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Over the past decade, MORNING EDITION co-host Steve Inskeep has made numerous reporting trips to Pakistan. And those trips inspired him to write a book about the explosive growth of one particular city in that country.
Our co-host Michele Norris sat down with Steve to talk about his book. It's called "Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi."
MICHELE NORRIS, host: Steve, it's wonderful to be in a studio with you because we're not in a studio together usually. We host shows at different ends of the day. And even though we don't spend time in the studio, we do spend a lot of time talking. And we spent a lot of time talking about this book. And it's wonderful to actually have the book in my hand and be able to talk to you about it.
STEVE INSKEEP: Well, I'm glad to be here.
NORRIS: I want to begin by asking, why Karachi?
INSKEEP: I was interested, it's that simple.
NORRIS: Because you could have did Islamabad, any number of cities. But why Karachi?
INSKEEP: I could have done a lot of cities. And, in fact, I considered different cities around the world, because Karachi is an example of something that's happening all around the world. There's been an incredible growth of urban areas since the end of World War II, even in the United States. Los Angeles is more than three times larger than it was - metro Los Angeles. Houston is six times larger. Istanbul is 10 times larger. Rio de Janeiro, we could go around the world like this.
Karachi is 30 times larger than it was at the end of World War II. And I wanted to try to explore what happens when a city grows that quickly. It's not just the birth rate, it's mass migration. And that means it is different kinds of people coming together and clashing in this landscape that, for all of them, is entirely new. The city as we see it today didn't really exist 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago.
NORRIS: Now, let's just put this into some context. If you look back at the time that the Great Partition took place in 1947, Karachi was a city of about 400,000 people. It was a colonial port city. It's now more than 13 million people, exponential growth, which is I guess why you called the book "Instant City." Did the original framers have any idea what this city would become?
INSKEEP: I don't think that the people who founded Pakistan in 1947 had any idea. The guy who founded Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was picking his hometown. He predicted it would have a great future. He could not have predicted this. This is a port city. It's an industrial city. It is crowded. It is polluted. There are red streams going down the streets that people say are pollution from tanneries. There's raw sewage going into the harbor. But at the same time, it's a city full of incredible life and incredible improvisation.
A lot of the real estate is taken illegally around the city and people will build houses there and sell them, having paid appropriate bribes to the appropriate people. And so it's, in many ways, a city that lives beyond the law, but it's a city that lives and a city that has a vibrancy to it that's hard to find elsewhere.
NORRIS: And it's interesting because you make the case in your book that Karachi, as it becomes a less diverse place, often becomes a more dangerous place. And that's ironic, that's not what you would expect.
INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, absolutely. In 1947, when India and Pakistan were divided into two separate countries, one was supposed to be majority Hindu, the other was supposed to be majority Muslim. There was a mass exodus of people who found themselves on the wrong side of the dividing lines. Hindus left Karachi by the hundreds of thousands, and even more Muslims came. You would think that would make it more stable. It actually became less stable over time.
We think of Pakistan as being violent because of terrorism that has something to do with the West. A great deal of the violence in this particular city have to do with local factors, local conflicts, local struggles for power, money and land.
NORRIS: So, acute growing pains in a city that has been growing so fast over a relatively short period of time. But are there other examples of where the city sort of benefited from this instant and explosive growth, or when the city is more resilient or even more vital than it would have been if people had carefully planned this out?
INSKEEP: Oh, it is definitely vital. And the very reason that it grows is because it's vital. People come to this place that we think of as being terrible and polluted and poor, because it's actually rich. There's a lot of money to be made in Karachi even though there are a lot of poor people, and people will come from the countryside seeking jobs, people will come from the countryside seeking education.
It probably would be better, frankly, if there was a little bit better urban planning. But it has not happened. Actually, it's been attempted and the city grows beyond the ability of the planners to contain it, which has happened in cities around the world.
NORRIS: And is that where people in the West maybe don't understand these instant cities, whether they're in Pakistan or elsewhere, that people look at them and see them as these sort of teeming metropolises that are full of poverty and blight.
INSKEEP: And they are, yeah.
NORRIS: But they also represent the sort of shining city on a hill to people who come from places where the poverty is even worse.
INSKEEP: There are shining glass towers in Karachi, not as many as people would like there to have been by this point, but there are some. You do have people who are grabbing the city. They see the city as a glittering opportunity, an opportunity for jobs, for connections, for a future.
NORRIS: What do you see in Karachi's future?
INSKEEP: I see a number of possibilities. Karachi is connected, as cities are, to the countryside around it. And it's one of the most troubled parts of the world. Pakistan has real demons to wrestle with. Pakistan has been facing year after year after year of bad news - political bad news.
They had a revolution like the Arab Spring several years ago, but it's turned out to be deeply frustrating for people. They have a democratically elected government that doesn't seem to have very much power. And in the view of its critics, maybe doesn't even have that much interest in improving the situation in the country. They're busy doing their political deals. So, there's great frustration there.
There is the rise, not just of the militant groups that we hear about, but the rise of conservative Islam in society, which is deeply troubling to the more liberal elements of that society. You'll hear people saying: I don't recognize the country that I once knew, which was much more open and much more tolerant or seen that way and it certainly was safer decades ago. And so, Karachi's future is going to be affected by all that.
But in a way, Karachi is a barometer of what's happening elsewhere, because people go there when there is trouble elsewhere. The more trouble there is in Pakistan, whether it's political, religious violence, the climate events like the changing monsoon that have caused disastrous floods the last couple of years, each one of these kinds of events tends to drive people toward a city, where they have a little better chance of improving their lot, a little better chance of getting an education, finding a job.
And so, Karachi's great growth is in some ways a symbol of deep distress. Although it is also a symbol of hope, because it is people still driving to make their lives better. And I would like to think that they can over time.
NORRIS: I've been talking to Steve Inskeep, my colleague and the host of MORNING EDITION. His book is "Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi." Steve, so good to talk to you.
INSKEEP: Well, I didn't have to come far. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
INSKEEP: But I would have.
NORRIS: I think I might be sitting in your chair here.
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NORRIS: Please go to our website to read more about the book, that's at npr.org.