Review: Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure

Rating: 2 / 5

Taken from the blurb:
In her twenties, journalist Sarah Macdonald backpacked around India and came away with a lasting impression of heat, pollution and poverty. So, when an airport beggar read her palm and told her she would return to India - and for love - she screamed 'Never!' and gave the country, and him, the finger.

Macdonald's boyfriend, Australian Broadcasting Company news correspondent Jonathan is posted to New Delhi in the year 2000, Macdonald gives up her high profile job to be with the love of her life. What follows is her journey to a mellower-almost-love for India.

Dealing with a lack of focus and feelings of uselessness and vulnerability because she doesn't have a job, she decides to travel all over India to explore the many spiritual avenues available and finds India to be a secular melting pot of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Jews, Islam, Sufism, New Age Philosophy, delving through which she hopes to find a means of attaining salvation for her soul and a way to a better understanding of herself.

You would think that a book with the title of 'Holy Cow' would explain the reverence for the cow a bit more. Sarah Macdonald's Indian Adventure says

'Hindus revere cows probably because one of their favorite gods, Krishna, is a cowherd and Shiva - the Lord of Destruction - has a bull called Nandi.'

That is only part of the explanation, the main one is that Hindus revere the cow as gou mata (Mother Cow) because the cow provides milk to sustain human life from babies onwards, you can make essential food items like yogurt and ghee from the milk, the cow gives birth to bulls and provides the necessary muscle power for farmers to till their fields, provides cow dung which is used as manure, fertilizer, anti-pollutant and pesticide and even cow urine finds use in Ayurveda. But this subtlety is lost to the author who says

'I've always found it hilarious that Indian people chose the most boring, domesticated, compliant and stupid animal on earth to adore..'

And this, unfortunately lazy, journalism forms the the initial part of Macdonald's book. The lurid pink cover should have provided the initial warning. The author spends the entire first half increasing the shock value of her book, bemoaning the superficialities, the dirt, the shit, the poverty, the disease, the pollution, the heat, every page uses the word filthy atleast once, even natural disasters all come under a myopic biased scrutiny.

In Rishikesh, when an earthquake jolts them out of their bed Macdonald wakes up screaming with rage 'That's it, I've had it with this country! This place is unfit for human habitation, it's mad!'

I could have understood the author's dilemma. Stuck in a completely alien culture, away from the solitude and serenity which she so prides in Sydney, and more importantly not having a job or like-minded friends to occupy her time and mind, she is adrift in a number of sensations and experiences which overwhelm her. And I think it is positively intrepid that she chooses to travel alone all over the country in her spiritual quest. However, she lost my sympathy when she chooses to externalize her issues with self-absorption and self-pity and the aforementioned hatred towards the country. A passing aghori chooses to curse her with pneumonia and she moans that she has given India her health and her hair after her hair starts falling.

The author also makes rapid generalizations of everything she encounters, a beggar with a burned face is instantly recognised as a dowry burning victim, when she is ill at the Apollo 'apparently it's not uncommon for women in Indian hospitals to be raped', 'Indian society forces its middle class to live an extended adolescence' and an Indian male telling her that he would like to be friends with women but it wasn't possible in the country, statements which only marginally describe the India of 2000 which I am familiar with and grew up in. Even her experiences in Pakistan make for sweeping statements which she cannot possibly verify 'India's humor is predominantly slapstick but it seems Pakistan understands cynicism and dry wit'.

The second part of the book was a better read for me, once Macdonald gets over the 'culture shock' and starts trying to actually understand and accept the culture. Her writing describes humorously the different people and religions she encounters along with an account of being caught up in the aftermath of the events of Sept 11 with Jonathan being in Afghanistan.

She is still very outspoken against people whose philosophies she doesn't agree with, but the writing style is more critical and irreverent rather than on emphasizing things for shock value. The pot shots this time around however, come at the expense of people's accents and incorrect English, everything being heavily accented or emphasized ... 'Sarrrrrahhhhh'...

The path to spiritual salvation that she undergoes in her journey, however, is dubious. After a Buddhist retreat where she is taught to come to terms with her mortality and embrace the thought of death, a conveniently faulty propeller when flying back home, teaches her she is not yet ready to die. The general format is the same for the rest of her experiences. I got the feeling that while the author was interested and invested enough to search out different religions, she wasn't interested in digging deep into any of the philosophies , she's just looking for what the religions can do for her .... and her book of course.

Macdonald's conceit in the acknowledgments is to offer up thanks 'to India for making me'. Holy Cow follows the bad cop-good cop format in an effort to get the author to that particular state but I cannot recommend it as a journalistic endeavor, it is just a different angle for yet another insightless story on India. I cannot recommend it as a travelogue either because it goes against the spirit of discovery, inquiry and open-mindedness of any travelogue I have read. As an astonishingly honest personal memoir, it might have it's moments.


avdi said...

