~Never Judge a Book by Your Preconceived Snobberies (or the cover)~
I 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.
The Sarah Macdonald who set off to India at the end of the 1990s didn't go off 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 (i.e. without noticing too much which country they are in most of the time). Her return was for love rather than enlightenment and she left behind a good job as a radio journalist and DJ in Sydney 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' in order to put on an acceptable act as the boss's girlfriend and later wife.
~The Call of the Road and the Temple~
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 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, that's common to most people who travel in India so I know that feeling) and a respect for the way in which so many and varied religions manage to rub along more or less well in the same space.
~The Good, The Bad and the Beautiful~
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 legendary actor and living idol Amitabh Bachan and the adorable and very sexy Aamir Khan. The biggest omission for me was that her travels were so focused on religious experience that I felt she really missed out on the secular attractions and I would have appreciated a lot more history and a lot less religion but it didn't stop me getting to the end.
~Another Time, Another Country~
The book 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 when the internet was barely off the ground and access was a challenge to try the patience of a meditating saint. 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 and of just how much the post 9/11 security concerns now impinge on travel in India. 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. In spite of myself I enjoyed the book. Holy Cow! I really wasn't expecting that.
Here is what I wrote yesterday on a blog I came across:
I loved this book. I have become increasingly interested in India and the varied religions that can be found there. I felt that I was able to take the tour with her through her various travels.
I do have to admit that it has greatly diminished my desire to travel there. The part in the book where the beggar is lying in the road after an accident and the bus driver getting out of the bus to drag the beggar to a ditch will stay with me for a very long time.
Perhaps, in time, I may regain that desire to travel to India. But if not, I was able to travel there with Sarah.
Now if only she would travel to Japan and explore the different paths there!
I recommend this book and hope that you enjoy it as much as I did!
Added May 16, 2009:
This book is based on the travels of a former reporter whose boyfriend is based in New Dehli working for the Australian Broadcasting Company. He is frequently sent to places away from Sarah so she is left to her own devices.
She is an Atheist who after encountering several indignities perpetuated against certain peoples and animals searches for answers as to why. Why a country so open spiritually can be so narrow-minded in the way they treat others.
She starts off studying a deep meditation technique called Vipassana which requires her to be completely silent for 10 days then moves to Buddhism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and the Muslim religion in different locales in India and Pakistan.
When she is confronted by her house helpers who are Indian Christians as to why she has not studied Christianity, she studies that as well which greatly relieves her offended house helpers.
The study of these do eventually give her some piece of mind or it may be that she ends up becoming accustomed to what takes place, as she does claim towards the end of the book.
I do not believe that she intended this book to be a guide to travel in India but rather her spiritual awakening.
Holy Cow! is a humourous travel memoir based on the non-fictional journey of radio presenter Sarah Macdonald to India, where she has many adventures and explores such subjects as gurus, New Delhi, movies, housekeeping, weddings, parties, friends, religion and war.
The story begins with a brief but funny chapter describing the highlights at New Delhi airport in 1988, during Sarahs first backpacker trip to India. The writing is very easy to read, entertaining and moves at a good pace Tonight, in such a lovely place, the voices down my ear corridor belong to the airport toilet cleaner. When Sarah actually begins the novel (Chapter 2) by joining her war correspondent husband Jonathon in India in New Delhi, she describes not only the places, people, smells and tastes as she travels, but also the culture and traditions, which creates some very interesting writing. As someone who has never been to India, I really felt like Id travelled there with her, enjoying her adventures and having a good chuckle at the jokes and style of writing Ive been told I love you more times today than at the three oclock ecstasy peak at the Mardi Gras.
Some of the adventures Sarah road tests include:
A meditational camp at a Vipassana center in Dharamkot for ten days
Going to an Indian hospital with double pneumonia
Visiting the Karmapa Lama
Bathing in the Ganges
A visit to a Parsi house
Kerala, Mumbai, Bangalore and many more places
The sounds of badly played tabla and distorted techno draw me to a restaurant that smells of pot, pizza and patchouli. This is the scent of Indias most ubiquitous travellers Israelis. After hanging around monks for weeks I feel shocked and stirred by the sensuality surrounding me
If you are looking for a book that will keep you enthralled, well-travelled, entertained and busy then this is the book for you! Sarah explains India with such colour and ease that you need have no prior knowledge of India before reading it. At 298 pages, I highly recommend this book its worth paying full price for.
Publisher: Bantam Books
Year Published: 2002
IBSN No: 1-86325-326-2
Australian MacDonald didn't fall in love with India her first time there, at age 21. So when her boyfriend, Jonathan, a reporter for ABC, is sent there for work, she reluctantly follows after a year of separation. At first, life in India is as bad as she remembered it--overcrowded, smoggy, disturbing. A serious bout of pneumonia puts her in an Indian hospital, but as she recovers, she begins to make friends in India and to understand the culture. She finds herself attending lavish Indian weddings and trying to comfort her friend Padma, whose mother commits suicide after Padma marries without her permission. MacDonald makes an effort to understand the many diverse religions of the area, including taking a 10-day sojourn in a Buddhist temple and discussing religion with Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and even a group of visiting Israelis. With Jonathan, she takes a trip to war-torn Kashmir, an area that is at once achingly beautiful and devastatingly dangerous. A lively, snappy travelogue.