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"E. M. Forster's famous plea—'only connect'—reverberates passionately throughout this forceful tale of childhood, love and the power of story-telling." —The Independent
"[In Kartography] words are used as vehicles conveying both emotions and intelligence, while at the same time - because the whole novel hinges on a secret that is hidden from the narrator—Shamsie knows that words aren't exactly everything, either." —The Guardian
"Deftly woven, provocative . . . Shamsie's blistering humor and ear for dialogue scorches through [a] whirl of whiskey and witticisms." —The Observer
"The descriptions of Karachi were so graphic I could feel the heat and the tension emanating from the pages of the book…Gripping and thought-provoking." —BBC.com
"A shimmering, quick-witted lament and love story…This is a complex novel, deftly executed and rich in emotional coloratura and wordplay." —Publishers Weekly, starred review
"[Kartography] leaves you feeling wistful and touches some place in your heart you didn't even know existed…Even though the story came to a magnificent end yet you wish [Shamsie] hadn't finished the book." —The Rumpus
The globe spins. Mountain ranges skim my fingers; there is static above the Arabian Sea. Pakistan is split in two, but undivided. This world is out of date.
Rain outside. If it reaches Karachi, the waves will swell further. The airport, though, is inland. From there to here is no distance at all if you look at the map of the world. But distance is not about miles and kilometres, it is about fear. Who said that? Someone who wasn't married to a pilot, I'd guess. I unscrew a jar of ink. Scent of smudged words and metal fills the air.
Do all tentacled creatures produce ink, Raheen? Does the cuttlefish? Can you write on the waves with cuttleink?
I close my eyes, and wrap my fingers around a diamond-shaped bone. I still hear the world spinning. I spin with it, spin into a garden. At dusk. And yes, those are shoulder pads stitched into my shirt.
Of course the garden is located where all our beginnings, Karim's and mine, are located: Karachi. That spider-plant city where, if you know what to look for and some higher power is feeling indulgent, you might find a fossilized footprint of Alexander. The Great. He led his army through Karachi, long, long before the spider-plant effect took hold, when Karachi was a harbour named Krokola. Perhaps Alexander's was the first army that stirred up the sand along the eastern coast of the Arabian Sea.
That's an interesting thought.
Though, really, it's never been proved that Karachi is Krokola, and even if it is Alexander probably never stepped foot on its shores; so any ancient Macedonian footprints with heelstamps of authority in Karachi's rocks must belong to Alexander's admiral, Nearchus, who wasn't even Macedonian. He was a Cretan and that sounds rude.
I don't know if Karim and I were actually looking for ancient footsteps in the rockery of Karim's garden that October evening, the day all boxes were unpacked and the move from Karim's old house finally completed, but I do know that we were more than happy with our discovery of a fossilized cuttlefish.
'You sure it's a cuttlefish?' I said, turning the diamond-shaped fossil over in my hands. We were sitting cross-legged, side by side, on the grass that bordered the triangle of soil on which the rockery had been set out. Mud on his knees and chlorophyll on mine, though as we sat close, swaying back with laughter and forward with curiosity, the colours were mingling, dun shot through with emerald.
'Course it is. Well, cuttlebone. No sign of fish flesh on that thing.'
'So flesh is what makes a fish a fish?'
'Interesting question. Is a sole without flesh still a sole? Either way, a cuttlefish isn't a fish at all.' Karim waved his arms about like someone trying to breakdance. 'It's got tentacles.'
He fell back on his elbows, nearly flattening an ant, which, impervious, did not waver from its path but crawled over his arm and proceeded along through the short-cropped grass. 'Imagine it.' He looked around. 'This used to be an ocean. If you squint, can't you almost see Mai Kolachi rowing a boat through the hibiscus in search of her husband, and look! over there, through the bougainvillaea you can see a wave made up of the tears Alexander wept for Bucephalus.'
"Bucephalus" is an anagram for "a puce blush". When I squint, I see only a blur.'
Karim rolled his eyes. 'You know, if I wasn't me, you wouldn't be you.'
Odd. No matter where I begin, that line finds its way into my narrative so very early on, and forces linearity to give way to a ramble of hindsight. This is the worst of our ways of remembering-this tendency to prod the crust of anecdote in the hope of releasing a gush of piping-hot symbolism.
Stop, Karim would say. Go and eat something. And look up 'symbolism' in the dictionary while you're at it. Symbolism is an anagram for 'Miss my lob'. The summer we played tennis together there was such symbolism in your game.
