Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan

The story is about three generations of Rafia Zakaria's family with Pakistan's history as the backdrop. Or maybe the story is about Pakistan with the family's story as the backdrop? Either way, this book is a good read.

The 'upstairs wife' Zakaria's Aunt Amina is forced to live with the ignominy of her husband taking a second wife, moving his first wife upstairs and proceeding to spend alternate weeks with the two wives. Meanwhile, outside the family home, wars, assassinations, massacres, coups, and sectarian violence roils Pakistan's history.

Pakistani women live a cloistered, constrained, demeaning life. Aunt Amina's misery is mirrored in the struggle for women's rights in Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto strides onto the stage holding the great hopes of women, but ultimately slinks off - symbolizing the extreme corruption and venality of Pakistan's political life. High expectations unfulfilled.

Zakaria's family emigrates to Pakistan from India after Partition, also full of high hopes of a better life. But life is not better than it was in India, and in many ways it is worse, certainly economically and socially. Immigrants are disadvantaged compared to the native born; for instance educational opportunities favour those whose fathers and grandfathers both have Pakistani residency.

This book is not plot driven but proceeds in a series of vignettes describing external events and family events, as the title clearly describes. I wasn't particularly fond of this approach, but it was interesting nevertheless. I would recommend this book - particularly if you are unfamiliar with Pakistan's history, as I was. It certainly helped me put into perspective modern events.

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