A City as a Lover: On Kartography

As writers, we at 1811 are also obviously readers. In this series, you’ll learn more about the books that have shaped our lives. Today, Manahil Bandukwala talks about her favourite romantic story, Kartography by Kamila Shamsie.

If you didn’t know, my name is Manahil, and I was born in Karachi. The second bit of information is pretty relevant to my approach to writing romance, my story in the anthology, titled “Dye me in the colour of spring,” and this blog post. Because when I think about love, I think about Karachi. This might be shocking, because Karachi is hot, loud, polluted, and littered. It’s a busy metropolitan city of almost fifteen million people, and is full of buildings, construction, and dust. It has none of the romance of Lahore’s history or the honeymoon-esque views of the north – there’s a running joke that all it has going for it is its beach (but with climate change, even that’s a tenuous claim). But despite my description of the city, something about Karachi means love, and I encountered this in Kartography by Kamila Shamsie. 

“I didn’t tell him that I grew up in an ugly city that taught me how to look between dust and rubbish and potholes to find a splinter of glass that looked like unmelting ice, beautiful in its defiance of the sun.”

– Kartography, Kamila Shamsie

The “love story” at the heart of Kartography is between the narrator, Raheen, and her best friend, Karim. Raheen and Karim grow up together in an upper-class lifestyle in Karachi. Their parents are best friends, and were engaged to the other’s partners at one time. As teenagers, Karim moves away, and he and Raheen’s friendship strains under the distance between them. Through the course of the story, Raheen finds out more about the engagement between hers and Karim’s parents, and why they swapped fiances. The book gives an intimate look at the lives of a few characters, but tackles political issues like the 1971 Bangladesh war, the treatment of Bangladeshis in Pakistan, and the lingering impacts of colonialism.

But you can find that out when you read the book. This blog post is about my favourite romance story, and while the romance between Raheen and Karim is the main “love story,” my favourite romance plot in the book is with the city of Karachi. Raheen and Karim have to contend with their parents’ drama, which has sinister political realities that the two face as adults while navigating their own connections to the city. 

Karim draws out maps of Karachi, while Raheen prefers to think about the moments that anchor her there. When I was there this summer, I put into practice both ways of moving through the city. I studied Google Maps to learn which roads led where; the geographical positions of main city points; the different ways to get to the same place. And then I pinpointed where I had memories: of skating at the park, learning to swim, eating chaat whenever it rained. I had returned to the city after five years, and, like Karim, felt a thrill run through me every time I passed Do Talwar, a main roundabout that situates the area I lived in. 

For Raheen, Karim’s obsession with mapping out the city in technicalities is a point of contention that she finds draws away from the essence of Karachi. Despite the fights between the two and the distance that grows between them over the years, Raheen still says, “Somewhere deep within the marrow of our marrow, we were the same.”

Shamsie articulates what it is to love the difficult place that is Karachi. Violence has pervaded the city for decades. There is a temptation to leave it, but also something that pulls people back to it. “I knew that there were so many reasons to fail to love it, to cease to love it, to be unable to love it, that it made love a fierce and unfathomable thing.” The potential for building intimacies in the city, realized through long nights enjoying the cool air on my roof, makes it a city that is easy to (re)love.


If you want to know more about Manahil’s trip to Karachi, and some of the personal things that make it a city to love, check out her project, Reth aur Reghistan. You can find her on instagram @bandukwali.

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