Karim, shut up. While you weren't looking I've melded the memories into a story beginningmiddlend, and don't you dare interrupt with your version of what-really-came-first and that-was-cause-not-effect.
Goodness, girlio, wouldn't dream of it. Chronology is all about effect. Which is why you should have started at the point...
All right. Dusk...shoulder pads...cuttlefish...My parents pulling up in the driveway, and Karim's father-Uncle Ali-coming out to join them for tea, his tie immaculately knotted and the creases of his trousers so sharp they would have mowed the grass if he had rolled across the garden. That's a ridiculous thing to say, though. Imagine Uncle Ali deigning to roll.
'Oh, you really look like someone who's been unpacking boxes all day,' my mother said with a laugh, sitting down on a cane chair, her palm outstretched towards Uncle Ali as though proffering him a tray of teacups. 'Hanh, I know. The house is a mess, but your dressing room is tiptop and shipshape.'
Uncle Ali didn't smile. 'Such an optimistic move, buying a house.'
I caught my parents exchanging worried glances. 'What a silly remark, Ali,' my mother said.
'What's silly about it? The factory area is still under curfew. No sign of it lifting.'
'Oh, optimistic that way,' my father said, and then shut up because my mother kicked him.
I looked across at Karim to see if he knew what was going on, but he was gripping the cuttlebone tight, trying to imprint his palm with its scarred surface.
'Things are just so awful,' Uncle Ali went on. 'God only knows when the kids' school will open again.'
Karim and I tried to look sombre, but my father caught us touching toe to toe in delight.
'You're more than happy that the riots are continuing, right?' Aba said.
'Well, it's not...' I said.
'That we want more people to die or anything,' Karim went on. 'But...'
'But it wouldn't hurt if things remained...'
'Just long enough for exams to be cancelled.'
'Quickly make as many idiotic statements like that as are necessary for a lifetime,' my father said. 'You're almost old enough to know better. What is it? October? By January we're going to start expecting moral responsibility of you both.' Aba shifted sideways as he spoke and looped his legs over the arm of the chair, his every muscle conveying the indolence of a well-satisfied man. He could probably drape himself over a barbed-wire fence and still look entirely at ease.
Ami crooked a finger through the hole near the cuff of Aba's jeans. I had asked her once if it bothered her that Aba was so totally unromantic, and she replied that her definition of romance was absent-minded intimacy, the way someone else's hands stray to your plate of food.
I looked at my parents for a moment. My father was pushing at Ami's chair with his bare foot, pretending he was about to tip it over, and she gave him a look-one of those officious looks of hers-and he winked at me and subsided. I winked back with my smaller, darker version of his cat eyes ('Tiger eyes', he and I would always insist. 'Panther eyes.'). We were co-conspirators, my father and I, though it was never entirely clear to me what we were conspiring about. Beside me, Karim started humming under his breath, so I turned back to the conversation to figure out what objectionable thing Uncle Ali was saying.
'What am I more afraid of: that one day my son will get caught up in the troubles, or that he'll never get caught up in it at all? You know, I seriously think sometimes that I should just write to my brother and...'
Karim lay back and locked the tips of his fingers in a cradle for his head, but despite his attempt at nonchalance I could see the palms of his hands pressed tight against his ears, and I could hear the humming grow louder.
'Hey!' I prodded him. 'Dekho!'
Karim's mother stepped out through the sliding glass doors of the TV room, and Karim and I exchanged raised-eyebrow looks because her hair was a shade lighter than it had been an hour earlier, bringing it to almost-chestnut. Ever since she'd found those magazines under Karim's bed she had taken to dyeing her hair every time she tried to make an important decision regarding her son, and now she was blinking rapidly and clearing her throat, signalling that she was about to say something that she wasn't sure she should.
'Laila called a little while ago, just back from her honeymoon, says it was the best of the three so far. But she's feeling a little aisay-waisay, you know, trying to settle down to life on Asif's farm. So, and, darlings'-she turned to my parents here-'I didn't give an answer, because I said we must all consult, though I know what my vote is and I'm prepared to get assertive about it, but what she said was we should all come to the farm to keep her company, which is, of course, ridiculous because ad agencies and linen factories and newspaper magazines don't just run themselves and you've both taken more than enough time off this year what with the trek up North and I have to be here for my cousin's wedding, but she also said, and here's the part that we need to talk about, she said that over the winter holidays we should send the kids to her.'
