‘Meatless Days’ — a saga of personal loss and political turmoil

With copious amounts of beef and mutton all around me, I somewhat succeeded in spending this Eidul Azha as one of my meatless days not that I am a vegetarian but thanks to Sara Suleri for saving me from the gruesome sight of blood and flesh flowing in the kitchen; as I was lost in the sporadic maze of Meatless Days. Suleri was born in Pakistan, spent her early years in London, but for most of her childhood and adolescence, the family lived in Lahore. During her youth, she moved to the United States, where she has taught at Yale since 1983.

“The country was made in 1947 and shortly thereafter the government decided that two days out of each week would be designated as Meatless Days to conserve the national supply of cattle and goats.”

Meatless Days by Sara Suleri, a personal memoir, is split into nine essays rather than chapters as each part revolves around one specific character with whom Suleri shared a certain bond during a certain period of her life. As the plot begins, we find ourselves stranded amidst foreign characters whose relation we have to surmise as we are not given any prior connections except the account of partition along with Bhutto and Zia’s regime when Pakistan’s political geography had a certain impact on its dwellers. Subsequently, the personal crisis of writer goes hand in hand with the political crisis of that time which further adds to her landscape of memories and eventually we are introduced to the life of author, her parents, her best friend and perhaps most importantly of all, her siblings. “Islam predictably took to streets, shaking Bhutto’s empire. By this time Bhutto was in prison and awaiting trial, and General Zulu was presiding over the Islamisation of Pakistan. But we had no time to notice.” Interestingly, depending on the emotional affinity of author with her characters, at one point she magnifies her personal pathos ignoring the political landscape; on the contrary, the other moment she amplifies the latter. This parallel relation between public and private narrative keeps on shifting spotlight until the end, till knitting them together into a rich tapestry. Moreover, the mysterious death of Suleri’s mother and elder sister, Ifat, further adds to the ongoing distraught political events and creates a somewhat despondent atmosphere!

Sara Suleri explores the implications of her splintered identity: she belongs to third-world, and yet, as she puts it, “There are no women in the third-world”

“Dadi was now dead. It happened in the same week that Bhutto finally was hanged, and our imagination was consumed by the public and historical dying.”

Suleri tells events of her childhood as collage of various memories which she puts together throughout the story to create a solid album of her young years in Pakistan. As the plot proceeds, the picture grows ever clearer.

Gradually we learn the names of all her favourite foods and the habits both strange and beguiling of family members yet, we only receive this information in quick glances. She announced one day her discovery about kapuras – they were not sweetbreads – as they had been told by their mother, but testicles! In Meatless Days, Sara Suleri explores the implications of her splintered identity: she belongs to third-world, and yet, as she puts it, “There are no women in the third-world.”

Throughout the novel, Suleri invokes the idea of lost things – relations, words, culture, history, audience and geography. “Our congregation in Lahore was brief, and then we swiftly returned to a more geographic reality. “We’re lost Sara,” Shahid said to me on the phone from England. “Yes Shahid, we’re lost.”

The father of Sara, Zia Suleri, served as an ardent journalist who married twice, former his cousin latter a Welsh woman who gave birth to five children one of whom was Sara herself. The children of Sara’s siblings initiated a slight displacement of Surraiya Suleri because her grandchildren would not speak any English, and Urdu always remained a shyness on her tongue. Into this multi-colored painting, Sara Suleri paints her father’s volatile journalistic career along with the political history. This ranges from his editorship of The Pakistan Times, his spell in jail, his visits to New York for the UN General Assembly. It won’t be wrong to say that Meatless Days is a prose, which moves effortlessly from one country to another, with references to a holiday in Nathiagali, or a stay in London, in between recollections of Karachi, Lahore, Brooklyn and New Haven. It took me relatively a long time in finishing this piece of literature as it’s hard to find the way out once you get lost in the tangled strands of the plot. So before you turn over the first page of the book, know that you’ll have to find your way through the mystifying labyrinth whose pieces will finally fall in place as you will reach near the end. Till then keep your guard up!

Published in Daily Times, September 11th 2018.