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
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!