Intersecting Catastrophes

Being a woman in Pakistan, from Partition until today.

Intersecting Catastrophes

The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria. Beacon Press. 264 pages.

IT’S TEMPTING to explain war and its aftermath through a narrative of logical events. Event A led to Event B, which riled up people, and led to Event C, usually chaos. It’s an alluring way to understand a place like Pakistan, which teeters between authoritarian rule and the tight grip of terrorism, and in particular a place like Karachi, which has been described too often as “chaotic,” “dangerous,” and “filled with contradictions.” A port city near the Arabian Sea and the country’s financial capital, Karachi was at one time primed to be a shining symbol of a new country’s success. Today, Karachi is patrolled by army rangers trying to clamp down on terrorist and gang activity (and violating human rights along the way); it’s run by mafia groups with parallel law systems; its traffic can be debilitating; its basic services, like electricity and trash collection, are strained under the swelling population. What fateful and failed turns — Partition, identity politics, military interventions — can explain the city’s, and thus the country’s, demise?

The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan acknowledges the weight of these forces, but offers no illusion that Karachi’s many ills can only be understood through a logical narrative. Part memoir, part history, filed under “women’s studies,” Rafia Zakaria’s book reveals a city transformed through an amalgamation of fragmented scenes — her childhood memories of Karachi, recreations of her aunt’s life in a strained marriage, and snapshots of Pakistan’s political history (i.e. a massacre, an army strike, a high-power wedding). These stories unfold over a period of time, but their fragmented form helps Zakaria depict Pakistan in a way that might offer a more accurate reading than previous narratives: it is a country that is changing in dramatic, inexplicable ways.

When the book opens, the readers are introduced to two significant events that affect, in different ways, the author’s family: Benazir Bhutto, the country’s first female prime minister, has been assassinated; and Zakaria’s uncle is on the brink of death. His wife, Amina, prays for the same husband who, years ago, relegated her to the position of second wife. “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,” Zakaria writes in the prologue.

And for a brief moment, the book teeters dangerously toward describing Pakistan in tropes, as a country of contradictions: Benazir Bhutto was the “freest woman we knew,” and yet, Zakaria’s aunt must suffer the humiliation of her husband bringing home a second wife. But the intertwined catastrophes of Zakaria’s family’s life and her country’s fate are more sinister than that. Personal and political decisions by men in power have, over decades, trickled down to society where citizens have seemingly little control over their fates (indiscriminate bombs in marketplaces, suffocating bureaucracies, a notoriously non-transparent military) — much like a woman who must share her husband with the woman living a floor above.

The Upstairs Wife is resolute in not wanting to describe Pakistani women as oppressed victims. In fact, Zakaria’s 10-year-old self remarks on the bizarreness of her uncle marrying again, never having met a man with two wives. As she grows up, Zakaria observes the private circles of women, which can be as calculating and harsh as political ones. Where the book shines are the points at which political and personal catastrophes intersect so obviously for the readers, evoking frustration. For example, as Zakaria spells out, in 1961, Pakistan passed the Muslim Family Law Ordinance, which allowed women some autonomy: polygamy would require the permission of the first wife, and any divorce would have to be registered with the government. Years later, it would shape Amina’s marriage — almost sanctioning her husband’s second marriage even though she didn’t give him permission. (A man must be receptive for the law to be effective.)

Ironically, this law was the result of the anger and efforts of a prime minister’s wife, whose husband wanted to bring home a second wife. But campaigning for the law became a political calculation. The prime minister’s wife shunned the help of Fatima Jinnah’s sister, a potential leader, for the man who would become the country’s next military dictator, Ayub Khan:

The virginal spinster sister of the dead founder was of no use to them. How could she, never having been married, understand the fury of a betrayed wife? That sentiment was one reason for their exclusion; the robust other reasons were political. Fatima Jinnah’s rival for the position of governor general of Pakistan was General Ayub Khan, the military man who was the father of Mrs. Bogra’s friend Nasim Aurangzeb, one of the chief campaigners against polygamy in the new Pakistan.

The moment is packed with ironies, and it’s hard not to wonder how women’s lives — Amina’s, Zakaria’s, for instance — would have been shaped if support had been thrown behind Fatima Jinnah; or if the law hadn’t been passed at all. Women, it seemed, had given up some powers for others.

