Saturday, December 4, 2010

Intimacy and Estrangement in Meatless Days

Sara Suleri opens Meatless Days, her memoir of her childhood and youth in Pakistan, with this sentence: "Leaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women." She immediately continues by describing, in her words, "perambulating through the grimness of New Haven" and of the pleasures of her "conversational way" .
This sets the tone for the entire work: she will render a deeply personal and in many ways intimate account of her life and its settings in prose that is airy and academic and even over-nuanced, making use of words like tantamount and perambulating as she describes the sights and sounds and feelings of her world and of herself as a child in Pakistan. She describes her brother Irfan's project of dove cultivation in the same mode:
He preferred to grow them rather than eat them. There was a time when he had a hundred doves on the roof of the Khurshid Alam Road house, which was quite a feat, considering that they'd had to be kept a strict secret from my father. Papa hated doves, aassociating them with the effete gambling of Deccan princedoms or with Trafalgar Square and his great distate of the English ability to combine rain and pigeon droppings. So Irfan built dovecote after dovecote on our roof, while Pap had no idea of the commerce and exchange beneath which he was living.
Suleri closes this anecdote by describing the chagrin and disbelief of her father when he discovers Irfan's rooftop dove cultivation and moves on to the next thought by declaring that her "parable has to do with nothing less than the imaginative extravagance of food and all the transmogrifications of which it is capable". Throughout the book she continually describes intimate memories and language that is strangely removed from them, as in the phrase "transmogrifications of food", and in describing her father's reaction to her younger brother in terms of "Deccan Princedoms", Trafalgar Square, and commerce and exchange.

With a First-hand Knowledge of the Country: Meatless Days

Suleri treats America uniquely because she lives there part-time. Though she resides there as she finishes her book, she does not feel she belongs to it, or it to her. "Rain in America has never felt to me like a condition of glad necessity, and Tom and I will never know the conversations we might have had on something like the twelfth of August in Lahore," she explains wistfully . It keeps her stagnant, cut off from her real life. While her mother died, she was "sitting in the American Midwest" . She refers to her move to America as "my American retreat", refers to herself as "away in America". After her sister's death, "I returned to America conscious of my vanity, the gay pretense with which I had believed that I could take a respite from my life".
By choosing to permanently relocate to America, she has betrayed her father, she feels, "our adulthood would often seem to him betrayal's synonym". She often feels that in America she has lost her "sense of place." "For a while it felt quite true, so that during my sojourn in the American Midwest the vast strangeness of the place to me was humanized by such a presence as Dale's face, just as in my first horror at the unmitigated prettiness of Williamstown I could turn to the grayness of Anita's eyes". Her book ends with her despondency in exile. She hopes some definition will rise from the tangle of her life which she compares to a body with broken bones. Her final sentence reveals a weary desire to let go of her weakened self, "I join its buoyancy and hide my head as though it were an infant's cranium still unknit, complicit in an Adam's way of claiming, in me, disembodiment".

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