Book thoughts: “Instant City” by Steve Inskeep (2011)

Karachi, Pakistan at night, with Jinnah's tomb in the background. By Adnan Asim from North Nazimabad, Karachi 74700 ( Sindh ), Pakistan [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Karachi, Pakistan at night, with Jinnah’s tomb in the background.
By Adnan Asim from North Nazimabad, Karachi 74700 ( Sindh ), Pakistan [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

“This was Karachi…destination of pilgrims and home of the poor, a field of operations for the makers of buildings and bombs. The instant city mixed the good and the bad, battering people with the impartiality of a typhoon.” (p. 141)

Steve Inskeep’s 2011 book gives us a glimpse of life in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and the 7th biggest urban agglomeration in the world (roughly the size of New York). This is an “instant city” defined by its incredible growth (it has nearly tripled in size from 1980)…but little else. The rest of the city’s characteristics are enigmatic and paradoxical: thriving yet failing, vibrant yet violent, diverse yet segregated. In Karachi, McMansions stand next to slums, houses without power sit beside golf courses with bright night lights, and local government is oppressive yet also virtually powerless over the wild and frenetic urban sprawl.

The centerpiece of “Instant City” is a single day in December 28, 2009—a microcosm of a city nothing short of chaotic. On this day, twin bombs ripped through the heart of Karachi during the annual Shi’a “Ashura” religious procession, killing more than 50 and maiming hundreds more. Hours later, mysterious fires set the central market ablaze, destroying the livelihoods of the area’s shopkeepers and dwellers. A local population seized by conspiracy theories attributed blame in all directions: Sunni Islamic extremists, ethnic minorities, even the United States. The prevailing view was that the corrupt local government had set the fires as part of an elaborate scheme to steal prime real estate.

Four jihadists fighting for Jundallah, an Islamic terrorist group, were arrested in connection with the bombings. But few locals seemed to notice—speculation about what really happened that day, and who was responsible, is still widespread.

For Karachi residents, the devastation of December 28, 2009 was a defining moment, but sadly not uncommon. Gang-like violence is a daily occurrence, and terrorist attacks are not infrequent. In one particularly harrowing moment, Inskeep interviews a paramedic who once disassembled a live bomb hidden behind a computer monitor at a local hospital (p. 154). In another instance, a Pashtun man tells his story of being held at gunpoint by a band of politically-motivated Mohajir gunmen. “Say your holy words”—one of the gunman said—just before the victim’s boss persuaded the killers to spare him (p. 170).

This is daily life in much of Karachi. Yet somehow the city is exploding with economic potential. High-rise apartments and hotels dot the skyline, and Pakistan’s main stock exchange (based in Karachi) is booming. All the while, in reading Inskeep’s book, one gets the impression of a city that is improvising at every turn—expanding extra-legally, slogging through a thick web of corruption, ethnic mistrust, and violence in whatever way it can.

Inskeep’s main contribution comes from the picture he portrays of modern Karachi. But he also provides an interesting perspective on history. As any casual observer of South Asia knows, the 1940s saw the post-independence breakup of India and Pakistan. Millions of Hindus from the banks of the Indus fled to Gandhi and Nehru’s newly-created India; millions of Muslims fled persecution in India for a new life in Jinnah’s Pakistan. It was what happened next that came to define modern Pakistan:

“From 1947, the country had unwittingly conducted a vast human experiment: what would happen if a diverse place suddenly cleansed itself of many of its minorities, so that almost everyone was, on the surface, the same? Now the results of the experiment were coming in. Muslims, the single ‘nation’ championed by their leaders just a few years before, proved to be strikingly diverse. They always had been. Now some looked within their numbers and began singling out new minorities to replace the ones they had lost.” (p. 80)

Karachi received the brunt of the Muslim migrants—transformed over time into the contrived Mohajir “ethnic group” of today. Despite near uniformity as Muslims, the residents of Karachi quickly drew new lines of separation and disdain: Mohajir, Baloch, Pashtun, Punjabi, Sindhi, and a multitude of others. Karachiites are still dealing with the consequences of these divisions today.

And so Inskeep offers a warning: in a city developing and expanding so rapidly along a crooked and unscripted path, improvisation can give way to discrimination. Discrimination, to violence. In one section, the author mirrors Karachi with early 20th-century Chicago, a city flooded with immigrants, who quickly set battle lines of their own.

Chicago, New York, and London were “instant cities” of another time, but now growing at a more stabilizing rate. Karachi may too follow a similar path. But in the meantime, the road is crooked and unpredictable.

Inskeep’s book may not be “scientific” (as seems to be a theme in my book choices – see here and here), but it provides a unique look at a bizarre amalgam of a city’s eccentricities that one is sure to enjoy.

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