Archive for March, 2012

Kartography by Kamila Shamsie

March 23, 2012


Kamila Shamsie is an English-language Pakistani author with several books out. Kartography is the first book of hers that I’ve read, and I now have more on my list. I found her prose to be a bit verbose and heavy on emotional descriptions at times, but it nonetheless offers a rich reward for the reader willing to engage with the book’s characters.

Kartography (2003) tells the story of Raheen and Karim, along with their circle of upper class family and friends. In some ways, it’s a classic story of growing up and finding love through many twists and turns. The work also addresses questions of ethnicity, belonging, and national identity, particularly as they’ve been shaped by the break-off of East Pakistan into the separate state of Bangladesh in 1971. The majority of the book is set in Karachi with intermissions in the US as well, and Shamsie often consciously dwells on the importance of place and how we know the place we call home.

The real prize for me in this work was seeing a detailed portrait of the conflicting impulses, strategies, and interests involved in life in Pakistan. So often westerners imagine Pakistan as a war zone without a thought to the millions who conduct normal life in the midst of such unheavels. Shamsie captures something of the challenges involved in trying to build a life in the midst of a troubled nation.

Temptations of the West by Pankaj Mishra

March 8, 2012

Temptations of the West is a thoroughly researched, stunningly crafted work that weaves together personal stories, history, culture, and analysis to offer a layered picture of life and its challenges in different parts of contemporary South Asia. Along the way, Pankaj Mishra offers a compelling series of narratives that seek to explain why different situations arose and provide the necessary background for understanding the state of South Asia today. Plenty of books have tried to do this, but none equal Mishra’s vibrant prose and his gift for making the past come alive. For anybody seeking to a historically-grounded, engaging portrait of the modern subcontinent—here it is.

The book is organized in three sections: India, the northwest (Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan), and those too often left out of treatments of the subcontinent (Nepal and Tibet). I found all three sections compelling, including the chapters on countries that I’m personally less interested in (e.g., Tibet). A few sections are a bit out of date to the passage of time (the book was published in 2006). For example, the Nepal section was written before the fall of the monarchy in 2008, and the situation in Pakistan is rapidly changing these days. But overall the work is incredibly timely and a must-read for all those seeking a deeper understanding of South Asia.