Mapping the Spatio-Temporal Terrains: A Reading of Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography

Megha B
Dr Shima Mathew

Space and time have always been fundamental in the understanding of art and literature, and their relevance has reached new heights with the increased emphasis on narratology. The scientific study of these concepts has definitely inspired an attempt to discover the deep meanings associated with texts. The present paper analyses Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography as an essential product of multiple spatio-temporal terrains. How the novel conceives its setting, especially the city of Karachi, as a site of intersection of these terrains becomes the crux of the discussion. There is also an attempt to connect the history of the land with the past and present lives of the characters, thereby unravelling and projecting the political history of Pakistan.

Keywords: Space, time, chronotopes, historicity, mapping, cultural geography.

The critical problematization of the concepts of time and space began probably with Immanuel Kant, who raised several philosophical questions on the nature of the two. Since then, these two have evolved into crucial sites of epistemological and literary discussions. Paul Ricoeur, the famous French hermeneutic phenomenologist, in the first volume of his 1984 book Time and Narrative rightly observes that narratives acquire their complete signification only when placed against an appropriate temporal fabric. This is true in the case of the spatial constitution too. Supporting this argument, Elana Gomel in her contemplations on the nature of narrative time and space points out that "narrative is always temporal and the narrative representation of space cannot be separated from its representation of time" (Gomel 26). Thus, taken together these two concepts become foundational in the understanding of any narrative. The intersection of time and space in narratology is marked by the Bhakthinian concept of the ‘chronotope’ which discerns the spatial and the temporal as an inseparable four-dimensional entity. Tara Collington, in her essay "Space, Time and Narrative: Bakhtin and Ricoeur" views the chronotope as encompassing "the intrinsic interconnectedness of time and space in literature, as well as the way in which specific temporo-spatial patterns characterize certain generic types" (Collington 221). In his "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel", Bakhtin himself admits that textual chronotopes behave in a mutually inclusive fashion, whereby "they co-exist, or replace or oppose one another, contradict one another or find themselves in ever more complex interrelationships" (Bakhtin 251). The significance of chronotopes in narratological deliberations arises from the very fact that they form the pillars of the essential narrative events of any text, thus shaping the entire narrative. They act as the “underlying spatial and temporal infrastructure of the storyworld, which also contains characters (or actants), places, and plotlines, all embedded in the narrative spacetime" (Gomel 28). Quoting Nigel Thrift, Peter Merriman also reiterates this point by stating that "it is neither space nor time that is central to the study of human interactional orders, but time-space" (Merriman 13). The chronotopes in any narrative are generated through the employment of various narrative techniques including characterization, plot and perspective, and work within the literal and metaphorical levels of the texts. This paper is an attempt to discover the multiple spatio-temporal paradigms, that brings out the “representational signification of chronotopes” (Bakhtin 250) in Kamila Shamsie’s novel Kartography. 

Kamila Shamsie, a critically- acclaimed Pakistani writer, effectively captures the pulse and essence of Pakistani life and society through her works. All her works bear the stamp of the turmoil and despair of a generation troubled by the historicity of the land. Though she occupies a migrant position, her writings reveal a perfect picture of the land, as if her roots were never actually severed. Unlike other female writers of her era, she talks extensively of the political upheavals of the day, including the trauma of the partition and the civil war. She is successful in her attempts to record the divergent voices affected by these extremely complex historical events. In her writings, the Pakistani legacy coloured with a transnational identity is quite evident. Her third novel Kartography is no exception to this. Though the partition and the civil war do not appear as such in the book, their ripples are felt throughout, with some poignant questions like “What does 1971 have to do with now?” (269). The whole narrative and the lives of the characters are driven by the never-ending repercussions of this history. As in any of her novels, here too the city of Karachi emerges as a significant character. The struggle of the characters to reconcile with the history of their land occupies a major part of the book. 

