Life, loss, and love: how author Elizabeth Gilbert dances around the great mysteries of the universe

At the recently concluded Jaipur LitFest, bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert of 'Eat, Pray, Love' fame speaks about her belief in ‘Quest Physics’ and the laws that govern it.

In her 2006 bestseller Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, author Elizabeth Gilbert relies heavily on the universe for answers to life’s questions.

She says in the book, “I've come to believe that there exists in the universe something I call ‘The Physics of The Quest’ - a force of nature governed by laws as real as the laws of gravity or momentum. And the rule of Quest Physics maybe goes like this: ‘If you are brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting (which can be anything from your house to your bitter old resentments) and set out on a truth-seeking journey (either externally or internally), and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue, and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher, and if you are prepared – most of all – to face (and forgive) some very difficult realities about yourself... then truth will not be withheld from you.’ Or so I've come to believe.”

Nothing is different in real life. Gilbert’s 2019 book City of Girls was released after she lost her partner Rayya Elias to cancer. The book, she says, came from a sense of loss and grief but in contrast to those overwhelming emotions, Gilbert fashioned it as one about joy, sex, sexuality, and frivolous things that would in fact take her away from grief, at least during the moments she was writing it.

The dance of mystery

“While I must admit that I had been researching on the book for a long time, Rayya died just a few months before I actually started writing it. I spent 18 months taking care of her until she died. When I was enveloped by untold grief, I got a message from the Mothership (Rayya) or whatever was that directive from up in the sky that the best thing I could do for myself is write the book,” she tells HerStory, which was part of an engrossed bunch at an exclusive roundtable at the Jaipur LitFest held recently.

Everything in her life, she says, revolves around the great dance of the universe, where she is not in control. “I am not running the show. There are a million things that happen every day that show me I am not in charge of the world. My world is a dance between me and a mystery at all times.”

She laughs at the insinuation that after her popular life-changing books, her latest one has been likened to a chick-lit by some.

“I don’t give a shit,” she says. “I am so lucky to have had such a blessed life and that people care about my work and read it. I can’t have millions of my copies sold and complain I am marginalised. I have a beautiful audience of mostly women, that I respect, love, and care for. As WC Fielding says, ‘it’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to.’”

Escape from life

City of Girls shifts away from a far-too-common narrative of a fallen woman whose life is ruined because of her choices. Here, Gilbert’s Vivian is a promiscuous woman actually survives her desires, and discovering that you don’t have to be a good girl to be a good person.

“People are so anxious and stressed right now. I wanted the book to offer people an escape. For, we can’t always escape, but, sometimes, it’s nice to have a few hours away from the catastrophes of personal life and of the world,” she says.

The grief of losing Rayya, Gilbert admits, is all lingering, because grief and love are similar. “I didn’t intend to fall in love with Raya; it would have been extremely inconvenient but the heart knows who it belongs to. When grief comes, it hits in waves like love. I get on my knees and let it take me. If I resist it, it gets worse. Life moves on.” Her next book, she shares, is also focused on grief.

Marriage is not where I belong

Relationships form an important part of Gilbert’s life. What is her take on marriage especially when Eat, Pray, Love saw her finding love, and Committed, embracing marriage? Gilbert separated from her husband Jose Nunes after 10 years. She is vehement that she is not a great fan of the institution of marriage, and it’s definitely where she does not belong.

“There are depressing statistics about married women. Sociological data points show they have lesser money than single women, more liable to commit suicide, are likely to be murdered, and more prone to suffer from anxiety and depression. For a marriage to work, it requires an incredibly good partnership and a partner who pushes you. Despite this information being out there for a long time, every single culture in the world teaches that a woman’s life is not complete until she is married.”

Gilbert’s been on a whirlwind tour of India. She was at an ashram in the North, and moved to Goa (“I am too old for this. I have been there done all this, praying on a cold, freezing marble floor”) to spend 17 days working on her new book. After the Litfest, she is off to meet a friend in Kolkata and take a cruise on the Ganges. Her final stop will be Delhi to meet her publishers.

Surely, the universe is whetting her big appetite for life, all the way. As she says in Eat, Pray, Love, “I think I deserve something beautiful.”

(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)


Updates from around the world