HANS: Sara Suleri has a foot in both worlds, Pakistani and Western — she is a branch of the family tree that has been grafted onto a foreign oak. At once a participant and an observer of Pakistani culture, her Western background provides her with an anthropologist's ability to peel away and analyze each layer of her life. In Meatless Days, she begins by recounting the day-to-day life of her childhood in Pakistan, one in which women don't have a collective identity:
To a stranger or an acquaintance, however, some vestigial remoteness obliges me to explain that my reference is to a place where the concept of woman was not really part of an available vocabulary: we were too busy for that, just living, and conducting precise negotiations with what it meant to be a sister or a child or a wife or a mother or a servant. By this point admittedly I am damned by my own discourse, and doubly damned when I add yes, once in a while, we naturally thought of ourselves as women, but only in some perfunctory biological way that we happened on perchance. Or else it was a hugely practical joke, we thought, hidden somewhere among our clothes. But formulating that definition is about as impossible as attempting to locate the luminous qualities of an Islamic landscape, which can on occasion generate such aesthetically pleasing moments of life. My audience is lost, and angry to be lost, and both of us must find some token of exchange for this failed conversation. I try to lay the subject down and change its clothes, but before I know it, it has sprinted off evilly in the direction of ocular evidence [pp. 1-2]
The gender lines are deeply skewed: a woman defines herself by her relation to other people — “a sister or a child or a wife or a mother or a servant» — instead of by her identity as a singular person. Because there is such a distinct lack of self-identity, the women in Meatless Days are in the background of society — when one of Suleri's students asks her why there are no female Pakistani authors on her syllabus, she responds, "...because there are no women in the third world."
The discussion of womanness and the female body becomes a recurring motif; one of the most striking images is that of Irfan burning, an incident of grotesque terror that almost leaves him castrated. However, Suleri doesn't further comment on the matter beyond the cryptic statement: "...it took me years to realize yes, something female in me had been deeply shocked." While intriguing, the comment leaves itself up to interpretation. Any thoughts on what you guys think it means?
KIM: Hans noticed that “the female body becomes a recurring motif” in Meatless Days, which it does especially in relation to Ifat. Suleri uses her sister’s contradicting beauty and grit to separate the female body from her character, lamenting, “Ifat’s story has nothing to do with dying; it has to do with the price a mind must pay when it lives in a beautiful body” (132). Suleri presents the male conception of beauty as a burden for Pakistani women. In contrast to the other Pakistani women, Ifat refuses to embrace her beauty, choosing instead to reject it. “In that era she hated her body, which had become beautiful in a way that was too womanly for her tastes, hungry for childhood’s swifter grace. So Ifat would hold her face fastidiously, a walking crown above such bodily disdain, as though she would concede to walking beside her body but would not inhabit it, not yet” (139). In order to prove her individuality, Ifat intentionally sets herself apart from the fragility and submissiveness implied by her beauty. Ifat defies expectations, taking control of herself in a climactic moment when her “body looked different” (175). The result is a triumphant image of Ifat, “more beautiful than her own beauty” (p. 175). In this transfiguration, Suleri demonstrates the power that women have over their identity.
The emphasis on the distinct entities of body and mind seems almost spiritual. Ifat’s goodness radiates in a form of true beauty that is more powerful than the corporal level. Does this God-like portrayal of Ifat add another dimension to the categories of woman as only “a sister or a child or a wife or a mother or a servant”?
Suleri’s glowing admiration of her sister portrays her as a paragon for all Pakistani women struggling to define themselves, offering the reader these stories to help others achieve the “beauty” she sees in Ifat. Does Suleri herself meet the standard defined by her description of Ifat? While she never focuses a whole chapter on herself, does Suleri present herself as an example for Pakistanis?
ALLISON: Hans, while I cannot address your final question regarding Suleri’s visceral reaction to Irfan’s burning, I can respond to your reference to the author’s discussion of “womanness« and the illusory niche of women in Pakistan.
In the third chapter, Suleri develops the idea that Pakistani women did not conventionally receive college educations; Kinnaird College, an institution strictly for women, symbolized a massive cultural shift — a phenomenon tremendous enough to make the “mind and body boggle.« Despite the existence of an all-female college, pioneering women did not embody the norm in Pakistan. As Hans emphasizes, Pakistani women typically lacked the ability to self-identify and, instead, defined themselves by those individuals prevalent in their lives; they represented the background music with respect to the larger orchestration of Pakistani culture — necessary to the success and function of the greater whole but not immediately palpable. Kinnaird recessed itself from Lohore, engendering “histrionic terror« in the surrounding community because of the threat it posed to Pakistani tradition and the division it created between eligible men and “women of prime-time marriageability.« Conventionally considered by men as objects to be obtained, the women enrolled in Kinnaird symbolized “locked-up« desirables — “perpetually wanted« but impossible to attain.