The novel is an exciting picturisation of the city of Karachi. The history of the city of Karachi gets interspersed with the lives of the characters. The story revolves around two families – that of Raheen and Karim. The story begins when both of them are teenagers. In the course of their lives, their “fated friendship” (192) evolves into a more complex relation. The complexity is largely associated with something that happened in the lives of their parents during the year 1971. This year is a crucial one in the history of the country as well as for the destiny of its citizens. As per history, in 1971 a civil war broke out and divided united Pakistan into two pieces with East Pakistan becoming a new nation, Bangladesh. The turbulent chaos was created as much by the politics of ethnicity as the politics of geography. The incident reminds us of the partition of India into India and Pakistan in 1947. The partition brought much violence on both sides of the border. The immigrants and their continuous struggle to get a place in the new land probably extended to the struggle for power and identity between the Mujahirs and the Bengalis in 1971. This physical conflict is reflected in the narrative throughout its course. The residues of the revolution are present on each page of the book. 

In the background of the political tensions that existed in Pakistan between the 1970s and the 1990s, Shamsie tells the story of Yasmin, Zafar, Maheen and Ali, who are the parents of Raheen and Karim. These four had known each other for so long and the Civil War left stirring memories for all of them. They were forced by the circumstances to swap their partners, yet succeeded to retain their friendship. But these past events keep on colliding with the present lives of their children, Raheen and Karim, who find themselves entangled in the meshes of the past. The genius of Shamsie lies in the fact that she never openly recounts the events for readers unfamiliar with the history, culture and language of Pakistan, trusting that they are intelligent enough to figure things out from the context. Thus, by revealing as much as by hiding certain things, Shamsie creates an essential historical tension in the minds of readers, especially for those who have less knowledge regarding Pakistani politics. They are left to find their own devices to interpret the history and politics of Pakistan which necessarily facilitates the whole story. Constantly switching between the stories of two generations, the narrative brings in multiple temporal and spatial instances.

The title Kartograhy brings into notice a variation of the term ‘cartography’ which signifies the science of map-making. True enough, the whole novel is akin to something of a map-making with multiple layers: mapping the lives of its characters; both past and present, mapping the history of Karachi and simultaneously mapping the influence of this history on the lives of the characters. The act of replacing ‘c’ in the word ‘cartography’ with ‘k’ emphasizes the importance of Karachi in the narrative, as the location of “all beginnings,” (3) and therefore of all endings. Map, a two-dimensional representation of space, "offers a possibility of drawing and naming a familiar space, lending it an almost scientific bent"(Sadecka 85). Here, Karim is obsessed with maps and uses them as a powerful emotional tool to overcome his trauma of displacement from Karachi, his homeland. He perceives them as a “way of conceptualizing space and situating himself in the context of the larger world—specifically within a larger Karachi that is not limited to the elite part of Karachi in which they have spent most of their lives” (Kumar 174).  Raheen, on the other hand, views maps as life-less, soul-less representations that become meaningful only when associated with people, their stories, and events of that particular space. She associates maps as being “used for illustrating stories... (and) helping someone hear the heartbeat of a place (180).

The maps of Karachi, which Karim sends to Raheen after his migration are rather objective with their factual view on the streets and roads of Karachi. Raheen, however, finds these maps rather bizarre, as "she prefers to find the places through landmarks, her memory of places, or even trial and error method" (Kiran 223). She becomes a detached observer of the changes happening in her homeland. Her reaction to the riots happening on the streets is also passive. Karim vehemently criticises this attitude of Raheen: 

The city is falling apart and you are the same. That’s why I sent you those maps. Because I wanted you to find a way to see beyond the tiny circle you live in, I wanted you to acknowledge that you’re part of something larger.... They define a city as a single territorial unit, they give a sense of connectedness, and you don't want to admit you're connected to anything that's painful or uncomfortable. (244) 

