Title: Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi
Author: Steve Inskeep
Release Date: October 13, 2011
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Genre: Non-Fiction, History, South Asia
Rating: 4 out of 5
In his book, Steve Inskeep chronicles the rise of Karachi, Pakistan, what he terms an “instant city”. In 1941, before the Partition of India and Pakistan, Karachi was a city of just 350,000 people. Only seventy years later, its population is over thirty million. Inskeep discusses the history of this vibrant Pakistani city, focusing on what this rapid growth has meant for Karachi.
Steve Inskeep uses Karachi as a lens for the “instant city”, a phenomenon that is occurring all over the world. With the rise of the urban, rural dwellers in third world countries are fleeing to cities in the hope of finding a better life. Instead, what they find is an overcrowded metropolis that cannot support the number of people that have flocked to it. Inadequate sewer systems, a lack of housing, and bad public transportation are just a few of the problems these instant cities, never given the chance to develop organically as other cities, face today.
Karachi is somewhat unique in the phenomenon of instant cities because it must also face religious and sectarian violence. Inskeep uses this, and specifically a bombing of a Shi’a religious event, as a prism to discuss the problems, both historical and modern, that plague Karachi. For example, many of the shop owners whose properties were destroyed wonder if the bombing wasn’t politically motivated, as a way to remove the shops in order to build lucrative high rise apartments. It’s an incredibly interesting discussion, and a good indication of the corruption present in the Pakistani political structure. Though that may not have been the real reason behind the destruction, it’s telling that the shop owners suspected it could be the cause.
Inskeep approaches the task as a journalist, using interviews and personal experiences in order to frame his narrative, and it works well to keep the reader engaged in the story. Inskeep puts a human face on the issues Karachi is facing, such that the reader becomes personally involved in the story he is trying to tell. However, the downside to this approach is that the reader doesn’t get a comprehensive and cohesive narrative of modern Karachi. Instead, it’s fragmented and a bit choppy, and Inskeep has a tendency to repeat himself.
Still, Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi is a book worth reading. Inskeep does a wonderful job illuminating the rise of the instant city and highlighting the problems they face. His writing style is clear and engaging; the narrative never becomes dry, and easily keeps the reader’s attention. If you’re interested in Pakistan or in the instant city, I recommend picking up this book.