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Collective Amnesia and Generational Memory in Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography

Madhurima Sen


The war of 1971 has been widely represented in all forms of media in Bangladesh. However, Pakistani literature offers a stark contrast, as references to the war are sparse. The representation of the war in Pakistani official discourse is also understandably contradictory to that of Bangladesh. Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography (2001) is one of the few Pakistani novels setting the 1971 war as its backdrop. This article attempts to understand the role of literary narratives to offer a perspective which diverges from the nationalist public narrative. It endeavours to locate the novel in a world of proliferating international apologies for historical misdeeds. It delineates the cyclical nature of violence and hatred as demonstrated in the novel by drawing connections between various historical events and their memories, as it attempts to understand how the relationship between personal and political shapes individual and national identity. This article demonstrates through a close reading of the novel how narratives are used to forge collective amnesia and collective denial of responsibility, interrogating generational guilt and national self-examination as illustrated in Kartography.

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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 silent about it. Is it shame at losing the war, or guilt about what we did to try to win that mutes us?
Kamila Shamsie, Kartography (2019: 270)

  • 1 Mookherjee writes, “The west Pakistani army apparently saw these Kafers as small-boned, short […], (...)
  • 2 Niaz Zaman and Asif Farrukhi (2008) agree that the war “has exerted a greater and much more profoun (...)
  • 3 Memon observes, “the discussion on this important event — which struck at the roots of national ide (...)

1The military conflict of 1971, glorified as the ‘Liberation War’ in Bangladesh, is remembered as the ‘Civil War’ in Pakistan. While 1971 is largely understood as a moment of freedom from internal colonisation in Bangladesh, it signifies the collapse of the dream of Pakistan. 16 December 1971, the moment of victory for Bangladesh is for Pakistan a mark of ignominious defeat not only at the hands of rebellious ‘un-Islamic’ ‘effeminate’1 Bengalis, but also its ‘arch-enemy’, India. Unlike Bangladesh, where references to the war form a part of popular political rhetoric to this day, in Pakistan, a shroud of uncomfortable silence surrounds the war. In Bangladesh, references to the war percolate through every aspect of popular media, films and advertisements as well as the political sphere.2 Contrariwise, in Pakistan, narratives about the war are relatively scarce in terms of both official and literary narratives.3 It is only recently that a new generation of Pakistani fiction writers have engaged with the complex entanglements of the war. Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke (2000), Sorayya Khan’s Noor (2004), Moni Mohsin’s The End of Innocence (2006), and Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography (2001) are some contemporary novels that focus on the events of 1971. Even though they are few, I would like to argue that such fictional narratives which refer to the war decades later allow more space for alternative readings and fill in the discursive vacuum by representing marginalized experiences. In the absence of adequate historical and official narratives, analysing fiction can pave the way to decoding generational memory and collective amnesia.

  • 4 The Partition of 1947 transformed the demography of Sindh. There was a huge influx of Urdu-speaking (...)

2This article undertakes a close reading of one of the few novels from Pakistan that uses the 1971 war as its backdrop, Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography. The novel spans from 1970 to the mid-1990s, and the plot is largely shaped by the continuing ripples of the war of 1971. The initial chapters open in 1986 in a Karachi torn apart by ethnic violence and political battles between Muhajirs and Sindhis.4 The novel revolves around the young generation’s response towards the incomprehensible events of the war, a generation whose parents’ lives had undergone a drastic transformation during the war. Raheen and Karim, young teenagers from elite families, are intimate companions whose mothers had swapped fiancés back in 1971. Karim’s mother, Maheen, had been engaged to Raheen’s father, Zafar; and Raheen’s mother, Yasmin, was betrothed to Karim’s father, Ali. The novel circles around the ambiguity and mystery around the fiancé swap, the reason for which is revealed only towards the end. Raheen learns to her horror that her father, Zafar, whom she always looked up to for his impeccable principles and ideals, had fallen prey to the ethnic bias that percolated through society in 1971. He had found it too onerous to be engaged to a Bengali in the West Pakistan of 1971 amidst racial tensions. The novel draws several parallels between the two time periods and traces the cycle of violence through generations. The title of the novel refers to Karim’s dream of becoming a cartographer of Karachi and draws attention to the novel’s focus on claims over territory by various groups and on events that result in the redrawing of maps and borders.

