Holy Cow

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Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure , Sarah MacDonald, book reviewI wasn’t expecting to like Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald. She got off to a bad start for me with some glaring geographic and historical errors (claiming Rishikesh was 200 km from Dehradun – it’s about 40 minutes in a taxi) and a lot of moaning and whining about how filthy and smoggy Delhi was. I did think to myself “Oh no, here we go again. Another airhead antipodean off to India to ‘find’ herself and not bothering to do her research” and my instinct wasn’t entirely wrong – there’s far too much dipping into the smorgasbord of Indian religions and gurus for my liking – but along the way, I actually got drawn into her life in India, almost against my better intentions. As you might imagine, I didn’t buy this book – it was a donation from a kind friend and fellow review writer who I’m surprised to now realise hasn’t reviewed the book. Maybe it didn’t work so well for her either.

Sarah Macdonald didn’t go off to India completely without expectations of what she’d find. She’d travelled with a girl-pal a decade before doing the whole backpacker circuit as only Australians seem to know how. Her return was for love rather than enlightenment and she left behind a good job as a radio journalist and DJ to join her boyfriend Johnathon who’d been sent to Delhi as the head of the local Australian Broadcasting ‘outpost’. There’s a big difference between being a traveller and actually living (albeit with quite a lot of ex-pat privileges) in the world’s biggest democracy. There are ‘issues’ to sort out – accommodation, transport, managing the household ‘staff’ and dealing with the interminable loneliness of living with someone who’s covering the entire area (including some rather dangerous countries) as a journalist. She has to find and cement friendships in a country that runs by very different social norms, deal with being very much the ‘trailing spouse’ and suppressing her natural Australian ‘spunk’ to put on an acceptable act as the boss’s girlfriend and later wife.

With a lot of spare time on her hands Sarah does what all good Australian should – she travels. And in the two years or so of her time in India she dips in and out of a crazy range of religions as she bobs around the India, Pakistan and even Afghanistan visiting ashrams, yoga retreats, and other places of meditation as well as checking out what’s on offer from the Sikh, Parsi and even rather more conventional Christian groups. She visits gurus who offer love and inner peace, takes a seminar with some nut-jobs who claim to be channelling the extra terrestrial power of their home planet via their visionary but very slobbery Doberman, and meets people who’ve been burned out by their search for joy and been exploited by false gods and their idols. Macdonald never quite finds a religion or place to think of as home but I’m not entirely sure she was really looking too hard. She develops a hatred of Israeli backpackers (yep, I know that feeling) and a respect for the way so many and varied religions manage to rub along more or less well in the same space.

“I got to enjoy the time I spent between the covers of Holy Cow and to accept Macdonald as much as she learned to accept her new temporary home.”

What I loved about the book were the little details of every day life rather than the spiritual search. There’s a marvellous few pages where the domestic staff get a little crazy over the theft of the iron from the laundry room and another few where she and her partner go looking for a new place to live and turn down a beautiful apartment because the staff quarters are disgusting. The friendships she makes with local people and the way they accept her into their families are inspiring and go beyond the usual “we went travelling and got stoned” style of most such books. I was quickly bored – as I think she herself was – by the endless round of meditation retreats and contradictory messages but amused by some of the stories of stars she got to meet – including the great Amitabh Bachan and the adorable and very sexy Aamir Khan. I would have appreciated a lot more history and a lot less religion but it didn’t stop me getting to the end.

Holy Cow was published in 2002 and her time in India was almost at an end when the Twin Towers were attacked in New York and everything started to change. Whilst there have always been political and religious tensions in India, she stopped feeling quite so safe and so welcome and was ready to leave. I’ve been travelling to India since 1996 and I enjoyed being reminded of the era before mobile phones took hold, when it was rare to find Diet Coke and the internet was barely off the ground. I was also reminded of how far some of the places I’ve love have come as a result of serious efforts to clean them up, but at the same time there’s a good degree of timelessness about this book. There will always be beggars waving their running sores under your noses, wedding parties will never lose their exuberance and the people will (I hope) continue to love the attention of well-meaning and respectful visitors to their country. This isn’t the greatest book about the experience of travelling in India but it’s far from being the worst either. Despite my initial reservations, I got to enjoy the time I spent between the covers of Holy Cow and to accept Macdonald as much as she learned to accept her new temporary home.

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Holy Cow
by Sarah Macdonald

One Comment on "Holy Cow"

  1. Neha S
    07/03/2014 at 16:33 Permalink

    The way the author has aptly presented the multifaceted nature of this country will connect with any person living in India or even has had a brief acquaintance with it. On a personal level it has laid before me the things that I knew about my country and to love what it has had to offer me. It is truly an enlightenment to weigh in the dogmas and cultures of the society you live in and decide how you are going to deal with them for a better world

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Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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