Karim and I curled our lips at each other. A farm! For God's sake, a farm! For two smogsniffers. Karachiites, damn it, who had things planned in the city for the winter holidays. Going crabbing and hanging out at Baleji Beach and driving to the airport for coffee, the world full of possibilities now that one of our crowd-Zia-drove, and the rest of us had chipped in with birthday and Eid money to buy him a driver's licence that claimed he was born in 1967, before the moon landing, before the Civil War of '71, before my mother and Karim's mother swapped fiancés and wondered why they hadn't earlier.
'I don't think that's a good idea, Maheen.' Ami absent-mindedly pulled petals of Raat-ki-Rani off the string of white buds that held her hair in a bun, rubbed the petals between her palms and spread her hands, releasing a musky scent which would hover around her for hours. My father once swore that Ami could climb into a vat of rotting rubbish and, if there were a single gladiolus amid the mess of eggshells, mould, mango peel, chicken gizzards and last week's dinner, Ami would emerge smelling as though she'd just sprayed on a perfume with a sense of humour.
'Well, I think it's a wonderful idea,' Aunty Maheen said, drawing her tiny frame to its full height. 'And it's my turn to be right.'
'But, sadly, she keeps missing her turn,' Uncle Ali said to my father.
I started to laugh, but stopped when I saw Aba kick Uncle Ali's chair and incline his head towards Karim. Karim was resolutely looking away from his parents. Perhaps he hadn't even heard his father's comment. But then he put his hand up to his cheek and I knew he did it to hide his clenched jaw. I wanted to tell him acerbity was just Uncle Ali's manner; it didn't mean anything. So I pulled a fistful of grass out of the ground and blew the green blades in his direction. He turned towards me when he heard me exhale, and caught a scattering of grass on his palm. I moved closer to him and started to rearrange the grass strands into a grid for noughts and crosses.
'Oho.' Ami clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. 'You can afford to think it's wonderful, Maheen, because you have a son, and now you're going to force me to use the dreaded phrase "what will people say?" Suno, yaar, Karim and Raheen are almost...no, oh khuda, they are teenagers. To send the two of them alone...buss, now don't give me that look!'
I thought she was talking to me, but it was Uncle Ali who answered. 'Don't be absurd, Yasmin. They're virtually cousins. In fact, they are cousins. You and I are third cousins, so that means our children are related, too. Tell that to the gossipmongers.'
'Hey, cuz,' Karim said. He blew on the grass strands and they flew on to my face.
'We're third cousins-in-law,' Ami said. 'No actual blood relation. I thought you'd be on my side, Ali.'
'I have to sit down,' Aunty Maheen said. 'The husband is agreeing with me.'
'I don't think it'll do Karim much good to be here, the way things are now.' Uncle Ali sipped his tea and didn't look at his wife. I looked at Karim again. He was staring up at the sky, slipping away.
'He's having one of his Doomsday visions,' Ami cut in quickly. 'He wants the kids away from Karachi.'
'We can't afford to do that,' Aba said. 'If you send them away because it's too dangerous, how do you justify bringing them back?'
'It's only for the holidays,' Uncle Ali said. 'They run wild during the holidays. It just won't be much fun for them if we say they can't go anywhere, do anything. And it'll be a nice break for them to have all Asif's vast acreage to frolic in.'
'But we want to frolic at the beach,' I objected.
'Much too dangerous driving out all that way,' Ami said. 'Ali, you may have a point. There's a lot of fun to be had at Asif's farm. Well, there was fifteen years ago.'
When Ami said that, it seemed to me Aunty Maheen started to look at my father, then looked away and sighed. 'Maybe things will get better by December.' She rested her head on my mother's shoulder. 'When will this country learn?'
Uncle Ali leaned sideways in his chair and looked at his wife. 'This is not history repeating itself, Maheen. A military government such as ours can never rule a country that's united. Not for any length of time. They can't afford to allow any group to get powerful enough to instigate a mass movement. That's what it's about this time.'
'You choose to believe that all the trouble is artificially created, don't you, Ali?' Aunty Maheen sat up and glared at her husband. 'That makes things much easier for all of us in our civilized drawing rooms, doesn't it, because then it's only about the government, or the intelligence agencies, or even the Hidden Palm?—'
'Hand,' Uncle Ali said.
'Oh, be quiet.'
'I think he was trying to reassure you, Maheen,' Aba said.
'Ali, she has a point,' Ami said, at the same time.
'I don't need reassuring. Why can't he understand that? Why do the two of you always have to explain my husband and me to each other?'
