Now I'm getting the chance to read books I didn't have time for before. Think of me whenever you see the slogan "So many books, so little time!" Now I've got the time.  Cheers, Fred.

Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
October 2017
Fred's Rating: 
Steve Inskeep
Total Pages: 
Penguin Books

Steve Inskeep, a cohost of Morning Edition, the most widely heard radio program in the US, has won awards for investigating journalism. This, his first book, focuses on the problems due to the extremely rapid growth of the coastal city of Karachi, Pakistan. This was a gift book.

The Amazon website for the Kindle edition is

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

I was given the paperback edition but I recommend looking online at the Kindle edition for it has more to read. Its home page has a good summary (click on ‘Read more’). Use Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option and scroll down to the Contents and then to the four maps of the city, followed by a 4-pp section called North of North Karachi – a concise description of Karachi’s enormous growth. Also included is the 7-pp Ch. 1 – Promenade – given in first person, thus typical of the author’s writing style. Part of Ch.2 - Lighthouse - is given in this Kindle preview.

The term “instant city” refers to cities that have grown at enormous rates. The numbers for the population of many cities are given on two pages for the years 1950, 1980 and 2010. Karachi’s numbers of 1, 5, and 13.1 (in millions) reflect such a rapid growth that it is easy to understand the inability of city bureaucrats to keep up. The sources and consequences of this cancer-like growth are a major feature of this book, but the author tells this story in terms of the various peoples involved. I describe below the diverse groups involved in this growth. I feel I must focus on groups rather than individual characters because there are too many individuals involved.

Before the end of WWII – thus the time before the British left India to the Indians and before they sliced off the edges of India to form Pakistan at the west edge and East Pakistan (soon renamed Bangladesh) - the small coastal city of Karachi contained a bit more Hindus than Muslims, but this city was stable – at least, stable according to corrupt lifestyles of underpaid city bureaucrats in South and East Asia. The Sunnis, Shia, Sufi, and Hindu groups worked together back then. But it wasn’t long after Pakistan was called a nation that things began to change. Strong hints were understood by the Hindus and Sikhs that they would be better off to relocate in India. Most of them did, selling their property to the Muslims who were moving into Karachi. As Karachi begin to grow, it attracted Pashtuns from northern Pakistan, who spoke their own language and formed their own political party. The refugees from India formed their own party – they felt they were more informed and were the fastest-growing group. There were other political parties based on common origins and cultures who added more confusion to the rapidly-changing city.

The author made contact with all these diverse groups (but only after he was told of a learned and safe individual who could take him on a tour of their section of the chaotic city). Inskeep learned that getting them to work together in peace was a dream – reality was a nightmare. Each group had their own market places, living spaces, and worship places that usually served as political meeting places.

What I found most interesting were the special places designated as a ‘public’ park. Most of these parks were located at the margins of the city by the political party in charge, so they were close to the sites where these ethnic groups lived. But when another party came into power, they chose places nearer to them – thus further from the old downtown part of Karachi. And, they allowed builders from their party to move into the previous places for parks and begin to construct roads and homes, then electricity, water and sewers but only if the new living spaces turned out to be profitable to the builders. The previous party’s parks shrunk in size and were often surrounded by new residents who laid claim to the shrunken park as their new park. Such changes in land use always caused conflicts between the parties involved, increasing the chaotic growth of Karachi. Since zoning for business and residence was unknown in that part of the world, many small merchants either put their living spaces above their businesses or claimed a small place in the public market as their own. Established market merchants decide who ‘owned’ a place in 'their' market places.

I came away from this book feeling that an ‘instant city’ like Karachi would never live in peace and stability. The author seemed to be a bit less pessimistic, which may in part be because he was introduced to and shared tea with many of the leaders (or hopeful leaders) among the diverse ethnic groups. Their outlooks are needed, but I don’t see how their dreams for Karachi can be realized as long as the frantic and unorganized growth continued. I rate this book at three stars.