Voices in the city

June 20, 2021

Using the fluidity of narrative nonfiction, Samira Shackle presents the arc of individual lives affected by ethnic strife in Karachi

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Cities are often understood through the metaphors that pervade their spirit and identity. Like most teeming metropolises, Karachi is believed to be a city of copious metaphors. Once billed as the “pride of the East” and the “city of lights”, Karachi is now viewed as an ethnic tinderbox where violence runs rampant and safety is a rare commodity. A metaphor that reaches appropriate justification has been provided by literary critic Claudia Kramatschek in an essay titled Karachi: Falling in Love with the Unloved. According to Kramatschek, glass is an “invisible but remarkable border that divides the city”. As a result, a quick, cursory glance out of a car window in Karachi remains little more than a narrow vantage point from which to view the world. It allows Karachiites to memorise the layout of the streets and boulevards that lie beyond the transparent surface, but impedes a deeper understanding of their city’s searing realities.

Samira Shackle’s Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City systematically shatters these literal and metaphorical barricades. From the first sentence, the author admits that she is accustomed to “experiencing Karachi through the windows of a car” until the moment she finds herself in the passenger seat of a speeding ambulance. This disclosure can be viewed as an act of privilege-checking that helps Shackle to break away from a rather limited purview and unreservedly discover the chaotic, multiethnic spirit of modern-day Karachi.

Any attempt to write about Karachi in a holistic sense would be meaningless without establishing a safe distance from elitist tendencies. While the city’s ethnic chaos has been effectively captured in prose, it has seldom been understood in the right context. More often than not, ethnic nostalgia about Karachi’s peaceful past masks the long-standing tensions that have simmered in its dark underbelly. Combined with attempts by the so-called December Karachiites to simplify the city’s complex challenges into pigeon-holed narratives, it has given rise to sentimental outlooks that do a great disservice to discourse on Karachi. Although fiction writers have drawn upon the city’s violent past in their work, they cannot be singlehandedly entrusted with the difficult task of exposing the realities of Karachi.

From the non-fiction lens, Laurent Gayer’s Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City and Nichola Khan’s Cityscapes of Violence have offered powerful accounts on the various dimensions of the city’s ethnic tensions. These books have defined the context of turf wars and political strife in Karachi in sociological, anthropological and historical hues. Karachi Vice is a valuable addition to the existing body of work as it allows the context of the city’s turmoil to emerge through the lens of personal experiences. Using the fluidity of narrative non-fiction to vivid effect, Shackle presents the arc of individual lives affected by ethnic strife.

Based on interviews and non-participant observations conducted over a long period of time, the book is laced with refreshing insights of the ever-evolving nature of life in Karachi. Shackle’s interviewees are mercifully free from the neuroses of Karachiites who live on the ‘right’ side of the Clifton Bridge. Readers who fear that Karachi Vice will be a literary equivalent of Divas of Karachi are advised against making such baseless assumptions as the author has only spoken to people who have witnessed the city’s turbulence at close quarters.

Based on interviews and non-participant observations conducted over a long period of time, the book is laced with refreshing insights of the ever-evolving nature of life in Karachi. Shackle’s interviewees are mercifully free from the neuroses of Karachiites who live on the ‘right’ side of the Clifton Bridge.

With each chapter, Shackle peels back the layers of mystery surrounding the lives of her interviewees. We are introduced to Safdar, a Pakhtun migrant in Karachi who drives an Edhi ambulance after his plans to join the army fall through. His job takes him to the city’s backstreets, including the troubled neighbourhood of Lyari.

In the narrow alleyways of Lyari, Parveen is an activist who fights her own battle amid the backdrop of gang warfare. Though she was born in Lyari, Parveen remains cognizant of the challenges that assail her native province of Balochistan and allows them to influence her activism. Fuelled by a sense of justice, she defiantly pursues community-driven initiatives to restore some semblance of order in the locality that is undeniably her home. When the prominent gangster Uzair Baloch seizes control of Lyari, Parveeen doesn’t compromise on her values by succumbing to heightened pressure to toe the line, even though people around her rapidly shift their allegiances.

The story of Zille’s serendipitous journey as a crime reporter in one of the most dangerous megacities in the world reveals the machinations involved in the process of finding and creating news. The trajectory of Jannat’s personal life is skilfully juxtaposed with the public calamities triggered by displacement that results from property development. The challenges faced by the map-maker, Siraj, capture the sheer volatility of ethnic tensions in Orangi Town.

Shackle’s narrative allows each of her interviewees the latitude to emerge as full-blooded personalities who are moulded by the city’s hapless past and uncertain present. Karachi Vice steers clear of adopting a uni-dimensional approach towards understanding the circumstances surrounding the lives of the interviewees. The interplay of gender, ethnicity, politics and personal tragedy enables the author to unearth the complexities of her subjects’ lives in a chaotic city.

The book also engages in course-correction. Over the decades, reportage on Karachi in the Western media has been plagued with bleak, dehumanising portrayals that reveal little about the realities of ordinary life in the city. Shackle’s interviewees are seldom depicted as victims of anarchy. In fact, the prologue praises their ability to find “snatches of normality in extreme circumstances and reserves of courage in the face of fear”. Nuanced discussions on the evolving political landscape of Karachi following the Karachi Operation and the initiative taken by the Pakistan Rangers serve to put forward authentic viewpoints on the city’s encounter with violence.

The title of Shackle’s debut book evokes memories of the somewhat gimmicky American crime show Miami Vice. Be that as it may, readers must recognise that Karachi Vice simply uses the city’s rampant criminality as a springboard to understand how people survive amid chaos. With its emphasis on realistic depictions of the city’s unending connection with violence and warfare, Shackle’s first book reminds us that it is people who inhabit cities and their voices should, therefore, be valued in mainstream discourse.


Karachi Vice

Life and Death in a

Contested City

Author: Samira Shackle

Publisher: Granta Books

Pages: 272



The writer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya



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