Saturday, December 4, 2010

Discuss how Sara Suleri has achieved the theme of displacement through a handful of family characters.

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 ) Suleri eventually flees, feeling "supped full of history, hungry for flavors less stringent on [her] palate, less demanding of [her] loyalty."  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."  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,"  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."  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 ) 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."  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.
Migration, the act of moving from one place to another, instigates displacement, for it involves more than just the abandonment of physical land. A migrant must relinquish his past and dismantle his notion of history in order to face what he encounters in the present, namely the "brocades of continuity and the eyebrows of belonging."  This, however, proves to be rather difficult, for how can anyone simply forget history and disregard memory? How can anyone ignore the pain that ensues after his roots have been severed, roots that had once firmly wedded him to familiar ground? Furthermore, how does it feel to be rootless?
Displacement, unfortunately, rarely has a definitive terminus, for it seems to perpetuate itself. The displaced often suffer from an almost-pathological wanderlust. Successive migrations prevent the formation of tenacious roots and disregard the laws of gravity. Continually roaming and shifting, migrants simply float, incapable of being attached to something so palpable as land. This freedom, however, becomes a burden, almost like Kundera's "unbearable lightness of being." The displaced yearn for placement, a self-defeating cause, which now "strain[s] and heave[s] against [their] now obsolete need for steady location." (Meatless Days)
Common to both Rushdie and Suleri is Pakistan, perhaps the saddest, bloodiest migration of all -- the displacement of a nation. Migration requires one to relinquish the past in order to survive in the present. But how can anyone simply forget history? Perhaps this is what Pakistan attempted to do, and perhaps this is why things went wrong. Freshly partitioned and eager to rid itself of Indian domination, Pakistan wanted to erase centuries of history and forget its Indian heritage. What Pakistan failed to realize, however, was that it had been India just moments ago, and only now had the freedom of giving itself a new name. Stumbling, searching, shifting -- Pakistan took on the unfathomable task of rewriting history.
"Dealing with a past that refuses to be suppressed, that is daily doing battle with the present," Rushdie realizes the obscuring nature of Pakistan's fragile history: "Pakistan, the peeling fragmenting palimpsest, increasingly at war with itself, maybe described as a failure of the dreaming mind."  By definition, a palimpsest erases what lies underneath; it covers up what came before, ready to be written on again and again. Pakistan, the palimpsest-country, was inscribed with an impermanent past and a variable present, "as though history, like a pestilence, forbid any definition outside relations to its fevered sleep." (Meatless Days ) Alluding to the constant presence of change (erasing, rewriting, erasing again), Suleri claims "the country [had] grown absentminded, and patches of amnesia hung over the hollows of the land like a fog."

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