Uncle Sohail’s Second Wife

Uncle Sohail’s Second Wife

For one odd, brief, and singular moment, the catastrophes of my family and my country had come together, showing me how they were woven together, knotted and inextricable. . . .

An excerpt from The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.

Courtesy of Beacon Press

Adapted from The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan by Rafia Zakaria (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.   


December 27, 2007

It was a mild winter evening whose spring-like bloom had inspired many to leave their barred windows ajar. Through the metal screen, the sounds of children playing, of distant hawkers and car horns and the smells of exhaust fumes and the neighbor’s cooking all wafted in. My mother, grandmother, and I kept an uncomfortable vigil in our living room by the telephone. We had spent the afternoon in prayer, because my aunt’s husband, Uncle Sohail, had been rushed to the hospital earlier that day after suffering a sudden stroke. Engrossed thus, we had not thought to turn on the television or check the news.

Benazir Bhutto, herself a daughter of Karachi and a fixture on the city’s political scene, was the freest woman we knew. A few days earlier she had returned to Pakistan after a six-year exile. All week Pakistan’s news channels had been covering news of a rally she was to address that evening in Rawalpindi. It must have been just a little after 6 p.m. when the telephone rang through the stillness of the sitting room. It is almost dusk, I remember thinking; soon we will hear the call to prayer.

And then, as I picked up the receiver to the old, gray phone, the world slowed. My father was on the other end of the line, calling from the hospital. My mother and grandmother stared at me. “Do you know what has happened?” he asked, his voice rising above the voices of a crowd in the background. No,” I replied, my own voice faltering under the gaze of the two women who waited with me. “Is he okay”? I asked into the wail of ambulance sirens on the other end. “Do you know she has died?” My father answered with a question. “Is he okay?” I asked again. It took him a minute to sort through the collision of questions. My uncle had survived his emergency surgery, he told me. And then, as if it were more important, he added, “Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated in Rawalpindi.”

A single moment birthed twin confusions. Uncle Sohail had lived and Benazir Bhutto had died. The complexities of each defied singular emotion; I could not celebrate the continuation of my uncle’s life or mourn the cessation of Benazir’s. In the moments after I hung up the phone, we said nothing. We had been praying for him to live, for his life to be spared, but were these prayers different from the ones we said decades ago when my grandmother and aunt coined elusive bargains with God to grant my aunt children? Did our sympathy for his present catastrophe erase the memories of his past culpabilities? My mother, grandmother, and I laid out our rugs to say the dusk prayer, as we had done thousands of times before. In the familiar rhythms of our rising and falling prayers, of mouthing verses that had fallen from our lips so many times before, we buried these questions.

Around us the city devolved into riots. It was rush hour when the news broke and angry mobs blocked all the exits of the main highways. Thousands of vehicles caught in traffic were set on fire or simply demolished with crowbars and sticks. My cousins and friends who were caught in the frenzy left their cars and walked to nearby houses for shelter. My father was stranded in the hospital with my aunt while my uncle remained in recovery. Karachi burned for days as news channels played the tape of Benazir’s assassination over and over again, a red circle marking her attacker and her last flailing moments. For one odd, brief, and singular moment, the catastrophes of my family and my country had come together, showing me how they were woven together, knotted and inextricable, inside and outside, male and female, no longer separate.


July 15, 1961

The trouble had begun in the 1950s, when Mohammad Ali Bogra, the prime minister of Pakistan, fell in love with his secretary. No one begrudged the boss, balding and middle aged, his dalliance. He was, after all, a powerful man, adept at making the right impression. When he spoke, it was with just enough British vowels pinned to his Bengali consonants to announce his class, and with just enough stately reserve to proclaim his pedigree. When he put on his neatly tailored suits he added a carefully chosen tiepin or a curious boutonniere: the hint of nonconformity that would lend him an air of (utterly unthreatening) eccentricity.

It could have been predicted—even expected—that such a master of aesthetic arithmetic would wish to sample the best of what was available beyond amenities like cigars and wine. The secretary he romanced was not just any woman shuffling papers, but a white woman, an American, selected by the discerning Mr. Bogra while he served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States before he became prime minister.

Despite his savvy with suits, accent, and politics, in the matters of the heart Mohammad Ali Bogra made a miscalculation. In adding up the delights his new companion could offer, and in glibly remembering that he, as a Muslim and as prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, was allowed four such companions, he left out an essential digit. Absent in his calculations were the measures of fury the woman he had already wed would unleash on him. This woman, Mr. Bogra’s first wife, initiated his undoing by elevating his second wife to the centerpiece of her new campaign for women’s rights in Pakistan.

Hamida Bogra was a formidable woman who, until being spurned, had spent her time making her own calculations of the most privileged sort and had given birth to two healthy sons. She could pass days selecting just the right hue of pink or orange to be worn to the Governor General’s Ball held every spring or deciding on the theme for the annual gala of the Ladies Welfare Association. The leather-bound calendar she carried in an ever-changing round of shiny purses was dotted with meetings and fund-raisers and raffles and teas, all for the benefit of rural villagers, hapless refugees, and poor, widowed women. On any given day she rushed from the opening of a health center in the midst of hovels to a prize-awarding ceremony at a school built for the daughters of the poor, to a fund-raiser at the mayor’s mansion. It was a busy life, but the one expected of the first lady of a new country who took her responsibilities as the exemplary Pakistani woman very seriously.

