Monday, November 28, 2011

Instant City by Steve Inskeep

What do I know about Pakistan? It separated from India when the subcontinent gained independence from the British Empire in 1947. It has fought with India over border issues since then and lost its eastern section when Bangladesh broke away in 1971. It is a Muslim country that has a mountainous border with Afghanistan over which the Taliban often travels. The Pakistani army has dissolved the elected government several times. A former prime minister was executed, and his daughter was assassinated when she ran for the top office a third time. Pakistan has been an unsteady American ally. Osama Bin Laden hid there for many years.

What did I know about Karachi before I read Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi by NPR reporter Steve Inskeep? Not much. I knew the name, but I could not place it on an unlabeled map. I did not know that it had been the country's capital before Islamabad was built. Seeing the burning buses on the cover of the book I guessed that it was a dangerous place.

How did the former British colonial port become a battleground? Despite the reassurances from founding statesman Muhammad Ali Jinnah that Pakistan would be a secular society with opportunity for all, the Hindi majority fled Karachi and was replaced by various Muslims groups from India and rural Pakistan. City planning and services could never keep up with the flow of refugees, mostly illiterate rural people with no modern labor skills. Most public lands intended for parks and development were overrun with illegal encampments. Ethnic groups formed parties to press their own needs; they often resorted to violence to get their way. Wave after wave of people settled in Karachi. According to Inskeep, Karachi mushroomed from about 400,000 people at the time of independence in 1947 to over 13 million by 2010.

Inskeep lets us know all of this in his accounts of the events of 2009 and 2010, when a series of bombings rocked the city. I appreciate how he links incidents and histories to landmarks and neighborhood of the city, making the story immediate and understandable. Instant City makes the news from Pakistan a bit clearer. It joins a growing collection of great books from NPR staff that may be found in many public libraries.

Inskeep, Steve. Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi. Penguin Press, 2011. 284p. ISBN 9781594203152.

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