Books

India’s 'Bos Indicus' Religion Is Explored in 'The Milk Lady of Bangalore'

Shoba Narayan's memoir of creating a new life in Bangalore after two decades in the US centers on an unlikely friendship with her milk lady and their quest to buy a cow.

The Milk Lady of Bangalore
Shoba Narayan

Algonquin

Jan 2018

Other

With the many types of memoirs proliferating in India these days, the themes that remain most popular are: Bollywood, cricket, and politics. Of course, this trend reflects the country's three main obsessions. So, when a personal memoir like this one comes along, and it eschews high drama for gentle humor, dives deep into socio-cultural history, and presents slices of contemporary life as constant sources of everyday wonder, it's a refreshing welcome.

In the introduction of his book, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (Mariner, 1998) William Zinsser wrote:

"A good memoir requires two elements—one of art, the other of craft. The first is integrity of intention... Memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us. If a writer seriously embarks on that quest, readers will be nourished by the journey, bringing along many associations with quests of their own.

The other element is carpentry. Good memoirs are a careful act of construction. We like to think that an interesting life will simply fall into place on the page. It won't... Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events."

With this memoir, Shoba Narayan's integrity of intention shines through so clearly and beautifully that it's all too easy to take this journey with her as she describes her life in Bengaluru (as Bangalore is now called) after having spent two decades or so in the US.

This is not her first such personal and insightful account. Her 2012 memoir, Return to India (Jasmin, 2012), described her journey from India to America, her life as an immigrant, and her eventual return to India as a wife and a mother of two. "Home" is an ongoing and complex colloquy with oneself for those of us who have lived through such immigrant odysseys. In The Milk Lady of Bangalore, Narayan gives us more of how she continues to navigate and negotiate those endless terrains of personal identity, familial belonging, and social community to assimilate on her own terms.

Much of the book is centered on Narayan's friendship with the eponymous milk lady. Sarala sells milk fresh from her cows to those who have still not succumbed to the packaged varieties. It is an unlikely relationship as both women are from different classes and castes within their society. Like most women of her age and class in India, Narayan would probably not have even formed such a close bond with Sarala had it not been for those decades of different life experiences outside of India. Despite all the inequalities, they share a lovely rapport from the start and Narayan gives us a charming, yet well-rounded, portrait of this everywoman in a style that is reminiscent of R K Narayan.

Both Sarala's livelihood and her life as one of the urban poor bring Narayan closer to cows than she has ever been. They send her researching the history, literature, biology, mythology, and evolution of this most sacred and revered beings in India. Along the way, there are some interesting experiences involving jaunts deep into villages where the pastoral delights make it seem as if time has stood still for at least half a century. Contextual childhood memories of religious traditions, patriarchal beliefs, and ancient rituals are presented with a studied lightness that avoids flowery nostalgia for cool-headed insights — which, as they are informed by global perspectives, are more than mere backward glances. There are new discoveries of how all aspects of the cow — from its life-giving milk to its life-saving excreta to its benevolent presence — are woven tight throughout modern Indian life much like in ancient times.

The big adventure of the book is when Narayan decides to buy Sarala a cow. This, it turns out, is no simple transaction. There's much to be considered and plenty of advice to be parsed through. Narayan does her due diligence, of course, with the help of Sarala and Sarala's network of family and friends. As with all good dramas, there's a twist at the end which I will not give away except for this: if you take this entire journey with Narayan in earnest, you might need a tissue handy.

A couple of things might have made this story better. For example, while there's still plenty here to draw the Indian reader already familiar with the intricate religious and historical connotations of the cow in our culture, there is, unfortunately, not enough deep-diving into the darker aspects of the cow's role in India's murderous identity politics today. Perhaps this is Narayan's own reticence toward anything too controversial, or her editor's advice to ensure a certain market/genre positioning. Whatever the case, their mutual pact to maintain a lighter-toned narrative short-changes the reader from getting a fuller picture of the many contradictions and dichotomies that the cow represents in India today. Also, at various points in the story, I found myself wanting to know more about some of the other cow industry experts Narayan mentioned, rather fleetingly, consulting in her own educational journey. There's a source list at the end of the book but that's not quite the same, of course.

Overall, The Milk Lady of Bangalore is a compelling, different take on a prominent and vastly popular subject: the place of the cow in Indian culture. Narayan's skill at braiding different threads together renders a smooth storytelling approach. Her anecdotes, whether funny or serious, are never rambling or tangential. All the different characters are painted with unique brushstrokes to make them instantly memorable. If we return to Zinsser's second necessary memoir element from earlier, Narayan's carefully constructed narrative certainly showcases her love for and attention to her subjects here. Her raconteuring language is like that of an old friend — warm and nourishing even when recounting the unpleasant.

At one point in the story, as the two women are discussing how to choose a cow, Sarala puts forth her usual intuitive or street wisdom and Narayan writes: "What Sarala says is music to my ears. Sychronicity. Serendipity. Destiny. Nebulous intangibles that speak to my soul and spirit." It is all of these wonderful things that Narayan conveys in this book, along with several generous side servings of history, literature, science, and mythology.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Books

Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.

Music

Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.

Film

Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.

Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Music

John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.