The Upstairs Wife – An Intimate History of Pakistan by Rafia Zakaria

December 27, 2007 is still fresh in my memories. Just after Christmas, and a day off from work, my husband and I had finished watching a Dutch movie after a sumptuous meal, and were looking out at the canal outside our apartment in Amsterdam. It was then his smartphone beeped – one of those news alerts. This one was rather arresting. Benazir Bhutto, one of the Prime Ministers of Pakistan, had been assassinated in Rawalpindi that evening.

When I was growing up in Delhi in the eighties, Pakistan held a rather curious place in my worldview. Most of my friends were from families that had shifted to India after partition. So yes, I was familiar (thanks to the tales I had heard from the grandparents and parents of my friends) with life in Lahore or Multan in the pre-partition days. It was through them, that I was exposed to those lovely Pakistani dramas – Tanhaiyan and Dhoop Kinare. At the same time, there was the political aspect; the difficult equation we shared. India-Pak relations have always been a case of escalating tensions  and heightened emotions, never a smooth moment. So there was always a curiosity as to how those people are those that live across the border. Sometime during those growing years, Ms. Bhutto paid a visit to India. Her tall, statuesque figure, her commanding presence and the fact that she was a woman PM from an Islamic conservative country all made her loom large in my mind as a fascinating personality. So when she died that day in 2007, it was a surreal moment. Similar to that moment in the summer of 1991, when I heard about Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

Upstairs wife

One of the reasons, I picked up The Upstairs Wife – An Intimate History of Pakistan by Rafia Zakaria was this – I remembered the day Benazir Bhutto died very vividly. And this book begins with the author’s memory of the event. On the evening of 27th December, 2007, the author and her family are awaiting news about the health of her polygamous Uncle Sohail, then in hospital, when the news of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination trickles in. And so begins this part memoir, part saga and part non-fiction of Pakistan’s chequered history.

Using her aunt Amina and her marital experiences as her husband remarries and brings home a second wife, this work brings to light the curious interplay of the private spheres of her family with the political occurrences in the nation. History or historical chronicles usually narrate the tales of those in power. We do not for a moment get to see how the political events affect the individual. It is in that this book varies. It is, as its subheading states, an intimate history – a story of this family through the eyes of its women. We see how her aunt Amina change from a lively person to a morose, depressed woman as she comes to terms with her life, once her husband brings a new wife. The arrangement followed is what had been mentioned in the Quran – a week with each of the wives. Legally in Pakistan, a man can have upto 4 wives. However, in practice (to my surprise), this is not that common and when Zakaria’s Uncle Sohail brought in the new wife, the reactions at home ranged from shock to anger to grief. While, aunt Amina had to adjust in the end, the coping was not very easy or matter-of-fact.

The book, written in an engaging manner, traces the history of Pakistan since its birth in 1947. The political, historical events are juxtaposed with the important events in this family. Starting from the time that Zakaria’s grandparents moved from Bombay in 1961, we are given to understand the political scenario at that time and how the overall events affected these individuals. At times however the connection is hardly there, the larger events do not really affect the family.

What I liked about the book most is that we get an insight into how people live in Pakistan and of the general history of the country. It is a biased view, yes, but the bias is of an individual and not an ideological retelling. Also, the author, an established human rights activist and journalist is roughly the same age as me, and as she recounted those little anecdotes of her childhood, I could correlate it to my childhood and the events occurring in India at that time.

While I enjoyed the juxtaposition, at times it was difficult to digest. For one, because as I mentioned, there is not much connection between the events in their lives with the larger events (military coups, conflicts etc). Also, the narrative does not follow any chronology. It jumps from 2007 to 1986 to 1961 and the dates are not always mentioned. This made the book seem scattered and hard to follow. Also, the effect was that of random anecdotes and experiences placed together without a strong unifying thread.

However, having said that, I would recommend the book as it gave me a rare insight into the lives of the common people in a country, with whom we share such a love-hate relationship, so similar to ours and yet so different.

5 thoughts on “The Upstairs Wife – An Intimate History of Pakistan by Rafia Zakaria

  1. “and as she recounted those little anecdotes of her childhood, I could correlate it to my childhood and the events occurring in India at that time.

    This was what intrigued me the most! That might be very interesting indeed – I’ll look out for this book. Thanks for the review, Harini!

    • Thanks, Madhu. That was the most interesting part of the book – get an understanding of how life was in Pak for the middle class and correlate it to one’s own childhood. I enjoyed reading the book.

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