3Kartography has received academic attention for its portrayal of the urban cityscape of Karachi and its representation of the ethnic clashes between Sindhi and Muhajir communities. Veena Lydia Lobo (2020) and Priya Kumar (2016) specifically focus on the examination of Muhajirs as a diasporic community in the novel. Shamsie’s innovative use of English interspersed with local Urdu words has been elaborated upon by Naeem Khan Jadoon (2017). Cara Cilano (2011) draws parallels between Kartography and Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke (2000) to focus attention on the cycle of corruption that runs through the nation along with persisting ethnic and class tensions. There remains another very significant strand in the novel that is yet to receive adequate scholarly focus: the cultural narrative about 1971.

4This article examines Shamsie’s novel to bring out the paradoxical relationship between generational memory and collective amnesia that characterizes the remembering of the war in Pakistan. It analyses Kartography in opposition to the dominant narratives of war in Pakistan and explores the novel’s attempt to create an alternate form of history. It studies the representation of history as a narrative and emphasizes the role of literary narratives in retelling history. Next, it considers how the author creates a parallel between governmental secrecy about 1971 and denial at a more personal level through a study of the novel’s representation of guilt and amnesia in national and individual memory. Delving into the relationship between class and ethnicity, the article delineates the role of narrative in forging national identity and facilitating ‘othering’. It proceeds to an analysis of literary strategies used in the novel to drive home a sense of uncertainty and inconclusiveness and delves into apology as a genre and attempts to locate the novel in the context of proliferating international apologies for historical injustices. Using Marianne Hirsch’s concept of post-memory (1996) and Michael Rothberg’s concept of implicated subjectivity (2019), it attempts to understand the experiences of later generations who did not experience the war but grew up in the shadow of its mediated memory.

5Soon after the war ended, on 26 December 1971, the new President of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, formed the Hamoodur Rehman Commission “to inquire into the circumstances under which the Eastern Command surrendered” (Government of Pakistan 2000: 11). However, the Commission’s report was not declassified until 2000 after it was leaked by an Indian media house. Cara Cilano has observed how even this report fails to provide definitive answers and leaves a “narrative vacuum at the national level” (Cilano 2011: 2). Qutubuddin Aziz’s Blood and Tears (1974) presents itself as a journalistic record of the events of 1971, dedicated to the “hundreds of thousands of innocent” Pakistanis “slaughtered” by the “militants” of Awami League during their “reign of terror”, and can act as a good example of the mainstream representation of the 1971 war in Pakistan. Sarmila Bose’s Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War (2016), which claims that the Pakistani army’s actions have been monstrously exaggerated and fabricated in “the winning side’s narrative” (11) and which accuses Bangladesh of the “persistent cultivation of a ‘victim culture’” (183) has, by the author’s own admission, received a far greater degree of acceptance in Pakistan than elsewhere (12). Tendencies to circumvent the shame of loss and the guilt of war crimes have made the hegemonic narrative of the 1971 war disturbingly distorted. The peculiar nature of public memory characterized by silences, omissions and denial that spreads through generations is worth delving into. For a long time, Pakistani literary narratives have been silent about the war that broke the dream of unified Pakistan. However, in recent years, a young generation of writers have attempted to address the alternate forms of history. Along with Mohsin Hamid, Moni Mohsin, and Sorayya Khan, Kamila Shamsie is one of the foremost representatives of this group who all represent different aspects of the diaspora.

6Shamsie, in an interview with Cilano, talks about history as a narrative constantly being written by those in power: “When you grow up under a military dictator with a lot of censorship, how else are you going to think about it? We used to open the morning newspaper and see how ‘official histories’ are being written, but you know they’re fiction.” Thus, her novel attempts to provide “alternate forms of narrative” (Cilano 2017: 151), unlike the majority of earlier accounts which “conforms to the nation’s general insensitivity to the Bengali demands” (Memon 1983: 108). Kartography is at variance with dominant narratives as it demonstrates the ordeals of being a Bengali in West Pakistan during the war, instead of dismissing Bengali claims as an insubordinate mutiny. The novel engages with the dominant identities manifested through these mainstream narratives and demonstrates the dangers of exclusive nationalism and human susceptibility to such ‘othering’ ideologies. It complicates the binary of victim and perpetrator and brings in the notion of the ‘implicated subject’ (Rothberg 2019).

