Salil Tripathi

Karachi Kids

By Kamila Shamsie
(Bloomsbury 343pp £9.99)

In her ambitious third novel, Kartography, Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie seizes upon Karachi’s anarchic geography and weaves a magical tale. Navigating an uncharted city is difficult, but Shamsie does it skilfully, walking us through Karachi’s  and Pakistan’s  turbulent history. She draws parallels between the country's agony and the anguish of Raheen and Karim, two soulmates who grow up together, and of their friends and families.

Karim is obsessed by the city’s larger problems  guns, for example  but such things do not concern Raheen, whose interests do not extend beyond what she already knows. It is only when she grows older that she realises the intimacy she craves is a form of social isolationism.

Raheen’s apathy pains Karim. He feels Karachi’s suffering and dreams of being a cartographer, fixing places at their precise locations, giving names to streets, humanising the statistics. 'Maps are amazing,' he tells her. 'They define a city as a single territorial unit, they give a sense of connectedness.' Raheen disagrees: 'We belong to a city invested in story-telling … What happens to all those streets that hold no stories for us?' This is an ancient conflict: Eratosthenes seeking geographic precision; Strabo wishing to explore the world through memories and poetry.

Friends since birth, Raheen and Karim are the yin and yang holding this ambitious novel together. Each is the only one who knows how to make the other laugh, and who understands why the other cries. They can dream each other’s dreams, and they can complete each other’s sentences. Unlike Arundhati Roy’s twins Rahel and Estha, they are not children of the same parents, but like them, their lives are intertwined. In The God of Small Things, Rahel had a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha’s funny dream. In Kartography, the night Karim’s family migrates to London, Raheen is certain 'some of my tears were his tears and some of his tears were mine’.

Their parents are close friends as well, and their childhood is idyllic. But then things start to go wrong. In London, Karim’s parents, Ali and Maheen, divorce. Raheen’s parents, Zafar and Yasmin, stay on in Karachi, hiding a dark secret from their daughter.

One sizzling summer it is revealed: Zafar was to have married Maheen, but married Yasmin in her stead; and Ali only married Maheen in place of Yasmin. To explain the swap, Shamsie takes us to the traumatic year of 1971, when East Pakistan seceded, becoming Bangladesh. Maheen, a Bengali, a 'Bingo', was in love with Zafar in Karachi, surviving taunts from high society. She remained by his side even though stories of West Pakistani atrocities in the East became too obvious to ignore. But Zafar succumbed to the pressure of friends; in a weak moment he humiliated Maheen, and she walked out of his life. Ali was waiting for her, and Yasmin stepped in to marry Zafar.

Two decades later, Karachi is convulsed with violence again, rocking the relationships of another foursome: Raheen, Karim, and their childhood friends Zia and Sonia. As adults, they can’t recapture their shared innocence, an idea of Karachi that had held them together, now ruined by Kalashnikovs. Inexorably, they grow apart.

Karim and Raheen clutch at straws. Obsessed by the desire to preserve the Karachi of his mind, Karim wants to set his city down in a cartographic grid, so that it can be delineated in precise, crystal-clear lines, its chaos contained. Obsessions tend to be emotional, and Karim’s obsession never makes sense except as an intellectual one. Raheen’s transformation is more convincing. She found the bubble in which she lived soothing, and believes she can return to Karachi from her American campus at any time, that her little private world will not have changed. Her Karachi is a time, not a place; it is full of memories, not facts.

But facts intrude, and in the end Kartography is about that conflict  between the visible city, which disintegrates before them, and the invisible city, which Raheen imagines, and creates in her stories. Karim feels frustrated, but Raheen comes round. Towards the end, she tells him:

I’ve lived my life in such limited circles and it’s your voice I hear now, telling me that limited can be limiting … Karachi at its worst is a Karachi unconcerned with people who exist outside the story-teller’s circle, a Karachi oblivious to people and places [that] aren’t familiar enough for nicknames.

As this accomplished novel reaches its climax, it becomes an elegiac poem for a vanishing world.