The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria. Beacon Press, 2015.
“Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated in Rawalpindi,” whispers the narrator’s father into the phone, while the family is waiting for a relative’s health status at hospital. The Upstairs Wife (Beacon Press, 2015) takes readers on a swift journey through Pakistan’s political and social history via a personal, family history. Rafia Zakaria’s school-going Pakistani girl’s perspective provides a mysterious narrative voice. She observes her aunt’s marriage crumbling because of a Pakistani law that permitted Pakistani men to take legal second wives in the 1980s.
The narrator’s grandparents make the critical decision to leave Bombay in the 1950s, for a more promising life in Karachi. The reader experiences the contradictions of the family’s exuberance and quiet disappointment. Their excitement at finding a sprawling apartment through the Housing Society’s scheme in Karachi contrasts with the reality of being surrounded by strangers in a foreign land, even as they yearn to belong. The grandfather runs from one office to another to claim Pakistani origin for his children, which will guarantee a good education and land ownership. The narrator’s mother grits her teeth while driving through the crammed Karachi streets, in which men curse and leer at women drivers. Zakaria shows Pakistan’s political parties luring Indian Muslims, then using bureaucracy to deny them rights and privileges, and gradually losing control over the country through Islamisation and military rule.
Zakaria writes about gender issues in the broader, political sphere through the family’s personal life. While Pakistan elects a woman Prime Minister—daughter of a powerful but disgraced leader and wife of a corrupt, socially powerful but politically nondescript man—the narrator’s aunt succumbs to her husband’s choice to marry a second woman, made possible by the political leaders. Gradually, while the family settles into raising a granddaughter and sheltering a daughter’s damaged marriage, Karachi descends into mayhem, crime and curfews.
Initially, Zakaria switches between the family’s personal history and the country’s shifting political scene seamlessly. The direct influence of the political on the personal is evident. It is a pleasure to read the details of domestic life that Zakaria highlights through developing the family history. Concurrently, the political history is narrated, with appropriate details and lucid language, which make the book a very engaging read. However, after a while, some socio-political details—such as the Pashtun-speaking migrant tribes in the northwestern regions being forced out of the hills because of the military regime’s missile tests and negotiations with the encroaching Taliban—bear little relevance to Zakaria’s family history. If the author had cultivated relationships between these important events and her family’s life, or made the transitions smoother, the book would have been less disjointed. About three-quarters in, beautifully written scenes of family trials and tribulations are abruptly interrupted by deeply engaging political details, and vice versa.
Overall, The Upstairs Wife is an important testament to Pakistan’s political and individual family histories. Gender issues, socio-economic and political contexts and the general destiny of a young nation are honestly and boldly captured in a beautifully written book.