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  • The Redemption of Elizabeth Gilbert

    LIKE MANY WOMEN, my reaction — or shall we say relationship? — to Elizabeth Gilbert’s juggernaut bestseller Eat Pray Love (first published and 2006 and by 2008 a global sensation) was complicated. On the one hand, the book is mildly embarrassing; Eat Pray Love falls squarely in the chick lit category, a schmaltzy fairytale-like admission to the feminine hankering for fairytale-like love (someone even recently quipped on Twitter that the first problem she had with it was how to hide the fact that she was reading it). On the other hand, however, it’s a rather good read, a true story, a real woman’s memoir of overcoming a comparatively small yet personally overwhelming struggle. In its own fairytale-like way, it is irresistible — but this was also the source of its doom.

    Now, for the few of you who may insist that you know nothing about Eat Pray Love, here it is in a nutshell: a financially successful but not particularly famous author finds herself getting divorced, going into depression, and then taking a year to travel in order to reinvigorate her life. In Italy, she indulges – eating her way through the first third of the year. In India, she joins an ashram (the book is extremely spiritual, and this section is so heartrendingly painful that you wonder why anyone would call this book fluffy… until you get to the next). And finally, in Indonesia, tying up the circle, she finds love.

    All of this is a true story, told in a fashion that is alternately charming, mildly annoying, and deeply honest.

    So when the sequel came out, of course I had to read it. Snarkily, with some of usual disclaimers, but with some real excitement about its subject matter (and a continuing passive-aggressive crush on the earlier book). Committed: A Skeptic’s View of Marriage picks up where Eat Pray Love left off – i.e. the author and her Brazilian-born, Bali-discovered lover float off into their happily ever after. Until the US government interfered.

    As a foreigner whose trips into the country were not only frequent, but whose exits themselves were only border runs for visa renewals, Gilbert’s partner Felipe finds himself in trouble with Immigration. Fortunately, they are given a choice: if they get married, they can continue their lifestyle (sans border running, too!). Desperately, they agree — but both having survived divorce, the idea of remarriage is significantly terrifying. But the process is so complex that the couple essentially has to spend almost a year outside the country, waiting for the fiancee visa to come through, and Gilbert spends this time confronting her traumas and issues about the institution of marriage, ruminations and research that eventually became Committed.

    Committed is a feminist memoir, make no mistake about it. It is an empowering, thought-provoking read that I would recommend to anyone who 1. wants to marry, 2. doesn’t want to marry, 3. is concerned about civil rights and international affairs (in all senses of the term!). It’s important that the events it describes happened prior to Eat Pray Love‘s insane success. Not unlike the happy coincidence of having met her new love at the end of her first book’s journey, everything that happens therein was also spontaneous. Gilbert leaves little doubt that nowhere during her ten months of bad traffic and matrimonial panic wandering around Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia could it have occurred to her that she might exploit this bout of hard luck. She went through the experience with no guarantee of a platform to discuss, let alone capitalise on, it. Because of this, it is all the more relevant. This isn’t a celebrity memoir, but an ordinary couple’s absolutely commonplace struggle in a world that loves and enforces its borders even as it claims to have none.

    Now, this sort of gets back to the problem with Eat Pray Love. Which was not, strictly speaking, a real problem with Eat Pray Love itself, but with exactly how the memoir got co-opted into the chick-lit category. Not chick-lit as in light and fun, but chick-lit as in delusional-inducing, Prince-awaiting, hearts-a-breaking. And that problem was that many – many, many, many – of us are where Gilbert was at the start of that book. Lying on the bathroom floor bawling. And in the course of a few hundred pages, in about a year, she was both literally and figuratively somewhere else altogether. And the book was so engaging that it made it look easy.

