February issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 12 years ago

Unlike instant coffee, instant cities take a few years or decades to become palatable, or addictive. Even at fast and furious rates of growth, cities demand one’s time and appetite in capacious quantities, to enable us to sip them and taste them for their several ingredients. Karachi became an almost instant city after August 1947, but 64 years later, its relentless spread and diversity defy swift appraisal and comprehension. This city’s niceness and its nastiness combine to create charm as well as distress, affinity as well as alienation.

Where Karachi’s own residents struggle to come to terms with its chimera-like qualities, Steve Inskeep arrives from about 10,000 miles away in the USA, to attempt a micro-scopic examination as well as a wide-angle portrait. He brings courage and determination to this mission coupled with sensitivity and skill. Though the sub-title of the book directly refers to the frequently fatal features of the place, the text reflects a fond affection for the location and a genuine respect for the people. The result is a very readable book about a very unreadable city.

This is the author’s first book. But he comes with credible credentials in  broadcast journalism  and a prior familiarity with the region. As co-host of the most widely heard  American National Public Radio news programme, Morning Edition he is recognised for investigative reporting in Afghanistan, Iraq and  Nigeria — work which has won him top awards. Having already reported on Pakistan and Karachi, at the encouragement of friends, he decided to write a full-length book.

Inskeep aptly places Karachi in a comparative global context. Though given at the end rather than at the start, 20 instant cities from around the world are listed with population figures  from 1950, 1980 and 2010. Sao Paulo, Delhi and Lagos have grown faster than Karachi whose numbers, according to UN estimates, stand at 13.1 million, while it is also pointed out elsewhere in the text that these figures are contested as being too low. Previously, already large cities such as Chicago, Paris, London and New York are named as stabilising cities, now expanding more slowly than instant cities.

Karachi shares some elements with others in its class of cities. These include unregulated housing, shoddy infrastructure, congested spaces, pollution, poverty, crime and violence. Yet Karachi also emerges through this book as one of a kind; the enormous linguistic and ethnic diversity, the initial migration from India followed by continuing internal migrations from other parts of Pakistan, the abandonment of the town by many  Hindus  after August 1947 (though some still remain), the periodic battleground for schisms and sects within Islam, the pre-dominance of land theft, the ineffectiveness of governance, the cruel contrast between being the birthplace and the final resting place of a thoroughly non-violent Mr M. A. Jinnah and the spasms of brutal violence that mark Karachi cyclically.

The author chooses a narrative structure that is dramatic and tragic. He uses the Muharram Ashura procession on M.A. Jinnah Road, which was bombed on 28 December 2009, as both the thread and the metaphor to present the city’s  saga. Weaving in and out of that single event on a single day, Inskeep reaches into history,  vigorously probes the present, explores several dimensions of relevance and speculates about the future, to bring it all together in an engaging and compelling manner.

Real people from a wide range of classes and sectors enrich the pages with their vivid presence. From Bilquis and Sattar Edhi to Dr Seemin Jamali of JPMC, to Tufail Shaikh of Casino and Excelsior fame, to Ardeshir Cowasjee, to Parween Rahman of the Orangi Pilot Project, to Adnan Asdar of the People’s Housing Colony, to former Nazim Mustafa Kamal, to Amber Alibhai of Shehri, to little Rashida  of Machar Colony, to Afridi of SITE, to  Mustafa Hussain Zaidi of Sau Quarters, to Mohammad Nader, an Edhi ambulance driver, to Razia and Shinaz, two Bengali housewives. The saddest encounter is with the episode of Nisar Baloch, the bold campaigner for the Gutter Baghicha Bacaho Tehreek, who paid the ultimate price of his life sacrificed for a noble cause. Among the memorable black-and-white images reproduced in the book  is Nisar’s wedding picture, featuring him with his love-marriage bride, Madiha, now left behind as a widow.

Inskeep writes in an unusual tone that is empathetic without being emotive, candidly critical without being patronisingly judgmental. Despite the helter-skelter implication of the first word of the book’s title, here is a work of authentic, deeply-felt concern for an exceptional city and its even more extraordinary citizens, a book that will serve as an honest, sincere tribute from a friendly and humane non-resident.

At the same time, Instant City represents a challenge to every citizen of Karachi. Should they permit degradation of governance to become an excuse for the degradation of citizen-behaviour itself, and allow elites, mafias, extremists and groups, official and non-official, elected or self-imposed, to control the future development of their city? Or should they take responsibility and assert a new strength and will to prevent an overnight city from becoming a long nightmare, and help shape the city of a thousand flavours and dreams into  a harmonious  global metropolis.

This review was originally publish in the February 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “City of a Thousand Flavours.”