Sarah MacDonald

"Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure"

(reviewed by Nandini Pandya APR 4, 2004)

"Irreverent and spiritual" is not an oxymoron! These are words that best describe this book.

Holy Cow by Sarah MacDonald

A few months back my boss saw me reading May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons during my lunch break. This book was written in the late 1980s by Elisabeth Bumiller who is now a reporter for the New York Times. "Too old" he said. The implication was that India has changed so much in recent years that any book written over a decade ago must be passe. Although I liked knowing that a technology manager such as my boss was plugged into the new image of India, I don't agree with his view. Not because I think India has not changed, but because I think trend-watchers like him tend to miss the whole picture. It is like to trying to guess an elephant while peeking through a tiny window.

When I first moved to the US in the early 1980s, India was commonly seen as a land of crushing poverty laced with an exotic spirituality and mysticism. Over the following two decades, with succeeding waves of cultural adoption / adaptation of Indian icons - Madonna's bindi , Deepak Chopra's mysticism, the popularity of yoga and vegetarianism, Bollywood movies and even some of the more obscure practices like kirtan - the country has gradually shed that image. The current boom in outsourcing has elevated India to the position of dominance that was once enjoyed by the likes of Japan and the Asian tiger countries (Indonesia, Malaysia) - it is now feared as the land of cheaply available techies.

And yet, when I am in India on my once every two-to-three years visits, I am struck by how much of the essential India still persists. Yes, there is a veneer of globalization as evidenced by the ubiquity of everything from cable TV to McDonalds. But, the parameters of people's lives are largely unchanged - the crushing crowds are still there, as is the traffic; people still live in extended families and they are still just as involved in the lives of their neighbors; there are still road-side vegetable sellers and dosa / bhel vendors.

Sara McDonald, who is an Australian reporter, went to India somewhat reluctantly to accompany her fiancé, an Australian television reporter stationed in New Delhi. She has managed to sensitively capture the many contrasts that live side-by-side in India - age old tradition and modernity, poverty and riches and generosity of spirit in the most unlikely people and places.

When she arrived in new Delhi, she found the place exasperating and hard to get used to. The noise, the crowds the intense heat and dust seemed relentless and all-encompassing. And so she decided to find peace in the "only place possible - within myself." This book is about her spiritual journey as she traveled all over the country and met people who belong to the many religions that are practiced in India. She went as a seeker - someone who wants to know and learn, and without prejudice of any kind. The result is about as complete an account as it is possible to get about India as a supermarket of spirituality.

I have often told my American friends about how India is home to people not just of the Hindu and Muslim faiths, but a whole host of others including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. But, much of my knowledge of India's religious diversity is mostly anecdotal and is limited to my own personal experience.

In contrast, Ms. McDonald used her remarkable access and resources to meet people of many faiths and encouraged them to speak of the role that religion plays in their lives. So, in the course of the book we get to vicariously attend the Kumbh Mela in Benares, visit a Christian church in the South, celebrate Passover with Israeli émigrés in the North, share a meal with a Parsi family, attend a Hindu wedding and endure a ten-day regimen of silence and fasting in a Buddhist monastery at the foot of the Himalayas. Ms. McDonald also managed to visit some of the lesser-known flavors of religion that abound in India. She visited Satya Sai Baba and Amma who hold a "latter day saint" appeal for their devotees.

This is a description of India in all its secular glory - it is not just freedom of religion, it is freedom from religion as well as freedom in interpreting and implementing religion. We meet a woman who tells Sara "Your Christ must have been a Hindu saint" and we meet her yoga instructor who is ambivalent about the spiritual aspects of yoga. At a time when the whole world, and even the U.S., seems to be turning to a more literal, less inclusive interpretation of religion, it is heartening to read of a billion people struggling with, but also adapting and reinventing their diverse religions with grace and abiding faith. A letter published in the New York Times says this about New York: "Any city where people from all over the world can live together and, for the most part, tolerate, respect and even appreciate one another's beliefs and traditions is about as close to the divine as we've ever gotten on this planet." After reading this book, one cannot but agree that Ms. McDonald found the divine in India.

The book is written in a light-hearted vein. Some might even characterize it as politically incorrect as Ms. McDonald does not shy from calling the shots as she sees them - if someone is rude, she says so; if a place is unsanitary she says so too. However, it is impossible to take offense at the author's depiction of the underbelly of Indian society because she takes pains to provide a context for them. This is also because in the course of the book it becomes clear that the author was slowly but surely changed by her experiences and that she welcomed and celebrated those changes. For instance, in the course of her stay in India she became a vegetarian. Also, she developed a new ease and comfort about the very aspects that she had once found challenging - she became the "source of solace" for other visiting Australians and Americans trying to come to grips with India!

I enjoyed the book's irreverent stance - it was like travelling with a girl-friend and feeling free to observe and comment on everything that crosses one's path without any inhibitions. In the spirit of a true traveler "when in Rome do as the Romans do," Ms. McDonald ventured into plenty of non-religious territory as well: she developed an interest in Bollywood movies and describes an evening spent with Preity Zinta, the well-known movie star. She tried to take lessons in Bollywood-style dancing, but gave up because she found it too hard. She learned to converse in Hindi.

At the end of the book when reading the description of Ms. McDonald's return to Australia, I felt her sorrow at leaving the place and people that she had come to love and to think of as "home." And I was moved by her joy in the very special memento that she took back with her.

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About the Author:

Sarah MacDonaldSarah MacDonald grew up in Sydney and studied psychology at university. Rejecting the idea of ever practicing as a shrink, she travelled for a year hoping that a few months in India at the end of the journey would give her a vision of her destiny. It didn't. Instead, she 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!"

After completing a cadetship at ABC Radio News, she worked as Triple J's political correspondent in Canberra. Sarah then presented the youth network's "Arts Show" and worked on television productions such as "Recovery", "Race Around the World" and "Two Shot." She presented the "Morning Show" until the end of the 1999 when she left to join her partner Jonathan Harley in India. (Yes, the prophecy came).

Until recently, Sarah presented "Bush Telegraph" on Radio National. Sarah is now "utterly consumed" with her new child. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014