Sara Suleri's Meatless Days -- Leading Questions

Members of English 27, Postcolonial Studies, Brown University, Autumn 1997

[See also questions posed by members of the 1996 class and those from English 171, Sages and Satirists.]

No, it is not merely devotion that makes my mother into the land onto which this tale must tread. I am curious to locate what she knew of the niceties that living in someone else's history must entail, of how she managed to dismantle that other history she was supposed to represent. Furthermore, I am interested to see how far any tale can sustain the name of "mother," or whether such a name will have to signify the severance of story. Her plot therefore must waver: it must weave in her own manner of sudden retreating, as though I could almost see her early surprise when she found herself in Pakistan, on someone else's land. I, who have watched her read a book, and teach it, should be able to envisage the surrendering of black and white behind her reading of the land. No wonder she nuanced, when her progeny was brown.

Suleri's mother is of Welsh origin; what is it about motherhood that explains that Suleri's mother represents the "land onto which this tale must tread," when the story most strongly reflects Pakstani culture, and certainly nothing of Welsch culture? Why does Suleri call her autobiography a tale at this time, notably in this section on how she perceivced her mother, the very creator of the life which she is recounting, and thus to whom she owes its reality? What thematic framework does the association of motherhood, land and storytelling establish in this passage? What is Suleri's mother's relationship to the nation of Pakistan and why does she move through this country, "with a curious relaxation that seem[s] unencumbered by any judgment?" [Emilie Cassou]

I missed Tillat's children when they left. There are too many of them, of course--all of my siblings have had too many. Each year I resolve afresh that my quota of aunthood is full, that I no longer am going to clutter my head with new names, new birthdays. But then something happens, like finding in the mail another photograph of a new baby, and against my will they draw me in again. I did not see Ifat's children for four years after she had died, and when Tillat and I visited them in Rawalpindi, in the pink house on the hill, Ayesha, the youngest, whispered to her paternal grandmother, "My aunts smell like my mother." When she repeated that to me, it made me tired and grave. Tillat and I slept for ten hours that night, drowning in a sleep we could not forestall, attempting to waken and then falling back exhausted into another dreamless hour.

I think Ayesha speaks a beautiful truth, sisters resemble each other in so many ways which declare their undeniable ties to one another. How else is Sara bound to her silblings, other than by her scent? Can we discuss Suleri's use of the senses? Due to her large amount of food descriptions, Suleri senses never turn off. Although scent is often a difficult sense to describe, Ayesha captures a familiar comforting scent with ease. Why does this realization cause both Tillat and Sara to fall into a deep sleep? What implications does the comment carry? Sara's often describes her dreams and sleep patterns during her states of mourning. Does the author sleep to escape from the deaths of her relations? Is sleep the closest the author can come to dying herself? [Corey Binns]

One of the striking contrasts between Rushdie's Shame and Suleri's Meatless Days is the simplicity or at least "everydayness," of Suleri's subject matter, whereas Rushdie makes everything so- grandiose. Where Rushdie wrote about characters whose lives had enormous repercussions on those around them, the risings and fallings nations' leaders and such, Suleri writes a much more personal tale about her family, in which cooks marked the progression of time. Futhermore, Rushdie took great pains to remind the reader that the bizarre and wild tale he was unfolding was a made-up story. Suleri, (or her surrogate narrator) presents her text like autobiography (fictionalized or not), a literal prose, much more like a memoir than an epic.

Nevertheless, both Rushdie's and Suleri's works concern (directly or indirectly) Pakistan, and there is overlap of background subject matter: The rise of Islamic fundamentalism, for example, and the unfortunate succession of Pakistan's leaders.

"...Islam predictably took to the streets shaking Bhutto's empire."(16)

"By this time Bhutto was in prison and awaiting trial, and General Zulu was presiding over the Islamization of Pakistan. But we had no time to notice."(17)

Just from these lines, I automatically (accurately or not) equate Bhutto to Rushdie's fictitious character Iskander Harrapa and General Zulu to Raza Hyder. In Rushdie, these events were dramatic forces in the book, cataclysmic even. In Suleri, "we had no time to notice." Can we better understand the intents or functions of these authors by comparing the overlap of their novels, and their different strategies of addressing the same issues? [Jennifer Ellingson]

