Over a decade ago, while working for an ad agency in Islamabad, I met a recently divorced young woman. She’d grown up in the United States but, when it was time to marry, had submitted to her parents’ wishes and returned to Pakistan. Soon after the wedding, she discovered that something was amiss: The marriage could not be consummated because her husband was gay. It would be four years before she was allowed to drop the pretense of wedded life and ask for a divorce.
In traditional societies, marriage is a fraught prospect. It is more than simply the union of two individuals: For the political elite, it’s an influence multiplier; for the economic elite, it’s a corporate merger; and for the have-nots, it’s a bid to have. The personal, as it were, is the political—and the social and the economic. The transactional character of these unions is rarely acknowledged. Material concerns are sublimated to the concept of “honor,” which masks marital dysfunction and serves as caveat emptor. Divorces are consequently rare, and divorcées disdained.
Central to Rafia Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon; $26.95) is the story of her Aunt Amina, who, after her husband takes a new wife, decides to remain in a polygamous marriage rather than suffer the divorcée’s fate. Distraught and humiliated, Amina initially returns to her parents and contemplates divorce. But in the face of their anguish and community pressure, she eventually goes back to the indignity of her husband’s divided affections.
Zakaria alternates scenes from Amina’s life with vignettes from Pakistani history. The episodes, recounted in a vivid, nonlinear narrative, vaguely track Amina’s new travails. The disparate strands of seemingly arbitrary events are given shape by Zakaria’s larger family history (though not always successfully). This technique is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. There’s a cinematic quality to the oscillation between wide-angle views of society and intimate portraits of the protagonists. Zakaria has a sharp eye for detail, and the family dynamics and social micropolitics are finely rendered. Here is Zakaria on the women who faulted Amina for her inability to have children and showed greater sympathy for her husband—a self-denying hero, in their eyes, who was keeping her despite her flaw: “Many had exacting broods of children, whose pressing needs grated on their lives: denouncing the barren woman elevated them, made their sacrifices of lost sleep and interrupted meals and mountains of soiled clothes a gift to be cherished.”
The Upstairs Wife, however, is far from a mawkish catalog of victimhood. In her detailed and sympathetic account of Amina’s struggles to regain her husband’s affections, Zakaria is setting up the reader for a devastating denouement. But as we accompany Amina, we are also journeying through Pakistan: its culture and society, if not its history.