Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Meatless Days by Sara Suleri

"Leaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women. [M]y reference is to a place where the concept of woman was not really part of an available vocabulary: we were too busy for that, just living, and conducting precise negotiations with what it meant to be a sister or a child or a wife or a mother or a servant” (1). This is how Sara Suleri's memoir Meatless Days begins. It relates the author's life as a woman, a daughter, a sister and a friend in Pakistan, but it is also concerned with how these experiences converge. Sara is the daughter of a Pakistani journalist obsessed with his country, whom she affectionately calls Pip, like a famous Dicken's character. Her mother is Welsh and therefore can afford to “disappear into Welshness”, remaining mostly silent or smiling only.
In spite of the first sentence, the memoir is filled with the presence of women, but their lives are sadly dotted by tragedies: the author’s sister Ifat got murdered for unknown reasons, while her mother got knocked down by a rickshaw and died. There are also funny moments and anecdotes, like Mustakori's funny nicknames, or the instance where Sara's mother's Urdu is mocked:
"Mamma's Urdu was an erratic thing, with sudden moments of access into idioms whose implications would throw her audience into gasps of surprise. When Barkat's recalcitrance kept her children denuded of clean white starched shirts and dresses to wear to school each day, Mamma's Urdu took a deep breath and opened the nearest idiomatic door, which sent her unknowing into the great precisions of classic amorous discourse. Barkat did not know where to look in his chagrin when Mamma gazed at him and said, her reproach as clear as a bell, “Barkat, how could you cause me such exquisite pain?” (41).
Sara Suleri knits the history of her family with that of her home country, Pakistan, so much that the years are counted on the names of cooks and dictators (“in the Allah Ditta era”, “in the Bhutto era” and so on). It is a book full of metaphors – the food and the fasting of the title being the most obvious. Because of this, it is not an easy read and it requires some efforts.

The author's father is often at the centre of the discussion on nationalism, Westernization and the role of women in a Pakistani household. Sara Suleri confesses that his father's two degrees, one in Persian and another in journalism, made him “torn […] between the literary and the political” (112). He gave up Urdu or Hindi for English, at the time the language of history: “In later years he would tell me with a sigh 'I did myself disservice when I gave up my tongue'” (ibidem). She goes on writing that:  “Generations of Urdu conversation in his genes must have shuddered with desertion as Papa's imperatives sent him off, away from poetry, into an English daily. He adopted it with a Dickensian zeal, picking up phrases and tonalities that he would never lose” (ibidem). Furthermore, Pip has a devotion for Jinna, “the most aware of all the politicians of India at that time of how to maintain a poetical posture in its history” (113). The Quaid, the Leader, is how Jinnah is called in Pakistan, Suleri says. It is like a god in the household: her father calls him simply the Father, creating an implicit connection between fatherhood and the nation that stays with the author (a chapter is called 'Papa and Pakistan').

"Meatless Days" is overall an engaging read. It is not often that we hear about Pakistani women with this degree of without being sentimental. From her exile in the West, Sara Suleri tells us about her country with enthusiasm and the right doses of criticism.

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