How do you come up with a story in which the female lead spends over two hours in search of herself, asserts her emotional (and financial) independence and still gets the guy in the end, as an incidental? Apparently you trust the material that Elizabeth Gilbert delivered a few years ago, pluck a ravishing and slightly older Julia Roberts out of retirement, dress her in flowing robes to cover her expanding hips – couldn’t they show her hips to make her even easier to relate to? – and drop an emotionally stunted yet still passionate Javier Bardem in Bali to steal our heroine’s heart. And you have “Eat Pray Love”, the movie chicks have been flocking to see, while their husbands and boyfriends were busy numbing their brains with “The Expendables”.
The book was pushed into my hands over two years ago by a well-meaning friend I lost touch with. Little did she (or I) know that some of what I was going to read would have touched me so personally not long afterward. I might have read it in a different light. I do remember empathizing with Ms. Gilbert’s pain in agonizing over whether to get divorced for no other reason that a nagging sense of unhappiness. I loved the part of the book set in Italy, which wonderfully captures the spirit of a city and a people but I grew restless over the endless pages at the Indian ashram where Ms. Gilbert’s difficulties in stilling her mind mirrored my difficulty in holding my attention to the story. Bali was also a blur of unconvincing episodes about an expat community that didn’t seem appealing in the least.
And yet, in the hands of a man (ok, a gay one) the movie came alive. Everything that was good and meaningful in the book was translated on-screen with humour and sensitivity, while delivering a connection with, I am sure, every female in the audience. Who, amongst us, hasn’t spent some time mulling over what could make us happier, or pondering the merits of singledom versus a shared life of affection and security but also of sometimes insurmountable annoyances? Against the backdrop of real and tangible suffering – the NY Times’ front page a few days ago heralded a stoning death on the part of the Taliban for a couple who eloped in an effort to get married against their family’s wishes – these thoroughly middle class musings can be seen as self-indulgent. But pain is relative to circumstances and a woman in the Western World is still confronting issues of assertiveness, of finding one’s place in life and, in Ms. Gilbert’s words, balance. The book wouldn’t have resonated so loudly hadn’t its audience envied the writer’s ability to unmoor herself and discover a better place.
It’s precisely this unmooring that I find so appealing in life and that I currently struggle with or, rather, its price tag. It comes a point when giving becomes more relevant than receiving and it’s in the giving that the process of self discovering is unveiled. At some point, endless globe-trotting and the sense of freedom it engenders end up not representing the journey but just an end in itself. How to unmoor within the confines of one’s life might be a more interesting starting point – not that I have any useful insights to offer as I seem to be still stuck at the gate. Sometimes plopping oneself in unknown surroundings and foreign circumstances helps to look at ourselves in a different light but it’s more often the people around us, close and not so close, friends and enemies, who help us take a good look at a different part of the self.
I am not ready yet to renounce the frisson of expectation that comes with setting foot on distant shores and I am grateful for being able to do it – I wouldn’t be who I am (good and bad) if not for the inner and outer exploration that life and circumstances afforded me. Stopping abruptly on the way to work to pick up a woman walking miles to her workplace is the reaction prompted by the memory of doing so while wandering around Ecuador in a truck and braking to pick up farmers dressed in their finery on their way to church. The ability to communicate with coworkers from all walks of life stems from the need to communicate when language is an absolute barrier – asking for directions in Moscow in the ‘90’s where nobody spoke anything other than Russian and all the signs were in Cyrillic comes to mind . Avoiding arrest in Greece for allegedly trying to exchange counterfeit money was easier when panicking didn’t seem an option. The old man who ended up tearing up my (fresh out of the mint) $100 bank-note as proof of the deal we just struck was a teacher. They all were – the ones who made a permanent imprint and the ones I forgot. The ones I loved and those I found insufferable.
While I am, once again, getting ready to travel to a far away land in the hope of resting, forgetting my woes for a while and coming back with fresher eyes, I welcome the opportunity to seek balance in the minutiae of the boring, in the lessons and the clues I don’t have to travel far to find and in encouraging friends and enemies to show me the facets of myself I might have missed or dispersed along the way.