"I cannot recommend it as a travelogue either because it goes against the spirit of discovery, inquiry and open-mindedness of any travelogue I have read. As an astonishingly honest personal memoir, it might have it's moments."

Fabulous sum up.. I should hate to read this book.

samir said...

Usually I am sceptical about reviews that pan books about India written by Western authors.
Most of those reviews are not well written/argued, and/or make the same point/s (The West likes to highlight India's poverty & problems, and grudgingly depicts some achievements etc. etc. etc.).
Your review is a refreshing and excellent exception to this rule. In it I found meticulous arguments leading to logical conclusions. I also found a calm and reasoned manner, again a welcome contrast to a more strident and ranting tone usually adopted by other reviewers. Also to second Ava, the last para (& indeed much of the review) was an outstanding analysis of the book. Needless to say, the quality of writing was upto your usual high standards.
Again to second Ava, I doubt that I will read this book.

(On a lighter note, I hope I am never at the receiving end of such a brilliant critique. The effortless manner in which you tore apart this book brings visions of a skilled Chef expertly carving pieces of meat.)


WhatsInAName said...

brilliant brilliant review CP! I had picked up this book sometime back but dumped it midway somewhere. I was not able to put my finger on what was bothering. You have beautifully summarised it for me :-) Even i found the book pretty confusing and the author too criticizing at times! I even felt that she was giving India extra mysticism than it solicited. you read the whole book? may be i will complete it too if you say that second half was better

Smita said...

I remember seeing this book in the book store. I have picked it quite a many times but the story on the back cover always managed to disgust me. I knew it wasn't my kind of book and ur review confirms my doubt.

The author proves yet again that there are some preconcieved notions about India and hardly does anyone try to break thru them...

Excellent review...

Bouncing-Bubble said...

This has got to be one of your best reviews ever. Put this in the forgotten site as well.

AS for the book, no time anyway these days :(

couchpapaya said...

avdi - hey, nice profile pic :) i was given this book by a non-indian friend who wanted to see what my reaction wld be. suffice it to say, i reacted strongly :) yes, maybe not the best thing to read when there's so many others available ...

samir - ru writing a book then ?? :) u know i wasnt even upset by slumdog millionaire because it depicted reality. but it's very difficult to understand indian culture and only judging it by unidimensional standards drives me crazy. i have to thank B for not ranting i guess, i took it all out on him when i first read the book :D

WIAN - i knew i wanted to write a review so i only read it completely to be fair. good to know u agree with me .... i was confused by a lot of the reviews on amazon. sometimes i wondered if we were reading the same book :) as for re-reading, how much absolutely useless time do u have? :)

couchpapaya said...

smita - i think there are western writers who do write very well, mark tully for one and recently i heard a review with william dalrymple and i thought he was very interesting. but these are people who have lived in india for years. i think it's not easy to come to terms with the entire culture when ur there for only a couple of years .... some of the parts shocked me quite a bit, i think the author is absolutely honest about her feelings and it's a bit refreshing because who really is nowadays. the honesty tho is what rubbed me the wrong way :S

bubbles - thank u :) and for dropping by with what limited time i know u must have ... as for the other site, dont think i will, i'm just not interested anymore !!

eye-in-sty-in said...

awesome review.
Clinical precision.
Superb summary.

Typically its not fair to judge a book by its cover, but the title, the goggles on Lord Shiva and the Hot Pink font should be a glaring warning to anyone.

Why does cow-worship bother non-Indians so much? Its almost as if they are superbly intrigued by it and never fail to use it in a conversation, once you get somewhat comfy with them (non-Indians). As if they dont have anything that we would find strikingly bizzare!

Again, nicely done. Upon reading this review, the author should immediately start on another soul seeking quest, only this time without a book writing agenda.

couchpapaya said...

EISI - ya that cover is v. tacky isnt it!!! cow-worship, slumdogs, the list of things to explain goes on .... i wish ppl wld attempt to explain instead of trying to push everything into a pre-determined slot. thanks!

eye-in-sty-in said...

I gave similar reasons for cow worship to my friend... only because i knew my words wont be wasted and bcoz he was interested in knowing the history and the reasoning behind it. for those who just want to dig for dirt, I point 'em to the shortcomings in their own culture... No religion is perfect unless its seen from the eyes of a firm believer.

eye-in-sty-in said...

CP, ur tagged in this post!

Mama - Mia said...

there is no way i am gonna pick up this book. actually I have never been enthusiatioc enough to know how phirangs look at India! and such judgemental book will hardly ever find a place on my bookshelf!


Neha Sharma said...

Extremely well written and I have already gifted few to my friends and family members. This has to be the first book that made me laugh while reading it. Sarah appears to be very honest in her writing and shows how well she accepted India like any Indian would do.

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