7Karim and Raheen grow up in their affluent families, staying well protected from the ethnic strife that ravages their city. Their parents conceal the true reason behind their swap as fiancés and provide a sanitized version of their past. They evade their children’s understandable curiosity using the rehearsed imagery of waltzing couples swapping partners because the “music changed” (Shamsie 2019: 48). The elite circle of Karachi serves as a microcosm for the nation at large: their attempt to silence and avoid the past is the author’s way of representing the distortion of events in national historiography. Stifling the voice of the inquisitive Raheen is consistent with the suppression of the Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report by the government. Just as the “holes of unreliability in the government-controlled narratives inadvertently signalled to the Pakistani people that other narratives of the events of 1971 were waiting to be told” (Cilano 2011: 18), Raheen’s curiosity is inflamed by her parents’ attempt at concealment. The sanitized version of history keeps self-examination at bay at the level of family as well as the nation. Discovering that one’s father had found being engaged to a Bengali too much of a burden, or that one’s mother married her best friend’s fiancé despite his jingoist outburst might jeopardize the palatable rendering of the past that has been painstakingly put together for the later generations. “A standard, repetitive, false, spurious and monotonous description of the break-up of Pakistan appears in every textbook”, observes K.K. Aziz (1993: 154). Zafar’s attempt to provide an agreeable version of the past to his daughter is a representation of the Pakistani nation’s endeavour to write an acceptable version of national history where its own actions can be justified: “Everything he promised he wouldn’t do — like keep quiet about what he’d done, like turn his back on ’71 — he did because he was afraid of the consequences of telling you the truth” (Shamsie 2019: 281).

  • 5 For more on contemporary ethno-political violence in Pakistan, see Verkaaik (2004).

8The themes of guilt, shame, acknowledgement, and forgiveness run through the entire novel, all of which are masterfully connected to the pervading violence in Pakistan.5 The desire to forget the ignominious loss of half of the country and the dishonourable actions of the West Pakistani army is connected with the desire to overlook how individuals gave themselves away to ethnic hatred and xenophobia, and condoned the brutality of the army, as can be seen in Ali’s alarmed observation:

  • 6 Tariq Ali uses very similar words to describe the Pakistani army’s justification of rape as an atte (...)

This country’s turned rabid-the soldiers are raping the women, Zaf, raping them, all over East Pakistan, and in drawing rooms around Karachi people applaud their attempt to improve the genes of the Bengalis.6 (Shamsie 2019: 198)

  • 7 “An implicated subject is neither a victim nor a perpetrator, but rather a participant in histories (...)

9This is reflected by how Zafar’s shameful action towards Maheen and his subsequent marriage to Yasmin are approved by everyone in the community because everyone was “so frantically busy trying to put the war and everything associated with it behind them” (Shamsie 2019: 189). Focusing too much attention on the deplorable nature of Zafar’s action would also incriminate others for having shunned the company of Maheen during the war, for having subjected her to casual as well as virulent ethnic bigotry. Thus, when Aunty Laila justifies her actions by saying, “Darling, if you hold everyone accountable for what they said and did in ’71 hardly anyone escapes whipping”, Raheen cannot but see through the convenient “comfort of collective guilt” (Shamsie 2019: 278). “Where all are guilty, nobody is”, argues Arendt (1987: 43). Such an attitude of deliberate collective amnesia and denial of “collective responsibility” (Arendt 1987: 43) confirms the elite crowd’s position as “implicated subjects”7 who “help propagate the legacies of historical violence and prop up the structures of inequality that mar the present”(Rothberg 2019: 1).

10Kamila Shamsie observes that language has always been used to justify one barbaric act after another, be it the dropping of atomic bombs or the atrocities in East Pakistan: “That’s language being used at its worst, when it’s being used simply to justify, to ease a conscience. It’s very effective. You really can convince yourself and many people around you of pretty much anything” (Cilano 2017: 161). In this context, it is interesting to note how characters in Kartography refer to the armed conflict of 1971 as ‘Civil War,’ unlike Bangladeshi writings which almost always prefer to use the term ‘Liberation War’. A particular conversation in 1971 between Maheen and Asif, a wealthy Sindhi landowner, draws attention to the significance of the choice of words to reveal one’s political leanings. When Maheen observes that the Bengalis will not remain ‘enslaved’ for too long, Asif trivializes her concerns by saying, “And come on, Maheen, isn’t enslaved a little too dramatic a word?” (Shamsie 2019: 182). Asif’s comfortable justification of Pakistani belligerence through the coupling of adjectives such as “sane”, “rational” and “cheerful” (Shamsie 2019: 182) with war is striking in its semantic manipulation. Through Asif’s comments, Shamsie demonstrates how language is distorted to explain away military aggression and provide a rationale for political inequality.