Karim was in another world, watching the clouds wisp past. Was he more of a dreamer than I was because his parents fought all the time? For a second I was almost jealous of the clouds. Why was he looking to them for escape when I was right here beside him? I twitched his sleeve, and he turned instantly to me, something close to relief on his face when I motioned him to follow me.
We crawled away from our parents and I squeezed myself into the narrow space between the boundary wall and the spreading hibiscus plant. Karim had to suck in his stomach to follow. The sun had trouble reaching this patch in which we crouched, knees drawn up to chin, and the mud was still damp from the mali's round with the garden hose earlier in the evening. I wondered if Karim was also recalling that long-ago monsoon day when we had hidden in the bushes of my grandmother's house; I had pointed out that my mother said that if you stand around in wet clothes you'll catch a chill, so in the interests of good health we had thrown all our clothing in a pile and: 'That's so funny-looking, Karim. Can I hold it? Can you make it move?' 'No, but I can wiggle my ears.'
Karim cleared his throat, and I shifted slightly away from him, watching his bare toes curl around a twig in the mud.
'We're really sick, aren't we?' he said. 'Wanting riots to continue just so school can remain closed.'
I scratched my knee and tried to look repentant, but really I was thinking that the riots had to stop, they absolutely had to, else we'd be sent away over the holidays. None of what was going on in Karachi made much sense to me-not since last year when that girl was killed by a speeding bus and you'd think that was a domestic tragedy, her poor family, and also, I wondered, what must go on in the head of the driver, who certainly didn't intend to kill a girl but now had to live with the consequences of his recklessness, but instead of being a family tragedy it all ignited a terrible ethnic fight. The girl Muhajir, the bus driver Pathan, and somehow, somehow, that became the issue, though my mother said 'a catalyst, no more' and Uncle Ali said, 'all being orchestrated to create divisions and factions', and my father responded, 'Don't the fools know these things can't be contained', while Aunty Maheen kept talking about 'the perils of amnesia'. Lots of people looked at her strangely when she said that. But Karim and I were thirteen; there was nothing we could do about the nation's problems, so why not stick to issues that perhaps we did have some control over?
I poked Karim in the stomach. 'We need a p.o.a.' I said. 'To stop them from sending us off to milk feudal cows.'
Karim adopted the voice of our maths teacher. 'The probability of success regarding a plan of action employed by two thirteen-year-olds against their parents is what? (a) one in one thousand; (b) two in three thousand; (c) too small to bother calculating.'
'Oh, come on, Karimazov. Forget maths and come up with a plan.' From between the hibiscus branches I saw Uncle Ali flick an insect out of his wife's hair. Aunty Maheen looked startled, and then smiled, and they regarded each other curiously, as though they hadn't seen one another in a very long time. For no reason at all, I felt suddenly gleeful, and I punched Karim's shoulder. 'Come on! Think of Miandad hitting that six off Sharma. If he could do that, you can do this.'
'Miandad wasn't thirteen, and Chetan Sharma wasn't his mother.'
'Final ball of the innings, Karim! Four runs needed to win! And Miandad at bat. Six runs the moment that ball left the willow. Come on, Karim. Think.'
'Why don't you think?'
'I'm the brawn.'
Which was true. At the time, I was about four inches taller than Karim and, just weeks earlier, in front of our whole class, I had lifted him off his feet and deposited him in the waste-paper basket during one of his bouts of recalcitrance. Of course, he had rescued himself from embarrassment by refusing to step out until Mr Ansari, our science teacher, walked in, whereupon Karim said, 'You were right, sir, last week when you said I am rubbish. Please pray for me so that I might be spared the destiny of pencil shavings.' Poor Mr Ansari stood speechless while the class dissolved into laughter around him.
But even as I was laughing I knew Karim was not playing for attention, but for justice. Mr Ansari really had called Karim 'rubbish' the week before, after finding Karim in the library looking at 'a dirty picture'. That is to say, Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.
So when the school principal walked past our class en route to teaching mathematics to Class 9-K, and saw Mr Ansari standing red-faced and ineffectual amid thirty-one laughing students, I knew it wasn't coincidence, but timing. Only afterwards did it occur to me that Karim couldn't have timed the whole thing, because he didn't know I was going to deposit him in the waste-paper basket. Or did he?
Three days later Karim apologized to Mr Ansari. He told me his sense of justice had evolved beyond revenge.
At thirteen we were all given to saying things that sounded as if we were trying too hard to grow up.
