Truth hurts and it hurts if it jumps out of a foreigner’s travelogue about your country. When I started reading the Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald, an Australian journalist, while on a sabbatical in India, I was upset with her sarcastic but true descriptions of India’s dust, grime, dirt, dearth, poverty, lack of sensibility, callousness, illness and everything that we have become so used to. I slowly warmed to the author as I realized that amidst all the chaos she was on a self-discovery, trying to find peace and oneness with the people in India.
Sarah and her fiancé (now, husband), Jonathan were kind and compassionate to their Indian servants and made many Indian friends. While Jonathan had fewer chances of exploring the finer aspects of Indian life and culture due to his highly time-consuming job with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sarah made full use of Jonathan’s long absence to embark on a spiritual and cultural journey in India.
It’s almost amazing, and even seems destined, as to how one person travels reluctantly into India, and by a series of circumstances is introduced to various belief systems and the socio-religious matrix in India. From weird encounters with soothsayers and even an Aghori, Sarah travels all over the country, from Kashmir to Kerala, and to neighboring Pakistan, post-911, to get an insight into so many cults and practices in India, and Pakistan.
Sarah participates in events like the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, the Our Lady of Health Basilica at Velangani in Tamil Nadu, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Sai Baba Ashram near Bangalore, Mata Amritanandamayi’s Ashram in Kerala, and the Tibetan Buddhist center in Dharamsala. Her encounters with the White Sikhs and the Israeli tourists make an engaging read. She also explores smaller, more marginal traditions, including Goenka’s Vipassana meditation camp, the Parsis in Mumbai, and the now-fading Bene Israel Jewish community. She mentions Varanasi in her travelogue, Osho Rajnish’s sex-cult, and provides information on Jain culture. She understands about Islamic culture during her visit to Kashmir, and then later in Pakistan, where she is enraptured by Sufi music.
The book has a smooth pace and is packed with information and insight. Even an Indian will not be aware of so many facts about the various cultures and customs that Sarah witnessed during her sojourn in India. From fretting and wanting to leave India at the earliest possible chance, to falling in love with the variety and vivacity of the country, Sarah enriched her life (and the book) with a lesson each from the myriad religious hues, and places in India. Sarah’s experiences as described in the book can make any eager traveler and student of sociology and philosophy jealous. Her experiences are not unique, but remarkably encapsulated to lend meaning and insight to life in India, as we know it.
Interestingly, Bollywood is also a religion in India, and Sarah had the opportunity to explore this aspect of Indian life also. From meeting Preity Zinta and Aamir Khan on the sets of Dil Chahta Hai, to catching a glimpse of Amitabh Bachchan, and finally being inspired to learn Hindi filmy jhatkas-and-matkas, Sarah adds ample spice to the book.
Simply written this book is an interesting quick read into the social customs, cuisines, outlook of the new generation, the clash of social norms, and modernity, and even political issues that permeate the life and times of modern India. Sarah is deeply touched by all that transpires in her life in our country, so much so that her Australian stoicism, is replaced by an emotional and touchy temperament; a characteristic of most melodrama-loving Indians. It goes to prove that India grows on to you, and the spirit of the country is living and all-permeating.
A recommended bed-time or travel-time read for all Indians, who can relate to the love-hate relationship that the author shares with a country called, India. A warning, though. Don’t expect a literary masterpiece, its just a travelogue from the eyes of a traveler, so dont let the cliches and the insensitivity of certain descriptions get on your nerves – just remember, the bigger cliche – truth hurts!