For the longest time, I thought the 2006 bestseller Eat, Pray, Love was a sequel to the 2004 bestseller about punctuation Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Now I am enlightened. One is about the search for the meaning of life. The other is about the meaning of a comma.
I confess I never read Elizabeth Gilbert's bestseller except for browsing through a few pages in a copy sitting by a friend's bedside. I enjoyed the writing. The story of picking yourself up after losing your way has universal appeal even if we all can't afford to recharge under the Tuscan sun.
It's not Gilbert's fault, but as someone who comes from India, I have an instinctive reflex reaction to books about white people discovering themselves in brown places. I want to gag, shoot and leave.
The story is so self-involved, its movie version should've been called Watch Me Eat, Pray and Love. In a way, I almost prefer the old colonials in their pith helmets trampling over the Empire's far-flung outposts. At least they were somewhat honest in their dealings. They wanted the gold, the cotton and labourers for their sugar plantations. And they wanted to bring Western civilization, afternoon tea and anti-sodomy laws to godforsaken places riddled with malaria and Beriberi.
The new breed is more sensitive, less overt. They want to spend a year in a faraway place on a journey. But the journey is all about what they can get. Not gold, cotton or spices anymore. They want to eat, shoot films (or write books), emote and leave. They want the food, the spirituality, the romance.
Now I don't want to deny Gilbert her journey. She is honest, edifying and moving. I don't want to deny her Italian carbs, her Indian Oms or her Bali Hai beach romance. We all need that sabbatical from the rut of our lives.
But as her character complained that she had no passion, no spark, no faith and needed to go away for one year, I couldn't help wondering where do people in Indonesia and India go away to when they lose their passion, spark and faith? I don't think they come to Manhattan. Usually, third-worlders come to America to find education, jobs and to save enough money to send for their families to join them, not work out their kinks.
This is not to say Eat, Pray, Love, now a major movie in a theatre near you, just exists in a self-centered air-conditioned meditation cave and has no heart. But it requires more than the normal suspension of disbelief when Julia Roberts announces she will eat that whole pizza and buy the big girl jeans. We see her trying to squeeze her Julia Roberts body into her jeans, struggling with the zipper and we know this is a fine, brave actor at work.
She tries not to be the foreign tourist, but she does spend an awful lot of time with the expats whether it's the Swede in Italy, the Texan in India or the Brazilian in Bali. The natives mostly have clearly assigned roles. Language teacher. Hangover healer. Dispenser of fortune-cookie-style wisdom. Knowledge, it seems, is never so meaningful as when it comes in broken English, served up with puckish grins, and an idyllic backdrop. The expats have messy histories, but the natives' lives, other than that teenaged arranged marriage in India, are not very complicated. They are there as the means to her self discovery. After that is done, it's time to book the next flight.
But all through the film this is what I was wondering. Why was she drawn to those three countries? Why Italy, India and Indonesia?
Is it because they all start with I? I, I, and I. Not inappropriate for a film that is ultimately about Me, Myself, and I. I travel therefore I am.
Nothing drove that home better than what happened after the screening ended. I went down in an elevator crammed with radiant women, all discussing when they teared up during the film, and how much they related to it, and its message of opening yourself up to the world. There was one woman in a wheelchair in the elevator. After we reached the lobby, the women, still chattering, marched out into the chilly San Francisco night. The woman in the wheelchair remained stranded behind the heavy doors.
This column first appeared in New America Media