  • 8 In the 1970s, Pakistan saw the introduction of a quota system that took away the educational and pr (...)

11By situating the novel in the uppermost echelons of Karachi society, Shamsie brings together the issue of class and ethnicity. Does class position save people from being affected by ethnic troubles? This is a question that runs throughout the novel. A specific episode in the novel highlights how Raheen and the class she belongs to are implicated in the ongoing violence in Karachi. Ambushed by a car thief, Raheen and her friends are surprised to hear themselves being referred to as ‘Burgers’, the English-speaking elite of Karachi. The car thief is a Muhajir, like Raheen’s family. However, belonging to high society ensures that the infamous quota system8 reserving education and jobs for Sindhis does not impact Raheen’s protected life:

Privilege erased the day-to-day struggles of ethnic politics, and however Karim might want me to feel about the matter I couldn’t pretend I was sorry that I had been born on ‘this side of Clifton Bridge’ where class bound everyone together in an enveloping embrace, with ethnicity only a secondary or even tertiary concern. (Shamsie 2019: 175)

12However, the novel illustrates that, no matter how secure one’s class position is, there might arise historical moments when one’s ethnic identity becomes more of a deciding factor. Maheen, out with her friends for an upscale dinner during the war, has to witness Asif roaring at a Bengali waiter, “Halfwit Bingo! Go back to your jungle” (Shamsie 2019: 183). This episode in which Maheen locks eyes with the humiliated waiter for a moment exhibits that class cannot always eclipse subnational identities: “for a moment the barriers of class and gender became porous and something passed between them that Zafar couldn’t quite identify. Maheen’s hand slipped out of Zafar’s” (Shamsie 2019: 184). The novel uses parallelism between the two timeframes to demonstrate the resemblance between Zafar’s attitude of turning his eyes away from violence unless it is at his door, and Raheen’s unapologetic confidence in the security guaranteed by her class position. The plot follows Raheen’s character arc as she gradually comes to terms with the implicated subject positions of her parents as well as herself. Concluding the novel with the protagonist’s newly acquired self-awareness is an invitation for national self-examination: “The stress on rethinking historical and political responsibility as implication highlights the need to hold implicated subjects accountable in both moral and political registers” (Rothberg 2019: 200).

13When a disgruntled impoverished Muhajir, who is directly affected by the political upheavals in 1990s Karachi, asks the adult Karim, “We didn’t learn anything, did we? From ’71”, Karim observes, “We learned to forget” (Shamsie 2019: 176). However, the novel demonstrates how collective amnesia worsens the problems of history and how a refusal to acknowledge collective responsibility results in a cycle of violence:

Bangladesh. It made us see what we were capable of. No one should ever know what they are capable of. But worse, even worse, is to see it and then pretend you didn’t. The truths we conceal don’t disappear, Raheen, they appear in different forms. (Shamsie 2019: 305)

14The retrospective narrative structure of the novel demonstrates how the past cannot be suppressed into oblivion. The overwhelming question that runs through the novel is one written by a bewildered Raheen: “What does 1971 have to do with now?” (Shamsie 2019: 269). The novel alternates between two timeframes: 1971, and the period between the 1980s and the mid-1990s. The fact that the narrative keeps circling back to the events of 1971 demonstrates the failure of the attempts of Zafar’s generation to keep the violence of the war under covers:

What happens when you work so hard to forget a horror that you also forget that you have forgotten it? It doesn’t disappear — the canker turns inwards and mutates into something else […] this country has seen what it is capable of but hasn’t yet paused to take account. (Shamsie 2019: 305)

15Instead of proceeding in a straight line, the plot of the novel meanders through almost three decades. The reason behind the fiancé swap is at the core of the novel, and the narrative keeps returning to the event, retelling the story from different perspectives. The emphasis on this time frame draws attention to the continuing repercussions of the war. The story needs to be retold not just for Karim and Raheen who have been kept in dark about the ignoble past; it needs reiteration for the Pakistani nation at large who have been shielded from the happenings of the war by the national historiography. David Scott observes the tendency to propagate romanticized versions of history in postcolonial historiography (2004: 7). Such modes of history writing evade the disappointments and disillusionments after decolonization and serve to emphasize the apparent distinction between the colonial and post-colonial nation. Cilano argues that novels like Kartography act as a divergence from the romantic public narrative of postcolonial nations and offer a different kind of narrative — that of tragedy (2011: 97). Such novels open the possibility for the acknowledgement of the failure of the Pakistan dream and address the issue of collective amnesia and state of denial. The desire to obliterate the memory of the war is illustrated by Shamsie through an evocative metaphor:

The finger squeezing the trigger becomes a thing apart from the bullet that speeds across the sands, which becomes a thing apart from the child looking down at his blood pumping out of his heart. And that child, that bullet, that finger, they become things way, way apart from our lives, here, in rooms where we look upon our own sleeping children. (Shamsie 2019: 313)

16A key incident of the novel, around which the rest of the plot revolves, is a scene in 1972 where Zafar is accosted by his frenzied, raving neighbour, Shafiq, whose brother died at the hands of the Mukti Bahini in East Pakistan. Asked by Shafiq how he can bring himself to marry a Bengali, Zafar comments: “How can I marry one of them? How can I let one of them bear my children? Think of it as a civic duty. I’ll be diluting her Bengali blood line.” (Shamsie 2019: 232) However, the novel provides no definitive answers as to why the otherwise liberal Zafar demonstrates such ethnocentrism at that specific moment despite being aware of Maheen’s silent presence behind him. It remains unclear whether he spouted venom against Bengalis to appease the distraught Shafiq, whether he said what Shafiq wanted to hear to dissuade him from possible violence in case Maheen’s presence in the house came to his knowledge, or if he succumbed to ethnocentric hatred in the face of Shafiq’s anguish. The question of whether Zafar spoke impulsively, or whether he was trying to protect himself and Maheen, or whether he was in essence a discriminatory hypocrite remains unsettled. Zafar himself suggests the possibility that he was perhaps unconsciously hoping for Maheen to overhear his comment and terminate the relationship since he was too weak to do it himself. He knew “what to say, so unforgivable, to make Maheen leave him” (Shamsie 2019: 335). He acknowledges to his daughter: “But which thought was it, which of the two thoughts, that made him say what he said?... He doesn’t know. He’ll never know” (Shamsie 2019: 335). It is this very “possibility of being complicit” (Shamsie 2019: 93) instead of any kind of certain black and white categorisation that the novel brings to the fore.

17Narrative ambivalence and a pervading sense of inconclusiveness are major components of the novel which create an atmosphere riddled with unanswered questions and lack of certainty. Sometimes it appears that the novel is written in fragments, events being narrated from various perspectives so that readers can place the various pieces together and find the most convincing explanation for themselves. The novel resists the impulse of closure and ends in a deeply ambiguous moment. The protagonist, Raheen, recognizes the ever-present reality and proximity of ethnic conflicts but the novel leaves open the possible consequences of her newfound understanding. The inconclusive ending of the novel reinforces the idea that there is no easy resolution for the problems that arose from the events of 1971: “to pretend the matter can be easily discussed and resolved is to deny how deep in our marrow consequences are lodged.” (Shamsie 2019: 332) There is no panacea to resolve the complications at either a personal or national level. Uncertainty runs through the novel, with the narrator, Raheen, often relinquishing direct narratorial control to make space for letters, maps and academic dissertations. At various moments, her narrative breaks down and she questions whether her narrative style and content are influenced by the benefit of hindsight.

  • 9 “My brothers and sisters in Pakistan share with their fellow brothers and sisters in Bangladesh pro (...)

18Rhoda E. Howard-Hassman and Mark Gibney have termed the recent phenomena of nations coming to terms with their unjust actions towards other nations as “the age of apology”: “There seems to be almost universal recognition that a society will not be able to successfully pass into the future until it somehow deals with its demons from the past.” (2008: 1) The 1990s have seen a surge in international apologies for historical injustices. Pervez Musharraf, who was the President of Pakistan from 2001 to 2008, expressed his regret for the events of 1971 during his visit to Dhaka in 2002.9 Cilano observes,

Musharraf’s expression of regret, which fits into a broader phenomenon of political apologies, raises questions about the meaning of the past, particularly for those for whom he made this gesture, as much as it signals the closing of an historical chapter. (Cilano 2011: 2)

19Jane Yamazaki contrasts the rhetorical genre of apology with the genre of apologia. She writes,

Apologia may include an apology—that is, an admission of responsibility and regret—but it may also include denial, justification, and counterattack. What is essential is the defensive nature of the rhetoric, in response to accusations of wrongdoing or attack on reputation. […] Unlike other apologia strategies, apology is self-denigrating and does not attempt to deny or mitigate responsibility. (Yamazaki 2006: 2)

20Zafar’s long letter of apology to Maheen years after 1971 is in keeping with this understanding of apology and is also representative of the moral and regenerative values that sociologist Nicholas Tavuchis (1991) associates with the genre of apology because it leads to his transformation into the principled man that his daughter, Raheen, grows up admiring.

