Construction of unreality

October 25, 2020

Part 3 of the Tales from Diaspora takes a look at Sara Suleri’s Boys will be Boys and Meatless Days

“I am not one of them, but I am not one of you”

– Tsisi Dengarembga

Sara Suleri is a Pakistani-American author who is a professor emeritus at Yale University. She was born in 1953 to a Pakistani father (ZA Suleri) – who happened to be a reputed journalist of his time – and a Welsh mother. Two of her major works are Boys Will be Boys and Meatless Days. While Boys Will Be Boys is an elegy of a daughter for her father, Meatless Days is a heart-breaking story consisting of small snippets of her life in Pakistan. We see how memory and writing overlap in her work and how the past weaves a pattern that is her sketch of identity, her construction of unreality. Meatless Days explores her mother’s journey at length.

For Suleri, the definition of homeland is more complex because of her mother’s Welsh origin. She straddles two distinct cultures and ways of life, something that had a lasting impact on Suleri herself as much of her narrative is inspired by how her mom tackled an alien life. Her mother’s words symbolise her years’ long experience of putting up with a dominating husband of another race and her eventual breakdown. Yet, even in her breakdown, there was a lesson. She once said, “Child! I will not grip,” this being the culmination of her neurosis. During all this, Suleri kept telling her mother that she had no right to recede this far. But Mair Suleri told her children, in her calm disposition of an English teacher that she was, the lessons of life such as: “Sara! You cannot change people. And it is not necessary to be liked” or, “Daughter, un-plot yourself, let be”.

Suleri’s entire narrative, it seems, is in line with un-plotting herself, finding new horizons and not fixating herself in a particular time and space. Suleri writes in Meatless Days that her mother, Mair Suleri Jones, was “…learning the way of walking with tact on other people’s land”. She was a permanent outsider. Moreover, the “…possibility of adding herself to anything was irrelevant to her. By the same token, she did not fear subtraction”. If this situation is achieved it makes life idyllic.

In Meatless Days, written in 1989 as an elegy for her mother, she gives familial details. They were six siblings in all, Sara, Tillat, Ifat, Nuzhat, Shahid and Irfan. Her father later adopted a daughter called Shahida. Their childhood was spent in both Britain and Pakistan. Constant movement and transition marked her world much like earlier authors in this series. Her father was in Karachi jail on charges of sedition when her mother was expecting her. Suleri’s accounts deeply connect with politics, Pakistan and her father’s career.

The family lived in Karachi initially, then moved to Gulberg in Lahore. At that time Suleri was six. They moved back to Karachi, and later London. She says, “After having lived in England for some years, we were accustomed to feeling foreign”. They shifted back to Lahore, always living “somewhere else, in-between”. The family made frequent trips to the north as Suleri fondly reminisces. It was ZA Suleri’s favourite retreat from Lahore’s dusty heat and an ideal family place. They lived in Faisalabad as well as Rawalpindi for some time.

In 1971, the family moved to Zafar Ali Road in Lahore. There, they stayed for the longest time. “…the longest period we stayed in a single space, a span of time in which my life showed signs of taking shape again after years of feeling formless”. While she looked on the bright side, the tragic East-Pakistan episode nearly broke all her optimism down. “But something of our spirits broke, in the war of 1971”, she writes. After this episode, Suleri started contemplating to move out of Pakistan. She moved to New Haven, USA, amid family’s anxiety on her departure. Her mother, nonetheless, was happy that Sara’s life would find some meaning.

“But we were coming to a parting, Pakistan and I. I felt supped full of history, hungry for flavours less stringent on my palate, less demanding of my loyalty”.

In Meatless Days, we see that the author literally breaks down trying to find normalcy in her life; she yearns for stability. “Only in my obliteration will you see shapes of what I really can be…It is a rib that floats in longing for some other cage”. Through this image, the author tries to depict the fact that she is constantly a migrant in search of new meanings and home. Through the image of a rib, she drives home a new meaning that is of womanhood in a state of shambles.

Suleri has accepted that a third identity exists for expatriates. However, she says whether her identity and that of her siblings’ is “…bruised, strengthened or simply became themselves”, is open to question. Only once a person has been uprooted, does he realise his true identity.

In Meatless Days, the author talks of the dismantling of bodies and her own womanhood being placeless. This fluidity of identity, the quest for meaning and culture is more intricately explored in Boys Will Be Boys. She talks of transmutation and translation. She explains that her mother was constantly in search of translations from Urdu because she was Welsh. Ironically so was Sara’s life spent in translating the meaning of stability and belonging for herself.

Sara relates to her niece, Heba, asking her a question in Boys Will Be Boys, “Why can’t one place be home?”. This question carries a resounding echo of the search for one’s home in the family. What does it mean to have a permanent home? These yearnings tell of the collective psyche of the Diaspora people most exquisitely captured in a young girl’s seemingly harmless question. She replies to this in Boys Will Be Boys, “Quest... That is an honourable place to be”.

Tsisi Dengarembga, the iconoclastic Zimbabwean writer, in her very skilfully crafted novel Nervous Conditions, discusses such identity chaos in the character of Nyasha. Having lived abroad, Nyasha could neither fully adopt Western norms, nor fully reintegrate in the African customs on her return. Either way, she becomes subject to intense parental criticism, therefore feeling constantly out of place and alienated. She becomes a confused mishmash of identities. So much so that she once tells Tambu the protagonist: “I am not one of them, but I am not one of you.”. Similarly, Suleri remarks,“…I felt irked to be so probed around the issue of my own nativity”. Moreover, “If you want unknown territory, there’s always intellection you can find virgin soil within you, happier by far.” The journey for Suleri is circuitous, yet not entirely without hope.

Suleri has accepted that a third identity exists for expatriates. However, she says whether her identity and that of her siblings’ is “…bruised, strengthened or simply became themselves”, is open to question. Only once a person has been uprooted, does he realise his true identity.

“The individuation of the agent occurs in a moment of displacement”.

This imminently gives rise to the “hybrid identity” and the “third space” theory. Hence the human species finds its completion in displacement, quest and arrival at a consensus about one’s self. Hence, identity is not some stagnant phenomenon; it is like a flowing river or like the shifting sand in an hourglass.

Just as being liked is not important, being familiar to a place is also not necessary. Life goes on, and one just keeps floating on the sands of time, distracted sometimes and disillusioned at others. At least there are no false hopes attached to one’s place of belonging. In Meatless Days Suleri comments, “…the more history fractured the more whole we would be. But we began to lose that sense of the differentiated identities of history and ourselves and became guiltily aware that we had known it all along, our part in the construction of unreality.”

The writer is a columnist and an author of A Child of the New Millennium Stories and Essays from Pakistan (2015)

Construction of unreality