It is the most ordinary of days that enclose tragedy within their sealed lips: after years of neat, regular morsels, dutifully swallowed, that singular, bitter bite. And so that December morning had been forgettable until Aunt Amina appeared unexpectedly at our breakfast table, her tear-sodden face hung like an incongruous portrait between the toast and the tea.
The day had begun, as always, with crows and cars and clattering cooking pans from the neighbor’s kitchen sounding together in the morning chorus. There had been the same hurried washing of face and hands, eyes screwed against the sting of soap; the same squabbles with my brother over this or that; the frantic search for the homework book.
It must have been around seven thirty when we descended into the kitchen, the humming, brimming heart of our house, and there we found the silence. My aunt Amina—puller of cheeks, maker of treats—had been thrust into the middle of our morning like a cold, sharp jab. She sat at the far end of the teak table, her wilted head drooping into a teacup. It was the pale yellow one, ornate and delicate, and a present from my father to my mother, cupped in his hands all the way back to Karachi from a business trip to Thailand. I had never seen anyone else drink from it.
Aunt Amina had been absent from the breakfast table of her father’s home, which was also her brother Abdullah’s and our father’s home for nearly eleven years. A dangler on the edges of adult conversations, I knew, even at ten years old, that married women did not come back to spend the night at their parents’ home. A bride’s departure from her father’s house was the beating heart of every marriage ceremony: the severing of one life and the start of another was commemorated in every wedding song I had ever sung and every nuptial ritual I had ever seen. At the rukhsati (leave taking), the bride, laden with gold and garlands, said her final good-bye to each one of her family members. It was a weeping finale to weeks of wedding celebrations, drawing into its cathartic fold all the married women in attendance. At every wedding, they cried with the bride and for the bride and for themselves and the homes and lives they had left behind.
I had seen Aunt Amina’s wedding only in pictures, its details shut within the photo album that my grandmother Surrayya kept in the deep shelves of her metal wardrobe. In it sat Aunt Amina and her husband, Uncle Sohail, as bride and bridegroom, arranged next to relatives, aunts and uncles and cousins, all in their wedding finery. The bride had worn a gold and red sari, its fabric so stiff that it angled at every fold, making a tent-like point in the middle of her head. The elderly women who supervised the dressing of brides in those days had taken away the glasses she always wore. In the few pictures in which she did look up at the camera, Aunt Amina looked as she probably felt: a bit blind.
On our way to school that morning, stuck in the back of the little brown hatchback in which my mother ferried us, I squirmed with questions. Our daily journey was a long one, threading from the suburban streets of our neighborhood in the southeast of the city to the deeper, denser heart of Karachi’s smog-smeared downtown. Well-tended villas standing guard over manicured lawns slowly gave way to grimy apartment buildings teetering over shuttered shops.
The point of demarcation between the familiar Karachi, of home and friends and nearly clean streets, and the darker, grumpier heart of the city was the mazar of the Quaid-e-Azam, Pakistan’s founder, who died on September 11, 1948, when the country was just a year old. The mausoleum’s white dome rose up pristine and commanding from its park of scrubby trees and bushes just as we turned from Shaheed-e-Millat Road onto M. A. Jinnah Road, named after the founder himself. I had been inside just once, for a school trip in the second grade. Under the cavernous atrium of the dome, we stood on the side of the pink marble tomb, thirty girls in a dutiful line. Solemn and serious, I had imagined the man whose staring face was on the rupee lying just under the carved stone: a stern, male Snow White.
After the Mazar, the traffic broke from the hesitant outings of suburban housewives gathering up tomatoes and potatoes and the right cuts of meat to the frenzy of men in pursuit, fueled by the fever of an urban hunt that began every dawn. There were buses with working men hanging from their sides, chauffeurs toting executives, and rickshaws and donkey carts ferrying all the rest. Those who lived here in the old parts of the city lived in tenements, crawling out every morning into the crowded streets, cramped from nights spent squeezed in small, airless rooms. Beyond the Mazar lay the Karachi of crude realities; of heroin addicts who sat crouched under blankets on the medians, of newly arrived farmers who tried to sell live chickens to harried clerks on their way to work, of street urchins that pressed their dirty, snot-crusted faces against car windows, looking into other lives.
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.”
