Growing up in Islamabad, I would sometimes visit relatives in Karachi, but was seldom able to grasp the nuanced chaos that Pakistan’s bustling port city exudes. But last week, while visiting Karachi for work, I paid closer attention. The city is, after all, widely covered in the news for its volatile security situation. Corruption & crime are rampant. Bullet-riddled bodies, victims of targeted killings, become just another statistic. Inflation, load-shedding, and stand-still traffic are debilitating. All of these are part of Karachi’s daily reality. But what is often left out in the news stories – not surprisingly – is the vibrancy of the city. The energy of Karachi is palpable. The chaos is somehow still orderly. The atmosphere can both exhaust you and make you feel alive. As a born-and-bred Karachiite recently told me, “You can’t live with Karachi, but you can’t live without it.”
It is this dual identity that author Steve Inskeep touches on in his book, Instant City: Life & Death in Karachi, in which he writes plainly, “Everything that makes this instant city vibrant can also make it violent.” With 13 million people, Karachi is one the larger cities in the world, becoming “a metropolis that has grown so rapidly that a returning visitor from a few decades ago would scarcely recognize it. The instant city retains some of its original character and architecture…but has expanded so much that the new overshadows the old.”
In the book, Inskeep does not pretend to be an expert on Karachi, which is refreshing considering the number of books on Pakistan written by “experts” these days. Instead, the journalist and host of the National Public Radio (NPR)’s Morning Edition writes as an observer, weaving both the country and city’s history around the occurrence of one tragic event – the bombing of a Shiite procession on Ashura in December 2009 that killed at least 30 people in Karachi. The bombing and subsequent burning of Bolton Market are telling given the history of the city – its relationship with minorities, the increased tension amongst ethnic, religious, and political groups over the years, the tit-for-tat violence, and even the broader struggle with Pakistan’s identity. Inskeep wrote,
In this expressly Islamic state, well over 90 percent of the populace shares the same basic faith, yet throughout Pakistan’s history…that surface unity has masked great diversity and deep divisions. The divisions are especially evident in Karachi, which after receiving migrants from many places is Pakistan’s most diverse city. Karachi also faces a diversity of conflicts, which came into play after the Ashura bombing.
But while Instant City revolves around the Ashura bombing, it does not remain fixed around that day. Instead, the incident is strung into the broader narrative of identity & tragedy – how a country that was established with such hope and promise could have veered so drastically off course. Inskeep uses a steady stream of anecdotes, showcasing Pakistan’s history since the 1947 Partition and introducing familiar characters from the Pakistani fabric – Ardeshir Cowasjee, Abdul Sattar Edhi, and even Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
One of my favorite spoken word poets Phil Kaye eloquently stated during his performance, Repetition, “If you repeat something over and over again it loses its meaning… If you just wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, one day you’ll forget why.” Words, and in the case of Pakistan, ideas, lose their meaning the more often we say them out loud. In the case of Jinnah, the father of our nation, his presence can be felt everywhere – from rupee notes when money changes hand to banners to street signs bearing his name. And yet despite this constant reminder of Jinnah in our daily lives, we now seem very far from his lofty aims for this state. In the book, Inskeep wrote, “It is easy to forget that Jinnah was a living man, with a taste for fine suits and waspish remarks.” Jinnah was a minority himself – a Shiite – and he knew “the minorities in his new nation could bring Pakistan strength…” The author quoted the Quaid-e-Azam further noting [during the Partition of India & Pakistan],
As far as I can speak for Pakistan, I say that there is no reason for any apprehension on the part of the minorities in Pakistan. It is for them to decide what they should do…I cannot order them.
Both Pakistan and Karachi are dubbed as peculiar, and this is a simple but apt reference. Pakistan is a country built on an idea, with aims purposefully vague, undefined, and lofty. Inskeep wrote, “Much of Pakistan’s history – and Karachi’s history – would be driven by the tension between the aspiration and the act.” Dawn columnist Cowasjee, a Karachiite through and through, told the author, “Jinnah told my father…that each government of Pakistan would be worse than the one that preceded it.” We are a nation that oscillates between extremes, schizophrenic in our intentions and unsettled in our reality. In the 60-plus years that we have been a state, we seem more uncomfortable in our skin than ever before. Though Inskeep’s book focuses specifically on the lights – both glittering & fading – of Karachi, the theme is very indicative of the wider national phenomenon. Life and death are two absolutes that are juxtaposed in the same daily reality in Karachi.
Instant City is a great read for a number of reasons. First, Inskeep rightly fixes his position as a humble observer instead of a smug pundit, making the book appear unassuming and non-judgmental. Second, he successfully weaves in a number of smaller narratives that showcase the multifaceted personality of Karachi and humanizes its history. Third, though there have been some criticisms surrounding the importance placed on the 2009 Ashura bombing in the story [some feel the Shiite attack was not indicative of Karachi's wider issues], the underlying themes surrounding the incident and subsequent burning (most likely perpetrated by the city’s embedded land mafia) do speak to broader issues currently raging in Pakistan as a whole. In short, Inskeep’s book is unique in its voice, refreshing in its outlook, and nuanced in its approach. Is it the best treatment of the numerous issues facing Karachi today? No. But it also doesn’t claim to be. It offers a fresh voice, something I at least was grateful to see.
To purchase a copy of Steve Inskeep’s Instant City: Life & Death in Karachi, click here.