Book review: Karachi Vice weaves together the many lives of a city

In Karachi Vice, author Samira Shackle weaves together the lives of several people living in Karachi as they come of age. PHOTOS: GRANTA, PETER FINGLETON



By Samira Shackle

Granta / Hardcover / 245 pages/ $32.95/ Available here

5 out of 5

A map-maker, a teacher, a crime reporter and an ambulance driver.

These are some of the seemingly disparate lives which Britain-born journalist Samira Shackle weaves together in her debut book about Pakistan's most populous city, Karachi, which is trapped in the throes of organised street crime and the advent of extremist terrorism.

Beginning with Safdar, an ambulance driver for a charity organisation who joins the corps after his brother's struggle with childhood polio, Shackle traces her subjects' lives as they come of age and find their way in a dangerous world ruled by corrupt officials and criminal overlords.

Her subjects seek to do good in a city teeming with those who profit off the weak, an impulse which leads them into situations that are sometimes heartbreaking in their details.

A 2009 bomb blast targeting a festival for the Shia Muslim minority is told from the perspectives of both Safdar, who was deployed with his ambulance, and Zille, a crime reporter who is also a Shia.

Safdar's colleague is killed in the blast and Safdar must deal with his mangled remains.

Shackle's writing is clear and never sensationalist, despite a tabloid-style title which betrays her training as a journalist.

While she touches on Karachi's larger social and political events like the blast, she centres the ordinary lives of her subjects.

The events are woven into their stories rather than overshadowing them, giving them a human angle and making them feel relevant.

She focuses on the many different ways that a life can be lived in Karachi, and the vast differences between them created by the barriers of gender and ethnicity.

For example, while Safdar and Zille are able to move up in the world through finding work, Jannat, a bright young girl, has her excellence in school disrupted by a teenage marriage.

Yet Shackle is neither moralistic nor judgmental about the choices her subjects and their communities make, instead choosing to maintain a documentary distance with her sharp yet readable prose.

In doing so, she manages to produce a cohesive picture of an extraordinarily divided city, where crossing into the wrong street with the wrong accent may at times be a death sentence.

While her mother is from Karachi and she still has relatives in the city, Shackle exploits her position as a familiar outsider to offer the reader a window into her subjects' lives.

Inhabiting the space in between foreigner and native, she moves effortlessly between the feuding ethnic and religious divisions which threaten to pull Karachi apart.

Yet Shackle is sometimes too good at disappearing into her text.

She is a witness, but also a person deeply invested in Karachi's past and future - as her occasional offerings of her own thoughts, reflections and emotions reveal. These leave a reader wanting more.

If you like this, read: Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely (Faber & Faber, 2005, $21.40, available here). Pamuk takes the reader through his birth city in an intensely personal journey which blends private and public histories.

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