“Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City” by Samira Shackle

Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City, Samira Shackle (Granta, February 2021; Melville House, August 2021) Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City, Samira Shackle (Granta, February 2021; Melville House, August 2021)

The title promises racy South Asia noir: what happened, who did it, and whether they got away with it. But Samira Shackle’s Karachi Vice actually concerns the lives of five people in that city, as violence—criminal and political—consumes everything around them. They receive no protection from the state as they go about their daily lives. Through their lives we understand this city, one where criminals fight it out while people around them simply try to survive. This is a book about the after-effects of many crimes.

At the heart of the book are Safdar, Parveen, Siraj, Jannat and Zille, and their lives between 2015 and 2019. An ambulance driver, a crime reporter, a schoolteacher, a village woman, an NGO worker, they live in the poorer, more dangerous parts of the city, Lyari, Orangi, Kiamari, Landhi. Their voices dominate this book, and through them the reader slowly understands this bewildering, compelling and massive city.

Shackle uses her own encounter with Karachi as a framing device; from her first visits from London, she confronts the city’s intimidating complexity:


I spent months disoriented by its scale, trying to understand not only the physical web of streets, but the second layer of geography – the corners where one set of allegiances switches to another, the blocks where hostile forces huddled.


Similarly, she concludes with her final conversations with her cast of characters who have now become friends—she joins Safdar for lunch, meets Jannat’s youngest.


International coverage of Pakistan tends to be skewed toward Islamic extremism and internal strife. A grim inevitability pervades such reporting—can things ever get better? Shackle neither laments nor resists such coverage, but she does wish to show how people endure despite it all, living their lives and loves, earning a living, getting through it. Despite the shocking violence and casual deaths that punctuate her narrative, it is shaped by a deep love for the urban poor, an appreciation of their lives in arduous circumstances. Safdar (the ambulance driver) collects the dead from the criminal wars, while Zille, the reporter, interviews the mafia dons waging them. Parveen and Siraj try to steer communities away from crime and poverty. They become emblematic of the city itself.

Like other mega-cities, Karachi is shaped by a furious struggle for resources. Its water is siphoned from public aquifers by criminal gangs. They sell it at prices only the wealthy can afford, while taps in poor neighborhoods run dry. Ancestral land and the people’s homes, are demolished and occupied by real estate tycoons, backed by the Police. Jannat lives on the city’s fringes, and we watch through her eyes, as the slow rhythms of her remote village are gradually disrupted and destroyed by a monstrous building project, Bagria Town, that encroaches on it. The criminal gangs and the police who prosecute them, at times merge into the same thing—the Police enforce on behalf of those with power, that is all the law seems to be about. But those with power keep changing as the fight for scarce resources intensifies.

The city’s inhabitants scatter, feed, and hide, while the battles surround them. A sentimental reaction reading of their lives is to fear for them. But Shackle’s concern is not to foretell deaths, but show how survival takes place on the “frontlines of global urbanization at its most unforgiving”. The book’s strength rests in these stories of survival, and the friendships that sustain them. Parveen meets a fellow teacher, Nasir, who champions her at their street school, and protects her in Lyari. Safdar’s desire to save people, we realize, stems from watching his brother struggle with polio, when their poverty made it impossible to offer him timely treatment.

Just as the book shows how the vulnerable navigate a city, it also describes the well-intended organizations that take up the role of the state to help the poor, the Eidhi foundation, the Orangi Pilot Project, and also those that exploit them further, Bahria Town. Karachi Vice will appeal not only to readers eager to better understand one of the biggest cities in the world, but to students of character, wishing to learn how human beings handle and endure the tests exacted by a hard world. It will be essential reading for those wishing to understand such lives in South Asia’s mega-cities.

Nidhi Srinivas works at the New School in New York City where he teaches on management, civil society and social innovation.