Smartly, The Upstairs Wife questions, and sometimes mocks, the idea of claim, whether it’s Pakistanis trying to build a home in Karachi after Partition, or a woman struggling to maintain “ownership” of a husband she now has to share. In a memorable anecdote, Zakaria’s grandfather, Said, has to obtain a domicile certificate for Zakaria’s brother so he can register for his exams. Said visits the government building multiple times, getting hung up on the fated question: what is the father’s country of birth? Should the family be considered Indian or Pakistani? Karachi was their home, though their history couldn’t claim Pakistan. Said ends up writing “Pakistan/India,” a naïvely hopeful compromise. That he has to explain to the protesting clerk that “there was no Pakistan or India when my son was born” evokes scenes from a political dystopia.

The moment is tragically funny, and Zakaria has set up the tragedy well. Earlier in the book, recounting her grandparents’ migration from India to Pakistan, she writes:

They had expected to fall in love with Karachi, and so they did. In later years, the intimacy of long association would mean that they would never be able to tell whether they loved with a pure passion, unaffected and unforced by the occasion of migration, or because that was the plan and expectation.

Despite this love, Zakaria’s parents and grandparents are determined to be Indian, to be foreigners. The first family member to be “from Karachi” is Zakaria’s twin brother. One wonders whether love has any claim at all.

Throughout the decades after Partition, Karachi becomes the place where all the country’s ills converged. Ethnic communities that want familiarity develop their own urban neighborhoods, and sometimes define fault lines with blood. When a young Muhajir woman is killed in a traffic accident by a Pashtun driver, the incident devolves into a violent battle of identity politics. Familiar markets are bombed, local buildings torn down — the city is constantly destroyed and renewed by those wanting a stake. One of the more poignant moments comes when Amina, having accepted the reality and loss of her marriage, wonders how much Karachi has changed, whether the markets she used to frequent still stand. “Could they go back to what once was […]” Zakaria writes, one of the most tragic questions in any love story.

There are times when Zakaria’s parallelism between women and nationhood falls flat. When she describes the British Empire as being “pregnant with Pakistan,” one recalls Condoleezza Rice’s fated comments about “labor pains” a country undergoing democratic change suffers. Elsewhere, the desired effect of the fragmented form doesn’t reach readers. The book displays an impressive amount of description and astute observations, but not enough analysis that can help readers understand Amina’s, or even Zakaria’s, frustrations. At one point, Zakaria wryly observes that Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s rise to power was met with the slogan “Pakistan ka mutlab kya? La Iilaha illalah (‘What is the meaning of Pakistan? There is only one God’). It was half in Urdu and half in Arabic, half Pakistani and half Quranic, and together it rhymed.” The reader can sense there is much to unpack in this one sentence, but we are left grasping to make the right connections.

Perhaps most disappointingly, Zakaria’s relationship to Benazir Bhutto remains elusive. The former prime minister bookends The Upstairs Wife, and maintains a strong presence throughout Zakaria’s anecdotes. And yet, I am not convinced I fully understand the significance of this woman for Zakaria, who grows up seeing Bhutto take the political stage, while she sees her aunt losing control over her marriage. Where exactly does Bhutto’s rise and assassination leave Pakistan’s present and future generation, male or female?

Happily, this means that Zakaria — a necessary addition to the repertoire on Pakistan politics — has more for her readers. In addition to a woman’s perspective on Pakistan, The Upstairs Wife offers a unique perspective on nation-building. Battles, massacres, wars make a place unrecognizable. Why should they always be rationalized, and made commonsensical?

Of course, Pakistan is a result of decisions by policymakers and the military, by non-state actors and powerful personalities. But what Zakaria’s book does is make us consider that Karachi — its largest city — is a place that still suffers the trauma of a country severed, not unlike how women suffer the trauma of lives severed. A city, like a woman, often carries with it too many histories and too much hurt.


Rozina Ali is on the editorial staff at The New Yorker magazine. From 2013–2015, she was a senior editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs in Egypt, and is currently serving as its contributing editor.

LARB Contributor

Rozina Ali is on the editorial staff at The New Yorker magazine. From 2013–2015, she was a senior editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs in Egypt, and is currently serving as its contributing editor. Her work focuses on how counterterrorism policies have affected Muslim Americans, national security, and Middle East and South Asia, and has appeared in The New Yorker, The GuardianThe New York TimesAl Jazeera America, Foreign PolicySalon, HuffPost Live, and others.


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