She Eats Prays Loves (and Goes Home)

She Eats Prays Loves (and Goes Home)

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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 laborers 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 herself honest, edifying and moving. I don’t want to deny her Italian carbs, her Indian Om’s 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 theater 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.
 

Comments

 
Anonymous

Posted Aug 14 2010

On the flip side of Roy's viewpoint comes my own experience (I am half-Indian): went to a book signing by Gita Mehta, who had read from her book Karma Cola (a book that shares the author's point of view). When she heard my Indian name and saw my western appearance, she assumed I had hippy American parents who gave me a name I didn't know anything about. She asked me condescendingly, "Do you know the meaning of your name?"

Well, you know what happens when you assume.

Patronizing attitudes are quite universal.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 16 2010

This seems to go with my view that if you read and liked the book, you'll like the movie (probably not love it, but like it.)

I think Gilbert's approach is honest - she knows she is "the other" and doesn't purport that she is going to these countries to help the people. That was not her purpose. As the reviewer says, her purpose in going was purely narcissistic (to put a negative spin on it). She wasn't pretending to go to somehow solve these countries' problems of poverty, etc. I know the reviewer wishes she had, but she didn't. And if people in Indonesia and India lose their passion, spark and faith, no they would never go to Manhattan...unless of course they are a overly cheesey Bollywood filmmaker who goes to work on Broadway in a Jerry Maguire moment of repentance :).

While there are some very valid points in the article, like the Hollywood-ization of the "others" - the natives do take on far less complex roles than Richard from Texas, etc. and that in the film they do indeed feel like the native characters are mainly "the means to her self-discovery." The whole Wayan storyline going by the wayside was one of the great disappointments of the film - clearly in the book Liz does not just "use Wayan" but instead not only buys her a home, but forces her to choose a home instead of squandering the money, in a brutal reality about the nature of poverty that Felipe teaches her in the book. It also would have been great to see more of the medicine man's wife developed, as in the book. But alas, the film was overly long as it is.

But generally I feel like the reviewer is throwing the baby out with the bath water for the most part (though he does throw in a paragraph about wanting to not deny her her journey, and that she does have heart. The rest of the article seems to contradict those bits - as if his/her editor asked him to throw those bits in there.

While he admits it freely, I think it's pretty ballsy of reviewers of him to review movies based on books when they haven't read the books. They have no idea what the majority of moviegoers' perspective is. As a reviewer, he is not providing much guidance for any of the literally millions of readers of the book, since he didn't bother to read it himself. If he had, he wouldn't have been asking "Why did Elizabeth Gilbert have to go to Italy, India and Indonesia to learn to eat, pray and love?" - he would have the answer in spades, and know that she also saw the humor in the fact that they all started with "I''s.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 16 2010

Addendum to my post above - I recognize that I'm pretty impassioned here, and probably too harsh on the reviewer. Clearly I'm personally invested in this book because I read it when I myself was going through deep anxiety, depression and self-discovery. Just try to remember that was the case for many of her readers, before you are quite so cavalier about a book with such a serious topic.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 16 2010

So what is your advice for a rich white person who really wants to see the world and broaden their horizons? Should they just stay home and give to a foreign charity? Does it always have to be ugly and selfish, wanting to see the world?

Anonymous

Posted Aug 16 2010

to the rich white person posing the hypothetical -- check your own backyard. goddamn.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 16 2010

I, too, enjoyed aspects of the movie, but I think that the previous comment is missing the point ... most people from the developing world would not have the means to spend a year abroad finding themselves. Gilbert is indulging in the privileges of her race, class, and nationality. If she were out to provide charity or save the world, this would not make her less privileged, and depending on how she went about it, this could actually make her even more paternalistic.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 17 2010

it's a story of self absorption packaged at self discovery aimed at an audience who want to believe that their self absorption is actually self discovery. welcome to america lol.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 17 2010

I went abroad to india in college, and I learned things about myself, and life, while I was there. I also lived in Montana for a few months once, and learned things about myself, and life. I guess since I'm white, I'm only allowed to learn things from other white people, without it being some sort fo de-facto condescension. BUt...the white people in Montana were poor...so I guess its condescending to learn from them too. Maybe I'll make a movie about what my white middle class parents taught me...I hope no one complains that there aren't any people of color in it.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 17 2010

I enjoyed reading your view point.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 17 2010

Thank you for this review. I've been reluctant to read/watch this story because, as a woman of color, i am always so offended when i have to witness privileged white folk getting off on my culture/my country of origin as if it were created just for them to go play and drink and eat and hike and whatever other shit they do in the name of adventure and contributing to the economy of poor countries. Our urban cities in the US offer plenty of "world" for them to get off on. Black, Brown, Asian neighborhoods in San Francisco, for example, offer tons of REAL culture, music, religion, language, hot ethnic men/food, etc. At the same time, these neighborhoods are the most politically neglected in terms of housing, schools, and jobs. If you want some transformation (and yes, i'm addressing you, naysayers) then go to your nearest GHETTO (yep, i said it) and i assure you, you'll get some perspective about the meaning/purpose of life. I'm a public school teacher. I get it everyday and it's wonderful!

Seek and you shall find--right here at home, believe it or not!

