‘History,’ wrote Nadeem Aslam in The Blind Man’s Garden, ‘is the third parent.’ It is an assertion with which Rafia Zakaria would probably agree. Her memoir, The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, seeks to demonstrate the complex linkages between the history of her country, Pakistan, and the fate of her family, migrants from Bombay’s tight knit Konkani community. The wife in the title is her aunt Amina—her father’s only sister, who is forced to endure the humiliation of a bigamous marriage when her husband Sohail falls in love with a work colleague and takes her as his second wife, an indulgence permitted him by the law of the land. In parallel with recounting Amina’s individual story, Zakaria narrates the larger story of the country through the judicious selection of key political events that not only shaped public life at the time but also determined the future course of events.
Wherever possible, Zakaria links episodes from her family life with the nation’s history by selecting common themes. The chapter titled ‘Birth of a Nation’ begins with the confinement of her grandmother, Sorayya. It is July 1947 and 18-year-old Sorayya is labouring to give birth to her firstborn, Zakaria’s father, born exactly one month before the brand new country he is to inhabit. When Aunt Amina returns to her father’s home in 1986, so too does the young Benazir Bhutto. But whereas the former’s return signals a shameful rejection, the latter’s is a triumphant homecoming. In 1971, while Sorayya is entrusting her young daughter’s safety to the driver of the school bus, Zakaria reflects on the fate of the girls then hiding in Rokeya Hall in Dhaka University, the scene of a horrific massacre at the hands of the Pakistan army. And so we learn about key moments in Pakistan’s chequered history: the secession of East Pakistan, the declaration of martial law, the invasion of Afghanistan, the Ojhri Camp disaster, the imposition of the Hudood Ordinance, sectarian wars in Karachi, 9/11 and its bloody blowback and finally, Benazir’s assassination. In telling these stories, Zakaria filters them through the prism of personal experiences, thereby adding a human dimension to what may have otherwise been a sterile account.
Zakaria pays special attention to the history of Karachi, the city to which her grandparents migrated shortly after Partition. Initially a well-ordered town of thriving bazaars, welcoming people and safe streets, gradually it turns into a vast, lawless place where homes are robbed in broad daylight by Kalashnikov-wielding thugs, intermittent turf wars rage for days claiming thousands of lives, and the headless bodies of journalists are tossed into graveyards in the dead of night. Here is a vivid indictment of the brutalising effect of a state policy that puts its misplaced strategic interests above the security and well-being of its citizens.
That Zakaria’s family does not fall victim to the city’s frequent, random violence is due to pure luck. (Four armed thugs barrel into a neighbour’s house at lunchtime.) Instead, the festering sore at the heart of her family is Amina’s shame. But though the state sanctions her husband’s second marriage, Amina’s subsequent frustration is of her own making. Wallowing in self pity, rage and bitterness, Amina becomes a victim of her own obstinacy. As Zakaria later muses, ‘The memory of her misery weighed on me; the questions of her choices plagued me. How real had they been? How helpless had she been?’ It would have been interesting to see how Amina’s experience shaped her niece’s future. ‘My story,’ asserts Zakaria, ‘was built on hers.’ But though she makes a brief, tantalising allusion to an arranged marriage that she left (‘when I decided to rebel’), disappointingly, Zakaria draws a veil over her own experiences as a young woman.
An author, activist and a director of Amnesty International, Zakaria clearly did not allow custom or history to constrain her choices. She is a fine writer. Her research is meticulous and she has the knack of making history come alive. But if the book falters anywhere it is in the choice of its protagonist. Amina is too dull a character and her story too static to function as its narrative spine. I had lost patience with her long before the book ended. And though Zakaria is right in asserting that historical forces shape individual lives, as Amina and her own diverse experiences amply demonstrate, history in itself is not a sufficient explanation for the different directions our lives take. Individual will and personal choices are critical to our success and failure. And as with individuals, so with nations: it was General Zia and his successors in the military whose cynical, self-serving choices took Pakistan down the route of Talibanisation.
(Moni Mohsin is a Pakistani writer. Her most recent book is Return of the Butterfly)