Aunt Amina was there when we returned home from school that day and the one after. She stayed as one December day flowed into another and everyone dragged out their shawls and sweaters to bundle up against the barest bit of cold. She was there and not there, a diminished Aunt Amina, an approximation of the witty woman whose jokes and inflected barbs spiked up casual afternoon chats and whose cuddles had infused me with warmth for as long as I could remember. The woman I saw had been wrung out like the washing that hung outside the kitchen window: twisted, drained, and turned to squeeze out every drop of spirit.
Morning and night, she lay curled up on the bed in my grandmother’s room, under a blue woolen shawl, toying fringe and fabric and grief between thumb and forefinger. When the calls to prayer unfurled from the minarets, she rose from the bed, following my grandmother in her ablutions as the sounds from the first, the second, and then the third neighborhood mosque rippled through the morning, the afternoon, the tepid dusk, and finally the night. Mother and daughter washed their faces and arms to their elbows, swished the water around their mouths, and rinsed their feet and ankles to purify themselves for prayer. Before the window that faced the mango tree in the backyard, they laid down their prayer mats. Side by side they repeated the rituals that sectioned our daily lives into five portions. And then to bed Aunt Amina returned.
Sometimes she appeared at dinner, sitting on the extra chair brought into the kitchen from the larger table in the formal dining room. She ate little, small morsels of chapati doused in yogurt or rice absently tucked in her mouth, and mechanically swallowed. The conversation was careful, as if the grown-ups had culled it of every controversy before they appeared at the table to act out their parts. The menu almost always included fish, and so my grandfather, who always began the banter, would say something about the fish, its freshness or soft ness or saltiness, its date of purchase, its breed or its standing before fish of other kinds. If there was no fish, its absence provided a topic in itself. The rest of the cast would then perform their bit roles and walk-ons, adding opinions about the fish, agreements or disagreements or minor digressions. My mother usually contributed some comparisons—how our fish rated next to what her sisters might have served that week at their dinner tables. My father would assist with a comment or two, my grandmother would ask a question about when and how much more fish should be purchased to insure we had plenty. We, the children, were not expected to speak, and so we listened and noted that Aunt Amina never said anything.
Between meals floated the uncertainty that had colonized our house. The smells in the kitchen, the arrangement of bedrooms, the allotment of affections had all been shaken up by the return of a woman who had been honorably given away in marriage to another family. There was no precedent for it, and so my grandfather, newly retired, did the only thing he knew to do, which was to enlist the advice of others—as many others as he could think of. As the days passed, elders from the tiny transplanted community of Bombay Kokanis, who had migrated to Karachi in the decades after Partition, filtered in and out of our house. The men were led through the black gate, past the tall palms that lined the drive, and through the carved front door. Inside they were seated in the formal living room, with its tall windows opening to the garden beyond. Here, resting on cushions verdant with blooming roses and peonies embroidered by Aunt Amina in the days before her marriage, they debated what was right and what must be done, who had erred and who was wronged, who must submit and on what terms. It was a thorny question: What to do about a woman who had left her husband and returned to her father?
One afternoon, as I hung around outside the living room windows, ditched by my brother, who had gone off to play cricket in the streets, where I was not allowed, I saw yet another man being led into the formal dining room. A tall column of white and gray, his bearded form was followed by the bowed, respectful heads of my father and grandfather. I remembered him—I remembered his beard, the sharp white triangle, severe and precise, it formed against the brown skin of his face.
The occasion had been Aunt Amina’s nikah, the signing of the marriage contract that happens just before the wedding reception. It is a solemn legality left to the men, an exchange between the father of the bride, giving her away, and the groom to whose family she would soon belong. But my memory of the man came from a picture in the yellow photo album: the same column-like body, folded between my grandfather and the groom, the same triangular beard, white even then, nearly brushing the paper that he held up to be signed by father and husband. Aunt Amina was not in the picture: like all brides she had not been present at her nikah. I imagined her busy with the rituals of becoming a bride, with henna on her palms and her bridal finery laid out at her feet, her hair getting tamed and teased for the reception that evening, anxious and excited and never knowing the exact moment when the marriage contract was signed and sealed and she had become a wife.
