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The South Asia Channel

Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi

National Public Radio host Steve Inskeep’s new work is not a comprehensive look at the complex history or troubled present of my city. It is a roving, at times whimsical narrative telling certain stories that follow, intersect or run alongside each other. It winds through selected places, events, and people, revisits some of them, keeps ...


National Public Radio host Steve Inskeep’s new work is not a comprehensive look at the complex history or troubled present of my city. It is a roving, at times whimsical narrative telling certain stories that follow, intersect or run alongside each other. It winds through selected places, events, and people, revisits some of them, keeps going, and comes back for more. It is ostensibly pegged to one event, but in reality that event is simply a particularly convenient launching pad for talking about some of the violent conflicts, identity crises, power struggles and practical problems that hold hostage the people of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest and most cosmopolitan city.

With this approach, Instant City: Life andDeath in Karachi only honors the nature of this megalopolis.

Partof the problem in writing about Karachi is its enormity. There is its population, of course, on which the host of NPR’s Morning Edition has based his title. For him an "instant city" is one that has grown significantly faster than the country it belongs to since the end of World War II. Karachi, with its 13 million people — an estimate for 2010 based on a census carried out in 1998, and one that is considerably lower than others as high as 18 million — is at least 30 times as populated as it was in 1945, two years before the partition of British India brought hundreds of thousands of Muslims pouring into the city and turned Karachi into an enduring magnet for Pakistanis from other parts of the country.

With this population explosion the city has sprawled outwards, unplanned and ill-equipped, to accommodate natives and migrants. It encompasses startling disparities in wealth, lifestyle, security and ideology. It breeds professionals and laborers, but also terrorists and thugs. It is the country’s financial center, but is frequently paralyzed by strikes and violence. It has developed multiple political, ethnic, linguistic and sectarian fault lines and conflicts, the complexity and stubbornness of which evade most solutions other than trying to maintain the status quo. Perhaps that is why there has been little recent writing about Karachi, in some ways Pakistan’s most important city, despite the recent wave of books on the country itself.

The author launches his narrative with the violent events of December 28, 2009, when a bomb targeted a Shi’a Muslim procession on ashura (a major day on the Islamic calendar marking the death of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Husain) and arson followed in a nearby commercial district. More sectarian attacks were carried out in February 2010 on the day that marked the end of the mourning period.

But this particular sequence of events was different from the usual terrorist attacks that are now so sadly common in Pakistan. Inskeep shows how this chain reaction highlighted the multiple fissures that make Karachi such a deeply divided city. The bomb blast was ostensibly a sectarian attack on Shi’a Muslims, but may have been carried out by a Karachi-based militant outfit called Jundullah (not to be confused with the Iranian group of the same name) whose primary goal has been to weaken a central government allied with the United States. The arson in particular has become an enduring mystery, one intensified by the enormous commercial value of the centrally located market it destroyed. Inskeep outlines the public debate that blamed everyone from retaliating Shi’a to real estate developers, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM, the political party that ran the city government at the time), and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP, the group in power in Sindh province). The two parties have a long-standing rivalry — which has a strong ethnic dimension, with the MQM and the PPP largely representing the city’s Urdu- and Sindhi-speakers, respectively — but the more likely cause was thought to be greed for new construction, since Karachi’s land mafias are believed to have the protection of political parties.

In Instant City these events become a peg to show how extremist violence has plagued the city and how hopelessly land, politics and ethnicity are intertwined in Karachi, which has multiple large communities and not enough space to house them all. Inskeep moves back in time and looks to the future as he tries to unravel how Karachi’s history led to this situation, how it affects the lives of residents, and what potential, if any, the city has in spite of it. In doing so he wanders through several themes, including unplanned urban expansion, income inequality and lack of opportunity, and the instability of local politics.

