AS her memoir-cum-history book demonstrates, respected Pakistani columnist Rafia Zakaria possesses a decided gift with words. Based on the sad story of her aunt, Amina, the book chronicles the manner in which Amina attempts to cope with her husband Sohail’s second marriage. Interwoven with her story is an elegantly written macrocosmic narrative of the history of Karachi — the complex city that houses countless women who suffer domestic unhappiness.
The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan is recounted by Amina’s niece, whose blood relative, her uncle Sohail, makes a pleasant and conventional marriage in the early ‘70s with a woman whom he finds attractive, and with whom he may have been compatible. Part of the couple’s personal tragedy is that they are unable to have children. Although monetarily far from destitute, both Amina and, to a less obvious extent, Sohail, suffer from varying degrees of depression due to this emptiness in their lives. Sohail seeks solace in making a second marriage, but does not relinquish his first wife, who is relegated to occupying the uppermost floor of their multi-level house, while her rival is ensconced on the first floor.
Readers will find it difficult to judge Sohail, not least because Zakaria does an admirably thorough job of detailing Pakistan’s religious and sociological stances towards polygamy in Islam. Although firmly and sympathetically feminist, she is rarely overbearing in her critiques. Neither does she need to be, since Amina’s story — even though presented from her niece’s perspective — conveys enough of the natural pathos that a woman feels on being sidelined by a matrimonial rival.
Zakaria demonstrates particular deftness at portraying society on both a private as well as a more public level. The author is as successful in describing Amina’s wedding, or the upstairs wife’s wretchedness at being constantly reminded by semi-malicious busybodies that she is barren, as she is at giving one glimpses into the more overarching sociopolitical concerns of the country. The Ojhri camp explosions, the Swat earthquake, and the fatal Bushra Zaidi bus accident are movingly described, for instance. But tragedy aside, the writer’s affection for the city of Karachi is evident in the close attention paid to detailing the historic landscape of the city, as Zakaria moves with almost panoramic grace through describing the aging of Saddar, the importance of Clifton, and the burgeoning middle-class milieu of Gulshan-e-Iqbal.
It would not be far-fetched to note that few Pakistani writers possess as strong a command over transferring the power of the visual into words as Zakaria does. Metaphoric, but pithy, her writing fuses image and sentiment in a manner that is both convincing and aesthetically pleasing, as the following quote denotes: “Pakeezah, or ‘pure woman,’ was a digest containing serialised stories to which my grandmother and Aunt Amina shared a subscription. It was a densely packed volume, its miniscule print cramming thousands of Urdu words onto its pages like all the angry wives of the city suddenly letting go. There were no pictures inside, but the cover always caught my attention and held it. It was invariably a painted portrait of a beautiful woman with a distressed expression.”
The narrator’s grandmother alluded to in this passage, Surraya, is Sohail’s mother whose story is also fluidly recounted in personal segments of the narrative. However, the main focus of the book remains the wronged wife, or perhaps more accurately the wife who believes herself to be wronged. For while there is no doubt that Zakaria is personally sympathetic to Amina’s position, she does not mince words when it comes to detailing the cold, mechanical aspects of sociological issues, including not just polygamy but also the Hudood Ordinance, and cases where wives did not even realise that divorces had to be filed in court to be considered binding and legal.
I am hard-pressed to find a flaw in this remarkable and touching book but if there is one it has to do with unevenness of assessment. By ‘assessment’ I mean the internal machinations whereby Zakaria comments on major public figures such as the Zardari couple among others. A great fuss was made about the famous diamond necklace apparently placed by Benazir and her husband in Switzerland, allegedly bought as Zakaria notes, with Pakistani taxpayers’ money.
However, while recounting the problematic aspects of this, the writer herself notes that the full story may never be known. While this is a realistic enough statement, it strikes a jarring note in a book that is otherwise rather seamless in the manner in which it assesses and recounts things.
In certain cases, such as the narratives of Amina and Surraya, perhaps it does not really matter if the full story is not known — and one must add that it would have been especially interesting to get more on Sohail’s perspective than we are offered. Towards the end of the tale we realise some of what Zakaria refers to as the “venom” at the root of the couple’s tensions. But there exists a decided disparity between incomplete personal narratives and incomplete political ones that the writer is not able to negotiate satisfactorily. However, ultimately this is just a minor problem in a sensitively written book that readers on a global level will be able to laud and appreciate.
The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan
By Rafia Zakaria
Beacon Press, US