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Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria

The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan

The story of Aunt Amina and her husband Uncle Sohail is the primary focus of the book. However the shadow of the Pakistani India conflict and the continual Islamization of Pakistan forms the over riding feature of the story.

I like family sagas. I like the rich, descriptive detail found in such stories. The links within links and in an Asian family with its huge extended family the saga is always more complicated, richer in detail and somehow more intimate.

Amina is married to Sohail and after over a decade of marriage he decides to take a second wife. Taking a second wife is allowed in Islam but you do have to get the permission of the first wife. This was not done in this case and I think it is not done in a lot of cases. The wife tends to get shoved aside in placed of a newer and more glamourous entity. In this case the over riding cause was that Amina did not have children and for Sohail this was of primary importance. Egged on by his elder sister (in the absence of his mother Sohail's elder sister wielded clout that a Western woman could not even dream of!!!!), a new wife was found. Unfortunately for Sohail this wife too did not produce the required heir.
The story is told from the point of view of a ten year old girl, herself the niece of the said Amina. The family is a joint one and her mother is trying to balance the dictates of her own mother in law who asserts herself on even the smallest point to get her own way and try to "put one over" her independent daughter in law. The case in point of getting a driving licence and for five years having to be accompanied by her father in law whose instructions on how to drive, what to do and what not to do whilst driving despite the fact that he did not know himself to drive was a case in point.

Amina's story is set in the time frame of the family's migration from Bombay in India during the Partition. The historical detail was fascinating for me. How a country due to the dictates of first the British was just divided - entire families, communities being uprooted and said now you are Pakistani, now you are Indian. The administrative chaos that must have ensued. The documentation for each individual must have been a nightmare but survive all this they did and families like Amina's moved to Karachi and made a life there for themselves.

The new migrants were not all that welcome. They brought with them a different culture and a different way of life and were looked on as outsiders for decades. The partition of Pakistan, the division and declaration of Bangladesh as a separate country, and the Islamization of Pakistan with its strict Shariat law are all part of this story. The story of the different politicians of Pakistan and what part they played in what Pakistan is today is also detailed in the story. The rise and fall of most of the Presidents of Pakistan is a turbulent story in itself, full of violence and upheaval and military coups and families lived, survived and prospered within this framework.

I loved the writing of this story. I liked the detail. I liked the fact that I was reading something which actually happened and will continue to happen in Asian families upto date. 

The book was a choice from Blogging for Books. 


  1. I like family dramas as well. The setting for this book sounds fascinating as well.

  2. Sounds like a very interesting read.

  3. I like stories about family, and if there's drama, even better! This sounds interesting!

  4. I like family sagas and dramas and the setting is a bit different than I usually read, so that makes it even more special. Thanks for the title.

  5. I had not heard of this book before. It sounds like something I would really enjoy. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!