Friday, 4 November 2011

Steve Inskeep’s “Instant City: Life And Death In Karachi” – Book Review

Recently a friend pointed me to a Wikipedia page which showed Karachi to be more populous that Mumbai. According to this wiki page, Karachi has a population of 12,991,000 people whilst Mumbai has only 12,478,447. That got me interested in knowing more about Karachi and few clicks of the mouse and a week later, Flipkart delivered Steve Inskeep’s Instant City into my hands. I now realise that the list I had found on Wikipedia does not take into account surrounding suburban areas. As Inskeep himself explains at the end of Instant City, ‘cities are usually discussed in terms of their metropolitan areas – the central city plus suburbs and other outlying areas linked by commuting’. By this yardstick, Karachi had a population of 13.1 million in 2010, while Delhi had 22.1 million and Mumbai had 20 million.

On 28 December 2009, a bomb blast hit a Shia Ashura procession in Karachi killing scores of people. Inskeep’s story about Karachi, strictly non-fiction mind you, revolves around this blast. Who could have caused it? ‘What really happened on 28 December 2009?’ Inskeep wonders and explores various possibilities. Instant City’s blurb goes to the extent of stating that it is ‘the story of a single day in Karachi’s life.’ This isn’t exactly true because Inskeep’s excursion into Karachi is a free-flowing jaunt not restricted to the bombing of the Ashura procession on 28th December 2009. Nevertheless, for a big part of the book, the blast plays a central role.

Inskeep’s writing style reminded me of Dominique Lapierre’s and Larry Collins’s various masterpieces like O Jerusalem, Freedom at Midnight and Is Paris Burning? Instant City is a similar masterpiece, though at 250 odd easy-moving pages, it is not as voluminous and some of its descriptions do not have the depth of a Lapierre/Collins book.

By the time one reaches the middle of Instant City, it becomes obvious that Inskeep in unlikely to lead his readers to a grand ending where the identity of those behind the Ashura bomb blast is revealed. Instead, Instant City gets more and more interested in matters such as growth and decline of cities in general and Karachi’s metamorphosis in particular. Towards the fag end of the book, after visiting a locality in Korangi where the street level has risen steadily on account of clogged drains and encroachments, we hear Inskeep say, ‘On that street I finally understood what happened to those ancient cities I had seen; this must have been roughly the way Babylon went underground, and the way that cities were layered on top of cities at Sirkap. Great empires and grand dreams were buried by simple entropy. Bad drainage. Failure to clean the sewers. Failure to pick up the garbage. Failure to look after the neighbors [sic]. Failure to respect the greater good. Failure to govern. Failure, in short, to find workable solutions to chronic problems.

However, Karachi wasn’t always destined to be a city with so many problems. After Pakistan was formed, Karachi became its capital. President Ayub Khan had grand plans for Karachi. Soon after the military coup which brought him to power, he picked up a shovel and laid the foundation stone for Karachi’s first suburb. Constantinos Doxiadis, a highly reputed planner, was put in charge of the construction project at Karachi. It was a difficult job since Karachi was not a clean slate and Karachi was flooded with refugees who had fled independent India. An undaunted Doxiadis tried to ‘create communities where poor people could thrive. He planned buildings that would function efficiently in Karachi’s intense heat. Schools would take advantage of traditional South Asian methods of climate control. They would have perforated concrete walls to increase air flow, as well as wind catchers on the roofs...... He left spaces for gardens in front of and behind houses...... He opposed importing Western construction practices.

However, Doxiadis’s dreams and plans didn’t really work out for Karachi. The poor moved into every nook and cranny they could find. They had to look after themselves, since it was obvious that the powers-that-be didn’t care for them. Ayub Khan himself started to feel that Karachi had too many problems and moved the capital to Islamabad, which was also designed by Doxiadis. To know more about how Doxiadis’s plans went awry, do please read this brilliant book which tells Karachi’s story from the time of Jinnah till the present.

