Eat Pray Love (2006) is a self-help memoir written by a depressed, white, American woman who finds healing in India. It spent 187 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list and satisfied the fantasies of many would-be travellers. It spoke to people of all genders, classes and cultures (supposedly), and inspired many to overhaul their otherwise monotonous lives.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s book centres on her white femininity in all its pain and suffering – not unexpected in a self-help memoir. In the ‘India chapter’, where she travels to the country to ‘pray’ and find spiritual guidance, she constructs a false image of a ‘Hindu India’, depicting it as a mystical place of resilience and strength, pain and alleviation.
Her journey is one that fits within US imperial expansion post-9/11 and the passage of ‘transnational whiteness’ and her sentiments echo those of the American body politic at the time. Both Gilbert and the US polity feel vulnerable, and both seek restitution for their suffering in the ‘Orient’.
But it was the British empire, and its interest in the similarities between Indian and European cultures that first forged this passage. The colonial project universalised whiteness by drawing on its similarities to Hinduism, thus depicting this ‘eastern religion’ as ‘white enough’ in a way that the Muslims of the ‘Orient’ were not. Commonalities between Sanskrit, Latin and Ancient Greek, as well a belief in ‘shared Aryan origins’, are just some of the reasons why. This British-crafted notion of Hinduism presented practices as ‘timeless’ and celebrated upper caste, Sanskritic views of Hinduism to the detriment of the rest of Hindus and Indians.
British women in the 19th century characterised Indian women as backward, in need of saving. This feigned concern has been dubbed ‘rescue politics’ and was part of the justification for British colonial expansion, to ‘assist’ and ‘liberate’ Indian women. This probably sounds familiar to you when thinking about the US’ military incursions post 9/11.
So US expansion in the 2000s invokes British-empire era imagery. But in Gilbert’s world, her journey, and the US’, is different to the British colonial project. This is exactly the connection that white, American women like Gilbert seek to distance themselves from in their passage through India, instead focusing on their personal pain and trauma as isolated from contemporary realities and political histories. Here, India’s palliative power, and Gilbert’s white female pain elides the horrors of US military expansion and Islamophobia post 9/11.
American women and their self-discovery in India also parallels the meteoric rise in India’s global popularity and relationship with the US. Post 9/11, India was described by George Bush as one of three ‘democracies against terror’ along with Israel and the US, a clear contrast to the communist and Islamic ‘axis of evil’ that was Iran, Iraq and North Korea. In 2000, the Indian Prime Minister called the two countries ‘natural allies’, holding the same democratic and free market ideals with the same goals against Islamic terror. India has been lauded by US media and business outlets as ‘rising’ and ‘free’.
So Gilbert’s journey cannot and should not be detached from this budding relationship. In fact, Gilbert writes that the falling of the Twin Towers comes at the same time that her marriage falls apart. She characterises herself as innocent and vulnerable – wounded, if you will. This reflects the US’ perception of itself, led by President Bush at the time, in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers. So both Gilbert and the US feel justified in their pursuit of the ‘Orient’: the US wreaks havoc across two continents once more while Gilbert’s pain as an American white woman is paramount in her journey. For both, the ‘Orient’ is a vehicle for salvation.
This turns rescue politics on its head. It seems that ‘Hindu India’ and the strictures of back-breaking work are what Gilbert needs to rebuild herself from within. She must emulate the strength of the Indian woman who smiled ‘dazzling(ly)’ despite the ‘terrible conditions’ of her work (160). Gilbert thus homogenises Indian women as Hindu and sees their ‘radiant beauty’ and ‘strength’. Yet this healing that Hindu women bring to Gilbert’s vulnerabilities ultimately strengthens her white femininity, and so by extension, it facilitates the survival of her whiteness and perhaps more tangentially, US imperial power.
So by now you may have guessed – Gilbert, like many Western writers before her, has succumbed to Orientalism. For Gilbert, India is primarily a vehicle for healing, a country of ‘resilient women’ and meditative practices. Hindu women are a site of recovery for Gilbert, without her reciprocating with anything but so-called admiration. The self-help memoir produces a ‘Hindu India’ view which is not only inaccurate, but the perfect antidote to Gilbert’s miserable city life. Significantly, when Gilbert visits Indonesia, she finds ‘love’ and ‘healing’ in Bali, the only Hindu-majority region in the otherwise most populous Muslim-majority country in the world. There is seldom mention of the fact that Indonesia is a thriving Islamic-majority, multi-ethnic democracy.
And for President Bush, India represented an opening and westernising country in the ‘Orient’, an anchor with which the US could expand across Asia while simultaneously holding up other countries in the region to this standard of acceptable ‘non-whiteness’.
The Hinduism that is lauded in Eat Pray Love is the one that Gilbert sees, understands so far as it is familiar and identifiable to her whiteness, and also perceived as useful to her. At the same time, she escapes culpability for her country’s invasions and imperialism. She rejuvenates, having taken from India, and returns to her homeland to progress, finish her book and become a millionaire and star. If this is not Orientalism, then I don’t know what is.
Image: Sven Scheuermeier
Aditi Razdan is a Law and Asian Studies student at ANU, drawn to the country of her ancestors and the stories of her people. She is particularly interested in issues of race, the politicisation of culture and religion and the criminalisation of coloured bodies. She is a Sub-Editor at the East Asia Forum, Editor of Demos and has had her work published in Demos and The Kashmir Times.