    The problem, essentially, was the expectation created. I encountered this personally in my own life, and practically every woman friend who has read it has admitted to the same rues. Some of them had become especially resentful toward Gilbert. This was not a phenomenon restricted to my circles — a real backlash against Eat Pray Love and its author occurred among its disenchanted readership. Its most common contentions, as discussed on comment forums all over the Internet, were that Gilbert was selfish, and as a white American with some wealth, she was operating from a place of privilege and entitlement. “Not all of us can give up our lives and jetset for a year” was a common refrain — as though if only we could, we would also land ourselves true love and astronomical book sales (a phrase Gilbert’s own sister, married with children and obligations of her own, sarcastically echoes in one email exchange in the book).

    But here’s the thing. I don’t think – especially having noticed Committed‘s incredible redemptive powers – that Gilbert meant for her memoir to have anything to do with typically misguiding light literature aimed at women.

    On its own steam, Committed is an important book, completely relevant to our world today and the choices we are faced with as thinking women who sometimes have no alternative but to acquiesce to a fundamentally patriarchal institution (even if we believe we want it, with eyes open or closed). But it’s also a most marvellous redemption for Eat Pray Love‘s unintended consequences (and there were some). As she points out almost guilelessly in the introduction, prior to Eat Pray Love, Gilbert was mostly known for writing about men. Her three prior books – Stern Men, Pilgrims and The Last American Man – were explorations of masculine life — fiction and nonfiction about “supermacho characters: cowboys, lobster fishermen hunters, trucksters, Teamsters, woodmen”. As a journalist, Gilbert had even gone as far as dressing in drag for a week, complete with a birdseed filled condom stuffed in her pants.

    She doesn’t mention this in this book, but it occurred to me that even before Eat Pray Love, it is ironic that the most lucrative of her projects was probably when a magazine article she wrote about her bartending experiences became the basis for the decidedly fluffy rom-com Coyote Ugly. Sadly, between that and Eat Pray Love, her broader scope of work was overshadowed. Call it Gilbert’s chick-lit curse. And Committed, quite decisively, breaks it.

    The truth is, I am still bawling on my floor. And I do wish I hadn’t ever heard the word-of-mouth that hyped Eat Pray Love as some sort of semi-prophetic text, because it did result in a few regrettable actions for me at the time (oh hey, a few good anecdotes too). But Committed‘s redemptive powers are such that not only does it completely absolve Gilbert of any hand played in the prolonged miseries of some of her readers, but it also elevates her, in a way that Eat Pray Love couldn’t possibly, to the role already assigned to her by the same masses of sad readers: that of the high priestess, the knowing one, a Solomon-like figure who could provide a solution.

    Marriage, whether we like it or not, is a necessary decision for many of us. Whether the larger bodies we aim to please are governments, families, societies or own guilt-tripping demons, it can be an inevitability. Committed does two things, and does them beautifully — it strips the institution of its veneer of romance. And then it reinstates it, at a far more meaningful level.

    Committed will probably help many more women’s hearts and choices than Eat Pray Love did because there is absolutely nothing here but gritty realism — the facts of the world and its requirements, and how a relationship must necessarily be an accord of solidarity in negotiating these facts and requirements. It will also, hopefully, further the cause of same-sex marriage. As Gilbert most unselfishly points out in the book, she and Felipe are fortunate to even have this choice. Across the world, most lovers of the same gender do not. And when it comes to the paperwork — immigration, insurance, death and taxes – they suffer in ways that heterosexuals can take for granted that they won’t have to endure.

    And Eat Pray Love, that old bugaboo? Let’s just say I am really looking forward to the film. Aren’t you?

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    Who is the Sleaziest of Them All?

    Shilpa Phadke, Anjali Monteiro and K P Jayasankar ask why the reportage of the recent sexual assault of a young woman plumbs new depths in insensitive, unethical and sleazy journalism.

    The print media has, on many occasions, been a good friend to the women’s movement. By giving space to gender issues, specifically those related to violence against women, it has played a role in the popularizing of a feminist politics. Many sections of the media continue to be at least liberal and sympathetic to the cause of gender equality. What then permits the kind of sensationalist reporting that not just undermines all those progressive values but actually violates, in spirit if not in letter, the law? Does the logic of the market and the imperative to titillate override all ethical and professional norms?

