Meatless Days

For the next several years Pip let himself occupied by inventing newspapers and procreating: Shahid was born in the year the Evening Times became a morninger; the Times of Karachi and I followed close behind.

Sara Suleri’s Meatless Day’s is a series of essays that collect together not just her family, a failed lover and an irritating friend she can’t drop, but also the birth of Pakistan, where her father was a Dickens-style newspaper editor and her Welsh mother taught literature in the universities.

Ifat, Shahid and I greeted a goat into the family with boisterous rapture, and soon after he ravished us completely when we found him at the washingline nonchalantly eating Shahid’s pajamas.

The early morning was my favourite time, because then those flowers felt firm and fresh with dew. I would go to the vegetable patch and squat over the cauliflowers as they came out one by one, hold them between my knees and chew as many craters as I could into their jaunty tightness. Qayuum was crushed. “There is an animal, Begum Sahib,” he mourned to my mother, “like a savage in my garden. Maro! Maro!”

Childhood reminiscences scatter through each piece, her eccentric and stubborn grandmother who had a direct line into God and would also sit in the empty dining room crying “Oh God give me tea” in order to annoy her son, that same grandmother accidentally setting herself alight by making tea on an open flame one night and the grisly business of tending her burns, the eccentric cooks they had and the scorpion stings she incurred when her brother made her clear out the swimming pool.

Most present of all is the constant, double dislocation of grief and physical exile as her mother and eldest sister are killed in traffic accidents and the remaining family scatters to Kuwait, England and the US. 

I was pleased to have my mother to lead me through those shelves and see the pleasure it conferred on her when she told me contemplatively, “Yes, now you’re old enough to read Jane Austen.”

Soon, I think, we will put the clock forward, obliterate one April hour, and the day will make a startling leap into expansive evenings, creating ample setting for lucid conversation.

Even happy memories carry a load of melancholy and loss, and a weaving together of personal and national histories

when in her nineties she was dying, frail, my brother Irfan was deputed to transport her from Lahore to Islamabad: he chose to take a train, since Pakistan is still a country that takes railways seriously. Such commitment makes of stations, however, a seething mass of life: once they reached Ralwapandi and Irfani had looked first at my grandmother and then at the density of bodies around him, he decided that he had no choice but to pick my Dadi up and, holding her above his head, go running through bodies like a coolie, crying, “Jan dus! – Give way! Give way!” Light and tiny Dadi, the luggage on that coolie’s head, sent wraiths of wails toward the ceiling: “Irfan, Irfan, Irfan”.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the title essay Meatless Days, where an amusing memory of how the meatless Tuesdays and Wednesdays imposed by Pakistan’s first government led to a triple slaughter on Monday’s rather than the efficient rationing that was hoped for merges with a memory of kidneys as a punishment meal as a child, with the gradual adulteration of food (including milk watered with paraffin) in 60s Pakistan and the wider metaphor for disappointment in life that what was a potato on the fork became a turnip in the mouth:

So long before the kapura made its comeback in my life, we in Pakistan were bedmates with betrayal and learned how to take grim satisfaction from assessing the water table of our outrage.

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