Boys Will Be Boys: a daughter's elegy by Sara Suleri Goodyear

Tangled filaments of an itinerant identity
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The Independent Culture

"Amidst so much movement", Sara Suleri Goodyear writes about her peripatetic childhood, "it makes me wonder what happened to our filaments of identity, whether they bruised, strengthened, or simply became themselves". Boys Will Be Boys is a partial answer to this question. This memoir's interweavings reflect the Pakistani-born author's movement across the "contour map" of her life. Chapters headings are Urdu verses, translated into Suleri's own inimitable idiom. A host of classical poets enrich the texture, as do fragments from Urdu/Hindi pop songs, Punjabi war ballads and the national anthem.

The presence of bilingualism as metaphor and Pakistan as abiding source of imagery is inevitable. The author's father, the irrepressible journalist ZA Suleri, is at the centre of this labour of love and remembrance. While personal elements predominate, public memory - wars with India, the creation of Bangladesh, the shadows of partition - gains added significance from her father's role first as participant, then as political commentator.

Translations are thrown out like ropes to climbers. Papa counts in Punjabi; his children slip with ease between English and Urdu, though the author (now a professor of English at Yale) modestly admits to only a nodding acquaintance with the latter's poetry. But Urdu has a strong hold. Trekking in the hills, the young Suleri literally finds her knickers in a twist. A peasant exhorts the distressed girl: "soti le ke chal, mere lal" ("Use a walking stick, my lovely"). She retains his advice today.

Suleri's prose is pitched between irony and almost unbearable poignancy. Among the many deaths listed are those of Suleri's friend, the political scientist Eqbal Ahmed, and Noor Jehan, Pakistan's "Melody Queen", whose magical voice Suleri movingly evokes. As for her father, she will "plant him among the rue that I will wear with a difference".

The text is sensitive to those spiritual symbols that bypass sectarian differences. Shia elegies bring tears to Sunni eyes; Sufi celebrations set Suleri singing and clapping. She commends her father to the embrace of "his good and ultimate friend", Muhammad. Suleri, not herself "the best of Mozzies", fails to comply with her father's request to convert her husband. But she arrives in America "as good Mozzies should", with her father's gift of a Koran tucked under her arm. Born after independence, she is unburdened with colonial hang-ups. Half-Welsh, she identifies herself as a "paki" and an "oriental".

To define this unclassifiable book as straightforward memoir is as futile as expecting strict chronologies. It is best read, as Suleri signalled in her earlier book Meatless Days, as a procession of "little tales": honed into near-perfection by the storyteller's art, haunted by the elegance of Urdu and English poets. Meatless Days has a singular position in the South Asian canon. Boys Will Be Boys, echoing it after a wait of 15 years, is, if anything, better still.