Monday, February 13, 2012

Review: Life and Death in the Metropolis

Steve Inskeep, Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, 2011, Penguin Viking.

An instant city is one that is by orders of magnitude larger today, than it was half a century ago. There are several instant cities in the developing world, all subject to massive in-migration and characterized by fractured identities, often in latent or overt conflict. Steve Inskeep’s ‘Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi’ traces the multiple narrative threads of a particular event in Karachi, which touched off tensions already existing in the space of the city. It resulted in damage to both life and property, and also broke a significant informal agreement of  peace that had prevailed in the city up to that time. The event was the bombing of the Ashura procession on December 28, 2009, which led to street violence, and the large-scale destruction of nearby commercial property. This was followed, on the same day, by a bomb blast in front of the MA Jinnah Postgraduate Medical centre, where the victims of the first blast had been taken.

Taking this moment in the history of Karachi as a nodal point, Inskeep has researched and and written a oral history of the Ashura bombing. He does this by treating the city of Karachi as a map in which terror-linked markers are represented, and the linkages behind these markers revealed. Knitting together a story of  people, perspectives and phenomena that are seemingly diverse, Inskeep goes on a search to illuminate the social, economic and political contours of the city.

Accompanying him on this journey, the reader encounters some people it is truly a pleasure to meet: The members of the Edhi family, who run the charitable Edhi ambulance service; Dr Seemin Jamali, head of Emergency at the Jinnah Medical Center and Perween Rahman of the Orangi Pilot Project. Karachi emerges as a vibrant, unique urban space, thriving in spite of the many fractures that divide it. I did not know, for example, that you can buy a captured bird on the streets of Karachi, and that once you have paid for it, the bird is set free.

Inskeep’s sensitivity to, and understanding of the city makes for an involved, but not rapid, read. However, this book could have been written as a story of contemporary Karachi, without the focus on terrorism, and lost little in the telling. The perspectives of the people to which he talks, telling the story of the changing city, could well have been a compelling narrative by itself. Unfortunately it is no longer fashionable to study a space simply because it is there and because people live in it. In order to be singled out for study, a space now requires something unpleasant to happen: terrorism, flood, war, anything but the everyday of normal people living normal lives.

But it is as a portrayal of a subcontinental city caught in the flux of growth that this book primarily distinguishes itself. The author may have had his own reasons for making a structural epicentre of an episode of violence, but this focus lends to the book an unfortunate tendency towards what may be called terror voyeurism. This is regrettable, because if you’ve written a well researched, articulate book, you ought really not leave yourself open to being called orientalist.

Published in The New Indian Express, 27 Jan, 2012


Sujoy said...

I wish I could write these terse to the point book reviews like you :-(

Shonedeep said...

Very nice!