Book Review: The Upstairs Wife

My dad has taken to buying me books. Every so often he'll tell me what he's been reading and more often than not I'll express interest in it and lo and behold, three weeks later, a parcel will turn up on my doorstep. 

I like it.

I especially liked the last parcel, a hard-cover copy of the just-published 'The Upstairs Wife' by Rafia Zakariah, a Pakistani attorney, writer and activist who lives in both Pakistan and the US now. Not only was the book exquisitely written, capturing my nostalgic childhood heart, it also challenged my adult eyes.

Set in the dry, dusty, unplanned, chaotic, bustling city of my childhood, Karachi, Pakistan, the book tells the story of Rafia's aunty Amina, married but childless. It's a tragedy for many women to be infertile, but it's especially tragic in Pakistan where a woman's children bring status and importance. Amina's marriage was arranged in her late teens to Sohail, a man who she saw only once before the wedding ceremony. They started out alright, but as time went on, and Amina's belly didn't swell, Sohail fell in love with a woman from his workplace. And then he did the unthinkable. He asked Amina if he could marry his new love and take a second wife. 

My connection with this part of the story is real enough. I had a little Pakistani friend in primary school whose mother talked tearfully to mine for hours and hours over several years. Her husband travelled abroad for work frequently. When he returned, as usual, one day, he brought with him another wife. The two women had to share the house - and their husband. It destroyed my friend's mother's life.

Amina's story is interesting enough, but there's more. Weaving through the book is the story of Karachi itself, from the time of Partition and the establishment of Pakistan, right up until the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in  2007. Zakariah lived in Karachi when I lived there, so her memories and descriptions match mine, down to the sweaty beggars and muck-filled bazaar alleys. However, she gives me more than just memories. She fills in the blanks and gives me understanding I never had as a child.  In Karachi, someone was always fighting someone. And now I comprehend a little bit more of the 'why'.

The Upstairs Wife let me into the background to Karachi, the politics and some of the cultural rules that explained why our family was always early for weddings, even when we were 'on time', or why getting a visa could turn into a nightmare that took months to complete.

If you read this book and you didn't grow up in Pakistan, which is probably most of you, you may not smell the familiar aromas and stenches I smelt while I was reading this. But I can promise you you'll see the bazaars and feel the heat and drip with sweat in sympathy. And you'll have a much better personal and political understanding of the incredible, diverse, crazy country that is Pakistan today, at the centre of so much trouble and yet so unbelievably beautiful at the same time. 

Perhaps the only negative thing I'd say about the book is that I was a little disappointed in the ending. I knew what was coming - she'd told us that at the start, but I wanted the steady build of tension to end where she promised it would - with Uncle Sohail and Benazir Bhutto, both dying in the same hospital on the same night. And of course, I wanted to know what happened to Amina, the upstairs wife herself, having lived through a polygamous marriage, and now a widow. Where did she go?

It was a disappointment - but a small one. Rafia Zakariah is a beautiful writer and an outstandingly intelligent, sensitive human being, and I'll be purchasing her next book all on my own, without waiting for my Dad to get me a copy.