Suleri's Meatless Days is, like Aké, a piece of autobiography. Like Soyinka's book, this one is not linear, but jumps about from memory to thought to memory to sensation and back to reminescence again. Yet Suleri differs from Soyinka in that her writing is clearly intended to be a work of postcolonial relevance; this fact emerges from the language and the telling, and especially from the fragmentation of the narrative. Somehow Suleri comes across as much more d eliberate about how and why she breaks up the linear progression of her life. What does she add (or subtract) from the text by such a technique? In comparison to Soyinka? Rushdie? [Gregory Gipson]

How could I tell Shahid's story and let Ifat die before his eyes? Have I nothing in me, then, to intervene between him and that great in delicacy?[104]

THis strikes me as the author's expression of percieved inadquacy in the face of her subject. More follows:

How she would shake her head, to see my complete regression into a woman who does not care for character at all and wants to change only the plot... [154]

...But I was baffled by her lesson: if I am to break out of the structure of affection, I asked her silently, then what is the idiom in which I should live? She would not tell me, but even today -- as I struggle with the quaintness of the task I've set myself, the obsolescence of th these quirky little tales -- I can feel her spirit shake its head to tell me, "Daughter, unplot yoursel; let be." But I could not help the manner in which my day was narrative, quite happy to let Mamma be that haunting world at which narrative falls apart. [157]

In a way, this is Suleri's way of doing what other author's we have read also do, examing her role as story teller, asserting the context in which she has the right to tell stories. It is interesting to compare Suleri's humble and at times self-effacing way of doing this with Rusdie's devil-may-care, humorous, and perhaps even arrogant way of doing so. While Rushdie (and others) seems to argue that given the validity of many interpretations of an event, his may as well be the considered first, Suleri continually reminds us that given the complexities of the matters at hand, she regrets she did not have more helping hands (specifically those of her admired family members) to help her. Examine this in the light of Suleri's relatively light use of the fantastic.

It made me respect her voice, that she viewed it so humbly herself. It is just these attitudes that make me think I'd rather have Suleri for a friend and confidant and Rushdie as party entertainment (and certainly not as a boyfriend!). How do the author's attitudes about narrative and about themselves as story tellers color our reading of their books? How do they contrast with other author's we have read?

A favorite meatless day breakfast, for example, consisted of goat's head and feet cooked with spices into a rich and ungual sauce - remarkable , the things that people eat. And so, instead of creating an atmosphere of abstention in the city, the institution of meatless days rapidly came to signify the imperative behind the acquisition of all things fleshy.(32) [Margaret Hander]

What I found were hunks of meat wrapped in cellophane, and each of them felt like Mamma, in some odd way. . . .I stole away a portion of that body. It was a piece of her foot I found, a small bone like a knuckle, which I quickly hid inside my mouth, under my tongue. Then the dream dissolved, into an extremity of tenderness. (44)

This may seem like an obvious question, but in the chapter "Meatless Day", what is the significance of meat? Suleri seems to be entirely fixated on it. She writes a great deal about her discovery of the actual ingredients (balls)of kapura and describes many childhood encounters with food (e.g. the kidney episode). Again, what does this mean and why does she equate her mother with meat? [Alaka Holla]

In Suleri's Meatless Days, the narrator states that "there are no women in the third world." How does the following passage tie in with this theme?

So in the end there was no place left where Ifat could return: in each room she was new. "Will no one ever let that girl be at home," I thought, protection spluttering in me like the sulphur flare of a match that flares beyond the call of duty. Ifat watched my face; "It doesn't matter, Sara," she once told me ruefully. "Men live in homes, and women live in bodies" (p.143)

How do we read this passage theoretically? Are women always homeless? Or, if women live in bodies (we might also add that men live in women's bodies...) is it only men who can be displaced from their homes? [Adam Stolorow]

"When Mustakori first arrived, she at once fell victim to the vagaries of the city and wanted a vocabulary to do justice to the perfect postcards in her mind. and the word with which she kept rubbing shoulders--dangerously--was "subtlety." "Subtlety": that word cropped up often when Pakistan attempted to talk about itself in history. It was at the cutting edge of our border with India, that great divide of sibling rivalry, when India described our portion of the map of the subcontinent as ferociously mean and skinny, we bridled and said that actually it was subtle and slim..."

