Karachi – The ‘Now’ City

Ti­tle: In­stant City: Life and Death in Karachi Author: Steve Inskeep Pub­lisher: The Pen­guin Press (Oc­to­ber 2011) Pages: 304, Hard­back Price: USD 27.95 ISBN: 978-1594203152

Southasia - - Book review - Re­viewed by Rabia Hashmi The re­viewer holds a Bach­e­lor’s de­gree from Bard Col­lege, USA in An­thro­pol­ogy and Eco­nomics. She is cur­rently a so­cial re­searcher at In­ter­ac­tive Re­search and De­vel­op­ment (IRD).

Steve Inskeep’s first book, In­stant City: Life and Death in Karachi, in­tro­duces the con­cept of the ‘in­stant city’ - “a met­ro­pol­i­tan area that’s grown since 1945 at a sub­stan­tially higher rate than the pop­u­la­tion of the coun­try to which it be­longs.” While the author men­tions sev­eral in­stant cities in his work, in­clud­ing Brasilia, Lagos and Shang­hai, he chooses Karachi, a city es­ti­mated to have grown more than thirty times since the Sec­ond World War, for his premier nar­ra­tive. A fun­da­men­tal part of his anal­y­sis of the city main­tains that the core is­sues Karachi is faced with to­day stem from its con­tin­u­ous ex­plo­sive growth, that of an ‘in­stant city,’ and its in­abil­ity to pro­vide for its con­sid­er­ably con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate of 13.1 mil­lion res­i­dents.

Pak­istan’s most cos­mopoli­tan city is no­to­ri­ous for its lev­els of vi­o­lence, in­sta­bil­ity, in­equal­ity and eva­sion of all ra­tio­nal­ity, thus mak­ing it an ex­tremely dif­fi­cult topic to grap­ple with. Apart from com­plex­ity, one of the big­gest chal­lenges with writ­ing about Karachi is its sheer size. Inskeep does not pro­vide a de­tailed ac­count of the

city’s past or a painstak­ing anal­y­sis of its present and this is what makes the work unique.

Through the lens of the Ashura bomb­ing in 2009, Inskeep cre­ates a mo­saic of Karachi’s nar­ra­tive by weav­ing anec­dotes, as­sorted in­ter­views and keen ob­ser­va­tions through its his­tory. From Jin­nah’s ide­ol­ogy and cre­ation of Pak­istan to the present day Zar­dari govern­ment, Inskeep pro­vides the con­text of gov­er­nance un­der which the city con­tin­ues to trans­form. Dwelling on Jin­nah’s fa­mous Au­gust 11, 1947 speech, he at­tempts to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween his sec­u­lar, per­sonal life and the new Mus­lim state he had cre­ated. Un­for­tu­nately, Karachi’s re­li­gious and eth­nic vi­o­lence stems from the con­se­quent mis­un­der­stand­ing and the sprawl­ing growth that con­tin­ues to trans­form ev­ery­day life into a con­stant strug­gle for sur­vival.

Through­out the book, Inskeep traces the per­ils of rapid growth ex­pe­ri­enced by Karachi, largely due to the high ru­ral to ur­ban mi­gra­tion, con­se­quently lead­ing to pres­sures on hous­ing set­tle­ments, en­ergy re­sources, pro­vi­sion of health ser­vices and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns. Adding an­other di­men­sion to these is­sues, the author vividly de­scribes his con­ver­sa­tions with a num­ber of peo­ple (who serve as sources), in­clud­ing dis­tin­guished names such as colum­nist Ardeshir Cowas­jee, so­cial worker Ab­dus Sat­tar Edhi and the former Nazim of Karachi, Mustafa Ka­mal, amongst oth­ers. These con­ver­sa­tions bring to light nu­ances and dif­fer­ing perspectives on the city’s story. Chill­ing de­scrip­tions of vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing a bomb­ing in­ci­dent re­counted by Dr. Seemin Ja­mali, the emer­gency in­charge of a well-known pub­lic hos­pi­tal, in­still in the reader the very real sense of fear most Karachi­ites live with to­day.

Through his nar­ra­tives, Inskeep paints a com­plex pic­ture of Karachi and is able to draw at­ten­tion to the real prob­lems em­bed­ded in the city’s so­cial and po­lit­i­cal fab­ric. From vis­it­ing a wo­man liv­ing in one of the first houses built by Ayub Khan’s govern­ment in Ko­rangi to con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple such as Muham­mad Nader, an Edhi am­bu­lance driver who reg­u­larly puts him­self in harm’s way to make a liv­ing for his fam­ily, Inskeep high­lights the or­di­nary yet heart-rend­ing strug­gles faced by anony­mous Karachi­ites. An ac­ci­den­tal ren­dezvous with a fam­ily liv­ing in an il­le­gal set­tle­ment, none of whose mem­bers could “read the sign by the road that for­bade con­struc­tion” – al­lows Inskeep to draw at­ten­tion to the ad­ver­sity, re­silience, brav­ery and strug­gle other­wise in­signif­i­cant peo­ple un­dergo, amongst the mil­lions set­tled in Karachi.

Even within these anec­dotes and ex­pe­ri­ences, Inskeep reg­u­larly notes his own rather in­sight­ful ob­ser­va­tions. Speak­ing to Per­ween Rehman of the Orangi Pi­lot Project, he takes note of an in­her­ent de­fense mech­a­nism of sorts, the “price­less qual­ity that marked so many peo­ple in Karachi: the worse the sit­u­a­tion be­came, the more amused she seemed,” pro­vid­ing a very re­al­is­tic qual­ity to his work.

Inskeep’s anal­y­sis com­bined with ef­fec­tive and en­gag­ing sto­ry­telling leaves the reader with an authen­tic sense of one of the world’s most in­trigu­ing and of­ten mis­rep­re­sented cities. In­stant City is in­stantly rec­om­mended!

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