Sara Suleri Goodyear's memoir is a slim volume, a nostalgic tribute to her late father, Zia Ahmed Suleri or, as she refers to him, 'Pip' - her compression of 'patriotic and preposterous'. My copy is bound in a beautifully understated saffron jacket with a textile design motif that puts me in mind of a a dupatta flung casually over a slim shoulder. In a small insert, as if being viewed from a discreet jharokha, appears a photograph of a Punjabi gentleman of leonine appearance, leaning back and smoking a cigar in an attitude of rapt attention, as if listening closely to someone off-camera.
The book has a rambling structure, reminiscences tumbling helter-skelter from a stuffed almirah as the author picks and chooses from a lifetime of bittersweet memories. Each chapter is preceded by a line or two of Urdu poetry - sometimes Iqbal, sometimes Momin (although Ms. Suleri has an obvious preference for Ghalib) - that sets the tone for that particular essay. The book follows no chronological or even thematic pattern that I can discern. It reminds me of the structure of a ghazal, where every sher - Suleri finds the English term 'couplet' unsatisfactory - is complete in itself with little obvious connection to the others, except in a general thematic way. It is not unusual to find the narrative jumping forward or backward in time by several years in the space of a few lines.
Suleri addresses herself to her late father in the voice of an indulgent parent to a wayward child, sometimes admiring, sometimes exasperated, occasionally complaining. Her admiration for his intellect and the force of his personality is unmistakable. The occasional complaint is muted in the graceful style of desi womanhood.
To say that the author has an eye and more importantly an ear, for the comic would be to stress the obvious. Whether she is chuckling over her sister bringing one chicken to a picnic of four under the mistaken assumption that a chicken has four legs or at the bizarre translations at a literary meet in Moscow, she comes across as a woman who is quick to spot the incongruous or the inexcusably pompous. In her transliterations of Punjabi-mediated English sounds ('Scorch' for scotch, 'no dort' for 'no doubt', 'Freak Pee' for sweet peas) there is little malice, merely a delight at the diversities of human speech. And yet, in describing her own interactions with others I thought I noticed some of those same eccentricities. For instance, she describes what strikes me as her squeamishness when asked by her student if she may embrace her as 'friendly sagacity'. I detect a certain desi penchant for ponderous phrases where simpler words would suffice. Having said that, I enjoyed the book in large part for its awareness and deft use of the English language.
Squeamishness over physical intimacy aside, Suleri shares little of the subcontinental distaste for the physical details of the human body. She positively gloats over the desi "Yumpax" - substitute for a certain Western feminine hygiene product - and goes into considerable detail concerning its usage and shortcomings. Here's another characteristic passage that combines the memory of adolescent discomfort with a distanced amusement. Ruing her choice of a newly acquired pair of panties on a walking trip, she says:
I realized I should not have put on the brand-new knickers that I sported. On a bed they looked quite sportive - floral, gay - but on the bottom they were an entirely different matter. They crept. They sought out indentations of the body that makes walking quite an attitude of rumination [An attitude of 'rumination'. I love it!!] I would lag behind our jolly troupe, merely to pull the knickers from where they did not belong, and my feet hurt badly too...
The episode ends with an 'elderly hills man' taking pity on the poor girl. Gently, he says 'soti leke chal, mere lal.' The faintly sarcastic writing voice changes at this point to that of a little girl moved to tears at the compassion of an elder even as he expresses himself in an earthy vernacular.
Suleri's talent for spotting the pretentious and comic serves her well when she describes her relationship with her 'stepsister'. This stepsister is described as having an ambiguous status in the family - a sort of a female junior Svengali who worked her way into the author's father's heart and later into his coffers. Suleri's interactions with her are hilarious. The stepsister gives as good as she gets - more so, if anything.
I derived considerable personal enjoyment deciphering the frequently interspersed Urdu writing - partly from my now rusty familiarity with the Urdu script but also aided in large part by the accompanying translations. For instance, I spent a considerable amount of time puzzling over this translation of a quatrain:
For the cryptologically minded, the preceding Urdu lines display - even to those who cannot read the script - an 'abbb' rhyming pattern. You know my methods Watson, apply them! The alert reader will notice how the author occasionally skips glibly over certain details. It is as if we are being invited to read between the lines. This is in areas where, presumably, subcontinental ideas of morality and indecorum conflict with the author's own. At the risk of adding more mystery to the above puzzle, I will leave it up to you, dear reader, to figure out where such sleight of hand is practiced.
Darling, darling, do not lie
Sooner or later we all die
We don't go there in coat and pant
We don't go there on elephant!
Ajit Sanzgiri lives near San Francisco. Although he works at a boring tech job every day, at heart he wears crossed hand-crafted gun-belts and people call him Gabbar Singh. This review also appears on SAWNET
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