Kartography, Pakistan

When I finished I am Malala, it felt good to read about Pakistan but there was something missing. I knew about Pakistan’s political problems and Malala was an international figure. What about the Pakistanis who were like me? I wanted a book on the urban Pakistan and I found Kartography, the much celebrated book by Kamila Shamshie.

Kartography is a book of love stories. The present is set in the 90s and the past is set in the 70s. Unfortunately, for the people who don’t know a great deal about Pakistani history, like me, the book does you no favours by indicating what the turmoil is about. I knew that India was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947 and that in 1971 Bangladesh (East Pakistan) split from (West) Pakistan but what happened in Pakistan in the 1990s? These events are before my time! I spent a fruitless afternoon googling Pakistan/Karachi 1995, 1994, 1993, 1996 and only came up with this uninformative Wiki article on Operation Clean-Up. This was the largest contributor to my not enjoying the book as countless others have, as seen on Goodreads and Amazon reviews.

The central, framing love story is between Raheen and Karim, who are apparently destined to be together because they grew up together. It’s ridiculous that any two sane people should act like them. Their separation is contrived and over the tiniest perceived slights. They prefer to never talk about their issues or their feelings, just feel possessive about and infuriated with each other. While I do like the narrative, perhaps I don’t understand enough about Pakistani societal norms or the political situation to be sympathetic towards the characters and the pressures that they feel.

On the other hand, I did like the story of their parents. It goes something like this. Zafar asks out Yasmin. Yasmin jokes about it being inappropriate in Pakistan. Zafar, who doesn’t know Yasmin very well at this point, takes her seriously and does not continue to pursue her. Soon after, he is engaged to Maheen. His friend Ali is in love with Maheen and Yasmin is in love with Zafar. Seeing the two so happy together, Ali and Yasmin bond over their respective heartaches and in a moment of understanding, decide that they could come to love each other in time. So they get engaged.

It’s 1971 and there is a great war in East Pakistan. East Pakistan, being on the other side of India, feels like it gets the short end of the stick when it comes to administration and is revolting. In India, you never want to get between an arguing Punjabi and Bengali (forgive me, I say this with all the love for both of you exuberant and stubborn people) – they can and will decimate you. Pakistan’s civil war can’t have been pleasant. Maheen is a Bengali (it felt weird to read about Bengalis and Punjabis who weren’t Indian). When a neighbour’s brother is killed in this war, the neighbour rushes over to Zafar’s house, mad with rage over his choice to marry a Bengali. Zafar tries to calm him down by saying that he will “dilute her blood”. Ouch. Of course she overhears him and the engagement is off. Such a film cliché. With the objects of their affection no longer out of their reach, Ali and Yasmin break off their engagement too and eventually get with Maheen and Zafar.

That’s it. That’s the fiancé swap that’s in so many reviews. The phrase sounds far more illicit than the actual story. It wasn’t quite the mystery that it was made out to be.

Overall, I liked some bits Kamila Shamshie’s writing, didn’t think much of the story and wished that there was a stronger focus on the political situation than these city kids who left me with a Rich Kids of Instagram taste in my mouth with their smoking and driving at 13, the unbearable daftness of Raheen to the infuriating coldness of Karim to the insufferable piety of third-friend-I-couldn’t-care-to-remember to the biggest idiot of them all, Zia. Kartography might be a great book for those who understand the stuff going on behind the scenes, but to me it was far more trouble than it was worth with unlovable characters to boot.

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