In that era, theater and Kinnaird sat cheek by jowl in the imagination of Lohore, superficially because of its dramatic societies and annual plays, more significantly because of the histrionic terror engendered by its secret locked-up space. To the city, after all, Kinnaird signified a magical arena containing a few hundred women of prime-time marriageability in an architectural embrace remarkably reminiscent of the old days of the zenana khana, its room after room of unenterable women’s rooms. And we who lived on the inside of that idea were caught in that curiously constricting position: we felt imprisoned in the very place we knew represented an area of rampant fantasy in the city’s psychic life. It made us a trifle sad, I think, to have to wake and sleep to the rhythm of being perpetually wanted, like having to cover up for the frequent mundanity of dawns. Some women insisted that they loved it, glad to barter the actual boredom of our daily doings for the glamour of some third-person daydream [pp. 47-48]
Suleri emphasizes, too, the contradictory nature of the institution. Kinnaird, to an extent, served to constrain, or “imprison,« the women to within the college’s walls; some women, however, exploited their exclusion from society and reveled in their inaccessibility to the outside world. They envisioned themselves the sought-after idols of Lohore’s male community, the focus of “some third-person daydream.« Thus, while some women, like Suleri, sought intellectual enrichment, others entertained more selfish (dare I say concupiscent?) motives.
In relation to many of her peers, Suleri seems to have particularly embraced the opportunity to stray from the beaten path to cultivate her own identity. How does her growing independence resurface upon her rebellion against an arranged marriage in future pages? Do you think Suleri would consider herself a pioneering Pakistani female in the sense that she so readily jumps at the opportunity to nurture her own identity distinct from her family and traditional Pakistani culture?
ANNA: While I also do not have an answer to Hans's question, I'd like to add on to his mention of Farni's burn. Suleri relates her own similar experience a few pages later, when a "friendly elbow knocked [a] bowl of gol guppa sauce all over [her] lap" (39). The shock of this physical pain sends her "attention to passageways that as a rule [she was] only theoretically aware of owning" (p. 39). Her style, flitting past chronology, as Manya-Jean will later note, makes it difficult to place this event as preceding or following Farni's mishap. Suleri shies away from overtly relating this incident to that of her brother, passing over in silence the possibility that this experience could have inspired a connection between her and her male sibling. She uses the experience instead to underline the distancing she feels even from her own body, negating even the basic biological fact that makes for a woman.
In undertaking this question of distancing, Suleri teases out especially salient connections between place and identity. Her approach is multi-layered: as Hans points out, her status as an expatriate allows Suleri to speak with authority on both Pakistan and the Western World that has received her. In describing the women whose presence was formative to her identity, Suleri outlines additional enclosed spaces within Pakistan: from Dadi's nights on the rooftop to her own female "passageways". Suleri's description of Kinnaird — a women's college in Lahore with a Scottish name — and its "architectural embrace . . . room after room of unenterable women's rooms" (p. 47) is a perfect representation of Meatless Days: memory after memory of memories locked within the embrace of this work; memories that are not fully penetrable to the reader, leaving us "lost, and angry to be lost" like the potential suitors on Kinnaird's outside. The students' frustration with imprisonment in this fantastical place can then be connected to the third-world woman's frustration with imprisonment in her identity. This prototype, Suleri suggests, is a woman not because of the ideas tying her together, "but only in some perfunctory biological way."
Is this ignorance of what it means to be female inherent to being a third-world woman or is it forced, glossed over like the opportunities to bond with her male family members?
MANYA-JEAN: Hans, I do not have an answer to your final question, but I do agree with much of your analysis and that brings me to another question: What can we make of the relationship between form and content in this text?
