Steve Inskeep will be undoubtedly familiar to NPR listeners. The host of Morning Edition, Inskeep has always been one of my favorite radio correspondents, mainly because he often punctuates stories with a wink, tacitly noting humor in various news items. His new book Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi investigates Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and—although no longer the capital in name—arguably the country's most important city, economically and culturally.
The Karachi of 1947 was roughly as populous as the Portland of 2011. The Karachi of 2011 is home to over 14 million. In the late 1990s, when I visited Pakistan, the city was impossibly suffocating. Though fascinated by its chaos, I believed then that there were several million people too many. Since then, five million people have moved in.
Into what, though? Most city dwellers occupy illegal (unapproved) housing. The demand for electricity and water leads to frequent out- ages. The population continues to grow because, despite the headaches, one can still earn more money in Karachi than in rural Pakistan.
I expected Instant City to be more statistical, outlining demographical information and future urban planning. Instead, the book is more a collection of oral histories. Inskeep provides the context, but mainly he lets natives of Karachi recount the last half-century in the city. Citizens talk of the grand, mostly unrealized urban plans of the late 1950s and of the culturally prosperous 1970s (when Karachi was poised to become the "Paris on the Arabian Sea"); most of those interviewed claim that, despite those failures, they chose not to emigrate. City pride is crucial, yet insufficient, for civic prosperity, while the failure to embrace diversity—ethnic, religious, and philosophical—is the nail in any city's coffin.
Although these accounts are Karachi-specific, they apply to other mega-cities with similarly colossal growth: Lagos, Dhaka, Nairobi. Inskeep reminds us that Chicago in the 19th century was also an "instant city." Its growth was explosive, its ethnic divides seemingly unbridgeable, its population mostly immigrants. Whether Karachi will realize Chicago's grandeur isn't for the author to say. Like a good reporter, Inskeep avoids editorializing, but remains optimistic.