But that October day in the garden, when Karim said, 'Nope, sorry, no p.o.a. comes to mind', we were forced to face our status as children and accede to the tyranny of adults. Our only hope was that Ami's sense of propriety-which we regarded as rubbish-would win the day.
'You're going,' Aba said, nearly an hour later.
Karim and I looked round at the four grown-ups, trying to find some sign of relenting, but they had that look of solidarity which can only belong to four people who have switched partners without missing a step or treading on a toe.
'Do we have to call Aunty Laila's new husband "Uncle" even though he is a decadent feudal?' I asked.
My parents blanched.
My sense of justice was not as evolved as Karim's.
Less than two months later Karim and I boarded a train bound for farmland, with the decadent feudal's brother along as an 'in-charge', though I swear I heard my mother refer to him as a chaperon. Of course, when I confronted her about this she said, 'Don't be a silly-billy, I didn't say chaperon. I sneezed.' And for weeks afterwards she made her sneezes sound like 'a-chaperoo', to the point when it became normal and she couldn't sneeze in any other way even if she tried.
The journey to Rahim Yar Khan was an overnight one, and we were booked into two adjoining compartments, though each compartment slept four. Decadent Feudal's brother pretended to insist that Karim sleep within the same four walls as him, but when Karim slipped next door-ostensibly to borrow a book to read-Uncle Chaperoo (as we had already named him) pretended not to notice the length of his absence until the next morning.
What is it about a train charging down the tracks? Buses, planes, cars, boats-I was blasé about all of them before I even knew what blasé meant. But that evening when the train pulled out of the station, I leaned out of the window like someone in a film and waved madly to anyone who cared to look. And I sang! I wanted a song appropriate to the moment but only 'Feed the World' came to mind, so I sang that and didn't care that the coolies laughed at me and a beggar flung a handful of peanuts in my direction.
Maybe I'd been watching too many movies.
'No,' Karim said, flinging himself on the lower bunk and rolling up the blinds. 'It's not Hollywood association that sets your heart racing. It's the sound of the train. Dhug-dhug. Dhug-dhug.'
'Ker-chug. Ker-chug,' I argued.
'Well, something iambic.'
I lay down on the top bunk. The black vinyl stuck to my skin and I imagined how it would feel if the boy on the lower bunk opposite me were Zia, not Karim. Zia with his fake driver's licence, Marlboro cool, thick lashes and curly hair. Zia who said that the point of smoking was to draw attention to your lips. Which I was quite happy to do, except Karim said he'd tell my parents.
I blew imaginary smoke rings in the air and said, 'Why do you have to be so annoying sometimes?'
Karim continued to look out of the train window. 'Can't help it. It's the company I keep.'
I propped myself up on my elbow, trying not to imagine to whom or what else the vinyl had clung in the past. The bed-sheets that Ami had packed for the journey were in Uncle Chaperoo's compartment, but I could hear him singing wedding songs through the wall that separated his bed from mine, and it seemed impolite to intrude. So instead I turned off the overhead light and watched Karim's reflection in the window while shadows of trees and tracks and rural stations passed over his face and the moon glowed in his hair. All the while, his finger traced station names on to his arm, left to right and right to left, impossible to say if he was writing Urdu or inverted-English, English or reflected Urdu. I thought, no, there's no one I would rather be here with than my best friend, my one-time crib companion, my blood-brother (or spit-brother; sputum being the fluid we chose to mingle in a cup and ingest), no one else who will catch me if I fall out of this top bunk, catch me not because of quick reflexes but because of anticipation.
When I finally slept, I dreamt I was on a train.
Copyright © 2002 by Kamila Shamsie
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 9, 2005
being from karachi, i was really excited and simultaneously nervous about reading this book. its not often that I find fiction set in Pakistan. Once I started reading this book, however, I literally could not put it down! Shamsie's writing shows her sharp intellegence and her love of Karachi, yet at no point does she try to be euphemistic or make up Karachi into anything its not. An honest novel, an unforgettable story (so vivid, you feel like you are in the circle of the characters' closest friends) - this book stays with you long after you finish reading. Meant to be read again and again!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 3, 2003
I initially picked up this book because of its beautiful cover. I was soon hooked by the captivating story of friends dealing with both very usual, and very serious issues. This is the kind of book that evoked deep feelings, left me rooting for the protagonist, and was so real, I felt I lived it. Scenes from the story often pop into my memory and move me still, weeks after finishing.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 28, 2009
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Posted November 9, 2008
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