As Hans says, because Suleri holds personal experience and anthropological skill, she weaves a personal narrative about Pakistan into one that we as American readers can relate to. However, she does not approach her narrative in a chronological way. She presents stories, characters, and emotions out of time and context, and leaves them to flicker in the minds of the reader, without offering much resolution about many of them. That is, she does not identify where stories or people fit into her narrative with conventional chronology, nor does she present them from start to finish. Rather, she offers glimpses and hints of people, stories, feelings as marked by her personal chronological markers such as "measuring everything we remembered against a chronology of cooks". Instead, Suleri takes a different approach to chronology and character description: she presents her stories and characters quickly and then flits on to the next without any identifiable structure. As though she must squeeze in too much information in too few pages, she weakens the presence of conventional chronology and description in order to shed stronger light on to the sentiment of her personal journey and the nation’s collective story.
How does her decision to leave out conventional chronology in lieu of personal markers and emotion relate to the experience she describes of being a woman in a third world country, a place in which "there are no women"? Does her decisions to replace the conventional transitions of time in the text relate to the message that she aims to send to the audience? Further, what role does her decision to utilize Chatwinian snapshots of certain characters play in the books message as a whole?
Lastly, in light of this observation about unconventional markers of time transitions, what do we make of Suleri deeming herself "mistress of time"? Does the title hold a greater role than merely her power in writing the narrative? Does her decision to create a narrative in which time does not exist normally speak to her attempt to "bring those bits together"?, or gain control within the harsh confines of her female status?
JANE: In response to Manya's questions: Suleri's statement "there are no women in the third world" seems to lie in direct opposition to the structure of her narrative, stories anchored in "Chatwinian snapshots," as Manya describes, of Pakistinian women. Yet in the above passage Suleri explains herself: "The concept of woman was not really part of an available vocabulary: we were too busy for that, just living, and conducting precise negotiations with what it meant to be a sister or a child or a wife or a mother or a servant." While men have the leisure of autonomy in this society, pure womanhood seems like luxury, ignored in favor of the more pragmatic roles of work and family. Suleri fittingly chooses to construct her autobiography in terms of the women around her — her own mother, sisters, and friends — in a manner that recognizes the status of women in the third world. She does not tell us her own story, as one might expect a woman writer to do, but we must instead piece together our own image of Suleri by means of the interactions she has with others.
As for Suleri's manipulation (or perhaps blatant disregard) of chronology, she seems to view time in terms of the tangible. Her chronologies find themselves in people, physical bodies, even food — at one point Suleri describes her perception of time as a "chronology of cooks," eras characterized by the current flavors of family dinners. Even her conception of her sister's death echoes this altered view of time:
I am glad to have washed my hands of my sister Ifat's death and can think of her now as a house I once rented but which is presently inhabited by people I do not know. I miss her body, of course, and how tall she was, with the skull of a leopard and the manner of a hawk. But that's aesthetic, and aside from it, Ifat is just a repository of anecdotes for me, something I carry around without noticing, like a lymph [p. 42]
For Suleri, Ifat still exists, not in a physical presence, but remembered by her stories. Is this book, in fact, written as a "repository of anecdotes," a series literary phantoms preserved, if not in body, then in print? Can Suleri's work be characterized in part as an elegy? or perhaps an ode? not just to Ifat, but to all Pakistani women, in whatever manner they exist?
CHASE: In response to Manya-Jean: I think Suleri's self-ascribed "mistress of time" title can be read a few ways. The first, and for me the most obvious, is the role that by writing this account she has taken upon herself, that of an interlocutor patching past events with present considerations. Suleri's own nostalgic compulsion for writing this book stands as reason enough for her to dub herself a "mistress of time"; although one cannot judge that she misremembers things at all, there rests a divide throughout the text between certain events as they were at the time (especially her complicated, insecure relationships with women, such as her late sister Ifat) and the way in which Suleri invokes them (in that, despite past relationship issues with the women in her life, Suleri's text remains very much a tribute to the women in her life, whom she's come to respect and even to reconsider in hindsight).
The inherent pejorative in Suleri's self-titled title — the "mistress" part — stands for, in my opinion, this loyalty Suleri feels to her own particular past and her need to retell it and to constantly reconsider it under new lenses of age and maturity. Try as she might, any attempt made by the author "to try to lay the subject down and change its clothes" is thwarted by the subject's "sprint[ing] off evilly in the direction of ocular evidence" — a somewhat self-deprecating statement that reveals much of Suleri's own feelings toward her penchant for nostalgia and her own limited, inescapably biased view of her past.
Is it true that she cannot keep up the pace with her "subject," which exists in a purely historical as well as personal realm, because her perception of it is either limited or too adorned with sentiments? How might Suleri both acknowledge and complicate her more subjective account of history through scattering and fragmenting it?
Last modified 20 April 2011