Karachi, known as the ‘City of Lights’ in its pre-1980s heydays, is, in many ways, not much different from other metropolises. Migrants have come from all over Pakistan and the larger region to this economic hub, “concentrating the energies and sorrows of an entire nation in one place under the sun” — an apt description by American journalist Steve Inskeep in his book Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi. But, added to regular hurdles, are some defining ones exclusive to this city.
The city’s population has gone from below 500,000 at the time of Partition to over 20 million according to recent estimates, but services and infrastructure have not kept pace with this exponential growth. Over the past three decades, Karachi’s tribulations have been exacerbated by terrorism, ethnic and sectarian violence and gangland wars.
Adding to the endless complexities are the links between gangsters, militias and mainstream politicians. “Every street criminal had a political affiliation, every political party had its fingerprints all over multiple criminal enterprises,” notes award-winning British journalist Samira Shackle in her debut book, Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City.
Despite Karachi’s daunting challenges, Shackle understands its gravitational pull for residents and visitors alike, being drawn back to it after spending a year living here with family during 2012-13, and then making regular visits until 2019. “Like the vast numbers who pack up and move to the city every year, I found myself unable to escape Karachi’s orbit,” she writes in her prologue.
Karachi has witnessed more than its fair share of violent turbulence, where those who have power wield it with brutal force. It’s a city with gaping contradictions: opulent wealth and abject poverty exist side by side and lines between idealism and corruption are blurred. But amidst ordinary people doing their best to live their lives against quite unimaginable odds, are some extraordinary individuals trying to make a difference for themselves and their communities.
Former The Guardian correspondent Samira Shackle presents a compelling story about Karachi through the eyes of five extraordinary individuals trying to survive in the city with unwavering resilience
Shackle explores the city through the eyes of five such people, portraying a place beset by terrorism, organised crime, gang wars and the violence and corruption of the Muttaheda Qaumi Movement (MQM), the city’s once-most powerful political party.
It is these people whose experiences make Karachi Vice a compelling, cogent and fascinating account, and what gives Shackle’s five characters a commonality is their fighting spirit, coupled with their unwavering resilience.
Parveen is an outspoken teacher/activist from Lyari whose work often puts her in danger. Television crime reporter Zille’s taste for risky scoops exposes him to increasing danger: “When you are on a terrorist hit list, everybody knows that you are a real journalist,” he nonchalantly says of his occupational hazard.
Safdar drives an ambulance for the Edhi Foundation, the country’s largest non-profit welfare organisation and one of Karachi’s most iconic symbols of community spirit. He experiences similar seismic events as Zille, but from his own unique perspective. For him, witnessing tragedy is a daily occurrence. “I don’t dwell on my memories. Memories are a prison,” he tells Shackle.
Siraj is an urban mapmaker/social activist working at the community-owned Orangi Pilot Project, mapping unofficial settlements in Orangi Town in order to provide the residents their basic rights, because “putting things down on paper meant you could prove they had happened. Documents were a vital line of defence against the tumult of the city.”
Then there is Jannat, a young woman from Karachi’s peripheries, who defies her circumstances by completing her school education, but wonders whether her children will have a better and easier future. In the village where Jannat’s family have lived for generations, the locals helplessly witness their land being taken over by the lucrative housing development Bahria Town Karachi. This is a typical example of the powerful and rich wielding their brutal force with impunity. The fact that the bulldozers have the physical backing of the police punctuates the villagers’ helplessness and the elite’s authority in equal measure.
Shackle started reporting on Karachi for British publications and did extensive pieces on Zille and Safdar for The Guardian newspaper in 2015 and 2016 respectively, which later grew into the idea for the book. Her initial pull to the city emanated from a familial connection: her maternal family is from here and her mother was born and grew up in Karachi.
With an insider-outsider vantage point, Shackle tells the bigger story of Karachi over the past decade, as the individual stories unfold, about a period in which the Taliban infiltrate the space, exacerbating the already simmering problems for the city’s residents.
