What prompted me to pick up this book was the a reference to Julia Roberts on the cover. That the “Pretty Woman” was starring in the movie rendition of this apparent international bestseller made the book seem a lot more attractive than it would have otherwise. Faced with the prospect of a boring three hour train run from Delhi to Chandigarh ahead of me, I picked it up at the railway station. Ironically, later on when I did watch the movie, I could not sit through it without getting fidgety in my seat, Roberts or no Roberts. This turned out to be one of those cases where in the book vs movie conflict, the book won hands down, at least for me . That is not to say that the book has not faced enough flak for being nothing but a self indulgent outpouring of a egotistical writer- basically a chick lit masquerading as a travel cum spiritual sojourn. Forget any real or immediate crisis, spiritual, emotional or psychological, it lays bare not Gilbert’s soul or journey of self discovery but is a pseudo spiritual travelogue at best it is often alleged.
My reply, not a defence of the book, but a matter of fact statement is – so what if it is self indulgent ? As long as it meets the criterion of being a readable, entertaining piece that reaches out to you at some level, even if it’s not an honest baring of the soul or a journey in self discovery, so be it. We are clearly not looking at anything that will go down the annals of Literature as a masterpiece. In this age of instant gratifications and use and throw consumerism, it fares better than many other “bestsellers” in the market. Let us for a while try to forget that it is an autobiographical piece, and try to approach it as a work of fiction instead. In any case the whole question of “impersonality” of the author, in any work and not only biographies, has been the subject matter of much critical debate since time immemorial. If Gilbert’s quest, apart from making a good read, makes you think about your own life and the need for meaning therein, it’s well worth the money.
At the very onset Gilbert explains how the book works. Divided into three sections, it has 108 tales like the beads of a “japa mala”. The three sections correspond to the three countries she visited in this 1 year of self discovery- Italy, India and Indonesia corresponding to Eat, Pray and Love sections of the book respectively . The spiritual leanings of the author, and that the book is rooted in Indian philosophy, becomes apparent at the very onset where Gilbert not only talks of the book being structured like a “japa mala” but also thanks her Guru who is never named but is known to be Gurumayi Chidvilasananda.
As the 1st section Italy unfolds we are told about Gilbert’s nasty divorce and equally scarring rebound romance that brought her on the brink of a psychological breakdown thereby prompting this year long sabbatical. Italy, her 1st stop, is a life devoted to pleasure of the senses- not of the carnal nature but simply those catering to the taste buds. It is there that she learns “bel far niente”- the beauty of doing nothing. From her hectic goal oriented life always aimed at reaching somewhere and achieving something, this discovery is nothing short of revolutionary. This learning to let go of things, learning to make peace with the past, with her increased waist, appreciating “dolce vita”, the sweet life, sets the tone for the next section- Pray.
Meditation it is often said, throws up your worst fears, dreams and desires- it opens up the innermost recesses of your mind that you didn’t even know existed. While Italy gave the semblance of order returning to her hitherto battered existence, India presents aspects of the “monkey mind” that Gilbert was not prepared for. Anyone who has dabbled in meditation, for any reason- spiritual, psychological- can fully sympathise and empathise with Gilbert and her attempts at meditation. Instead of being wrapped up in Divine Communion not only does she flinch from her daily meditations, her “talk” with her “mind” as she sits for these daily trysts make for a hilarious and true to life reading. But she persists and that alone is the key to success. Dedication, perseverance- mind settles, meditation flows and answers come. Thoughts, feelings, arguments- “It all goes away. Eventually everything goes away” until one day you are face to face with your Self and can say-“Congratulations to meet you”!
If there is any part of the book that just doesn’t work, at least for me, it’s the third part- Love against the backdrop of Indonesia. Meant to strike a balance between a life devoted to senses and that devoted to prayer, it does neither. All we see is Gilbert, in true chick lit style, now fully healed and recuperated, falling in love and walking away into the sunset so to speak. Even the toothless medicine man whom she had expressed her desire in the beginning of having a “lasting experience of God” fails to make an impression. Her initial quest – “how to live in (this) world and enjoy its delights, but also devote myself to God”- answer to which this 3rd section was to provide seems to have been lost in the face of new found life and love. Yes she does “feel different” even in her “underpants” but that’s about it.
Throughout the book the casual, chatty tone and idiom carries the reader along on this rollercoaster ride of self discovery. No the book does not give you any final answers on finding a whole, balanced life. May be that is the point of it all- that there can be no universal answers or one size fits all solutions. Be it a life of the senses or a life of meditation, we all have to find our own answers, our own balance. “Eat Pray Love” may not be the way to live for many- either as a collection of these three activities or individually in whatsoever order and the book does not propose them as such. All that it does exhort you to do is to “Live”- find your life, your balance and truly live it. If reading such a book is a part of the kind of life you want, then it’s well worth a read otherwise not.