's relationship with Maheen, a Bengali, poses problems should civil war erupt.

The novel returns to 1987. On the way to visit Sonia, Raheen and Zia's car is attacked by a passing Mercedes. Bullets spray everywhere. Zia and Raheen are safe. They decide reporting the shooting would do little good—neither is old enough to be driving. When Raheen gets home, she calls Karim, who comes over with his parents. 

They are upset. The violence is why they are moving to London. Raheen and Karim sense strained emotions about the move. Karim's mother says cryptically, "Because many years ago we decided to square our shoulders and say, this is what we have done."

The novel moves to 1994. Raheen, now a junior at a Boston university, seldom returns to Karachi, torn by violence between the government and Muslim factions. Karim's parents divorced, and his infrequent letters indicate how deeply that impacted him. Although she has a fling with Zia who is studying in New York, Raheen cannot forget Karim.

The narrative returns to 1971. A civil war that would divide East and West Pakistan seems inevitable. Zafar, now engaged to Maheen, has only contempt for the Bengali insurgents.

The novel returns to 1994. Sonia tells her friends that the government detained her father, who runs a toothpick factory, on suspicions of drug smuggling. Although Sonia believes the evidence was planted, she worries that her fiancée might break off...

(This entire section contains 1034 words.)

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their engagement.

Days later, a small newspaper announcement from the family of Sonia's fiancée announces the end of the engagement. Sonia is humiliated. As Raheen and Karim comfort her, Raheen sees that Karim knows something she does not about their parents' marriages. Karim tells her that her father, Zafar, had broken off his engagement to Maheen, his mother, because she was Bengali. Zafar had said, "How can I marry one of them…how can I let one of them bear my children?" That bigotry was why the fathers had swapped fiancées.

Indignant over Sonia's canceled engagement, Karim impulsively asks Sonia to marry him to demonstrate he is no bigot. Raheen concedes, "I had lost him to the past."

Raheen is determined to talk to her parents. Zafar admits he was a coward but says his marriage has given him a broader humanity. Yasmin tells Raheen she loves her father even if her father loved Maheen.

The narrative returns to 1971. In the aftermath of Zafar's bigoted remark, Ali agrees to marry Maheen out of friendship, and Yasmin, who always had feelings for Zafar, agrees to marry him despite his failings.

Raheen's university graduation approaches. She ponders Zia's invitation to live with him in New York. She has not spoken to her parents in more than a year. Karim surprises her at her apartment. He confesses his love for her: "Every part of me is an erogenous zone when you're around." He says he will not return to Karachi, pointing out that her happy childhood was at the expense of his family's unhappiness.

Raheen works up the courage to visit Maheen, who lives in Boston. Maheen chides Raheen for allowing what happened 20 years ago to end her relationship with Karim. Your father, she counsels, "was in an impossible situation. He was a traitor to his own country, in love with a Bengali, a Bingo."  She shares a heartfelt letter from Zahar after they were all settled, "There is nothing," he wrote, "that gives me more joy than…knowing you are happy."

After graduation, Raheen returns to war-torn Karachi. She talks again with her father. He tells her he regrets how much he hurt Maheen and now how much his bigotry has cost Raheen. She writes a long letter to Karim, now a cartographer in London. "Come home, untangler of my thoughts."

Weeks later, Karim flies to Karachi for the funeral of Zia's father, who was killed in street violence. Karim meets Raheen at the service. Karim feels lost in the city. Raheen takes his hand and assures him, "I know the way."