    The Mumbai Mirror has been particularly reprehensible and unethical in making public the contents of the entire FIR in the case of the rape of an international student of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai this month violating her right to anonymity and dignity. Such reportage is clearly counterproductive and sends a strong negative message to the survivors of sexual assault. In the future, many would hesitate to come out and complain, for fear of being torn to shreds by the media and in some ways facing a second assault at the hands of the sensation seeking media. Nor despite demands from women’s groups has The Mumbai Mirror adequately apologized for their irresponsible journalism. Apart from a token and wholly inadequate apology for offending their readers’ sentiments, the paper has failed to even acknowledge that it has erred terribly.

    Nor have most other papers been very careful in whom they quote or the facts they print without verification. The Times of India, on the first day, chose to put in its headlines, on page 1, “US student raped by batchmates in Mumbai”, despite the fact that later in its report it mentions the police said that they were Tata Institute of Social Sciences students but this was denied by TISS. Interestingly, none of the other English language papers seem to have had access to this police source, as all of them reported that they were students of other colleges. While the TOI corrected its statement the next day, many people still believe that the criminals were students of TISS. This irresponsible, if not malicious reporting has attempted to tarnish the reputation of not just an institution, but also of hundreds of students who study there.

    The press has not balked at giving prominent space to the comments made by the accused who seek to slander the survivor or to the parents of the accused who can only moan that their ‘golden boys’ can do no wrong. Oddly enough one of the first comments made by the papers about the accused were that they were all from “good families”, whatever that means, demonstrating not just a lack of ethics but also a lack of journalistic accuracy. The mud slinging has begun and the press shows no signs of exercising restraint in their printing of slanderous comments by the accused questioning the morality of the young woman. ‘Blaming the victim’ is a common social response to violence against women, and the media on its part is doing little to prevent this from happening. If the media continues to report in this vein it could well bias the trial against the young woman seeking justice.

    Meanwhile women’s hostels in the city are seeking to tighten rules for their residents and restrict them further. The International Students Hostel, where many of the accused resided, has closed their mess to women without offering any explanations. Some hostels have informed women students that they will have to leave immediately after exams. These repercussions of assault then are already being felt by women whose access to the city is further restricted. Yet one has not seen a single journalistic piece of reporting that focuses on this. In their reportage thus far the media have shown not just a lack of responsibility but also a lack of insight.

    What we need now is a reportage that will focus on the larger picture, one that will be able to contextualise this one woman’s quest for justice within the larger question of women’s right to have fun with being constantly threatened with violence and then blamed for it.

    Protests and debates on the issue:

    Women’s groups and students have protested and demonstrated outside the Mumbai Mirror offices.

    Only one newspaper, The Hindu, saw fit to cover this. There has also been some comment generated on the subject and a debate on the loss of ethics of the media is ongoing.

    And a blog has been started to debate the issue.

    ***

    Shilpa Phadke is a sociologist, researcher and pedagogue. Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar are documentary film makers and academics; they teach and research in the area of media and cultural studies.

    PUCL-K Report: Cultural Policing in Dakshin Kannada

    Anindita SenguptaTHE PEOPLE’S Union for Civil Liberties, Karnataka (PUCL-K), has put together a very comprehensive report on Cultural Policing in Dakshin Kannada. The fact-finding team (which included our contributor Usha BN) traveled to Mangalore and conducted extensive interviews with key groups, activists, academics and the police. The report provides interesting background information on Dakshin Kannada as a region, looks at the current climate of fear and lawlessness, and examines the multiple factors involved in this. It points out some very interesting things — the intersection of communalisation and criminalisation, cultural policing as ‘social apartheid’ and the role of the media, police, civil society. Read / download the entire report for free. Please spread the word widely as well by pasting extracts on your blogs or websites if possible.

