Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Book Review: Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald

Title: Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure
Author: Sarah Macdonald
Publisher: Bantam Books (Random House)
Pages: 320
Price: Rs 375
Genre: Non Fiction / Travel / Memoir
Rating: 8/10
Format: Paperback

I first read ‘Holy Cow’ in 2006 or 2007. It was interesting to look at Indian diversity and idiosyncrasies through the eyes of an outsider who wanted to make sense of the chaos. I loved it. But in order to appreciate this book, you must have the ability to laugh at India’s eccentricities. It is one of the very few books which I have re-read and enjoyed.

Sarah Macdonald, an Australian journalist, broadcaster and presenter, did not like India on her first visit and never wanted to return. But she returns to India after almost 11 years to be with her boyfriend Jonathan Haley. “Holy Cow” is more of a spiritual journey of the author which takes her through interesting experiences and people.

She writes right at the beginning: “India is Hotel California: you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

In her early days, her cynical self only finds the problems: widespread poverty, no respect for time, no sense of space and privacy, people gawking at western women, dirt and filth, the unbearable heat, poor medical standards, etc., etc. But soon she decides to make the best of her stay in India, since Jonathan was away most of the time for long duration owing to wok commitments. Sarah’s experiences were diverse: finding anything but peace in the spiritual ‘market’ of Rishikesh, brushes with death in the forms of earthquake and double-pneumonia, making sense of the Indian marriage scene (its close connection with family and honour), cleansing of mind and finding inner peace through Vipassana, learning about Sikhs and meeting a unique group of white Sikhs, grim realities of a paradise lost in Kashmir, experiencing Jewish rituals, getting blessed by Mata Amritanandamayi, meeting film stars, exploring Christianity at our Lady of Velangiri, to name a few.

There are several such books by western travellers / journalists / explorers but Sarah Macdonald has a distinguished voice. Some may find a few of her observations or comments offensive, but you must remember while reading this book, or any such book, that this is a personal journey of the author. In this particular book, we find Sarah Macdonald transform from an atheist to someone who begins to enjoy the expansive spiritual roads India offers, its many religions. At the end of it, she is humbled by India’s accommodating culture, affectionate people, diversity and experiences. At the end, if you really read it with an open mind, there is not a thing to offend. She sounds a little conceited in the beginning but I think, it is purely to bring out the contrast in her transformation from someone not amused by the situation in India to someone who had begun to enjoy the “organised chaos”. 

Few gems from the book:

About the Hindi she learnt from her teacher who scoffed at the use of street language:

When I thought I was asking a taxi driver to take me somewhere I was really saying, ‘Kind sir, would thou mind perhaps taking me on a journey to this shop and I would be offering you recompense of this many rupees to do so, thank you frightfully humbly.’ And I have been greeting filthy naked street urchins with, ‘Excuse me, o soul one, but I’m dreadfully sorry, I don’t appear to have any change, my most humble of apologies.’

These lines beautifully capture her thoughts on religion:
“I realise I don’t have to be a Christian who follows the church, or a Buddhist nun in robes, or a convert to Judaism or Islam or Sikhism. I can be a believer in something bigger than what I can touch. I can make a leap of faith to a higher power in a way that’s appropriate to my culture but not be imprisoned by it.”

She says about her trip to Pakistan:

“I feel like I’ve travelled between two divorced parents who are trying to outdo each other.”

About war against Afghanistan

This war has shattered my Great Australian Dream – the fantasy that I could be part of the world community with all its benefits but isolated enough to be safe and separate from its violence and brutality.”

And finally, her thoughts on India towards the end:

”India’s organised chaos has exuberance and optimism, a pride and a strong celebration of life. I truly love it. There’s no place like this home.”

It is an interesting book; and people who love to read about India, or Non Fiction in general or travel stories in particular will love it.

Review Book courtesy: MySmartPrice Books - Get the Best Deal on Books!
Image source: MySmartPrice Books


  1. Why do I feel that u have alread reviewed this book?

    1. Ha ha you are sort of right but I did not really review the book. You are talking about this:

  2. I tried reading this book sometime back , but Sarah's observations riled me up and I abandoned the book 20 pages into it .. May be I should give it another chance..

    1. I know, I found mixed reviews on the net. But honestly, I liked it. So much that I read it twice! Just give it another chance. You would also perhaps agree, it also depends on the timing of reading a book. I have abandoned a few books and went to them later, only to discover a certain charm.