Displacement in Meatless Days

Alaka Holla, English 27, Brown University, Autumn 1997

Like Rushdie in Shame, Suleri also struggles with the displacement caused by migration. Writing out of New Haven, she feels compelled to depict (and sometimes justify) her complex relationship to Pakistan. With a Welsh mother and a Pakistani father, she probably experienced identity problems while living in both Britain and Pakistan. She spent most of her childhood days in Pakistan and consequently developed a distaste for a history "synonymous with grief and always most at home in the attitudes of grieving." (Meatless Days 19) Suleri eventually flees, feeling "supped full of history, hungry for flavors less stringent on [her] palate, less demanding of [her] loyalty." (123) Thus she begins to float, rootless and rambling, never quite finding a spatial reality. She finds herself "rarely able to lay hands on the shape of a city, or intuit north from south in any given continent, its up from its down." (75) Her eccentric friend Mustakor (herself a compulsive wanderer) warns in a telegram, "IT WASTES THE YEARS YOU WANDER." When her brother Shahid tells her, "We are lost, Sara" on phone from England after a brief return visit to Pakistan, she must agree. Far removed from Pakistan -from its history, its memories, its turmoil -- she (dis)places herself in America. Because of the autobiographical nature of Meatless Days, Suleri does not need to transfer her experiences onto detached, fabricated characters as Rushdie does. She simply writes about her family.

A Welsh woman trying to reconcile her race with her Pakistani existence, Suleri's mother typifies the displacement that arises when one settles in a foreign land. In a nation still "learning to feel unenslaved," (163) she, with her white skin, represents a colonial past that Pakistan was so eager to forget. Describing her mother's "repudiation of race [which] gave her a disembodied Englishness," Suleri recognizes the scope of her mother's hardship: "She learned to live apart, then -- apart from even herself - growing into that curiously powerful disinterest in owning, in belonging, which years later would make her so clearly tell her children, ‘Child, I will not grip.' She let commitment and belonging become my father's domain, learning instead the way of walking with tact on other people's land." (164) Suleri's mother, aware that she can no longer hold onto her own history yet resigned to the fact that she may never regain any semblance of it at all, does not have to ability to plant herself on the ground, to grow a new set of roots. As a migrant that has "floated upwards from history, from memory, from Time," (Shame 85) she has nothing substantial enough to "grip." For her, Pakistan remains intangible.

Conversely, Suleri's sister Ifat devotes herself to Pakistan. Perhaps shame for her light skin compels her to marry Javed, a dark, a polo-playing Pakistani. She learns to speak Punjabi and even masters the Jehlum dialect. She takes pains to educate herself in the army's history and the customs of Javed's ancestral village. Ifat denies displacement and becomes Pakistan.

Although not part of the family, Suleri's eclectic friend Mustakor appears as yet another figure displaced by migration. Having lived in various places -East Africa, Britain, America -- Mustakor comically acquires just as many names -- Congo Lise, Faze Mackaw, Fancy Musgrave. Acting in plays with Sara, she attempts to create realities for herself, forming "a deep allegiance to the principle of radical separation: mind and body, existence and performance, would never be allowed to occupy the same space of time." (49) Because of her inability to settle and her drifting interests, Mustakor fails to create an identity for herself away from the stage and other forms of fanfare. She remains deprived of history, bereft of roots.

Pakistan OV Sara Suleri Meatless Days

Last modified 18 May 2001