The ordeals faced by Shackle’s protagonists seem to suit the powers that be just fine: behind the cover of violence and ethnic conflict there is good money to be made. Shackle is reluctant to insert herself into the narrative, but she is surely part of Karachi’s story, since her mother was born and brought up there. How does she herself perceive the city? In recent years, the city’s position in the World Crime Index has improved. On the face of it, the Karachi Operation would seem to have succeeded. But Shackle reveals horrifying instances of young men, some of them teenagers, who have disappeared after being picked up for questioning during the crackdown.
Karachi Vice meticulously constructs a vibrant mosaic of a city’s underbelly, while disentangling the ways in which Karachi is enmeshed with crime lords, gangs, political interests and militants. Samira Shackle’s prose is nimble and propulsive, as she expertly combines interview, anecdote and reportage with in-depth sociopolitical analysis.
Karachi Vice is often wrenching. Shackle winds the reader in gently; her evocation of the desperate affection of Nazir, a young bodybuilder, for Parveen shows their chaste, protective relationship develop over time. Its end is a hammer-blow. However, unlike in Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012), in which Katherine Boo lived in a Mumbai slum for three years, Shackle is mostly forced to reconstruct her characters’ lives through their memories. That can lead to a touch of remoteness in the retelling. One might wish for more immediacy, or moments like that when Shackle accompanies Parveen to her sister’s house, once used by squatting gangsters as an execution hall – “Her voice got smaller and she stared at her hands, as if trying to avoid taking in her surroundings”.
In her powerful narrative non-fiction debut, the British journalist Samira Shackle portrays the violent entanglement of crime and politics in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, through the testimonies of five of its citizens. Among them is Safdar, an ambulance driver who treats the bodies dismembered by suicide bombs and gang brutality with dignity; and Parveen, a teacher grappling with systemic illiteracy. Shackle weaves Karachi’s turbulent history of political unrest and ethnic divisions around quiet acts of humanity – revealing the city’s bruised but resilient spirit.