Anonymous

Posted Aug 17 2010

I'm totally down with the wonderful comment by the public school teacher. Sick of people running around the globe on adventures, and going to "global conferences" and privileging that (and themselves) over those of us who work where we are with what we have.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 17 2010

I found Gilbert's story to be a self indulgent journey- endless money to go on a journey to "exotic" lands to find oneself and one's passion after a divorce. I found it all to be cliche-the people in the countries are not fully drawn out, as you say Roy and she is not conscious about being a tourist. Jamaica Kincaid's book a Small Place goes into why tourism is so problematic for a place and its people- the flip side of Gilbert's journey. Anyway- the end, where she finds a man again was too cliche for me....this was supposed to be self discovery? well okay.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 18 2010

Funny how the women in the elevator were so busy professing enlightenment and new found "openness to the world" that they NEGLECTED to SEE the WOMAN in the WHEELCHAIR. SMH. So a bunch of women go to see a movie based on a book that empowered many women, but failed to acknowledged a person who might be regarded as powerless. Real classy.

-- @phillysouledout

Anonymous

Posted Aug 19 2010

Oh, Mr. Roy, you are the smartest man alive. Ignore all the other comments (if you even bothered to read them); these people are idiots.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 19 2010

I must honor the views of others and realize that we all need to practice a little compassion when it comes to judging one another's experience. I for one had made a decision to go on a Buddhist pilgrimage after recovering from breast cancer. The book was given to me before I went on the trip to India. I came away seeing the poverty there and being brown skinned myself I reflected we are all just "different shades of brown" but it's how we live our lives that counts. The author was reaching out to women who can't get out of their own way and so if a self inflicted journey is in the cards then so be it.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 19 2010

I think the idea that was missing, definitely from the movie, less so from the book, is that part of Gilbert's discovery is a complicated mix of the recognition of the power she has as a white American and the powerlessness she feels because of her own personal life. Rather than this complicated acknowledgement, we get a Hollywood-flattened portrayal of the white woman victim-agent (as in, she makes choices and decisions) traveling through the world making friends and finding guides in other whiter agents. I was constantly disappointed by the lack of character development of nearly all the people of color. Even the teenage Indian girl who was married off was fulfilling a normalized and racialized expectation we have for women in brown countries--that they are unable to escape the oppressiveness of their culture and must be married at a young age. Does this happen? Sure. But by underdeveloping the other "native" characters, we are left with a very narrow and shallow vision of what being anything other than a white expat means. I am Indian American, born in the States, and I am always uncomfortable when the main decision makers and agents in movies that take place in Asia are white. Sounds a little familiar, kind of like colonialism, doesn't it...
That said, I found the book way less problematic than the movie, I could relate to the book in ways I could not relate to the movie at all. All I kept seeing was how well Hollywood provides white people for white audiences to relate too. Did you notice that all the people that run the ashram in India were represented as white? Aye. I guess I should make my own movies and stop depending on Hollywood to provide representations I can relate to.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 19 2010

Personally, I found myself bored in reading Gilbert's combination of inner-spiritual-search and travel-fantasy especially devised as a means to get over...for one, this woman had the right kind of job, and the material means to combine her spiritual search + travel to exotic places and not be caught-up with some of the nitty-gritty challenges that most of us experience in our quest to find our true nature...meditation is a daily practice and provides in the moment realization not a Julia Roberts type Hollywod fantasy of a Hindu yogini-in-waiting 'looking good' display for a billboard advertisement as it appeared to me in the film, which also significantly relegated people of color to a rickshaw driver type position - in other words, to a position of service or servant for the pleasure and enrichment of a well-off American female seeker/traveler. It was/is incongerous with many of my friends search for peace of mind...people, including myself, who do the daily grind, meaning work, raising families, practicing meditation or some other form of spiritual practice, and who may get away to the woods in the Northwest from time-to-time, or even across the ocean, but mostly keep plugging away at seeing their own delusions while seeing God in everything or nothing at all...and wanting truly in their hearts to make a better world for all - for justice, for the environment, for women, children, people of color, oppressed people, and to bring harmony to all who are suffering...with humble spirit, Roberta Llewellyn

Anonymous

Posted Aug 31 2010

Thank you Sandip for telling it like it is

Anonymous

Posted Sep 4 2010

I enjoyed the review very much. I am unfamiliar with the movie as well as the book. I am still interested in catching the movie. . .perhaps when it comes to the local dollar theater or online. Maybe the movie will perk my interest in the book. IDK, but I want to also say, i enjoyed all the comments as well. I think it is very useful to hear various perspectives on things. I am a brown woman going through a divorce and period of self-discovery while living in a "ghetto" of the U.S. and I engage in daily meditations and so forth and so on. It has been wonderful and yet I have wanted to see "the world" because I have not seen but a few states on the east coast, but instead I do a lot of online "surfing." It is quite pathetic, yes. Recently, I looked into participating in Peace Corp, in that I could do something humanitarian and leave the blah of my day-to-day. Unfortunately I see there is a two-year commitment, which is a luxury I cannot afford. A month or two, great. . .a year, maybe, but two years with minor children, no. I've done quite a bit of volunteering in my own "backyard" but. . .to be honest the more I get into this humanitarian mode, the more I feel compelled to just make more money. It does seem to answer everything. The movie is probably on point. :-)

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