Reviewed by Bilal Tanweer

KARACHI is a messy place no matter how you cut it. So I must confess my skepticism when I began reading Laurent Gayer’s Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City. It’s a book that unabashedly takes on Karachi as a whole as its subject.

As somebody who has attempted to write about Karachi, albeit in fiction, it was clear to me that if you try to make sense of the city as a single entity it soon spirals into a complexity that borders on incomprehensibility. In terms of experience, particularly the experience of violence which is Gayer’s subject, there are such vast variations between different parts of the sprawl we call Karachi that to look at them as one whole — either as a system or a configuration — appears to be calling for a fantastic contrivance. Even in the control-oriented administrative imagination of the state, the city holds together only tenuously. Mustafa Kamal, our most popular mayor in recent history, used to complain repeatedly of the fact that Karachi has 13 bosses controlling different parts of the administration with little unity of command.

Gayer, needless to say, does not heed these cease-and-desist signals and coolly proceeds to survey the various threads that go into Karachi’s landscape of violence. And we ought to be glad — Gayer has turned this devilish task into a superb book. He explains his approach to writing about the city in an interview with Mumbai-based morning daily, Mid-Day: “I decided to adopt a synoptic perspective, which would try to make sense of the wonder that is Karachi, as a whole. Journalists and scholars alike denigrated it as a ‘chaotic city’, an ungovernable, utterly unpredictable urban mass. If I wanted to counter these dominant narratives, I had to adopt the same wide frame of analysis and show that, as a whole, Karachi does work despite and sometimes through violent unrest.” (Emphasis mine.)

Gayer’s Karachi destroys some of the most prevalent narratives about the city. For instance, the one where Karachi is showcased as a “secular city” with a golden past of co-existence for all religious communities is severely dented in his examination of ethnic and sectarian tensions in the city going back to Partition. Moreover, he finds new evidence for some well-established claims, e.g., Karachi’s landscape changed fundamentally during the 1980s when guns and modern weaponry entered the city’s politics. But the myth he wrecks utterly is the most pervasive one about Karachi: the one that portrays the city as being lawless, chaotic and ungovernable. Gayer asks a simple question: if Karachi was indeed a chaotic, uncontrollable city then why hasn’t its violence spiralled into a bigger conflagration and engulfed the city at large? In his own words: “How has a city subjected to successive cycles of violent escalation and polarisation over the past three decades somehow avoided a full-fledged explosion?”

Gayer observes that Karachi’s violence has shown patterns of organisation, containment and continuity in certain areas of the city. He argues: “Far from being entropic, Karachi’s polity is predicated upon routines of organisation, interpretation and action that have made violence manageable both at the level of the city at large and at the micro-level of its populations.” To explain this, Gayer formulates a more fluid idea of order: “Ordered disorder” he calls it.

In this modified idea of order, Gayer eschews “the harmonious and stable system of regulation and political competition,” and substitutes it with the idea of “patterned but fluid figuration of a web of interdependence.” This conceptual shift allows him to look at Karachi’s politics not as an absence or a crumbling of state — a notion often used to analyse Karachi’s situation in local and international newsreports and op-eds — but rather as a configuration of power between several actors each with limited power to both disrupt and establish order in certain parts of the city. (Indeed both disruption and establishment of order are equally important in determining an actor’s influence.) In this arrangement, the state, instead of monopolising the means of violence, plays the role of a referee and an arbiter of conflict, occasionally acting as just one of the several negotiating actors.

Gayer’s idea of “ordered disorder” is an elegant and sophisticated formulation which holds up admirably well to the various scenarios he tests it under. He frames Karachi’s violence within its historical roots, i.e., the displaced populations arriving in the city after Partition which sparked Karachi’s chronic land and housing crisis. Partition — never fully reckoned with either in the nationalist narratives or in the accounts of the city for the catastrophe it was for millions of people — has been identified by Gayer as an unresolved cause that has been at the heart of the continual contestation between various groups for Karachi’s identity and the rightful ownership of its resources. This problem has been exacerbated by the successive waves of immigrants moving into the city.

Gayer’s Karachi expends about a third of the book to examining the MQM with some fascinating insights. He traces the roots of Mohajir nationalism in the early 1970s during the ethnic tensions between Sindhis and Mohajirs. From there onward, he presents an intriguing account of the organisation and its double-speak regarding its revolutionary ideological rhetoric and practical politics of operating through state institutions. He shows how this inherent duality leads to a slippery nature of MQM’s politics whereby the party is able to position itself as both a necessary but unreliable coalition partner with other political parties. Among the other two important chapters in the book, one examines the political history of Landhi and how it evolved into one of the most violent parts of the city. The other one, ‘Jihad Comes to Town,’ relates the story of the large swathes of land that have come under the Taliban influence post 9/11 and how that has disturbed the existing order in the city.

The oddest chapter in the book deals with Karachi’s ‘Geographies of Fear’. It’s an ethnographic report of the city’s experience of violence inferred through Gayer’s interactions with the city’s residents. This chapter, very different in tone and approach from the rest of the book, is where Gayer recounts his own experiences of commuting around the city and how he found various people across classes and localities dealing with a real or imagined threat of violence. It allows him to move away from the “totalising eye” of a sociologist and write from his personal experience in Karachi. Gayer’s report is wonderful: clear-eyed and full of interesting observations.

THE other reason for my early doubts regarding Gayer’s enterprise was the sources he was using to construct his account. In his introduction he states that for his research he relied mainly on about 200 interviews that he conducted over a period of 12 years (2001-2013) with a wide range of subjects. To supplement his ground research, he used internal party literature and autobiographies of various political figures (he cites from Altaf Husain’s biography extensively), two English language magazines, Newsline and The Herald, and Urdu poetry composed on Karachi. He has also made extensive use of Ajmal Kamal’s edited volumes, Karachi ki Kahani, which contains personal and sociological essays on the city and has been for many years a necessary textual resource on the city.

Since Gayer is well-versed in Urdu, it was a bit surprising to see him limit his research to mostly English news sources and not make use of the fairly abundant and rich material available in Urdu magazines and newspapers. Also, the substantial chunk of his interviewees comprises political activists and social workers; only a handful of women feature in these interviews and virtually nobody from the marginal communities (especially religious). The other shortcoming, of course, is that the work is ‘set’ and ‘conducted’ almost entirely indoors — hotel lobbies, apartments, houses, and inside of the cars. The absence of walking and the view from the streets — what Michel de Certeau might term as “the story on ground level” — is pervasive throughout the book.

I also want to register some minor quibbles with the transliteration of the Urdu in the book. There are several typos in the transliterations, starting with a rather embarrassing one on the first page where Din (day) has been transliterated as: Dīn, i.e., with a long vowel. Similarly, on p. 82 musbit (positive) has been written as musibat. There are several others such in the text.

But I am splitting hairs, of course. Ultimately, what makes this book a success is that Gayer’s hypothesis of ordered disorder finds strong evidence in each one of the scenarios he examines. His robust conceptual analysis will resonate with everyone who is familiar with Karachi. There is no doubt in my mind that Gayer’s Karachi is destined to become the primary point of reference for further work. It is a book for everyone who wants to understand how Karachi works despite and sometimes through its violence.

It is also the kind of book for which Karachiwalas ought to say — with a sigh of admiration as much of relief — “at last”.

The reviewer is a writer and translator. His novel The Scatter Here Is Too Great was published in 2013 by Random House, India.

Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City


By Laurent Gayer

Harper Collins, India

ISBN 9789351160854