The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria

Nonfiction — print. Beacon Press, 2015. 251 pgs. Review copy courtesy of LibraryThing.

Subtitled “An Intimate History of Pakistan”, Zakaria’s book opens with the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which occurred while her own family was anxiously awaiting news about the health status of her uncle by marriage, Sohail. This moment of inner conflict – how do you offer praise for the health of a relative whilst simultaneously mourning the loss of a leader and political stability? – demonstrates how entwined Pakistani history is with Zakaria’s family history, and the author continues to maintain this close alignment as the narrative jumps back in time to the partition of India in 1947.

In 1962, Zakaria’s Muslim-Indian grandparents and parents immigrated to Karachi, Pakistan from Bombay committed to the founding of a Muslim state and afraid to remain in predominantly Hindu India. They along with millions of other Muslim immigrants were viewed with suspicion by the earlier inhabitants of the new Pakistan, and the city of Karachi was quickly subdivided into enclaves based on ethnolinguistic groups and a class system established in India.

But while the family begins to prosper in their new community, East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) wants to separate from the newly formed Pakistan setting off both a new wave of immigration and political instability with Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in the center of the conflict.  This conflict strengthen resolve within the political apparatus of the country to establish a “true” Islamic Republic and, by the 1980s, the military dictators who executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto began an Islamization campaign to legitimize their seizure of power.

This campaign allowed Zakaria’s uncle by marriage to practice polygamy, which is permissible for up to four wives by Islam, and take a second wife. Her family is deeply shaken by this change as none of them practiced polygamy or associated with people who do, and her Aunt Amina fled to the family home in protest refusing to grant his husband permission to take another wife, which is required in Islam.

However, Uncle Sohail refuses to divorce Aunt Amina and for her to seek a divorce is not only not permissible under Pakistan’s shariah law but is considered to be more scandalous than Sohail’s decision to take another wife. (There is also a suggestion that his decision is understandable given the couple’s lack of children, although the second marriage is said to occur because Sohail was in love with the younger woman.)

Thus, Aunt Amina becomes “the upstairs wife” relocated to the newly built second floor of her home so her husband’s new wife can move into the first floor. And as ever-more restrictive religious edicts are passed, Aunt Amina becomes further and further confined to the upstairs section of her home. Only by looking out from her window can she look out onto the city and see the changes occurring in Pakistan; only by looking into her window can we see how Pakistani politics and history impacts the personal creating a life that stymies women and reduces to their lives to ones far below expectation.

The book is structured almost like one would expect to find a diary with the date written at the top of each entry and short passages infused with emotion. And, for the most part, the intermingling of the family’s history with the country’s history works remarkably well. The reader can understand the cause and effect so-called “big picture” changes have on the intimate workings of one person’s life.

Occasionally, the family’s narrative would become lost amongst the over archiving history (or vice versa) with multiple entries devoted to detailing the political or geographical changes. Emotions would be clipped in favor of more academic entries. And when the vice versa would occur, details would be missing so it was difficult to tease out how interfamily squabbling was related to national squabbling. There were only two moments were I felt this was glaringly apparent, but it threw off the flow of the narrative and I had to either backtrack or skip ahead to reground myself in the narrative.

Still, the intimacy promised in the subtitle exists throughout much of the book. The final moments when Amina wanted to relinquish her status as the “upstairs wife” unexpectantly moved to me to tears and alluded Zakaria’s decision to leave Pakistan and avoid an arranged marriage, which she mentions in her author bio but leaves out from the text. More importantly, I felt like I walked away with a larger understanding of Pakistani history than I possessed before as well as a desire to seek about more information about this particular country.

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2 thoughts on “The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria

  1. This sounds awesome! I love when books focus on a particular person or family, then uses it to address bigger political or historical trends. That’s a bit how The Lonely War, a book I recently read about Iran, is organized. This sounds a bit similar, especially since the author ended up also leaving her country when conditions became untenable.

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