But one theme looms large: the confusing — and perhaps confused — legacy of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who created a state for the Muslims of India but told its citizens that it should be a secular one. Inskeep spends significant time on Jinnah’s speech of August 11, 1947, three days before independence, in which the founder of the country declared that Pakistanis of all beliefs should unite as citizens and that an individual’s faith "has nothing to do with the business of the state." The author concludes that one way of looking at this is to separate Jinnah’s actions at the time from the aspirations he had for the new country he was creating. This may be true, but aside from displaying short-sightedness on Jinnah’s part, it is of little consequence in Pakistan today. Even if a secular state was Jinnah’s eventual goal, the philosophical basis he laid out for his struggle — that Muslims are a separate nation within British India and therefore should have a separate state — is not something his countrymen have been able to grow past.   

Jinnah’s"perilous decision to divide India along religious lines," Inskeep adds, had "catastrophic consequences [that] were still evident more than sixty years later, in the Ashura bombing and its aftermath." What he could have done a better job of explaining, though, is how that decision has led to the sectarian divides among Muslims and the anti-state militancy that has caused violence in Karachi more often than actions against non-Muslims have. Despite Karachi’s importance as a home for migrants from British India, the book does not adequately flesh out the links between these national-level developments and the particular strains of ideologically motivated violence that Karachi experiences today.

With that said, what Inskeep does capture is the inescapability of the violence that has turned everyday life tragic, or at least dangerous, for so many Karachiites. In one scene he describes how Dr. Seemin Jamali, head of the emergency department at a major public hospital, is dealing with the victims of the February 2010 bombing. She and the crowd at the hospital "did not know that a motorcycle was parked and unattended near the entrance to the emergency department. It had a strange-looking object strapped to its back." This bomb would also go off. Together with an account of yet another bomb defused at the hospital later that day, as well as the earlier stories of the ashura bombing and arson, Inskeep’s description of relentless terror takes the reader’s breath away.

Bringing all of this to life are the characters Inskeep paints. "I said hello," he writes of running into columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee at lunch, "as we’d met before, and told him I was still writing about the city’s development. ‘What a terrible subject, have you nothing else to write?’ muttered Cowasjee, who chose to write about it constantly himself." The wife of social worker and national icon Abdul Sattar Edhi subjects the author to a half-hour rant about her husband’s "history with women," his limited income and how his family has been subjected to the demands of his work; "the Edhis had come to represent the character of Karachi — passionate, witty, resilient, and gloriously strange," Inskeep writes. Like Cowasjee’s cynical humor and Edhi’s authoritarianism, Inskeep’s knowing observations about the more prominent of these figures are accurate enough that they will resonate with locals but entertaining enough to amuse everyone else as well.

But what is really heartbreakingly familiar is the despair, resignation and bravery of people like his ambulance driver and his shopkeeper, otherwise anonymous among Karachi’s millions, struggling even to get through the day with their families fed and their lives intact. Mohammad Nader, the driver, who routinely undertakes life-threatening expeditions to violent incidents for compensation that barely pays his rent, sits for a photograph for the author "in the middle [of his family], head tilted to one side as he studied the camera, the face of a man trying not to look sad."

Ultimately, Inskeep’s book succeeds precisely because it zooms in on specific anecdotes and characters against the backdrop of a handful of selected themes, rather than aiming to paint a complete or very detailed picture of Karachi. His reliance on extensive  story telling in addition to analysis and an overview that is not as wide-ranging as it could be sets it apart from other recent books written by foreign visitors about this part of the world, such as Anatol Lievin’s Pakistan: A Hard Country and Pamela Constable’s Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself. But it feels, to a Karachi native, like an approach that makes sense when trying to grapple with a city such as this one. A discussion about the city’s constantly changing local government structures also happens to explain why this approach is so appropriate. "Since 1947," Inskeep writes, "Karachi has suffered an overdose of history. Too much has happened here."   

Madiha Sattar is a Pakistanijournalist based in Karachi. She can be reached at

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