There’s no way to avoid saying this. Representation of Pakistan is minimal in books that are actually readable and not reference books. When there are stories from and about Pakistan they are limited to subjects like post-terrorism stories and portraying how difficult life is. While these stories are all genuine, there is also a need for fresh, new subjects that depict Pakistan as just being and not the backdrop of some soul-shaking action.
Rafia Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife depicts just that chaos within normalcy. It is set in Karachi a few decades ago, which makes it more interesting for a reader. As someone who was born and raised in Karachi, I was glued to the book for its description of life there that is vibrant, robust and yet still.
While portraying family life in Karachi, the story touches on an intriguing element of life in an Islamic Republic – polygamy. As a phenomenon that exists but is still hush-hush in homes and society, it is fascinating to read a detailed account of arrangements that a man makes to keep two wives. Zakaria bares her aunt’s soul in the story through her ordeal of being the first wife of a man who married again. This kind of personal account in a historical background touches upon those factors that are too uncomfortable to discuss with people. It evokes a sense of curiosity and sympathy for the parties involved.
While Zakaria is evidently sympathizing with her aunt, she also doesn’t explicitly demonize her uncle and his second wife. With this approach it is easy to read the text without being too emotional and uncomfortable with a personal rant.
I specifically appreciated the bytes of legal, social and cultural history which goes on to show how much the private life in South Asia is affected by the public life and political scenarios. Therefore, I highly recommend this book to those who are familiar with Pakistan and South Asia but are looking to feel a bit uncomfortable while getting enlightened and also to those who want to start their familiarization with something more humanizing.