Upstairs, Downstairs: India, Pakistan

The partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 into India and Pakistan defines Pakistani history. This move, done mostly for religious reasons and against the advice of several Pakistani and Indian leaders involved in the struggle for independence from Britain, is the cause of millions of deaths and a perpetual state of almost-war between the two nations. This supposed resolution, which has arguably done more to keep Pakistan from realizing its potential than any other aspect of that nation’s politics and economy, has also informed a fair amount of literature from both sides involved. Two such classics that come quickly to mind are Khushwant Singh’s 1956 novel Train to Pakistan and Salman Rushdie’s The Midnight Children. Simultaneously, the fact of partition has also served those who prefer to manipulate national and religious fears for their own ends. Among this latter group are politicians, religious leaders, military men, and others interested only in gaining power and profit at the expense of the people in both nations.51fYIYWi+PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Let us return to literature, though. Rafia Zakaria was born and raised in Karachi. She is a journalist who writes for Pakistan’s largest circulation English language newspaper DAWN and for Al-Jazeera. She is also on the board of Amnesty International. Recently, Beacon Press published her memoir The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan. The title refers to Zakaria’s aunt, who lived on the second (then the third) floor of her husband’s house while he shared the downstairs with his second wife. It is thusly the story of her aunt’s life and the life of her family, from their days in Mumbai before partition and up to the murder and funeral of Benazir Bhutto in 2007. Indeed, the book begins with a description of Zakaria’s memories from the latter date. It ends with an ultimatum from Mullah Omar of the Afghan Taliban to the Pakistani government and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, whom Zakaria calls the “freest woman we knew.” Moving effortlessly between the story of her aunt’s extended family and the history of Pakistan, 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 efforts of the new Pakistanis to make their also new nation into the land of promises fulfilled echoes across these pages. The struggle between those who engage in politics for the good of all and those who engage for the good of the few is an essential part of this story. It becomes dishearteningly true that it is the latter group which seems to win all too often. More importantly, the cost wrought from the damage their victories (and their losses) is exponential. Consequently, it requires so much more merely to get back to the point history began. In her storytelling, Zakaria captures this fulcrum of history perfectly. Told from the insular view of a woman locked into her marriage even after her husband acquired another wife, this tale provides a glimpse into the world of middle class residents of Pakistan’s largest city Karachi over much of the last forty years of the twentieth century. It is a tale of women in a very patriarchal culture; of war and imperial interference; of personal loves and petty jealousies. There are moments of collective power in the name of justice—one such instance described by Zakaria involves young women refusing to back down in the face of police brutality and politicians’ threat. There are also descriptions of regional differences exploited by politicians, businessmen and rich landowners that devolve into fierce bloody ethnic conflicts. The idea of two wives married to one man and living in the same house on different floors is a fact in The Upstairs Wife, even if it is unusual in the daily lives of the Pakistani middle class. It is also serves as a useful metaphor for the historical situation Pakistan and India found their nations in after partition. Rafia Zakaria’s elegantly told memoir provides the reality of her aunt’s existence as the upstairs wife while also evoking the less definable but no less real account of Pakistan’s ongoing drama. The story that unfolds is both memorable and magnificent. Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series.  All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.    He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: