Book Review: “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi”
South Asia has always been of huge interest to me, from the time I was a student at Colgate University, to my internship on “The Hindustan Times” in New Delhi in the early 1970s, to a couple of years I spent in that city after graduating the Medill School of Journalism and working as a freelance journalist, writing for papers such as the Chicago Daily News. It’s always hard to find books on South Asia that are both solid and highly readable — virtually gripping and to use the old but still useful cliche “hard to put down.” Now there is a book: “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi.”
No, that wasn’t Super Glue on my hands: it was “Instant City.”
The are several reasons why. Steve Inskeep, host of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, believes in and practices, good old fashioned solid, painstakingly attained investigative journalism. He also weaves in research that makes the book soar beyond its already excellent reporting to being a book that seamlessly provides important history — and makes it come alive. And the book is more timely than ever: Pakistan has been pitchforked into the news with the Osama bin Laden killing, friction between the two countries, controversy over the use of U.S. drones over Pakistan airspace, and Pakistan’s role in terrorism — whether it’s firewall or a flame.
The focus of Inskeep’s work is Karachi, the Arabian Sea port city whose 13.1 million residents reflect the rich tapestry that is Pakistan. Karachi is the quintessential “instant city,” a city that bloats up almost overnight and causes all kinds of financial, social and political impacts when it does. Its growth underscores its future potentials and hints at new-found perils.
“Instant City’s” genius is that it is a book crammed with reportage and research content yet it reads like a compelling thriller. So once you read it you solidly grasp historical and international background that’s no longer dry or tedious but exciting and you get a wealth of new info. And when you’re done, the breaking news about Pakistan will take on an entirely new context. Why? Because it’s so effective in communicating what life is like in Pakistan as seen through the eyes of one of its biggest cities that you have an entirely different perspective when you end the last page.
If you don’t believe me, believe David Simon, one of my favorite writers, creator of HBO’s “The Wire,” and author of “Homicide,” “The Wire” and “The Corner:” “Inskeep tells the story of a single violent and volatile day in the teeming streets of Karachi, Pakistan. In doing so, he reveals what is now at stake not just for Pakistan, or Asia, but for the human species. This is thoughtful, important work.”
Inskeep’s book is a must-read role model for reporters and nonfiction writers in the 21st century, compelling, dramatic and filled with passages that recount Pakistan history (his section the partition of India into India and Pakistan is the BEST and most fascinating I have ever read and I am am a longtime student of South Asian politics). It’s also good news: no, Virginia, lively “fact-based” reporting that doesn’t sound as if it’s coming from a right or left wing political talk show host is not dead. It’s alive and well in “Instant City.”
On a TMV scale of 5 stars “Instant City” gets five stars.
But can I give it a 10 or 15?