21The novel presents the acknowledgement of responsibility and apologies as the first step towards healing relationships, at both personal and international levels. In fact, international relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh have improved since President Musharraf’s apology in the same way as Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s apology in 1995 for atrocities committed during the Japanese Occupation paved the way for repairing the country’s strained relationship with neighbouring countries (Murayama 1995). According to Tavuchis, “To apologise is to declare one has no excuse, defense, justification or explanation, for an action (or non-action) that has insulted, failed or injured another” (1991: 17). Yamazaki observes that there are three general motives in historical apologies: repair of relationship, learning from history/self-reflection and affirmation of moral principle (2006: 127). It is interesting to locate Shamsie’s novel amidst the discourse of political apologies and examine what it aspires to accomplish in the complex domain of global communication.

22Lack of recognition of historical wrongdoings by the previous generation enables similar scenarios to be repeated in a cycle of violence continuing for decades. The novel emphasises the need for acknowledgement of past mistakes through parallelism in its plotline. Cilano argues that the pattern of recurrence of ethnic violence “suggests that Pakistani history consistently moves toward an exclusivity, a closing of the ranks” (2011: 96). Karim and Raheen’s relationship falls apart in the 1990s because Karim blames Zafar for his insensitivity and racial prejudice towards his mother. Raheen’s attitude of indifference towards the ethnic clashes of Karachi in the 1990s reminds Karim of her father’s attitude towards the war of 1971: “You really are your father’s daughter.” (Shamsie 2019: 142) Karim’s apprehension is that, just like 1971 had done to Zafar, the tumultuous national politics of the 1990s would compel Raheen to disclose her “narrow-mindedness and cowardice and rage” (Shamsie 2019: 297). In his understanding, her attitude of indifferent lack of concern towards the poorer Muhajirs is echoed by Zafar’s lack of sympathy for the cause of the Bengalis in 1971:

He thought he could pretend the war and everything going on had nothing to do with him […] until one day it was at his door and things inside him that he never acknowledged, never tried to deal with, came out. […]

You’re the same, Raheen. The city is falling apart and you’re the same. (Shamsie 2019: 244)

23The juxtaposition of the past and the present reinforces the notion that the past is alive in the present through its unforeseen repercussions.

24Hirsch observes that ‘postmemory’

characterizes the experiences of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of previous generations shaped by traumatic events that can neither be understood nor recreated. (Hirsch 1996: 662)

25Young Karim’s identification of himself as a half-Bengali earns him blows from his friend, Zia, in school who cannot accept that his friend has Bengali blood in him: “Tell him not to lie […] He’s not Bengali, he’s not. He’s my friend” (Shamsie 2019: 42). Parental intervention later reveals that Zia had learnt, possibly from his ayah, that ‘Bengali’ was a bad word. Zia’s desire to dismiss Karim’s Bengali bloodline is uncannily similar to Raheen’s mother, Yasmin’s, attempt to deny Maheen’s Bengali ethnicity in 1971:

‘God’s sake, Asif, she’s lived all her life in Karachi’, Yasmin said. ‘She’s not…’

‘Not what?’ Maheen turned to her friend, ‘One of them?’ (Shamsie 2019: 183)

26This incident demonstrates that even though the 1971 war was treated as “a long-distant memory that had nothing to do with our present lives” (Shamsie 2019: 44), the xenophobic stereotypes still radiated through society in the same way and haunted the lives of later generations.

27Throughout the novel, characters strive to attain a sense of self-identity, trying to determine the relationship between themselves and the community or the nation. Thus, the adult Karim’s conscious choice to identify himself as a Bengali by ethnicity is of crucial significance and illustrates how his identity has been shaped by the memory of a war that he has not personally experienced. Karim, who grew up in the shadow of the injustice suffered by his mother during the war, cannot bring himself to forgive Zafar even when his mother manages to do so. The novel advocates the necessity of forgiveness as much as it emphasizes the need for apology by demonstrating the impact of Karim’s failure to forgive on his personal life. The ultimate message of the novel may be summed up in Maier’s words: “To live rightly a people needed both to remember and to forget” (1993: 140).

