A memoir of Karachi through the eyes of its women
An Indies Introduce Debut Authors Selection
For a brief moment on December 27, 2007, life came to a standstill in Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto, the country’s former prime minister and the first woman ever to lead a Muslim country, had been assassinated at a political rally just outside Islamabad. Back in Karachi—Bhutto’s birthplace and Pakistan’s other great metropolis—Rafia Zakaria’s family was suffering through a crisis of its own: her Uncle Sohail, the man who had brought shame upon the family, was near death. In that moment these twin catastrophes—one political and public, the other secret and intensely personal—briefly converged.
Zakaria uses that moment to begin her intimate exploration of the country of her birth. Her Muslim-Indian family immigrated to Pakistan from Bombay in 1962, escaping the precarious state in which the Muslim population in India found itself following the Partition. For them, Pakistan represented enormous promise. And for some time, Zakaria’s family prospered and the city prospered. But in the 1980s, Pakistan’s military dictators began an Islamization campaign designed to legitimate their rule—a campaign that particularly affected women’s freedom and safety. The political became personal when her aunt Amina’s husband, Sohail, did the unthinkable and took a second wife, a humiliating and painful betrayal of kin and custom that shook the foundation of Zakaria’s family but was permitted under the country’s new laws. The young Rafia grows up in the shadow of Amina’s shame and fury, while the world outside her home turns ever more chaotic and violent as the opportunities available to post-Partition immigrants are dramatically curtailed and terrorism sows its seeds in Karachi.
Telling the parallel stories of Amina’s polygamous marriage and Pakistan’s hopes and betrayals, The Upstairs Wife is an intimate exploration of the disjunction between exalted dreams and complicated realities.
"The Upstairs Wife” does manage to cover so much ground so skillfully, casting a sharp eye on complicated personal politics and affairs of state alike."
—New York Times
"The Upstairs Wife weaves emotion, historical fact, and a young person’s wonder at her world into an exquisite tale of patriarchy, conflict, love, hope and hate… The story that unfolds is both memorable and magnificent.”
“A dense, carefully rendered work of minute, memorable detail.”
“In this emotionally generous, beautifully written memoir, Rafia Zakaria tells two stories that are really the same story. One is the descent of Pakistan into violence, poverty, corruption, and extremist Islam; the other is the smoldering misery of family life in which women have little power, except, sometimes, over each other. The Upstairs Wife is a revelation.”
—Katha Pollitt, poet, essayist, and columnist for The Nation
“Rafia Zakaria’s gorgeous prose and brave storytelling transported me into the center of a region I’ve struggled to understand in a way no newspaper article or history book ever could. Better yet, she made me love the women there—their woundedness, their resilience, their uncertain future. The personal and the political collide in this beautiful memoir of Pakistan.”
—Courtney E. Martin, author of Do It Anyway
“From a window in the upstairs of her family’s house, Rafia Zakaria parts the curtain, looks down on Pakistan, and writes its history. The Upstairs Wife roams between the lives of a family and the life of a nation—and finds itself in the heart of a society that is much maligned and little understood.”
—Vijay Prashad, author of The Poorer Nations
“What a tour de force! Rafia Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife is a masterful tapestry. Through the eyes of Karachi’s women, the beauty and horrors and mysteries of Pakistan are laid bare. Zakaria elegantly weaves personal memoir with historical treatise, showcasing a breathtaking literary talent.”
—Medea Benjamin, cofounder of Code Pink and author of Drone Warfare
“Zakaria captures polygamy’s emotional toll on wives: the depression, self-doubt, and jealous calculations that poison the politics of intimacy.”
“If it weren’t for the personal bravery of women like…Rafia Zakaria, and the countless other Muslim women fighting hard to reclaim their rightful space in public and private, as well as —personal and political arenas, the no-go zones for Muslim women would continue to expand.”
Review: Kirkus Reviews - November 20, 2014
“A dense, carefully rendered work of minute, memorable detail.”
From Chapter 1: "The Return"
As we entered this Karachi the easy, smiling contours of my mother’s face pulled tight and then even tighter. She had fought for this, learning to drive just so she could take us to school, to the best schools, insisting that it could be done and that she could do it. For this she had sat awkwardly between my father and my grandfather, arguing her case against their objections. For this she had tolerated our crying chorus, every Monday and Wednesday, when the instructor from the driving school showed up at the door at 9:00 a.m. sharp. For this, she had tolerated the weeks and months of my grandfather Said, insisting that he, who could not himself drive, must nevertheless accompany her on every trip, because a woman, even one with a driver’s license, could not be trusted to drive alone. Her battle to be permitted to drive had not been an easy one.
Five years had passed and now she was allowed to drive alone and without my father or grandfather correcting the timing of her turns, the certainty of her navigation. But despite her victory, the descent into this other Karachi, the sweaty, angry, male Karachi, was still my mother’s daily test.
Because children never pick the right moment to burst in, I blurted out a question that appeared on the periphery of my mind: “Is Uncle Sohail dead?” My twin brother, Zaid, turned around to glare. I wanted an answer, and so I asked again: “Is Uncle Sohail dead?”
My mother did not respond when the light turned green, or at the next light, or as we descended even deeper into the city, onto roads flagged by beggars and hawkers and aimless men hanging around corners. She was quiet as we drove past the row of cinemas, the Capri, the Nishat, the Regal, the Star, past the bloody face of Sylvester Stallone, the jutting hips of a Punjabi actress stilled in midgyration. We passed the electronics market with its unlit neon signs (Hitachi, Sanyo, Toshiba) exposing their wiry entrails.
It was only as our car pulled up before my brother’s school that my mother spoke. “No, Uncle Sohail is not dead,” she said in the tiny moment before the gates would shut and leave my brother punished for being tardy. “He is not dead, but it would have been better if he were.”
These words, my mild-mannered mother’s wishes for a man’s death, tumbled out behind us, stumbling into our lunch boxes and schoolbooks. I carried them into my classroom, where I took in a lesson on the Indus River valley, where I completed a test on fractions. I said them to myself in recess as I tried to swap my jam sandwich for a carton of fruit juice: “He is not dead, but it would have been better if he were.”
Birth of a Nation
The Scent of Other Cities
A Suburban Wedding
Half a Wife
The Woman in Charge
The Graveyards of Karachi
Loving and Leaving
A Return to the Original
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- Newsweek, listed, 12/30/2015
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- KPFA segment Letters & Politics, interviewed, 3/23/2015
- WAMC Northeast Public Radio, interview, 3/4/2015
- Dissent Magazine, original piece, Winter 2015
- The Toronto Star, Q&A, 2/27/2015
- NPR's The Takeaway, interview, 2/25/2015
- Salon.com, excerpted, 2/22/2015
- KRCW's To The Point, interview, 2/20/2015
- The American Booksellers Association, Q&A, 2/19/2015
- CSPAN, book discussion, 2/7/2015
- Politics and Prose, recorded book event, 2/7/2015
- The Caravan Magazine, original piece, 2/1/2015
- Biographile, original contribution, 1/2520/15
- "Resolve to read in 2015 with Indie Debuts", listed, 1/1/2015
- Indies Introduce Debut Authors and New Voices, selected, Winter/Spring 2015, 9/17/2014
- New York Times "Room for Debate," blog, 5/1/2014