“What’s the story,” Sara Suleri asks.

Or more precisely: asked. For this happens at Yale University in 2004. Suleri – one of Pakistan’s singular literary stylists – died last spring. Never mind: Suleri made art by blurring past and present tense. From memory’s buried smudge her words came to gleam.

So, in this student’s elegy, we resume in her spirit.

Suleri addresses 11 PhD students. We are in Comparative Literature 913, her grad seminar on “Empire and its Double”. I am an interloper of sorts: a brown guy studying anthropology at this square table of white English students. Suleri is composed and aware of herself. Shoulder-length brown hair parts neatly over string of pearls; colored gems swell from thin fingers.

But our professor is also recessive. Small, her shoulders crumple forward. Suleri’s watery eyes focus indistinctly elsewhere. Her voice is dry, her pauses long. Silence fills the room. It may be the befuddling simplicity of Suleri’s question. Or the transparent object of our discussion – Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, about Nigeria on the precipice of colonial change. Our eyebrows are knit, pens aloft over notebooks. We rummage inwardly for a clever reply to display.

We know by now of Suleri’s comfort in silence. She feels no need to exhort, to fill in empty space. As if Suleri, in the room with us, is always also at a point removed. She observes the room opaquely; no one can read her.

Suleri’s class is the antithesis of Yale’s usual thrust-and-joust. And confusing because of it. In other courses, we are inducted into thinking as architectural activity. We approach texts, and arrive in seminars, raring to dismantle and reassemble. We hover above our scale-models of reality, arguing over what they mean. Secure in our scaffolding of French theory, we don’t quite know what to do with Suleri. The bigness of our rote targets – colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy – is miniscule around her. And so, evicted from our understanding of what thinking is for, we are exposed in class.

In Fall semester the eraser-grey light rubs out borders of tiny lead windows. Week by week, the green leaves of aged elms at Yale’s Old Campus desiccate and darken into shriveled red.

Suleri’s seminar is in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, one of Yale’s Romanesque and Gothic buildings. A deliberate pastiche – paneled wood, stone fretwork, stained windows – it simulates antiquity. The same is said of Suleri at Yale. One historian tells me she attended Lahore’s Kinnaird College, which breeds Pakistan’s anglophone elite. A classmate smiles knowingly: Suleri is married into the Goodyear tyre family. Least charitably, gossip has it that Suleri numbs herself. Why, and with what, occupies more of our time than what she teaches or writes.

As we analyse texts, we deduce Suleri from such fragments. Her storyline becomes of decadent decay, like Venice sinking into the sea. But now, sitting in Linsly-Chittenden, she’s not yet been answered. What’s the story? “An allegory – tradition disrupted by violence,” tries a tall American, lacrosse bag behind his chair, who works on Hawthorne.

“Achebe diagnoses shame and humiliation in Igbo society,” vouches another. This is a Polish woman with frizzy blond hair, a specialist on French poet Verlaine. I feel annoyance rising in my chest. The feeling comes from our focus on derivative narrative. The only reason I am at Yale is to go into the world and understand it as it actually is.

These literature students are like mediocre ventriloquists: off-key approximators of off-centre voices. It is immediate experience – not the hand-me-downs of relayed text – that I crave. Out of this same aversion, I will not read Suleri’s Meatless Days. This 1989 memoir has made her name. More so than her scholarship in America’s new-fangled postcolonial studies.

There’s something too self-regarding, too insular, I feel, in dwelling within oneself. In my 20s, the last thing I want to do is go inside; there’s a whole world outside to see.

Towards the end of 2004, I go to Suleri’s office hours, to discuss my draft final paper. My hostility towards the class, and our agreeable apathy, has intensified. No student will challenge our Asian and African writers. Each applauds their heterodox fluidity, unaware that a pre-woke orthodoxy hardens around us. Our texts are gospels from a new theology: primal truths of the other.

My final essay is a one-man insurgency against this consensus. I will argue for the limits of a text as society’s synonym. I want to show how unruly life is: the mistake we make to conflate story with reality. But I also want to pass the course. I’m nervous I will offend Suleri. I enter her office, first feel the cold – the wet Connecticut winter is abruptly upon us – and then smell smoke.

A small window, looking out onto a stone gargoyle, is wide open. Suleri sits in front, unbothered, a cigarette pinched between fingers, the fumes curling upwards. Her elbow is propped on desk, hand cupped regally, as if in royal rebuke to Yale’s smoking bylaws. I stammer through my paper ideas.

“I’m thinking to use Abdelrahman Munif…”

Suleri takes a long, satisfied drag.

“Put him into dialogue with Amitav Ghosh…”

Suleri looks at – or perhaps through – me.

She now asks me of my family history, my recent past. Both sides of my family are from pre-Partition Lahore. Taking long inhales, she probes in a parched, wobbly whisper. Suleri is now the anthropologist, I am the informant – not analysing, just divulging.

We talk of Lahore. Model Town’s English gardens. Mall Road’s whitewashed courthouses. Anarkali bazaar in the walled city. Suleri grows animated, talks of them easily, in present tense, with a child’s first-hand propriety. I am the ventriloquist, and know them only second-hand, via my Punjabi grandparents’ waning recall.

