On Reading “Instant City” By Steve Inskeep

Missisauga Art Gallery, 2014.

Mississauga Art Gallery, 2014.

The viceroy was splitting the subcontinent among men who had all supported some version of a united India in the past. But at key moments, every effort fell apart. Jinnah insisted that his people could not even discuss a united India until after Muslims were granted parity, with power equal to the far more numerous Hindus. Faced with this demand, the Indian National Congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and aided by Mountbatten, finally preferred to shove Jinnah to the margins, giving Muslims a separate state and keeping it as small as possible. Jinnah didn’t even know how small it would be on that evening in Karachi; the viceroy had delayed revealing the final boundary lines. Later that night, at an event with over a thousand guests, the Great Leader looked ‘frail, tired and pre-occupied,” according to Shahid Hamid but had to remain at the event as long as the viceroy did. Hamid carried a message across the room from Jinnah to Mountbatten, asking the last representative of British rule in India to hurry up and leave.” (Steve Inskeep, Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, p.58)

It’s taken me more than three years to read Steve Inskeep’s book Instant City. Every time I’ve started to read it, I’ve stopped before finishing in an attempt to savour the reading experience for as long as possible. That changed a few days ago though, and like other books I love dearly, it is an unforgettable read.

The book is an exploration of instant cities, (defined as “a metropolitan area that’s grown since 1945 at a substantially higher rate than the population of the country to which it belongs”) by taking an in-depth look at Karachi and examining a bombing of a religious procession of Shia Muslims that occurred on Dec 28th 2009.  Today Karachi is more than thirty times its size in 1945, and Inskeep goes back to the beginning to understand what happened in 2009 and the forces that shape instant cities (and cities in general) today.

I loved the read despite – or perhaps because, Karachi is a place I do not understand well. I last visited the city 18 years ago, and though lazy stereotypes about Karachi and Pakistan make my skin prickle and my temper rise,  when family and friends travel, I am tense and keenly scanning headlines until they return. As with courses about Pakistani politics I took in undergrad, I’ve shared my learnings from Instant City with friends and family, and we’ve discussed urban geography, significant places, events and people of Karachi throughout the read. The book and these conversations have expanded my understanding of Karachi and I’m grateful to Inskeep for opening up the city in such a thoughtful and nuanced way. In particular, here are two things I loved about the book.

1) The writing. The writing!
This is a well written, intelligent, witty book, and I loved its one-liners and Inskeep’s writing as a whole.  He is a reliable, caring narrator, and he takes his time to learn more about Karachi, and to investigate both the far fringes of the city, and the parts of the city that are more central. Inskeep goes everywhere – from Korangi, (the first suburb of Karachi), to Mithidar, a part of the city where the roads are too narrow for cars and where the headquarters of the famous Edhi Foundation are located, to the site of Karachi’s failed casino project.

You can see and imagine Karachi from the way he describes the city.

More than the places Inskeep introduces us to however, it is people you meet who stay with you. He takes his time to meet with different leaders, to talk to people on the street, and as much as possible, to hear different perspectives and voices on the city. He allows Karachi to tell its stories through its people and places, and the generosity, humour, determination, resignation, and defiance of Karachi’s people is remarkable and inspiring. Their trauma and heartbreak is equally devastating. You leave each encounter wishing it was longer, and that you could learn from, talk to and be inspired from these individuals in real life. Last year I attended the Toronto Pakathon and met countless individuals with amazing ideas on how to apply their knowledge and expertise to help Pakistan alleviate problems in tangible ways. This book reminded me of the tenacity and determination I encountered that weekend.

2)  Instant City tells a story of urbanization and Pakistan’s history through the lens of Karachi, the original capital city of Pakistan. It combines urban studies with political science and delves into the kind of place Karachi was before Partition, to the vision of Jinnah (Pakistan’s first leader), of Pakistan as a secular state and how that vision has warped over time, to how Partition changed the city, to Ayub Khan’s (Pakistan’s first army dictator ) foray into suburb development and his failure to pay attention to commuting patterns, to the work of NGOs that help residents create their own infrastructure in informal settlements, to the tense world of urban politics in Karachi today. It tells its story at different scales, at different time periods, and relates its discussions of migration, diversity, growing cities and reducing countrysides to observations about how urbanization is shaping the world today. It traces how less diversity in Karachi has deepened and created fractions and divisions. It discusses how religion has been used as a political tool, and shares how politics and abuses of power have destroyed lives and impeded development. It is heartbreaking but also strangely hopeful, and is a book that gets under your skin, leaving you wanting to learn more and praying for change.

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