Sarah Macdonald's Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure

I recently taught Sarah Macdonald's irreverent travel narrative, Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure in my Travel Writers class. Though I'd been worried about how it would go over, Macdonald's book really seemed to click with my students. Her hip style and irreverence actually woke up some students who had, up to this point, seemed somewhat bored by our discussions of travel, colonialism, and the Indian diaspora.

Though I believe my students learned some things from the book overall, Macdonald does hit some off notes. For instance, take Macdonald's discussion of the eponymous cow, which follows a description of Indian traffic rules:

I've always thought it hilarious that Indian people chose the most boring, domesticated, compliant and stupid animal on earth to adore, but already I'm seeing cows in a whole different light. These animals clearly know they rule and the like to mess with our heads. The humpbacked bovines step off median strips just as cars are approaching, they stare down drivers daring them to charge, they turn their noses up at passing elephants and camels, and hold huddles at the busiest intersections where they seem to chat away like the bulls of Gary Larson cartoons. It's clear they are enjoying themselves.

But for animals powerful enough to stop traffic and holy enough that they'll never become steak, cows are treated dreadfully. Scrany and sickly, they survive by grazing on garbage that's dumped in plastic bags. The bags collect in their stomachs and strangulate their innards, killing the cows slowly and painfully. Jonathan has already done a story about the urban cowboys of New Delhi who lasso the animals and take them to volunteer vets for operations. Unfortunately the cows are privately owned and once they are restored to health they must be released to eat more plastic.

Most of what she says here (especially about India's street cows being unhealthy) is true, but the smug tone bothers me; how is it different from the old type of colonial travel narrative (i.e., Katherine Mayo) that aims to ridicule the "natives"?

Macdonald gets much more interesting and informative as she moves from being a passively observing traveler making wisecracks to an active participant in India's spiritual marketplace. She samples large-scale events like the 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 (aka, the Hugging Amma) Ashram in Kerala, and the Tibetan Buddhist center in Dharamsala. She also explores smaller, more marginal traditions, including Vipassana Buddhist meditation (where you don't talk to anyone at all for ten days), the Parsis of Malabar Hill (who come off as very pompous and somewhat delusional), and the now-fading Bene Israel Jewish community. Though she doesn't at any point visit India's major mosques, she does have a chapter on her experience in Muslim-dominated Kashmir.

In each case, Macdonald tries to make her encounter with a given religious tradition personal -- that is, she considers whether the religion she encounters is something she can connect with, and whether it's something she would want in her life in an ongoing way. She shows a willingness not only to try different things, but to actively immerse herself in various religious practices and belief-systems. It's hard to know how seriously to take it: she dabbles in not just one or two but ten different religious traditions in the course of two years, but Macdonald does structure her book as a kind of personal spiritual journey -- where each of the major religious traditions she encounters gives her something to take home.

Despite the personal element, Macdonald's book remains somewhat ethnographic: there are substantial paragraphs explaining how Jainism works, the basic principles of Zoroastrianism, and so on. And actually, what might be the most interesting ethnographic work she does isn't about Indian religion per se so much as the culture of foreign travelers who go to India for "spiritual tourism." The chapter on the large numbers of young Israelis in the mountains is especially interesting. I noticed this myself when I was in Leh (Ladakh) two years ago: everywhere you go, you see signs for restaurants serving "Israeli" cuisine. There are special Israeli-only hostels, not to mention ubiquitous young people speaking Hebrew. The Israeli kids go to India to party (cheap drugs, no parents), to experiment with things like Tibetan Buddhism, and more than anything else to get a break after their mandatory military service. Some explore alternative/mystical forms of Jewish spirituality (Macdonald goes to a Seder that resembles a rave), while others stay fairly close to conservative and orthodox Judiam. In this vein, Macdonald has a particularly surreal conversation with a Lubavitcher Rabbi (!) who runs a synagogue in Dharamkhot.

Also good is Macdonald's take on the American Sikhs who have a small school in Amritsar (for American Sikh children). There she participates in a Kundalini class, and has a conversation with a teacher named Guru Singh:

For a time my cynicism is suspended and I'm in on the group high. The singalong of self-love has created a New Age ring of confidence in the room. Guru Singh oozes happiness in himself, his faith and his music. He gives me a CD of songs he's made with Seal, called Game of Chants, and shows me references by Jane Fonda and Pierce Brosnan. I tell him Courtney Love said sat nam at the MTV awards and showed me some Kundalini Yoga moves when I interviewed her at Triple J [an Australian television variety show], but I can't resist adding that she then put her cigarette out in my coffee. . . . The song and panting stuff may be kind of fun but I'm skeptical of this form of yoga; mainly because the first Sikh guru was critical of the practice and believed service to others was a better way to God. This new version of Sikhism seems to be a synthesis of age-old knowledge and modern self-loving Americanism--its saccharine self-absorbed smugness is a bit much for me.

No really, tell us what you really think!

In general, I would recommend Macdonald's book despite its occasional off notes. While Holy Cow is unlikely to tell you anything you don't already know (that is, if you know India well), it might be a good present for a curious colleague or friend (or their kids).