A man walks across an open sewage drain covered with garbage (Credit Image: PPI via ZUMA Wire)

Karachi—restless and resilient city

The Pakistani port city is a microcosm of the nation
January 27, 2021

Every month, 45,000 migrant workers arrive in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. This is just one remarkable fact in Samira Shackle’s compelling portrait of the “mega-city,” in which she turns her attention away from the affluent neighbourhoods of Defence and Clifton towards the municipalities of Orangi and Lyari, which are mired in gang violence, corruption and ethnic conflict.

Shackle travels further, sketching the geography of Sindh province: its mangrove forests, sandy beaches and dry riverbeds, as well as the arid scrubland where the ancestral homes of villagers are being illegally torn down to build gated suburbs for Karachi’s growing middle class. We hear the stories of residents, their histories of migration and resettlement, which stretch from Partition to the Bangladesh war and the rise of the Taliban.

What, Shackle asks, do Karachi’s shifting lines of power reveal about the nation? Like the journalist Aman Sethi, whose account of urban labourers in A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi, examined India’s underclass, or Sonia Faleiro’s exposé of secret dance bars in Bombay Beautiful Thing, Shackle’s investigation uses individual stories to tell a wider tale.

Her reportage is peopled with characters trying to make sense of the city. Among them are Safdar, an ambulance driver who weaves in and out of hectic streets full of honking cars and exhaust fumes, cursing furiously. He is hell-bent on minimising waiting times for those in need: families like his, let down by poor infrastructure.

Siraj is a quieter personality. His work as an urban planner is shaped by the inspiring words of a mentor: “A map is like an X-ray. It lets the doctor see where the problem is.” In makeshift settlements of the city, access to water, gas and electricity become points of power play for political groups and terrorist factions. Yet Siraj’s important work demonstrates a focused attention to detail.

This is a sensitive and elegantly constructed book, which offers a moving snapshot of a restless city and its resilient citizens.

Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City by Samira Shackle (Granta, £14.99)