Thursday, June 23, 2005

Book Review: Sarah MacDonald's "Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure"

Holy Cow2

"India is Hotel California; you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave."

This is perhaps one of the most memorable lines from one of the most enjoyable travel memoirs I have read in a while. The author, Sarah MacDonald, is an Australian journalist and has the opportunity to visit India when her boyfriend, a reporter with ABC (Australia Broadcasting) is sent to India on an assignment.

The book starts off with her disliking India for its heat, dirt, crowds, smells, intrusiveness, poverty etc.,

"...above her neck is a mass of melted flesh liked burned candle wax. Two pools of black stare out and stumps of burned flesh wrapped in rags plead up at me. I retch in horror and run. This is my first glimpse of a dowry burning---where a woman is set alight in a "cooking" accident because her husband or mother-in-law wants more dowry money and attempts to kill to get it. If the bride dies, the husband can marry again and collect another dowry; if she lives, she can be shamed into leaving the house as damaged, useless goods. I want to scream with shock, fury and sadness but there're too many people staring at me, following me and grabbing me. There's just no room for rage.

I cross a huge bridge but India is on the side as well, everywhere there's a mass of begging, pleading, needing, naked wretchedness..."

The book ends happily with her having found her spiritual home in India by sampling mightily from the smorgasbord of religions practiced in India.

This is how she credits India's different religions for the spiritual transformation she experiences:

"...From Buddhism the power to begin to manage my mind, from Jainism the desire to make peace in all aspects of life, while Islam has taught me to desire goodness and to let go of that which cannot be controlled. I thank Judaism for teaching me the power of transcendence in rituals and the Sufis for affirming my ability to find answers within and reconnecting me to the power of music. Here's to the Parsis for teaching me that nature must be touched lightly and the Sikhs for the importance of spiritual strength. I thank the gurus for trying to pierce my ego armour and my girlfriends for making me laugh. And most of all I thank Hinduism for showing me there are millions of paths to the divine..."

This book is at once entertaining and informative. Although it can seem condescending at times (to Indians)I think overall it's a wonderful narrative of Indian cultural/religious history and practices and is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in India.