society Reviews

In a city by the sea

The past year has not been kind to Pakistan. The pandemic has crippled the country, leaving limited capacity to battle another contagion: bad PR.

2019 saw the launch of Sanam Maher’s A Woman Like Her and in 2020 we read Declan Walsh’s The Nine Lives of Pakistan. British freelance writer Samira Shackle’s newly released Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City completes a carnage trilogy, revealing the “sectarian and ethnic resentment mingling with politics and organized crime,” as she writes on the city of 20 million.

Earnest portrait

Maher’s sensitive prose captures both tense finger-pointing and the quieter atmospheric moments, while Walsh’s incisive profiles of talismanic figures reveal the complexity of nation forgers and dividers. But Shackle’s book, named after her 2015 Guardian article, takes a grassroots perspective, showcasing the metropolis’ every day citizens, with ambulance driver Safdar, school teacher Parveen, map researcher Siraj, village-dwelling Jannat, and memorably, the crime reporter Zille, “a small man, very thin, with hooded eyes and a sharp gaze, constantly reaching for one of his two phones, lighting a cigarette, surveying his surroundings, or leaning sideways as if to avoid being seen.” A shadowy figure, Shackle “saw him only in the dark” and “asked his age three times and received three different answers.”

It is this earnestness that warms the reader to Shackle: “I moved to Karachi in the aftermath of riots, arriving to smashed shop windows and the smell of burning tyres,” she begins the book. Yet she mirrors her new city’s trajectory, initially with a “harsh beginning,” but “infused with a feeling of hope and possibility… This was the Karachi that my mother and grandmother had told me about: a cosmopolitan place full of energy and action.” Shackle strays from the “areas of Clifton and Defence, where most of my relatives and friends lived… a world away from the urban warfare of Lyari or Orangi.”

Shackle paints Karachi more like Lagos than Mumbai, with the five characters surviving in a political nexus of corruption, gang warfare and psychological entrapment, staples of India’s crime web series.

(“Karachi is far and away the world’s most dangerous megacity… in 2011, 202 murders occurred in Mumbai, India. Karachi had 1,723,” notes Taimur Khan in Foreign Policy). But Shackle rarely unmasks their interiors, instead being descriptive — and not piercing — in details, even when faced with unconventional motivations (“Zille didn’t want money. All he cared about was contacts”).

In extending many of her pieces into a book (previously profiling Safar for Vice and Bahria Town for The Guardian, amongst others), she has excluded a few of her finest country pieces, on the strategic port of Gwadar (for Guernica), the revival of Pakistani cinema (Emerge85), and western travel influencers (The Guardian). A gifted writer who has traversed the country from 2012 to 2019, a compilation of her work would seem to be more fitting.

Karachi Vice, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, is reminiscent of her fellow Brit, Ramita Navai’s City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran (2014). It offers a rare perspective on the lives of others, many of whom whose dreams are as unfortunately far-ranging as their neighbourhood borders. Yet interestingly enough, they share an invisible barrier with the mixed-race, globe-trotting, Oxford-educated Shackle — setting their gaze beyond their immediate buildings, and into the horizon.

Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City; Samira Shackle, Granta Books, ₹463 (Kindle price).

The reviewer is an HR consultant based in Toronto and Mumbai.

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Printable version | May 19, 2021 5:28:19 AM |

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