Now the men sat surrounded by a terse silence. I watched them unnoticed from a side window. When they spoke, they passed between them a long piece of paper, tracing their fingers over one sentence and then another. Again and again they did this: my father, then my grandfather, looking at the paper, reading from the paper, and then looking up at the man with the triangular beard. Their voices were soft and low against serious faces. I could not hear what they said. I did not know, then, that the piece of paper was Aunt Amina’s marriage contract. My father and grandfather were asking the man, the imam who had married them, if she could ask Uncle Sohail for a divorce. Aunt Amina was not in the room that day either.
If until then the adults had conspired successfully to keep up some façade of regularity, that resolve crumbled the afternoon of the imam’s visit. There was no dinner that day as the grown-ups retreated to my grandparents’ bedroom and did what was almost never done in our house: they shut the door. Except for Zaid and me the rest of the house was empty. Dusk settled in, dimming the corners, chilling the empty kitchen, and hanging heavy over its pots and pans.
Zaid and I waited, expecting the receding light, the calls to prayer, the dinner hour to draw them from the room into the world where we had been left behind. We sat at the head of the marble stairs at the center of the house, our knees touching, debating whether we should turn on the lights, go to the kitchen, or knock on the door. We floated our guesses as to what was happening. She was getting divorced, I said. She was dying, he said. We had never really liked Uncle Sohail, we agreed, and now we hated him.
At nine thirty my mother finally came out of the room, her face puffy. We sat on the kitchen table, chastened by the oddity of the moment. Then she retrieved a frying pan from the pantry and some eggs from the refrigerator. With two quick thwacks she cracked the shells on the edge of the marble counter and into the sizzle of the pan. She slid the eggs, sunny-side up, each saddled by a slice of white bread, onto two plates. Then she sat between us at the teak table, and told us why Aunt Amina had returned. Uncle Sohail was getting married again to a new wife, a woman whom he had met at work. According to our Muslim custom, he was supposed to ask Aunt Amina for her permission. He had done so, but she had refused to give it. Uncle Sohail had said he would marry his new fiancée anyway, and so she had left and come back to our house.
* * *
I had never known that a man could have two wives. I had never been to a second wedding or met a second wife. In the days after the revelation, the idea swirled in my head, expanding into a sensational epic of injustice. Every night, under the blue flowered quilt my grandmother had made just for me, I tried to imagine what a wedding would be like for a man who already had a wife. Frustrated by my limited experience, the mysterious “other” wife erupted dark and powerful and witchlike in my head. Bedecked in bridal finery and cunning, she cast a spell that sentenced Aunt Amina to a solitary chamber under a curse of silence. With his first wife gone, she tricked her new husband into believing that she was a better wife and that his old wife was dead, or disappeared.
At this point, my imagination stalled. Should the spell be lifted so that the first wife, the good one, could be restored to her prince? Or should I wish for a different prince altogether, one who would rescue the first wife and show the duped husband the consequences of his mistake? It was confusing and it did not seem right, and I would fall asleep vexed.
When I awoke the questions and the unfinished story were still there. Aunt Amina’s home, where I had been an occasional visitor, became in my head the setting for these tortures. It was built in the old style, with four or five rooms arranged around a central courtyard beckoning in sea breezes and banishing cooking smells. Over a year ago, Uncle Sohail had begun construction on a set of rooms that would sit atop the original four: a new apartment with a brand new kitchen and a bathroom with a shower, not the bucket and cup we used to pour water over our heads. The bottom floor, where Aunt Amina had moved as a new bride, would be rented out, he said, and they would be moving up to the new wing. As the builders marched in and brick was laid upon brick, a feckless Aunt Amina failed to suspect that the extra hearth was to destroy her own.
The man was a liar, and all of us his victims. The bottom floor was for a new wife, the unknown woman whose shadow had darkened our home and Aunt Amina’s life. I imagined Uncle Sohail trussed up to receive his new bride: Would he wear a suit or a sherwani? Would there be a henna ceremony, with women singing in circles, playing the dhol and tambourine, laughing and teasing the new bride? Would there be a reception, I wondered? Was a second marriage just like the first in mirth and merriment?
I tried to mold my visions into coherence, into a single story and hoped for an ending. I was thwarted by childhood and the awkwardness of knowing what I was not supposed to know, what I had gathered from whispered conversations behind closed doors. With great stores of confused compassion, I circled around Aunt Amina, trying out rehearsed jokes or hugging her effusively or pouring out long monologues about some escapade known to all in the fifth grade: I understood incompletely, but felt fully. The second marriage, I had learned one evening as my mother sat chatting with one of her sisters, had been championed by many of our friends and relatives, their betrayals gouging my grandparents’ wounded hearts.