Within the fabric of Karachi’s story, there are a number of smaller stories woven in. For me, the best was that of Abdul Sattar Edhi, the founder of the Edhi Foundation, the leading charity in Pakistan. The Edhi Foundation runs a fleet of ambulances which race to every accident or bomb blast site. It also runs homes for the destitute, animal shelters, public kitchens and rehabilitation centres for drug addicts. Abdul Sattar Edhi is a Mohajir, an immigrant to Karachi who started with very little and even now has very little – he still lives with his in a single room. In light of all this, one would think Abdul Sattar Edhi is as close to a saint as one can get. But hold on, Inskeep shows his readers the various facets of Mr. Edhi which makes one pause a bit, especially the admission by Mr. Edhi himself that he is ‘mentally disturbed person’ and the information that Mr. Edhi takes medicines such as Tegral 200 which is used to treat, inter alia, manic depressive psychosis. The best part is the diatribe from his wife Bilquis Edhi who tells Inskeep what a lousy husband she has got. Did you know that Mr. Edhi had, after a decade of marriage to Bilquis, taken in a second wife who eventually left him? Inskeep (rightly in my opinion) tells us that Mr. Edhi, 85 years old at the time of Instant City’s release, is ambitious, though his ambition ‘involved no outward sign of material success’. The insight into Mr. Edhi is yet another reason to read this wonderful book.

I have always been fascinated by the Muttahida Quami Mahaz, once called the Mohajir Quami Movement, MQM for short, a party which seeks to represent immigrants from India and Bangladesh. In Pakistan: A Hard Country, Anatol Lieven talks of the MQM in tones of awe, as he explains how the MQM has built itself into the most powerful group in Karachi, amidst so many animosity and hatred towards the Mohajirs. Inskeep does not share Lieven’s sense of admiration for the MQM, though he concedes that MQM has managed to unify the immigrants who did not have much in common and created an ethnic group out of thin air. Instead, Inskeep devotes more space towards the excesses of the MQM as it seeks to keeps out other immigrants from Karachi and battles the almost equally secular Awami National Party, founded by the Frontier Gandhi and which represents Pathan interests in Karachi. Mustafa Kamal, the Mayor of Karachi, an MQM party man who rose up from humble beginnings, represents the ruthlessness as well as the efficiency of the MQM, a party which recognises merit and allows individuals without patrons to rise up from the ranks. Mustafa Kamal battles to modernise Karachi and make it an IT hub, but one fine day, the post of Mayor is abolished in all Pakistani cities and the good fight comes to an end.

Inskeep’s tome has space for a host of other characters who are no less interesting that Edhi. There’s Ardeshir Cowasjee, the son of the most famous shipping magnate in Karachi, who even now writes columns in the Dawn, fighting the degradation of the city he was born in. You get to meet Sharfuddin “Bobby” Memon, the owner of Lighthouse Cinema and the Head of the Citizen’s Police Liaison Committee. In a blast from the one, you get to know of K. Punniah, editor of Sindh Observer, who returned to Bangalore shortly after the Partition, unable to accept a Karachi which turned its back on its Hindu inhabitants, and died of a heart attack. Tony Tufail, peddler of dreams, built a casino using know-how imported from Macao, but it never got the final licence to take off, thanks to Zulfikar Bhutto’s compromises with Islamic fundamentalists and his ultimate overthrow by Zia-ul-Haq. And there are numerous committed private individuals like Adnan Asdar, Dr. Seemin Jamali, the Incharge of Emergency Department at JPMC Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre and Perween Rahman, the director of the Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute, who keep Karachi afloat amidst so much hopelessness.

Inskeep’s concluding chapter is for all practical purposes a Sermon on the Mount for the denizens of Karachi. ‘Karachi’s diversity is an asset in a world that is fractured along religious lines. If, for example, Karachi’s Christians and Hindus were fully and openly welcomed into public and commercial life, they would effectively become ambassadors for Pakistan. They could explain the country to its detractors, providing a bridge to non-Muslims in India and the West. If religious minorities could say convincingly that they lived in freedom and security, they would compel the world to think differently of Pakistan.’ A big (non-alcoholic) toast to that prayer from Inskeep. Ameen!

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