[Mustakori] would seek out the slender Gandhara statue of the fasting Buddha and its lovely intricacies of sinew and rib. There, she would frown at it, trying to locate the subtlety principle, instead only feeling flummoxed by the obviousness of it all. That she should feel flustered staggered me. 'Can't you see, 'I tried to explain, 'that you aren't being stupid at all? that Lahore plays on the enchantment of the obvious?? that it is arrogant because it refuses to be anything besides what it seems to be?'...Mustakor had perfected beyond all normal ken an ability not to see which made her terribly nervous about what a subtle thing the obvious can be. After having tried out every angle of possible explanation, I was finally driven to the dead end of proverbs--'wisdom in the vernacular'--as a way to alleviate my extreme sense of irritation...'Is the brain bigger or the buffalo?' 'Buffalo' blurted Mustakor. Then she ran, and would not stay for a reply." [56]

What is Suleri's point in mentioning the "vagaries" of the city, the "perfect postcards"? Is she commenting on the inability of Pakistan to be essentialized, by the western world, or even by insiders like Mustakor. What are we to make of the sarcasm in Suleri's voice when she describes the Pakistani response to India's jibes? Is she poking fun at Pakistan's insecurities and defense mechanisms which have been developed to fight a sense of insignifcance? Or is she commenting, like so many other authors, on the postcolonial subject's need to reclaim words and terms? How can the passage be applied to Suleri's own writing? What is the significance that her own writing style can be seen as obscure, subtle, if you will, while at the same time anecdotal and perhaps "vernacular" as she calls it? [Irene Tung]

I could not lay a finger on it at first when I moved to New Haven, but I knew that a trouble sat on every conversation that I had, and it vexed me to be ignorant. Then one day I realized, why, there are rabbits in everybody's eyes, creatures who in panic dart around with all the agility of things that can be hurt... with a sigh I knew that I now lived in a world where every conversation threatened to construe itself into a judgement of the soul. For a talking woman, it felt hard, at first, to have so many whites of eye in mind that seemed to protect themselves in the wrong direction, veering into publicity of their need. I grew used to it, though, and now when my friends shake their heads and groan, "Oh, university!" - I answer briskly, "Rubbish! It's the fault of living in this ugly city and its evil climate." (102-3)

"Remember," I said warningly, "that I've lived many years as an otherness machine, had more than my fair share of being other, so if my brother or my father start picking up the trend, I have every right to expostulate!"(105)

[Sahid's] policy was that if he could not make cards then at least he could make amends: residues of that innocence still quicken his heart today... But how can I pick up on that Right Path lingo, listing all the things that Shahid should or should not have done, different ways he could have plotted out his necessary mistakes... Nevertheless, whether he breaks or makes amends with habit, I conjure him to remember the significant labor he performed when he maintained, through all those years, his astonishing gaiety of soul. "It's not frivolity," I urged him, "it's work -- painstaking, extravagant work!"(106-7)

This gaiety of soul which Sahid once had seems to be a far cry from the panicked creatures with rabbits in their eyes in New Haven. Suleri makes a statement about life in New Haven, and I think, in some ways, Western culture in general. (i.e. the "hustle-bustle" of London) Is Western culture to blame for Sahid's loss of gaiety? Sara seems to retain it yet "had more than [her] fair share of being other." Can you see different priorities in both Western and Eastern styles of living? What should people in both be working towards? Why is it so hard to do both? Some concepts I consider are individualism and fear. [Dave Washburn]

What is Suleri depicting in her sister when she describes Ifat as two? Suleri attempts to identify herself as Ifat's twin, then realizes, "[i]t cannot be, for she was twinned before my time, her face already raising to the power of some other number, which danced about her shoulder like a spirit miniscule" (131). How is this "woman of addition" related to the imagery of space, water, and light?

"Oh, home is where your mother is, one; it is where you are mother, two; and in between it's almost as though your spirit must retract...your spirit must become a tiny, concentrated little thing, so that your body feels like a spacious place in which to live..."(147).

Of Ifat's death, Suleri says, "A curious end for such a moving body, one that, like water, moved most generously in light." "And so with painful labor we placed Ifat's body in a different discourse, words as private and precise as water when water wishes to perform both in and out of light" (148). [Molly Yancovitz]

Main Screen Pakistan Sara Suleri Meatless Days