One day a visiting older lady assessed my aunt’s dejection and rendered her verdict before us all: Aunt Amina owed her husband gratitude, our guest announced between sips of the rose drink we had served. The children of the new wife would brighten her life, Aunt Amina was told; she had no right to weep and make it out to be such a tragedy. Another afternoon, another neighbor said what may have been on the minds of most of our visitors that winter of 1986: “At least he is not leaving you,” she said with her good-byes. “At least you will still be his wife.”
These visiting oracles had only bit roles in Aunt Amina’s saga of torment. The chief villain’s role was played by Aziza Apa, Uncle Sohail’s older sister. This was the same tall, domineering woman who had arrived at my grandparents’ doorstep a decade ago, singing the praises of her youngest brother, begging my grandparents for Aunt Amina as his bride. She had sat on the fancy sofas in her silky red shalwar kamiz, the silver and gold boxes of sweets arranged in a towering pile before her. She had choreographed her conversation to allay every fear my grandparents nursed about marrying off their daughter. Their samosas, she said, were just like they had been in Bombay, not the overfilled Pakistani kind you got in Karachi bakeries. Every few sentences she lapsed into the Kokani dialect my grandparents spoke, nursing their nostalgia, kneading what had been a transient acquaintance in the lanes and alleys of the old neighborhood in Bombay into a full-fledged filial bond. By the end of that afternoon, as Aunt Amina and her sisters listened from the adjoining bedroom, Uncle Sohail, who was expected to be just the first of her would-be suitors, had become the only man her parents ever wanted as a husband for their eldest daughter.
But just as Aziza Apa had been the architect of the marriage, she had also constructed the cracks and crevices that would leave it flailing. In the teatime conversations of earlier years, when Aunt Amina had visited in the dead heat of the afternoon, a transformed Aziza Apa had been revealed. The jolly woman who brought gifts and lavished praise had vanished once the new bride had been installed in her brother’s home. The new Aunt Aziza expected complete submission from her youngest brother’s wife and daily devotion, which spanned from a morning phone call to ask after her health to a full meal cooked and sent to her home every Friday. On Sundays all the wives of her brothers were expected to pay homage to their matriarch, digest her evaluations of their lives, praise her children, and often even clean her house. No detail was too private: for years Aziza Apa had been inquiring every month, before all gathered, whether Aunt Amina was pregnant.
It was Aziza Apa who had passed the verdict on Uncle Sohail’s marriage, pulling all her clan on the side of her darling Sohail, whose wife had denied him not just the son he deserved but any progeny at all. “You are barren,” she had reminded Aunt Amina. “You should be thankful that he is a good enough man to still keep you at all.” Her words had echoed loud and deep; suddenly everyone in the community saw clearly that Uncle Sohail was the self-denying hero whose good-heartedness led him to keep a wife who could not fulfill her duty. 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.
In our house, on the sideboard of the formal dining room by the tray holding the car keys, invitations for weddings began to pile up as they did every winter. It was the season. There they lay, proof of the celebrations that continued unabated in the lives of others. Every day brought a few more: fat, festive envelopes promising feasts at hotels, or thin frugal ones threaded with gold lettering begging our respectable presence at smaller venues. Neither made it out of their resting places. Weddings—the days and weeks of rituals preceding them and the parties held after them—are the fairy-lit center of Karachi’s social life, events that mark for women points of respite from their otherwise secluded lives of cooking for the in-laws and yelling at children. They are where the prosperity of a cousin’s blooming business or the extra pounds on a sister-in-law can be witnessed, old scores settled and new gripes gobbled up between mouthfuls of grease and spice. That December many yearned for us to appear at one celebration or another so that, between compliments for the bride and congratulations for the groom, my mother or grandmother could be asked: “How is Amina . . . ? We heard her husband is marrying again and that she has returned to your house.” As they threw out the words, they could watch our faces, gauge in the glint of our eyes and the turn of our heads the extent of our embarrassment. With this measure, they could mark the boundary between their conformity and our scandal, the degree of our banishment, which defined, after all, their own belonging.
Excerpted from "The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan" by Rafia Zakaria (Beacon Press, 2015 ). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.