But Raheen refuses to adhere to Karim’s notion of map-making. She suggests that it serves to mark him “as an ex-pat and not as a Karachiite” (133).  She believes that these maps are useless pieces of paper, which could not even offer comfort to her homesickness. Looking at the maps Karim had sent her, she admits: “This map was Karachi’s opposite. It could only exist through its disdain for the reality of the city: the jumble, the illogic, the self-definition, the quicksilver of the place. As usual, the map did nothing but irritate me” (131). The preoccupation with mapping is further intensified with the reference to the Greek geographers Eratosthenes and Strabo. Karim, like  Eratosthenes, embodies the science of maps, while Raheen stands closer to Strabo, accentuating the humanistic lived-in experiences associated with maps. Maps externalize the desire to shape an exclusively Pakistani identity – one that was frequently challenged by the troubled history of the land. The newcomer identity bestowed upon the Muhajirs despite their strong bond with the land is one such instance where the question of identity is rather puzzling. Shamsie utilizes maps to demonstrate the existence of a land “in a space/time compression of (its) cataclysmic” (Waterman 2) history, and the concept of mapping and the subsequent sense of space to accelerate the momentum of the narrative. 

The central geographical space here is Karachi, though London and America occupy parts of the narrative. Karachi is portrayed with all its hue, even that of violence. Raheen and Karim’s Karachi is "the city of opportunity, of violence, of social divides, of beach, of strangers doing great acts of favour to others, of billboards, of beggars on the street and of stories at every corner" (Hasan 201). And it is these stories, that unfold through Raheen and Karim, and their parents, bring in the actual spatio-temporal framework of the narrative. Storytelling becomes a site where the spatial and temporal axes within the story converge, establishing a “close relationship between maps and history, between space-time and the historicity of spatial arrangements” (Sarkowsky 328). In other words, it is through these stories that the past of the land catches up with its present. The resonations of this past on the life of the younger generation is captured vividly in an advice  Zia offers to Raheen: “Let Karim go. You’ve lost him already, you know that. You lost him before any of us were born, back in 1971” (277). This simple statement reveals how the future of the second generation protagonists was already set forth into motion, even before their birth, by the history of their ‘space’. Raheen herself, in an introspective mood wonders: 

Days away from 1995, we are nearly forty-eight years old as a nation, young enough that there are people alive who have lived through our entire history and more, but too old to put our worries down to teething problems. Between our birth in 1947 and 1995, dead bang between our beginning and our present is 1971, of which I know next to nothing except that there was a war and East Pakistan became Bangladesh, and what terrible things we must have done then to remain so silent about it. Is it shame at losing the war, or guilt about what we did to try to win that mutes us? (270)

Even when she and Karim have no first-hand traumatic experiences to confront, the memories of their parents’ trauma had left deep emotional crevices in their minds. 

The cultural space of the narrative is largely constituted by serious ethnic struggles, between Pakistanis and Bengalis on one hand, and Muhajirs and Pathans on the other. The rift between Zafar and Maheen in the first generation, and that between Raheen and Karim in the second generation are representations of this ethnic disparity. Whether it is 1971 or 1995, the struggle between these ethnic groups and the resulting sense of alienation is real. Shamsie uses a very brilliant cyclical structure to depict this unending chaos. The last line of the book- “I know the way” (343)- resonates with the very first line of the book - “The globe spins” (1), in such a way as to evoke the futility of mapping a place and its history in the globe. The spinning globe suggests the ever-changing nature of the world. But the suggestion of knowing the way through all the chaos implies that certain things remain the same at all times- here the reaction of a nation’s citizens to the surrounding revolution and how they try to cope with these remain more or less the same, despite the spatial and temporal variations. The space changes, the time changes, but the nature of violence and bloodshed stay even. Even the characters find it difficult to attune with this consistency of savagery despite the varying spatial and temporal manifestations. Maheen and Zafar, and therefore Karim and later Raheen try to harmonize with their cultural pasts and much to their as well as the readers’ dismay do not succeed. 

Thus, the constant chronotopic element in the novel is violence, which is primarily equated with the ethical riots happening in the country. The country is represented as a geopolitical locus, where the personal and the political spaces coalesce. This probably explains why, in Karachi, even a domestic tragedy gets defined against communal terms. Thus, the unfortunate accident involving a Muhajir girl and a Pathan driver becomes “a catalyst” to “ignite a terrible ethnic fight” (11). Borrowing ideas from Moira Fradinger and Edward Mallot, David Waterman defines this political strife between the 'newcomers' and the inhabitants of the land as an instance of ‘geographic madness’, where

boundaries are in crisis (of) being reconfigured, (where) people are even being separated from their memories and histories, and violence can bind by instantiating a new political membership, creating ... a structure of enmity inside the community that divides it by producing enemies whose elimination clarifies a pact among certain of its members each time the need for the clarification becomes urgent. It signifies the desire and failure to fix membership. (Waterman 3)

These constant attempts to fix identity and community within their political and geographical spaces drive the story forward. Even the separation between Maheen and Zafar, which propels the major narrative events, was a direct result of Zafar’s desire to conserve his “blood line” (233). It is this politics of geography and history that shapes new maps, affecting and altering the relationships of the inhabitants. Raheen finds it difficult to adapt to these circumstances. She puzzles over some questions, which become crucial in this context: “when did love become so dependent on geography? When (did) personality start to change with location?" (298). Unlike Karim, the sense of betrayal evoked and deepened by these geographical alterations never refrain Raheen from considering Karachi as her safest haven, “the place that constitutes her only home, in spite of the violence and painful memories that weigh on it” (Sadecka 87).  The eagerness with which she embraces the normalcy of the city after the unpredictable and terrifyingly ordered violence captures her obvious affection for Karachi: 

We all knew it would start up again—the shootings on a massive scale, the unnatural silence in the evenings, the siege mentality—but for the moment, for today, Karachi was getting back to its feet, as it had always been able to do, and that didn’t just mean getting back to work, but getting back to play: friendship, chai, cricket on the street, conversation. It was a terribly self-involved thought, I knew, but I couldn’t help feeling that, in the midst of everything that was happening, Karachi had decided to turn around and wink at me. (259)

Even Zafar finds it difficult to leave Karachi and the perturbing past it represents. He admits frankly: “I can’t imagine growing old anywhere but here” (103).  

The letter Raheen writes to Karim towards the end of the narrative is very significant in our understanding of the dual nature of Karachi,  a place that is at once "intimate with strangers" (332) and at the same time works as the "breeding ground for monsters" (259). This sense of space is highlighted throughout, using hand-drawn maps at regular intervals. These illustrations of the numerous nameless streets and roads reveal a thousand stories of their own, which Raheen sets to interpret. They bear the stamp of the past and the hope for a better future. The map named Karim '87 (112) defines places as informal entities. Karim's home is labelled as "someone else's home by tomorrow" (112) and the airport as a place where he does not "know how to say goodbye" (112). Unlike other official maps attached to the narrative, this particular one becomes the sum total of several simple everyday pleasures and memories accumulated over a lifetime. This emphasises that wherever Raheen or Karim go, Karachi would remain the space they know the best.  

Thus, to conclude, Kartography undoubtedly is as a narrative of space, and thereby of time. The plot is propelled by indefinite sequences of history that pervades its spatial framework. The major narrative voice heard is that of Raheen, who acts as a link between the past and present, trying to uncover the hidden shame and wrath of the past and offering a reconciliation. The final image of Raheen and Karim walking through the streets, hand-in-hand suggests the chances of redemption. The narrative structure compliments this by combining letters, maps, short essays, memories and regular flashbacks, and by being self-conscious of the role of literature in validating a space and ascribing meanings to it, thereby magnifying the co-existence of multiple spatial and temporal planes.


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Megha B
Research Scholar
PG & Research Department of English
Nirmala College
Pin: 686661 
Ph: +91 9496823505
ORCID: 0000-0001-8033-5270


Dr Shima Mathew
Asscociate Professor
Department of English
TM Jacob Memorial Government College
Pin: 686662
Ph: +91 9496343906 
ORCID: 0000-0002-7813-2025