She gives her five subjects their unique voices to reflect a nuanced perspective. Without making herself the focus in the narrative, Shackle’s presence comes forth only where it is important to show the reader that the story is being refracted through a reporter’s lens.
The characters Shackle portrays showcase a Karachi that seems worlds apart for those living in well-to-do locales, cloistered in a protective bubble. Typically, one part of the city can be a war zone, while life in the affluent areas goes on as normal. For someone who has lived a relatively protected and privileged life in the city, details of the areas mentioned in Karachi Vice can be an eye-opener. This disconnect is testament to the class divide as well as the city’s vastness.
Among the deadly episodes that Shackle covers is the 2009 attack on an Ashura procession by a suicide bomber that killed around 50 people. In 2012, an “eight day operation” was mounted in the city’s troubled district of Lyari, in which around 3,000 heavily armed policemen laid siege against local gangsters. Heavy machine gun and rocket fire prevented residents from leaving their homes during those eight days, with the water, electricity and gas cut off. It was a huge disaster, as the police had to retreat, predictably resulting in considerable casualties on both sides.
In another horrific tragedy in 2012, over 260 workers died from being trapped in a fire at a textile factory in Baldia Town. The book also details the 2014 terrorist siege at the airport. Shackle aptly terms these major violent incidents as “war-like.”
Shackle describes how the MQM’s rise changed the city’s political dynamics. During a 2012 strike, it immediately became clear to her that nothing in the city happened without the MQM leader’s consent — that leader, incidentally, living in self-exile and calling the shots from London, Shackle’s home city. “I looked at this cavernous ghost town and suddenly understood what power looked like,” she observes.
Recurring throughout the book is the government’s conspicuousness by its absence. Apart from the all-powerful intelligence services and military presence, the people essentially seem to be left to fend for themselves — a case often across the country, but particularly evident in Karachi. The gaping chasms left by the state in the provision of hospitals, police and basic amenities, such as water and electricity, are either filled by charity organisations or monopolised by more sinister forces, such as gangsters and mafias.
Deservedly, a chapter is devoted to the late Perween Rahman, an architect whose pioneering work in community-led development exposed the water mafia as well as documented encroachments by the land mafia. Rahman had very clearly mapped out government corruption and corruption at the water board, as criminal gangs siphoned off water and then sold it back to the people at a premium.
Rahman’s critically important work came at huge risk — she was assassinated in 2013. At the time, Siraj was working with Rahman; he subsequently took it upon himself to continue the work he had embarked on under her guidance, through his own independent organisation, the Technical Training Resource Centre (TTRC).
The violence in Karachi was restrained after the army’s multi-pronged operation to root out terrorists and the MQM’s power reduced to a shadow of its former self. There is, however, a real feeling of vulnerability for people such as feminists and human rights activists and those speaking out against the status quo. They feel an acute sense of threat, all too real for those who have disappeared after being picked up for questioning, and some have been forced to move abroad because of insufficient protection.
To evade the law and incarceration, many criminal gangs have temporarily moved their kingpins abroad, giving the impression that the situation in the city has improved, even though their dealings and businesses are very much in place. And, despite ground-breaking newspaper exposes on the illegal construction of the largest gated luxury township in South Asia and the farmlands and settlements that have been razed for Bahria Town Karachi’s construction, work on the project continues.
Shackle chronicles her story with tremendous poise and skill, combining myriad methods for her poignant analysis. Her narrative non-fiction reads like a gripping novel, each protagonist so vividly presented as if the reader were living the characters’ often hugely testing experiences through them. The author’s insight comes from a place of empathy, understanding and sensitivity for the city, showing Karachi through the lens of incredible people, resiliently trying to improve their dire circumstances.
It is a moving portrayal of Karachi’s unsung heroes, who remain indubitably steadfast to their values and characters and, in so doing, offer hope to others.
The reviewer is a freelance writer
Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City
By Samira Shackle
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 30th, 2021