Saturday, December 4, 2010

Major issues, themes and concerns in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days

‘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; motherhood 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 Welsh culture?
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." "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."
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]
...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.
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.
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. [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.
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"
"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."
"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)
"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...". 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" [Molly Yancovitz]

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