Arriving in this milieu of beneficence, news of her husband’s second marriage was a terrible blow. It floored her, leaving scores of school openings and clinic commemorations without a guest of honor, photo opportunities, or a flower bouquet recipient. When the details of her husband’s philandering and her own demotion emerged, they gouged even more flesh from the deep wound of her public betrayal. That the woman was white, like the imported white wives of Mughal kings past, lent the affair an ever more hoary form of subservience. If Bogra was any example, the other new Muslim rulers of Pakistan, for all their pretensions of sophistication and urbanity, their bowties and boutonnieres, were now exposed as no different from the harem-hoarding rajahs of empires past.

After the pain came the anger that sparked the campaign for women’s rights and set in motion the legislation that would redefine the terms of marriage for women all over Pakistan. Mrs. Bogra declared war against Mr. Bogra and all Pakistani men, who now, new arrivals in a Muslim country, believed that they had suddenly been given a license to marry, in accordance with Quranic injunction, one or two or three or even four women.

Fueled by her fury, the spurned Mrs. Bogra became the martial Mrs. Bogra. As the most famous wife in Pakistan, she gathered around her the wives and daughters and sisters of ministers and ambassadors and army generals and industrialists. They met in drawing rooms of distinction, and over tea in delicate cups of bone china, served by the most silent of servants, they developed their battle plans. In the tragedy of Mrs. Bogra their own vulnerabilities were suddenly exposed, their status as grande dames presiding over the drawing rooms of the country had been put in jeopardy by the alarming prospect of their men picking new wives from among the secretaries and shopgirls and air hostesses of the working world. If India threatened their borders, the women agreed, polygamy threatened their marriages. An Islamic Republic could not be allowed to be a Republic of men, men who could secretly wed again and again and yet again.

Despite the pain of her public abandonment, Mrs. Bogra was astute in her selection of allies, a skill that proved crucial to her eventual success. As her second-in-command she chose a woman as indomitable as herself and just as desirous to see the men of Pakistan put in their place. Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan was the wife of a slain prime minister, shot brutally at a public rally two years into Pakistan’s existence. As a famous widow known for her floor-sweeping skirts, she already commanded the helm of the All Pakistan Women’s Association. Flush with idealism and cash and without a husband to thwart her agenda, Raana Liaquat Ali Khan became Mrs. Bogra’s most stalwart supporter, and the All Pakistan Women’s Association made advocating a ban on polygamy its fervent cause. Her second choice was just as momentous: Nasim Aurangzeb, the daughter of Pakistan’s joint chief of army staff, the gruff and stern General Ayub Khan. If Raana Liaquat Ali Khan owed her power to a husband now gone, Nasim owed hers to a father who was just emerging as Pakistan’s newest strongman.

The women started with the obvious: a boycott of all state functions at which the new, white first lady was invited. At the dinner parties to welcome foreign diplomats, the opening of a national university, the inauguration of a new wing of the Pakistan Secretariat, the presence of the interloping new Mrs. Bogra would mean the absence of all the other wives and daughters and mothers. They were the hostesses of Pakistan’s elite gatherings, and they correctly calculated that without them the men would be left without the oil to grease their rusty conversations and the twittering laughter for their bumbled jokes. They would be forced, the ladies reasoned, to acknowledge Mr. Bogra’s wrongdoing, and by extension the evils of polygamy. The social boycott would be the first step in their efforts to ban polygamy.

When Prime Minister Bogra’s government fell in 1959, the women in the drawing rooms did not shed any tears for lost Pakistani democracy. The fall of a polygamist, even if it came at the expense of a downed democracy, was, all agreed, paramount. Indeed, thanks to their efforts the issue of polygamy was now being investigated by a specially appointed committee. One by one Mrs. Bogra and her allies worked on its members, cajoling them with cakes and conversation in their tastefully appointed drawing rooms. A first wife should not find out about her husband’s marriage through gossip, they said, nodding seriously as they told the sordid tale of just how suddenly their dear friend had learned of her own husband’s betrayal. The law must respect the rights of wives, their power to say no to a husband wanting another.

Their audience was not entirely convinced. The permission for polygamy was, after all, provided in the Quran, they told the women. A complete ban would not really be possible; it would anger too many Muslim men who had sacrificed so much to be a part of the Muslim state. In response the women argued that the country belonged not simply to Muslim men but also to Muslim women. Muslim women, they asserted, required security in their marriages, safety against interlopers, and a future that guaranteed their children freedom from abandonment by wandering fathers secretly in search of ever-younger wives. And so the conversations went back and forth and around in circles for one whole year and then two.

In 1961, two years after the ex-prime minister had taken his second wife, General Ayub Khan, the father of Nasim Ayub Khan, became governor general of Pakistan. It was through the military man’s election that the campaigning women were finally delivered a victory. The report of the Rashid Commission, whose perspectives the women had tried so hard to influence, was wrought into legislation under the title of the Muslim Family Law Ordinance, Pakistan’s first law on the procedures of marriage and divorce. Polygamy could not be forbidden—even the commission had not dared recommend that—but a marriage to a second woman would require permission from the first; and divorce, still unilaterally the prerogative of Pakistani men, had to be registered with the government. The Muslim Family Law Ordinance of 1961 was delivered to General Ayub Khan, the president of Pakistan, by a procession of chanting, victorious women. At the head of the crowd of women was the president’s daughter Nasim, who handed over the proposed ordinance to her father, who then promptly signed it into law.


January 1987

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.

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.

Rafia Zakaria is an author, attorney, and human rights activist. She is the author of the memoir The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press).