Saturday, December 4, 2010

Main Characters in Meatless Days by Sara Suleri

The Character of Dadi

In her autobiography, Meatless Days, Sara Suleri brings the reader right into her family's life in Pakistan from two intertwined perspectives. At times she has the eye of a child growing up in Pakistan, at other times she speaks from the more distanced eye of an adult living in the United States. She begins with her adult view which helps ease the reader into her story because it is a perspective closer to our own. Later she moves into descriptions of life in Pakistan with her siblings and grandmother told from a child's point of view.
It is interesting to note how Suleri develops the character of her grandmother from an adult perspective and what her childhood memories add to the picture of Dadi the reader gets.
Suleri uses short sentences when first introducing Dadi to get across information about Dadi's history; where she was born, when she married, when and why she moved to Pakistan. Much is left to the reader's imagination early on, and specifics get filled in as the story progresses. The fist physical description we get of Dadi is much more lyrical than our initial introduction.
By the time I knew her, Dadi with her flair for drama had allowed life to sit so heavily upon her back that her spine wilted and froze into a perfect curve, and so it was in the posture of a shrimp that she went scuttling through the day.
The description is seemingly from her perspective as a child when she thought of her grandmother as scuttling like a shrimp, but she is reflecting as an adult on how her grandmother had allowed life to sit heavily upon her spine.
As the narrative progresses Suleri shares some of her grandmother's little idiosyncrasies such as the walking sticks she would cut down from the garden even though Suleri's father would buy her dozens. We become familiar with Dadi's traditional values through Suleri's description of her grandmother sitting in the courtyard in the late afternoon winter sun.
With her would go her Quran, a metal basin in which she could wash her hands, and her ridiculously heavy spouted waterpot, that was made of brass. None of us, according to Dadi, were quite pure enough to transport these particular items, but the rest of her paraphernalia we were allowed to carry out. These were baskets of her writing and sewing materials and her bottle of pungent and Dadi-like bitter oils, with which she'd coat the papery skin that held her brittle bones.
Not only does Suleri convey Dadi's values and personal character but the reader also gains a sense of Dadi through Suleri's extremely effective physical descriptions of her grandmother which often seem influenced from her childhood mind.

The Character of Mustakori

The character of Mustakori further deploys the interpretative figure of migrancy in Suleri's memoirs. Yoking identity and performance, Suleri's childhood friend entertains multiple names, cultures and identities that map Mustakori's displacement by her very route from East Africa to Ireland to Lahore. Upon arrival Mustakori immediately intuits Pakistan's "deep historical dislike" for her most recent scripted role as a "brown European"  and immediately she seeks recourse through performance, and she proves successful in this endeavor. Not coincidentally, shortly after her enrollment at the Kinnaird School for Girls, Mustakori receives the title of actress accompanied by an invitation to continue her perpetual performance -- but on stages. Suleri offers a nuanced understanding of Mustakori's theatrics, "her 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" . Like Surraya, Mustakori accesses her creative powers in self-formation by acknowledging and then mimicking the very mode of identity formation society expects from her. That is, Mustakori and Surraya both insist upon radically separating mind and body, preferring instead a contingent selfhood.
A possible misreading of Suleri's gutted category of women and the meatless disembodiment achieved -- somewhat differently -- by Surraya and Mustakori can lead to the false conclusion that through performance one can enjoy a newfound liberation -- choosing roles and identities like outfits with ease and option. Rather, as the character of Mustakori exemplifies, performance does not connote freedom, and in her continual audition Mustakori appears always painfully aware of her incomplete subjectivity. The anxious energy that keeps Mustakori in search of some totality proves draining. So unsure of her discourse, Mustakori takes on characters without a moment's warning. Here Suleri recites Fancy's, (another name for Mustakori) blatant robbery of her proper lines:
As she talked on the voice grew more and more familiar, giving me the strangest sense of deja vu, but it was only when Fancy darted a guilty glance in my direction that I finally realized what she had done. She had pilfered my voice! In my absence, ventriloquized me to a T! I was the man making foolish faces, while she was the chatterbox on my knee! . . . "Mustakori," I said very firmly, "give it back to me." For a second, she looked as though she considered feigning ignorance. But then, "I'm glad I had you for a while," she said most cheekily.  
Throughout her anti-essentialist narrative, Suleri diligently divorces mind from body, locating nothing but speech as the mediation for subjectivity. Therefore, by relating Mustakori's playful treachery, "I'm glad I had you for a while," she highlights the intimacy between speech and subjectivity. Following this logic of distinction, Suleri's father refuses investigators' pleas to perform an autopsy on the murdered body of Ifat. Commending her father's decision Suleri attests, "Ifat's gold was in her speech, in language that reflected like a radiance from her: they would find nothing in her interior . Like the identity of women in the third world, nothing interiorizes the body by virtue of biology, but rather by virtue of speech and thought.

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