Suleri the Lexicographer

Mike Laws, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Because the foremost characteristic of Sara Suleri's Meatless Days is its precision of language-- the writer clearly has a tremendous vocabulary, and never hesitates to employ even an esoteric word, so long as it best suits her meaning-- certain choices tend to stand out as strange or even counterintuitive, given their context. Probably the best example in the first chapter appears at the end of the discussion on Dadi and God:

God she loved, and she understood him better than anyone. Her favorite days were those when she could circumnavigate both the gardener and my father, all in the solemn service of her God. With a pilfered knife, she'd wheedle her way to the nearest sapling in the garden, some sprightly poplar or a newly planted eucalyptus. She'd squat, she'd hack it down, and then she'd peel its bark away until she had a walking stick, all white and virgin and her own. It drove my father into tears of rage. He must have bought her a dozen walking sticks, one for each of our trips to the mountains, but it was like assembling a row of briar pipes for one who will not smoke: Dadi had different aims. Armed with implements of her own creation, she would creep down the driveway unperceived to stop the cars and people on the street and give them all the gossip that she had on God. [3]

The word that caught my eye, the one I am talking about here, is that gossip in the final sentence. Typically, of course, one does not refer to religious speech, to preaching or proselytizing, as gossip-- unless one hopes to convey a subtle scorn for his or her subject. So, having been bombarded throughout the paragraph with Suleri's rather tame, impassive vocabulary (pilfered rather than stolen, circumnavigate rather than sneak by), the reader cannot help but be diverted by the relatively suggestive term in the final clause.

Why would Suleri do this-- mix a loaded term with her otherwise innocuous diction? Is she (lightly) satirizing her grandmother, about whom she feels-- as we will see later in the chapter-- somewhat ambivalent? Does she mean to call attention back to the beginnings of the paragraph, where the satire is even more subtle? Just what effect does that gossip have?

Main Screen Pakistan Sara Suleri Meatless Days Leading Questions

Last modified 1 December 2003