Sensitive portrayals

Pilgrims
Elizabeth Gilbert
Bloomsbury,2009,
pp 210, Rs 350

But as you progress from one story to the other, the characters grow on you, and you begin to enjoy the very local flavour that seemed so incomprehensible in the beginning. So much so that by the time the last page has been read you are left feeling wistful for more.

The eponymous first story may not even find the right chord with Indian readers, set as it is in an American ranchland and peopled with cow-boy like characters. For that matter, all the stories are set across diverse, and many times, little known American terrain — and even readers familiar with America will have to strain to understand contextual nuances that arise because of it.

Although Gilbert uses the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as an epigraph, her characters are neither pilgrims nor are they on a pilgrimage in a Chaucerian sense. Yet, in a loose sort of way they are all seeking some form of unconventional salvation from their past through their inward or outward journeys.
For example, in ‘At The Bronx Terminal Vegetable Market’, a porter at a wholesale vegetable market, who thinks he can successfully run for his union’s presidentship comes to terms with his situation while admiring houses in a fancy neighborhood.
In ‘The Many Things That Denny Brown Did Not Know (Age Fifteen)’, a boy who is embarrassed by his father’s nursing job realises he can put his father’s nursing tips to help a girlfriend. In ‘Bird Shot’, a man takes his sharp-shooter friend’s son to a pigeon shoot as a kind of celebration of the boy’s father’s prowess with the gun. ‘In the Finest Wine’, a female bus driver finds herself surrounded by a bus load of old lovers on her route.

In all her stories, Gilbert leaves many things unsaid and the reader is expected to use his imagination to fill in the unstated parts. For this reason, her stories seem to end abruptly. Nevertheless, despite not making it obvious, one thing that comes through in all her stories is her sympathy for the downtrodden, and disregard for the powerful and unscrupulous — and of course her penchant for bulky titles! (‘Come and Fetch These Stupid Kids’, ‘The Famous Torn’ and ‘Restored Lit Cigarette Trick’ are fine examples.) 

All her stories have a wry humor although they are written in stark, matter-of-fact tones. Although there is no drama in her stories and they read so ‘everyday’, her characters appear real, like someone we might know in actual flesh and blood — and therein lies Gilbert’s genius. The singer in ‘The Names of Flowers and Girls’, the old man obsessed with his pet rabbit that he’s sure his neighbours have stolen, in ‘The Famous Torn... Trick’, Jimmy Morgan who wants to believe he can become union president even when he knows that’s an impossibility, in ‘At the Bronx...Market’, and several others evoke so much sympathy that they’ll stay on in the readers’ mind long after the book has been read.

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