Book Review: “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi” by Steve Inskeep

Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, by Steve Inskeep. 288 pages. The Penguin Press. Oct. 13, 2011. ISBN: 1594203156. List price: $27.95.

Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, by Steve Inskeep. 288 pages. The Penguin Press. Oct. 13, 2011. ISBN: 1594203156. List price: $27.95.

As a Karachi native, I consider myself forever connected to that tangle of a metropolis even though I moved to Chicago at a year old and have lived here ever since. It is a notoriously tumultuous city, a microcosm of mismanagement, violence and instability. Despite my deep personal interest in Karachi, its history and current state are difficult to unravel and daily changes impossible to follow. Having read Steve Inskeep’s “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi,” I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Throughout this dramatic work of extensive investigative reporting, NPR’s Inskeep explains the dilemma that faces Karachi today: its status as an “instant city,” which simultaneously accounts for its 13.1 million residents and its inability to care for them. Central to Inskeep’s analysis of Karachi’s explosive growth is his definition of the instant city, “which I define as a metropolitan area that’s grown since 1945 at a substantially higher rate than the population of the country to which it belongs.” In that time period, the United States’ population doubled and Los Angeles’ grew threefold. Compare that to Pakistan, where the population is believed to have swollen to thirty times what it was when World War II ended.

Using the Dec. 28, 2009, Ashura bombing as a lens, Inskeep examines the religious, ethnic, political and violent forces who spar each day on Karachi’s streets and behind closed doors. It seems unlikely that anyone other than a journalist, politician or historian would have the depth and breadth of knowledge Inskeep presents here; for me, as it surely will be for other readers, every page of this book is an education. From the Partition days of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the ever-respected Quaid-e-Azam who ushered Pakistan into existence, to today’s controversial president, Benazir Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari, Inskeep details the relevant points of each administration from the past 50 years.

While Inskeep spoke to numerous individuals who served as sources (everyone from ex-Karachi mayor Mustafa Kamal to the woman who lives in one of the first houses built by Ayub Khan in the late 1950s), it is his personal accounts that make this a worthwhile read. Inskeep’s observations are peppered throughout anecdotes like the discarded debris you frequently see on the sides of Karachi roads — so commonplace you barely notice them, but essential for illustrating the character of the place. Over the course of several visits to the city, he gained access to areas where many have never gone and will likely never go. He is the hidden camera that provides us a glimpse of a fascinating and unexplained world so few of us will ever see.

And while you may never visit Orangi or Clifton or Dream World, you can begin to fathom their existence with the help of “Instant City.” For anyone with a connection to or interest in Karachi, I urge you to read this book today. Don’t wait until tomorrow — the city will likely have already changed by then.

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Amina Elahi is’s Managing Editor. Visit her Tumblr to see her posts about South Asia, books, design and more.