June Issue 2015
Book Review: The Upstairs Wife
As a columnist for Dawn, lawyer Rafia Zakaria has often written on the issue of polygamy. In The Upstairs Wife, polygamy forms the centre piece or the peg she uses to tell the story of her family, set against the backdrop of a history of Pakistan, and more so of Karachi, viewed through personal memories and perceptions. The interweaving of the personal with the political creates a rich tapestry of narratives. Born sometime in the late seventies, Zakaria does a remarkable job of presenting personal histories of her grandparents and parents, as well as that of the country.
The ‘upstairs wife’ is Aunt Amina, Rafia Zakaria’s father’s sister. Her husband, Uncle Sohail, is pressurised by the family to take another wife after the couple fail to have a child. Sohail follows the Islamic dictates vis-Ã -vis polygamy, alternating his time between the two wives. Amina grudgingly accepts the situation though her resentment against the second wife never abates, not even in death. The polygamous arrangement captures the young Rafia’s mind as she tries to imagine the life her uncle leads with the new wife. She is clearly fascinated by the complex division of time the arrangement entails:
“The visits (to her parents’ home) were only one portion of Aunt Amina’s divided life. The arrangement when one man had to be shared by two women was methodical, inspired by the Quranic prescription that asked every man taking more than one woman to do so only if he could do ‘perfect justice’ between them. In the case of Aunt Amina and Uncle Sohail it meant his time was divided into blocks of single weeks, which belonged to one and then to the other wife … every Eid and every deed, every birthday and every breath was thus divided to accomplish the perfect justice recommended by the Holy Quran.”
As she writes, she became an expert at divisions, “having witnessed the slicing up of Aunt Amina’s marriage.”
Nothing truly momentous happens in the household or the family. Apart from the situation in which her aunt Amina finds herself, there are the usual deaths, marriages and festivities. However, Rafia Zakaria’s story about her family, though simply told, makes a compelling read. Its narrative is engrossing, drawing the reader into the role of more than an interested observer. Perhaps, it is the ‘normality’ of life in Karachi with its strands of various forms of violence and its impact on the family that readers — more so in Karachi — can relate to and feel part of. After all, almost everyone in this city has a personal story to tell about the impact violence has had on their lives as the line between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ becomes meaningless in Karachi.
The family migrates to Karachi from Bombay in 1962, settling first in the heart of Saddar and then moving to their own home, lovingly planned and designed in Kokani Housing Society. Zakaria takes note of the housing societies created in Karachi by migrants from India, with each community trying to recreate something of what they had left behind and weaving their identities into the names of the colonies they set up. While she doesn’t say as much, the reader wonders if the trend set by migrants from India in the early years of independence and followed by later migrants from within Pakistan is responsible for the ethnically divided city that Karachi has become.
The intersecting story of the Zakaria family with that of the nation’s is interestingly told. She draws parallels between the return of Aunt Amina to her parents’ home with that of Benazir Bhutto’s return to Karachi, both taking place in April 1986. The rise of the MQM is noted against the backdrop of the feeling of alienation among the Mohajirs. Zakaria’s own brother has a problem getting a domicile certificate as his father was born in India. And while it may not have been Zakaria’s intention to appear to be pro-MQM, some of the events recorded to the exclusion of others do give the impression of a tilt. For example, the killings at Pucca Qilla, Hyderabad, and in Qasbah Colony and Orangi in Karachi are included, while there is no mention of major attacks on Pashtun localities and Sindhi goths by the MQM in the 1980s.
The strength of Rafia Zakaria’s family history lies in the honesty of the telling. The writer appears to be sharing intimate family matters with the reader, and set against the country’s far more dramatic developments, The Upstairs Wife is a fascinating account. However, Zakaria has perhaps relied a bit too much on personal memories when it comes to the country’s history. And there are quite a few factual mistakes. For example, she writes that if Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been asked to form the government following his electoral victory, he would have been “the first prime minister to hail from East Pakistan,” whereas Khwaja Nazimuddin, Mohammed Ali Bogra and the popularly elected and charismatic Husayn Shaheed Suhrawardy (also from the Awami League) had already served as prime ministers. This is all the more surprising as in an earlier chapter, Zakaria wrote in great detail about Prime Minister Bogra’s second marriage and how the women of the elite class rallied round his first wife. Describing how the Bengalis were determined to vote for Mujib, Zakaria describes how “they had rescued their blurred identification cards and dried them in the sun,” following the cyclone of November 1970. However, identity cards were only introduced in 1974 by the government of Zulfikar Bhutto and in Bangladesh many decades later.
The epilogue of The Upstairs Wife is particularly moving as Rafia Zakaria wistfully describes the changed neighbourhood and city she frequently returns to from the United States where she now lives. It is a poignancy that many in Karachi will share.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue.