The story of a woman and that of a country- The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria

Title: The Upstairs Wife
Author: Rafia Zakaria
Genre: Memoir, History, Politics, Drama

Ratings:

December 2007, is not that far down in history so a majority of us have been witness to it (unless a 9 year old is reading my blog). And since it was holidays and wedding season in Pakistan, a vast majority of people above 20 would have a story of their own to tell about this time. December 27, 2007 has been very significant time in Pakistan’s history too. Benazir Bhutto who had been an aspiration for many Pakistani girls was assassinated on this day. The political and economic turmoil that followed was such that the country kept feeling the after-effects until much later. This story opens up here, at a time when the country was in mayhem and so was the personal life of Aunty Amna whose husband gets displaced in the chaos.

This book is a historical memoir, and is divided into two sections that move along together but aren’t really related.

Firstly, this is the story of the author’s Aunt Amna. Amna had an arranged marriage at a young age to Sohial and together they start to build their lives . Amna’s ordinary life turns upside down when she has to share a house and her husband with another woman. Amna for the remainder of her life gets confined upstairs, Sohail on the other hand struggles to equally divide his life between his two wives. We’ve watched so many shows and comedies on men with multiple women in their lives. This book has a very different take on the situation from a woman’s perspective and it is anything but comical. The story is written from Amna’s perspective and while it reading one can’t help but feel her pain: the jealously, the social stigma, the childlessness and the feeling of not being a priority. It is not until the end of the book that one starts to look at things from Sohail’s perspective too.

The second aspect of the book is the history of Pakistan, with the majority of it focusing on Karachi- the city of the author’s, Amna’s and my birth. Ms. Zakaria’s ancestors were comfortably settled in pre-partition India and after partition struggled with building their lives in Karachi. But they evolved and so did the city. I loved this part of the book as it speaks to me about the streets of Saddar and the history behind Empress Market which existed in all their glory -A different era that now has only traces in the eroding buildings and clogged streets.

The book moves to and from Amna’s life and the major historical events that were shaping the country at that time such as Fatima Jinnah’s death, formation of MQM, elections, Ojhri camp fire, the wars, the separation of Bangladesh and all the way to Benazir’s assassination. The author chooses this time as the short period in which the stories collide.

Rafia Zakaria is a columnist in Dawn so her depiction of history is definitely based on her opinion. So it may be debatable and skewed, but it will entice the reader to look up more on history. So by all means do your own research and then form an opinion.

Please do read if you grew up in Karachi or even Pakistan. Foreigners might not relate much to it but still it would give an insight into one of the largest cities in the world through the eyes of one of its women. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Mainly because I grew up witnessing a lot of this as Pakistan’s history, and was perhaps too young to understand most of it. Like a nursery rhyme you finally figure out the meaning of much later in life. Highly recommended.

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