Then she asks me of what I did before Yale. I mention the half-year as a youth volunteer in Palestine. In Hebron, Israeli settlers, in a barricaded upstairs flat, threw bags of urine on us near Ibrahimi mosque. They fell at our feet like water balloons of sour yellow contempt.

Suleri taps ash into a coffee mug. “Ah yes, how dreadful. Edward has said”.

There is no doubt of whom she speaks: Edward Said, that other well-bred postcolonial zigzagging between the Orient and New England. Working down the I-95 at Columbia, Said died the previous year. There is hushed acclamation of him in my other Yale classes. Suleri was his friend in postcolonialism’s pioneering brigade in America. “I was asked to write for his memorial collection. But I told them, you carry on. I will write something when I get around to it. If I get around to it. You must not get caught up in the racket”.

At the end of the course, Suleri invites us to her place for drinks. It is just before Christmas. Audubon Street is dark and deserted when I arrive. Scuds of black ice and gravelly snow harden under parked cars. For a second, I am surprised Suleri stays in these identikit modern flats, with their smooth brick façade and double-glazed windows. So unlike the colonnaded Colonial homes of other New Haven soirees.

But entering, throwing my wool jacket on others heaped at the door, I see this is not Suleri’s home. Nothing hangs on the wall; the oversized Scandinavian furniture looks rented with the place. Its function is just as a place to stay when teaching. Suleri’s real home is elsewhere. Or perhaps nowhere. The only decoration, on a shelf, is a framed photograph of an older man on a sailing boat. Smiling and sunburnt, his shadow is cast over the boat’s railing.

I sit down and join my classmates on the couch. The sushi rolls Suleri orders from the Asian joint down the road are arranged in a kind of mosaic circle on a platter. We pass around wine and talk of stipends and landlords and New York City. Then America’s war in Iraq seeps in.

The previous month, white phosphorous melted bodies and cluster bombs scattered limbs in Fallujah. A historian I cram with into the early hours at the law library listens to talk-radio: the shock-jocks insist there will be no mercy. Alongside our exams is the drip-feed of leashed, naked, shit-covered prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Now, discussing it, we arrive at the same grim passivity – the same consensual pose – as in the seminar. As we read limply in Achebe’s novel of Nigeria’s pacification, we feebly critique America’s killing of terrorists.

Suleri is again the picture of detached decorum. Huddled against one end of the sofa, in a shiny silk salwar kameez, she plays with her many-faceted rings. Our apprentice opinions are absorbed impartially, as if by a still portrait bordering an animated room. I pass the course; my final paper contains the requisite jargon: commodity-spectacle, cultural intermixture, temporal verticality. My insurgency has folded. I wave the white flag of conformist concepts. A numbed captive, I mouth fealty to the regime. This is grad school success: I can’t explain what I am saying, though I’ve mastered the not-saying.

I never meet Suleri again. In the six years before I finish my PhD, I will become close to other teachers, and forget her seminar.

In January 2019, I live in Amsterdam, and see Meatless Days on the bookstore’s discount rack. The back has a €4 tag: an irresistible bargain. In intervening years, I have ensnared myself in rackets. The marriage racket. The children racket. The mortgage racket. The career racket. Like Suleri, I have bounced unwittingly between east and west; once seeking to accrue experience, I feel later life’s bruised economy.

At home, my kids go to bed, and I open Suleri’s memoir. Immediately, I am struck by her sour wordplay, the gleeful piss-taking, a cagey indirection. An exuberant voice absent in our seminar vibrates from the page. The sentences veer between Pakistan and Britain as a child, and America as a grown-up. She makes no concession to context and chronology. We are now on Lahore’s Zafar Ali Road, then at New Haven Green, and back to Karachi’s harbour.

Dadi, irrepressible mother of her father, journalist Ziauddin Suleri, is “impossibly unable to remain unnoticed”. Sister Ifat’s adulthood is seen by her father as “betrayal’s synonym”. Lahore’s urban crowd is an “instant assembly of spectatorship”. Drifting through life offers “the sweeter peace of inadvertency”. Death is “change taken to points of mocking extremity”.

The narrative is of loss. The demise of her mother, Mair Jones, a Welsh teacher at Punjab University. The death of Ifat in an unexplained hit-and-run. The evaporation of Suleri’s own childhood, outpaced by itinerancy and Pakistan’s convulsions. In the book, as in our seminar, Suleri looks from a remove. There is no home for her, no place to return to. Only impressions to be polished into words: her real abode. The losses would accrue. The man in the sailing boat, her husband Austin Goodyear, died of cancer a few months after our course. It was another subtraction in Suleri’s life compilation.

Reading Meatless Days, I feel my younger conceits slapped. She sniffs that “we live deluged by the availability of significance”. It is as if Suleri drives a stake through anthropology’s vampiric meal of meaning. We are too keen, it is true, to unpack what is obscure. Two decades after meeting Suleri, I concede, as I couldn’t then, that the world you inhabit is your feedstock. One point of thinking is to relay that experience.

“What’s the story”, Suleri asked. That she still asks.

Not theory; not criticism. There is no argument in Meatless Days. It is inoculated against analysis.

In her memoir, Suleri describes her hesitant ingress into the first-hand: “I did not want to be a plagiarist of my own experience”. Suleri did not counterfeit the immediate. She contorted it. Arresting time, she answered her own question, offering it to us unendingly.

Ajay Gandhi teaches at Leiden University.