NationalPublic Radio host Steve Inskeep's newwork is not a comprehensive look at the complex history or troubled presentof my city. It is a roving, at times whimsical narrative telling certain storiesthat follow, intersect or run alongside each other. It winds through selectedplaces, events, and people, revisits some of them, keeps going, and comes backfor more. It is ostensibly pegged to one event, but in reality that event issimply a particularly convenient launching pad for talking about some of the violentconflicts, identity crises, power struggles and practical problems that hold hostagethe people of Karachi, Pakistan's largest and most cosmopolitan city.
Withthis 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 MorningEdition has based his title. For him an "instant city" is one that hasgrown significantly faster than the country it belongs to since the end ofWorld War II. Karachi, with its 13 million people -- an estimate for 2010 basedon a census carried out in 1998, and one that is considerably lower than othersas 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 thousandsof Muslims pouring into the city and turned Karachi into an enduring magnet forPakistanis from other parts of the country.
Withthis population explosion the city has sprawled outwards, unplanned andill-equipped, to accommodate natives and migrants. It encompasses startlingdisparities in wealth, lifestyle, security and ideology. It breedsprofessionals and laborers, but also terrorists and thugs. It is the country'sfinancial center, but is frequently paralyzed by strikes and violence. It hasdeveloped multiple political, ethnic, linguistic and sectarian fault lines andconflicts, the complexity and stubbornness of which evade most solutions otherthan tryingto maintain the status quo. Perhaps that is why there has been littlerecent writing about Karachi, in some ways Pakistan's most important city,despite the recent wave of books on the country itself.
Theauthor launches his narrative with the violent events of December 28, 2009, whena bomb targeted a Shi'a Muslim procession on ashura (a major day on the Islamic calendar marking the death of theProphet Mohammad's grandson Husain) and arson followed in a nearby commercialdistrict. More sectarian attacks were carried out in February 2010 on the daythat marked the end of the mourning period.
Butthis particular sequence of events was different from the usual terroristattacks that are now so sadly common in Pakistan. Inskeep shows how this chainreaction highlighted the multiple fissures that make Karachi such a deeplydivided 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 calledJundullah (not to be confused with the Iranian group of the same name) whose primarygoal has been to weaken a central government allied with the United States. Thearson in particular has become an enduring mystery, one intensified by the enormouscommercial value of the centrally located market it destroyed. Inskeep outlinesthe public debate that blamed everyone from retaliating Shi'a to real estate developers,the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM, the political party that ran the citygovernment at the time), and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP, the group inpower in Sindh province). The two parties have a long-standing rivalry -- whichhas a strong ethnic dimension, with the MQM and the PPP largely representing thecity's Urdu- and Sindhi-speakers, respectively -- but the more likely cause wasthought to be greed for new construction, since Karachi's land mafias arebelieved to have the protection of political parties.
In Instant City these events become a pegto show how extremist violence has plagued the city and how hopelessly land,politics and ethnicity are intertwined in Karachi, which has multiple largecommunities and not enough space to house them all. Inskeep moves back in timeand looks to the future as he tries to unravel how Karachi's history led tothis situation, how it affects the lives of residents, and what potential, ifany, the city has in spite of it. In doing so he wanders through severalthemes, including unplanned urban expansion, income inequality and lack ofopportunity, and the instability of local politics.
But onetheme looms large: the confusing -- and perhaps confused -- legacy of MohammadAli Jinnah, who created a state for the Muslims of India but told its citizensthat it should be a secular one. Inskeep spends significant time on Jinnah'sspeech of August 11, 1947, three days before independence, in which the founderof the country declared that Pakistanis of all beliefs should unite as citizensand that an individual's faith "has nothing to do with the business of thestate." The author concludes that one way of looking at this is to separateJinnah's actions at the time from the aspirations he had for the new country hewas creating. This may be true, but aside from displaying short-sightedness onJinnah's part, it is of little consequence in Pakistan today. Even if a secularstate was Jinnah's eventual goal, the philosophical basis he laid out for hisstruggle -- that Muslims are a separate nation within British India andtherefore should have a separate state -- is not something his countrymen havebeen 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 yearslater, in the Ashura bombing and its aftermath." What he could have done abetter job of explaining, though, is how that decision has led to the sectariandivides among Muslims and the anti-state militancy that has caused violence inKarachi more often than actions against non-Muslims have. Despite Karachi'simportance as a home for migrants from British India, the book does notadequately flesh out the links between these national-level developments andthe particular strains of ideologically motivated violence that Karachiexperiences today.
Withthat said, what Inskeep does capture is the inescapability of the violence thathas turned everyday life tragic, or at least dangerous, for so many Karachiites.In one scene he describes how Dr. Seemin Jamali, head of the emergencydepartment at a major public hospital, is dealing with the victims of theFebruary 2010 bombing. She and the crowd at the hospital "did not know that amotorcycle was parked and unattended near the entrance to the emergencydepartment. It had a strange-looking object strapped to its back." This bombwould also go off. Together with an account of yet another bomb defused at thehospital later that day, as well as the earlier stories of the ashura bombing and arson, Inskeep'sdescription of relentless terror takes the reader's breath away.
Bringingall of this to life are the characters Inskeep paints. "I said hello," hewrites of running into columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee at lunch, "as we'd metbefore, and told him I was still writing about the city's development. ‘What aterrible subject, have you nothing else to write?' muttered Cowasjee, who choseto write about it constantly himself." The wife of social worker and nationalicon Abdul Sattar Edhi subjects the author to a half-hour rant about herhusband's "history with women," his limited income and how his family has beensubjected to the demands of his work; "the Edhis had come to represent thecharacter 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 accurateenough that they will resonate with locals but entertaining enough to amuseeveryone else as well.
But whatis really heartbreakingly familiar is the despair, resignation and bravery ofpeople like his ambulance driver and his shopkeeper, otherwise anonymous amongKarachi's millions, struggling even to get through the day with their familiesfed and their lives intact. Mohammad Nader, the driver, who routinely undertakeslife-threatening expeditions to violent incidents for compensation that barelypays his rent, sits for a photograph for the author "in the middle [of hisfamily], head tilted to one side as he studied the camera, the face of a mantrying not to look sad."
Ultimately,Inskeep's book succeeds precisely because it zooms in on specific anecdotes andcharacters against the backdrop of a handful of selected themes, rather than aimingto paint a complete or very detailed picture of Karachi. His reliance on extensivestorytelling in addition to analysis and an overview that is not aswide-ranging as it could be sets it apart from other recent books written byforeign visitors about this part of the world, such as Anatol Lievin's Pakistan: A Hard Country and PamelaConstable's Playing with Fire: Pakistanat War with Itself. But it feels, to a Karachi native, like an approachthat makes sense when trying to grapple with a city such as this one. Adiscussion about the city's constantly changing local government structures alsohappens to explain why this approach is so appropriate. "Since 1947," Inskeepwrites, "Karachi has suffered an overdose of history. Too much has happenedhere."
Madiha Sattar is a Pakistanijournalist based in Karachi. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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