(Published in the Business Standard, February 2010)
Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace With Marriage
POUNDS 12.99, 285 pages
In 2006, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir that simultaneously annoyed and fascinated the world so much that we couldn’t stop talking about it. Men hated it; as Gilbert progressed from weeping on her bathroom floor after a trainwreck of a divorce to personal revelation via pasta in Italy, ashrams in India and faith healers and the dashing Felipe in Indonesia, “whiny” was about the kindest thing most male critics had to say about Gilbert.
Many women hated it, but for subtly different reasons. Some, like this reviewer, were baffled at the fact that we were engaged and touched by a memoir where the author’s tone ran the gamut of emotions from chirpy to, well, whiny.
Some were horrified at Gilbert’s “selfishness”. It was bad enough that she had left her marriage and was a professed sceptic about the institution. What was far worse—even unforgiveable—was that she had found happiness, and even love. This was apostasy; how could you abandon marriage, skip off to travel the world, and still find a happy ending? (Many of us, of course, cheered.)
What pulled us in was Gilbert’s honesty and optimism—two undeniable, if occasionally irritating, virtues. Gilbert never expected Eat, Pray, Love, to become a bestseller, or expected more than a handful of loyal readers to “enjoy a rather emotional first-person chronicle about a divorced woman’s quest for psychospiritual healing”. Nor would she have written a sequel to it, if it hadn’t been for the Department of Homeland Security.
Committed catches the zeitgeist: the social contract we know as marriage has never been more open to question—or been the focus of such high expectations.
If, as Robert Louis Stevenson noted sourly in a line Gilbert uses as an epigraph, marriage is a friendship recognized by the police, there has also been no other period in human history where we have expected so much of that friendship. Your partner is supposed to be your ideal lover—and to keep the flame of desire burning over years of towels on the floor, chickenpox epidemics among the children and the other detritus of long relationships—your intellectual equal, your best friend, a great co-parent, the visible indicator of your social status and your soulmate. If we had similar expectations in the workplace, no one would ever draw salaries.
Gilbert and her Felipe do not intend to get married, until a “border incident” denies him access to the US, a country where he has been a frequent traveler for years. When Gilbert asks how he can secure a better, more permanent visa, the Homeland Security Officer looks at both of them: “Honestly? The two of you need to get married.” Given their resistance to the institution—Felipe, too, has been through a bad divorce, the conversation turns surreal. There are few of us who will receive marital advice from a deputy of the US Department of Homeland Security in an interrogation room in the bowels of the Dallas/ Forth Worth international airport.
Gilbert’s reaction, as displayed in Eat, Pray, Love, is to research the hell out of marriage and share the relentless self-scrutiny that ensues. She breaks little new ground here; it will come as no surprise to Indian readers, for instance, that non-Western forms of marriage often see it as a purely practical working arrangement, and the statistics that prove that marriage benefits men more than women have been common knowledge for a while. (Men in marriages tend to enjoy better health, more financial security, longer lives and a better quality of life. Women in marriages tend to have more financial security, and sometimes more emotional security. I know, life’s not fair.)
The parts of Committed that shine come from the personal journey, as she and Felipe struggle with being relatively privileged exiles living precariously in South Asia, permanently temporary residents. As Gilbert goes back through the history of three generations of women in her family, there are moments of splendid, and moving, revelation.
She shares a story about her grandmother cutting up a prized coat—a reminder of the glamour of her pre-marital days—in order to make baby clothes. “What my grandmother did with her fine coat (the loveliest thing she would ever own) is what all the women of that generation did for their families and their husbands and their children. They cut up the finest and proudest parts of themselves and gave it all away. …. This was their guiding verb and their defining principle in life: They gave.”
This is not what Gilbert wants her shotgun marriage to be. And as she and Felipe struggle towards a more honest understanding of what they want and are prepared to work towards in this most basic, most challenging of relationships, it would be a hard-hearted reader who didn’t wish them luck. While Committed is unlikely to touch as many chords as Eat, Pray, Love did, it fills a gap. Most books on relationships stop at the traditional ending to fairy tales: “And they lived happily ever after.” Committed asks how this might be possible, especially in this century.