By Sanjay Sipahimalan
Book: The Upstairs Wife
Author: Rafia Zakaria
Publisher: Beacon Press
Price: Rs 599
On a December morning in 1986, the 10-year-old Rafia Zakaria’s Aunt Amina left her husband to return to her parents’ house. This, to the young Zakaria, was mystifying, until it was explained to her that Uncle Sohail had taken a second wife. The reverberations of this episode and the context against which they play out form the driving force behind Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife, a domestic memoir of Pakistan that’s counter-balanced by public events.
In Shame, the novel banned in Pakistan almost immediately after it was published in 1983, Salman Rushdie writes: “I had thought, before I began, that what I had on my hands was an almost excessively masculine tale, a saga of sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge.” However, he continues, “the women seem to have taken over; they marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand the inclusion of their own tragedies, histories and comedies”. If Shame is set in Rushdie’s “looking-glass Pakistan”, The Upstairs Wife is Pakistan-as-jigsaw-puzzle, with many pieces — though not all — portraying women’s tragedies, histories and comedies.
The book moves backward and forward from 1986 in an ambitious attempt to capture Pakistan’s “intimate history”.There are vignettes to do with the lives of Zakaria’s grandparents in undivided India: Konkani Muslims living in the shadow of Mumbai’s Jamia Milia Mosque, they stay on after Partition, changing their minds and arriving in Karachi only in 1961. There’s the saga of Aunt Amina who returns to her husband and his second wife: she lives on an upper floor, with Uncle Sohail’s time equally divided between one and then the other. There are mini-portrayals of other members of the family: the author’s mother, for instance, who is determined to provide her children with an education.
Interwoven with these are observations on historical events, notably, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which forms the book’s prologue. Other pieces of the jigsaw that make up this portrait of Pakistan feature the Bangladesh War, the effects of the Islamic policies of Zia ul-Haq, the struggles between the muhajirs and other communities, and the fallout of happenings in Afghanistan over the years. A lot for any place to endure.
It’s an approach that works well when there’s a resonance between the private and public. The day of Benazir Bhutto’s killing, for example, is also the day that Uncle Sohail is in hospital after suffering a stroke. As Zakaria writes: “For one odd, brief, and singular moment, the catastrophes of my family and my country had come together, showing me how they were woven together, knotted and inextricable, inside and outside, male and female, no longer separate.”
At times, though, the links seem forced: “One year after Uncle Sohail took a second wife, another strange wedding took place in Karachi [that of Benazir Bhutto with Ali Asaf Zardari]”. At yet other times, the connections are tenuous, especially as many pieces of this jigsaw aren’t specifically about women’s lives. This can give The Upstairs Wife, deeply-felt and keenly-observed though it is, something of a fragmentary character.
Journalistic set pieces or otherwise, Zakaria’s slices of life in Pakistan are always revealing. There is, for example, the delicious tale of how Hamida Bogra, wife of Mohammad Ali Bogra, third prime minister of Pakistan, started a campaign for women’s rights after her husband fell in love with his secretary, resulting in the country’s Muslim Family Law Ordinance. Pages and years later, there’s the moving account of Shaheeda Parveen, sentenced to be stoned to death because her previous husband alleged that he had never really divorced her.
The significance of The Upstairs Wife also lies in its portrayal of the quotidian in the face of the uncertain. “There was the outing to the beach disrupted by the kidnapping of a friend’s father,” the author recollects, “the concert that concluded a half hour after it began because of a bomb threat; the exams carefully prepared for again and again and again only to be put off due to curfews and killings and strikes and sit-ins”. Here, as elsewhere, Zakaria demonstrates how public events shape private lives. Individuals may change history, but more often than not, it’s the other way around.
The writer is a book critic in Mumbai