28Cilano studies the representation of Muhajirs in literature to argue that “the muhajir figure patently disrupts nationalist efforts at identity consolidation” (2011: 36). What is intriguing about Kartography is the author’s choice to give the most hurtful and prejudiced lines in the entire novel to an otherwise thoughtful character like Zafar, a Muhajir in Karachi, towards whom readers would likely be sympathetic. His awareness of his own diasporic position motivates his desperate desire to be integrated into a unified national identity and to be accepted as a ‘true Pakistani’ by discarding the stigma of being an outsider. Hounded by his social group for being a “treasonous” (Shamsie 2019: 198) “Bingo lover” (191), he tries to disassociate himself from empathy with the cause of the Bengalis and feels the need to reiterate his loyalty and nationalism:

"[“]Of course I’m not happy. We’ve lost half the country and most of our soul. What the hell is there to be happy about? [… ]’

‘Oh, come on, Zaf. You cheered a little when the Indian forces entered the war on the side of those Bengali bastards, didn’t you?’ (Shamsie 2019: 190-1)

  • 10 Interestingly, the first Pakistani English language fiction to deal with the 1971 War, a short stor (...)

29Thus, the failed military offence takes the form of verbal and even physical aggression against the ‘Bingo lover’, who is considered to be worse than the ‘Bingo’.10 Maheen’s Bengali ethnicity is determined by her birth but wartime jingoism cannot come to terms with Zafar’s love for her and he is thus branded as a turncoat and a traitor.

30The novel draws attention to the tendency of ethnic bigotry to contaminate all aspects of life during turbulent times through the example of Zafar. The prejudice of characters like Asif and Laila does not come as a surprise because readers have already encountered them spouting venom about Muhajirs:

Coming across the border thinking we should be grateful for their presence. […] Do you hear the way people like Zafar and Yasmin talk about ‘their Karachi’? My family lived there for generations. Who the hell are these Muhajirs to pretend it’s their city! (Shamsie 2019: 41)

31However, the contagious nature of jingoism infects even Zafar, who is understood by everyone as a principled man with high morals, and who himself has been at the receiving end of ethnic bias. He catches himself thinking of Karachi as home for himself but enemy territory for his fiancé, Maheen: “But this was her home, too. How could he have forgotten that? But he had. Not for a second, or an hour, but for days, for weeks […] How insidiously this madness spread.” (Shamsie 2019: 187) Maheen had been openly subjected to ethnic hatred by strangers as well as the elite company she kept. However, it is when she overhears her fiancé, Zafar, belittling her for her ethnicity that she fully comprehends the contagious nature of exclusionist nationalism.

32The experience of Muhajirs as well as Bengalis demonstrates the hollowness of upper-class camaraderie which very easily slips into the folds of othering and ethnic hatred. As soon as Zafar argues against the quota system that discriminates against Muhajirs, his ethnic identity is attacked by his friend, Laila: “You really pretend to have an objective view of things, Zafar; but scratch the surface and that’s one hundred per cent Muhajir blood that pours out, isn’t it?” (Shamsie 2019: 224) Yet the novel interestingly undercuts the parallels that it draws between the Bengalis and the Muhajirs through Yasmin’s acknowledgement that Muhajirs comparing their situation in the 1990s to Bengalis is a deliberate disregard of their own position as implicated subjects in “a system that perpetuated marginalization and intolerance of the Bengalis.” (Shamsie 2019: 319) In a novel that explores various forms of denial, this is the novelist’s acknowledgement that history “is never obliging enough to replay itself in all details.” (Shamsie 2019: 319)

33Kartography belongs to a new category of Pakistani novels that engage with the memory of the 1971 war after decades. Investigating the history of the war through such cultural productions elucidates the effects of the war in the memory and emotional life of the nations. Through an exploration of the issues left unresolved by the redrawing of political borders, contemporary readers can remember the war as well as reconcile with it and move on. Such cultural productions help in imagining possible ways of healing and public narratives in Pakistan ameliorate the gruesome history of violence and trauma. Kartography breaks new ground because it compels contemporary readers to confront the censored and manipulated memory of the war.

34This article illustrated the continuing legacies of the 1971 war in Pakistani national identity despite active attempts to distort and neglect the memory of the war. Through a close reading of Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography, it has attempted to locate the novel in the context of belated apologies and highlight the paradoxical relationship between collective amnesia and generational memory. The elite circle that forms the centre of the novel serves as a microcosm for the Pakistani nation at large. The recurring theme of guilt and forgiveness in the novel is an effective tool to exhort readers to engage in personal and national self-examination. A careful reading of Kartography offers rewarding insights into the role of literary narratives in problematizing clear-cut boundaries between victims, perpetrators, and implicated subjects.

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1 Mookherjee writes, “The west Pakistani army apparently saw these Kafers as small-boned, short […], dark, lazy, effeminate, bheto (rice-and fish- eating and cowardly), half-Muslim Bengalis of the river plains, in contrast to themselves, supposedly broad-boned, tall, fair, wheat-eating, warrior-like, resilient, manly, brave Muslims of the rough topography of Pakistan” (2015: 164).

2 Niaz Zaman and Asif Farrukhi (2008) agree that the war “has exerted a greater and much more profound influence on creativity” on Bangladesh” (xix). They add that “famous and not so-famous writers, senior and fledgling writers, all have contributed their share to create a vast body of work that has been inspired by 1971 in all genres” (xx).

3 Memon observes, “the discussion on this important event — which struck at the roots of national ideology, divided the country, and caused a phenomenal number of Pakistani soldiers to be thrown into Indian prison camps — has been, surprisingly, both sparse and casual in the field of literature. Pakistani men of letters, otherwise known for their strident espousal of social and political issues at home and abroad, have been less than forthcoming on the meaning and consequences of their own national disintegration” (1983: 107).

4 The Partition of 1947 transformed the demography of Sindh. There was a huge influx of Urdu-speaking migrants from India who moved to Pakistan after Partition and mostly settled down in Karachi, thereby bringing about unforeseen changes in the economy and society of Sindh. Often being more qualified than the Sindhis, the Muhajirs bagged important jobs and positions, giving birth to considerable resentment from the existing population. Many local Sindhis looked upon the Muhajirs as unwanted outsiders bringing about undesirable transformations in the culture, language, and religious practices of Sindh. The politicization of Sindhis and Muhajirs into two groups have led to political turmoil as well as armed conflict since the 1980s, and their dispute remains unresolved.

5 For more on contemporary ethno-political violence in Pakistan, see Verkaaik (2004).

6 Tariq Ali uses very similar words to describe the Pakistani army’s justification of rape as an attempt to “improve the genes of the Bengali people” (1983: 91).

7 “An implicated subject is neither a victim nor a perpetrator, but rather a participant in histories and social formations that generate the positions of victim and perpetrator, and yet in which most people do not occupy such clear-cut roles. Less ‘actively’ involved than perpetrators, implicated subjects do not fit the mold of the ‘passive’ bystander, either. Although indirect or belated, their actions and inactions help produce and reproduce the positions of victims and perpetrators.” (Rothberg 2019: 1)

8 In the 1970s, Pakistan saw the introduction of a quota system that took away the educational and professional advantage once enjoyed by Urdu-speaking Muhajirs in Sindh. This caused further deterioration in the relationship between the Sindhi and Muhajir communities.

9 “My brothers and sisters in Pakistan share with their fellow brothers and sisters in Bangladesh profound grief over the parameters of the events of 1971. As a result of this tragedy a family having common religious and cultural heritage and united by a joint struggle for independence and a shared vision of the future, was torn apart. We feel sorry for this tragedy, and the pain it caused to both our peoples.” (Habib 2002)

10 Interestingly, the first Pakistani English language fiction to deal with the 1971 War, a short story by Tariq Rahman, is called “Bingo” (Cilano 2011: 6).

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Electronic reference

Madhurima Sen, “Collective Amnesia and Generational Memory in Kamila Shamsie’s KartographyAngles [Online], 14 | 2022, Online since 01 April 2022, connection on 12 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Madhurima Sen

Madhurima Sen is a postgraduate research student at the University of Oxford, studying for a DPhil in English. Her research is on literature related to and inspired by the 1971 Bangladesh War. She has recently completed her MPhil from University of Delhi. Her aim is to bring into conversation war writings from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. A major part of her research involves translating Bengali and urdu texts to English. Her primary fields of work are conflict studies and postcolonial literature. Contact: emailmadhurimasen [at]

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