    Excerpts:

    As one observer, who has been covering the events in Dakshina Kannada, put it, “Today saffron is the colour of power. You just walk around with a big red tilak and see how people treat you. Right from the shop keeper to the bus conductor to the policeman, everybody gives you respect. Without the tilak you are nothing, with the tilak you become a power structure.” Munir Kattipalya of the DYFI echoes this sentiment when he says, “This district is not only communalized but also progressively criminalized.”

    What is indicated by such statements is that there is a strong link between communalization and criminalization. It is precisely because the state has chosen not to act when criminal activities are perpetrated under the garb of religion that criminal elements now feel that they have the sanction to perpetrate violence and Cultural Policing in Dakshina Kannada other forms of intimidation by using the garb of religion. This possibly explains the proliferation of vigilante groups in Dakshina Kannada.

    And:

    Cultural policing in turn leads to forms of ‘social apartheid.’ By ‘social apartheid,’ what we mean is a policing of community boundaries through laying down what manners of dress and what manners of expression are appropriate for each selfenclosed community. The conventional understanding of apartheid as it was practiced in South Africa refers to a structure of segregation of the people of South Africa through law. By social apartheid, we mean a practice of segregating communities on the basis of religion and gender by self-styled vigilante groups as well as prescribing appropriate behaviour and conduct for the separate communities. Social apartheid is successful only because it has the implicit support of the state, and hence enjoys immunity for its patently lawless actions. It is important to stress that social apartheid is not just about segregating communities but it is equally concerned about the culture, dress, and deportment of individuals within the community.

    How Early is Too Early?

    AT THE PRESCHOOL that I run (where I also teach), there’s a certain action song we sing that goes like this:

    Cook like mummy,

    Yum, yum, yum, (repeat thrice)

    Let’s have fun together!

    Drive like daddy,

    Knit like grandma,

    Cough like grandpa….

    …and by the time we come to “Be like teacher, Shh, shh, shh!” I’m ready to pop a vein. Continue reading

    An Open Letter to the State Government from the Women of Karnataka

    We fear for lives of women in this state… is the Government listening? Is there a Government in this State at all? Or is it only a political party whose highest priority is its own regressive right wing agenda, which violates the responsibility of governance?

    In one of its latest acts of bigotry and intolerance, members of the Sri Rama Sene and the Bajrang Dal barged into a lounge bar on Balmatta road in Mangalore and viciously attacked the girls who were present there. Their crime: Firstly they were indecently dressed and second, despite being Hindu, they were daring to socialise with Muslim boys. Prasad Attavar, State Deputy Convener of the Sri Ram Sene said that it was “a spontaneous reaction against women, who flouted traditional Indian norms of decency.”

    And what was the spontaneous response from the government to this absolutely uncultured act of violence against young girls in the name of culture? Not surprisingly a studied silence from the powers that be and total inaction and apathy from the subservient police force in South Canara. Continue reading

    Taking the Monogamy Out of Marriage

    UNMANA INITIATED a lively discussion on marriage a few weeks ago, and there is news now that the institution as we legally define it in India may be set to change. Maharashtra is picking up the cause of legalising live-in relationships and providing more rights to extramarital female parties within a marriage. The state cabinet announced on Wednesday that the definition of the word “wife” under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code may be amended, thus facilitating the expansion of the institution of marriage. The bill cannot be cleared without the Centre’s approval, and the amendment has been suggested ostensibly in the interest of securing the rights of women in relationships that do not have the protection of the law. Continue reading

    Menstruating Goddesses

    Meena KandasamyWHEN IT WAS announced recently that the first batch of non-Brahmin students were being ordained for priesthood in Tamil Nadu, there was great reason to cheer and celebrate that priesthood has been “officially” thrown open to all the castes and that Brahmin exclusivity was set to break (at least theoretically). But what is disappointing is that all women are denied this right and there is no talk in Tamil Nadu of any legislation, anywhere in the near future, to grant them the right to officiate as priests. Continue reading