Meatless Days, World War Two, and Post-Colonial Literature-- History Once-Removed

Adrienne T. Chisolm '93, English 34 (1991)

The collective past. . . . is public property, but it is also deeply private. We all look differently at it. (Lively, Moon Tiger, 2)

Like Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger, Wole Soyinka's Aké: The Years of Childhood, and and Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, Meatless Days mentions the Second World War. However, Sara Suleri mentions it the least frequently of the four authors, thereby illustrating her fascination with the selectability and forgetability of history. Because history and home are "located precisely where you're sitting" (Suleri, Meatless Days, 20), world events enter the personal realm of the story only when they affect Sara's everyday life. Suleri, like so many other post-colonial writers, intermingles personal and world history, but selectively and solely when the two have an impact on each other. WWII does not play a large role in her story because as Suleri looks back she sees that other events -- namely the partition of 1947 and the civil war of 1971 between East and West Pakistan -- were and still are of greater personal import. Relevant only in that it led indirectly to the events of 1947, the World War, as far as the Suleris are concerned, belongs to England.

During the early 1940s Sara's father, Pip, organizes with Mohammed Ali Jinnah for the struggle for independence from both England and India. For this reason, and not because their homeland's colonizer is at war, politics enter the Suleri household. According to Suleri, sorrow and uncertainty are customary in "unreliable" (18) Pakistan; in fact, "history is synonymous with grief" (19). The most significant manifestation of the political world is not the discussion of current events but the atmosphere that those events -- and family members' participation in them -- create in the home. In one description while her brother-in-law is held in India as a prisoner of the 1971 war, Suleri shows the parallel nature of the country's mood and her family's own: "we needed distraction, there being then in Pakistan a musty taste of defeat to all our activities" (9). Throughout most of the era that Meatless Days covers, "[w]e felt a quickening urgency of change drown our sense of regular direction, as though something were bound to happen soon but not knowing what it would be was making history nervous" (10). "When we lived in Pakistan, that little swerve from severity into celebration happened often" (31). "'Do I grieve, or do I celebrate?'" (10) refers to the specific personal situation of the cleaning woman who asks it, but the question may be applied widely.

The juxtaposition of international and household occurrences comes naturally. Suleri projects her own life into her country's history with ease as she describes Pakistan as "very ready to forget" (126); the nation's attempt collectively to forget Bhutto and his 1979 hanging coincides with the family's circumstantial brushing-over of Sara's grandmother's death and funeral ("we had no time to notice" (17)). Similarly, "[i]n Pakistan, Bhutto rapidly became obsolete . . . and none of us can fight the ways that the names Mamma and Ifat have become archaisms" (19). In Suleri's mind, at least, her country carries such a strong aura of sorrow that to decide that grief is "farcical" is to "cut away . . . [her] intimacy" with the place itself (18-9). Conversely, physically distancing herself when she moves to America brings to Sara a great peace and sense of freedom: "I felt supped full of history, hungry for flavors less stringent on my palate, less demanding of my loyalty" (123).

Resentment and dependency cloud the peculiar relationship between Pakistan and England. In 1947 Jinnah and his followers -- Pip included -- must fight the English for independence but work with them to achieve the religion-based partition they desire. For the Suleris, the relationship is stranger and more personal. To Sara's grandmother, Dadi, England is simply an evil place that takes her son from her for a while during the mid-1940s and sends him back with the wrong wife (a Welshwoman). She resents not only the land, but even the concept of "independence for the distances it made" (2). To Papa, England is the necessary though somewhat distasteful location where he has a chance to make progress for his own country. He must take up English to be the journalist he wishes to be (112), and in 1945 he goes to England to propagate the Pakistani cause (115). Although he succeeds somewhat in his efforts and he finds there a woman whom he loves, he also seems to suffer from a constant sense of resentment and frustration towards the (post-)colonizing country. When Pip returns to England with his family years later, he feels "odd . . . as though he were a minority once more" (119) and finally decides it is dangerous not to take his children back to Pakistan, "to forestall [them] lest [they] become totally possessed by someone else's history" (119).

To Sara's mother, England is home. This connection means that British culture subtly infiltrates the Pakistani family -- Mamma teaches Jane Austen's literature at a university whose architecture is "the kind . . . the Victorians thought we Indians liked" (152); Papa "adopt[s] the English language with a Dickensian zeal" (112), and his blindness is referred to as a "'Miltonic ailment'" (123) -- but it also means that she is a foreigner in the land that belongs to her husband and children: "My mother was a guest . . . in her own name" (163). Although she becomes to her students and to other Pakistan's "a creature of unique and unclassifiable discourse" (167) who is loved and respected, she passes before this through a period of active adjustment during which she learns to be silent and, in affirmation against her ties to the colonizing country, asserts her "curiously powerful disinterest in owning" (164). She must, for if she does not, "What could that world do with a woman who called herself a Pakistani but who looked suspiciously like the past it sought to forget?" (164).

Contemporary world events in general play a large role in Suleri's work and help to shape and to illustrate her theories on history. WW II, however, is not one of those events. War is, in Suleri's eyes, a terrible and life-changing phenomenon, but she bases this conclusion on the 1971 war more than any other. Perhaps distance is again the main factor; if "history [and] home [are] real and . . . located precisely where you're sitting," then events in England are much less real than events in Pakistan, and events in Pakistan are only as real as the atmosphere they create at home -- it is a bold statement for a colony to make, and a large piece of history intentionally to forget "[i]n the necessary amnesia of that era" (163).

Pakistan OV Sara Suleri Meatless Days

Last modified 18 May 2001