Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi

Steve Inskeep. Penguin Press, $27.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-59420-315-2
Reviewed by Mohammed Hanif. On December 29, 2009, a bomb blast targeted the annual Shia procession in Karachi. Forty days later another Shia procession was attacked. When the victims, survivors, and their distraught families arrived at Karachi’s Jinnah Hospital, another bomb blew up outside the emergency ward. And as the debris from the blast was being cleared, someone noticed a computer monitor strapped to a motorbike parked in the compound. The bomb disposal experts discovered yet another improvised bomb inside the monitor and defused it. Just another day in Pakistan’s largest city.

In the absorbing Instant City, Inskeep, cohost of NPR’s Morning Edition, sets out to recreate the events of these two days. The opening reads like a sophisticated thriller as the author traces the movements of a number of people: the participants in the procession, the law enforcers monitoring their video screens, shop owners about to lose their half-century-old businesses, and ambulance drivers who’ll have to clear up the bloody mess. As we reach the computer monitor strapped to a motorbike in the midst of the carnage, Inskeep plunges us into another turbulent time—the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan—and he gives us very readable capsule histories of the various communities and political forces that have brought us to this hospital compound.

This is an intimate book about a mega-city, and Inskeep succeeds by keeping his ambitions modest. By trying to understand the horrific event of one particular day, he keeps his narrative well paced and full of small surprises. The book sparkles when Inskeep takes an unexpected turn and follows a stranger, or when he tracks down a new trend to illuminate a new facet of the city. The old man he encounters outside a liquor shop, the slum under construction, the upscale leisure park tell us more about the city than any bomb blast.

Occasionally, Inskeep overreaches—such as when he tries to understand the mood of the nation by deconstructing the wardrobe of its founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, or speculating about the personal lives of Pakistan’s most famous philanthropist couple. It’s in the ordinary fates of the ordinary people that he finds the extraordinary spirit of Karachi. The story of Tony Tufail, a cabaret manager who built Pakistan’s first casino but could never open its doors is heartbreaking, yet foreshadows the new religious trends. The story of Nasir Baloch, a young activist, fighting to save his neighborhood park, is evoked in loving detail. Baloch takes on the land mafia encroaching the park and is shot dead. Inskeep tries to offset such tragic stories by comparing Karachi to other megacities around the world, and in the end includes an obligatory set of recommendations.

Not many politicians read books in Karachi, but if they were to read one, let it be Instant City. (Oct.)

Mohammed Hanif is author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Vintage, 2009). His new book, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, will be publishsed by Knopf next May. He lives in Karachi.

Reviewed on: 09/12/2011
Release date: 10/01/2011
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 284 pages - 978-0-14-312216-6
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