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  • Memory, Identity, Patriarchy:Projecting a Past in the Memoirs of Sara Suleri and Michael Ondaatje

But it was only in the midst of the party, among my closest friends, that I realized I would be travelling back to the family I had grown from—those relations from my parents' generation who stood in my memory like frozen opera. I wanted to touch them into words, a perverse and solitary desire.

Running in the Family (22)

I returned to America conscious of my vanity, the gay pretense with which I believed that I could take respite from my life. It was only then that I became historical, a creature gravely ready to admit that significance did not sit upon someone else's table like a magazine to which one could or could not subscribe . . . . You were born fit; you rendered yourself unfit. Now comes the time when you must make yourself historical.

Meatless Days (127) [End Page 37]

Recently the term "postcolonial" has been attacked by a number of critics for the manner in which it is used to hypostatize disparate societies under a monolithic temporal banner identified by the prefix "post." It is indisputable that the category of "postcolonial literature" has been effective in rupturing the western stranglehold on the earlier euphemistic classification of "world literature"; however, the term postcolonial in its various adjectival manifestations such as "the postcolonial intellectual," "the postcolonial society," or the more ubiquitous "the postcolonial other," has had a deleterious effect. The use of the definitive article before the term legitimizes a singularity, erasing the crucial differences between various countries too easily included under the all encompassing rubric—postcolonial. As Ella Shohat writes:

The globalizing gesture of "the postcolonial condition," or "postcoloniality," downplays multiplicities of location and temporality, as well as the possible discursive and political linkages between "postcolonial" theories and contemporary anti-colonial, or anti-neo-colonial struggles and discourse.

(104)

I am not suggesting that we completely dispense with the term; however, I want to assert that the word must be used carefully, selectively, and along with other terms that would enable a more cogent political critique of the curious and often abhorrent imbalances of power that continue to proliferate in the current geopolitical arena that is definitely not entirely and already postcolonial.

In writing an essay for an issue devoted to literature from the Indian subcontinent rather than for an issue on postcolonial literatures, the politics of the location of the term under debate is at once highlighted. By a curious sleight of hand, India has achieved a unique status in postcolonial theoretical debates in American institutions of higher learning.1 The reification of India as the postcolonial site has produced invaluable contributions to the various discussions about imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, the rise of fundamentalism, the institutionalization of English literature, and the impossibility of mapping an authentic indigenous historiography. However, this ascension of India as a privileged archeological ground for numerous genealogical explorations has, perhaps unwittingly, produced a significant gap in the production of knowledge about the other spaces included in the Indian subcontinent such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.2

This essay examines two works, one set in Sri Lanka and the other, for the most part, in Pakistan; both engage in the poignantly arduous task of representing the reconstruction of identities denied, displaced, disabled, and disavowed by the forces of personal and historical migrations and cultural relocations. In Running in the Family and Meatless Days, Michael Ondaatje and Sara Suleri re-present [End Page 38] and recognize the provisionality of the nature of personal, cultural, and geopolitical identifications as they delineate a symbolic cartography that in its allegorical and referential sweep is never entirely detached from the Sri Lanka and Pakistan locatable on a map.3 Both texts can thus be characterized as highly self-conscious, paradoxical, and in some ways indeterminate versions of the bildungsroman. However, if these similarities allow us to read the two texts as representative postcolonial autobiographies, they need to be differentiated with regard to the particular political, cartographic, and sociohistorical reconfigurations delineated in them.

As Graham Huggan has pointed out in a different context, the reworking of spatial paradigms, because it...

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