In Shoba Narayan’s delightful memoir, The Milk Lady of Bangalore, she recalls moving from America to India and the many joys she found there—the most unexpected being cows. In India, where cows are considered holy, bovines roam the street, and Narayan forges a friendship with the woman who sells fresh milk across from her home. In this Q&A, Narayan tells us about her bovine infatuation, surprising uses for cow dung and her career back-up plan.
Sarala, your milk lady, believes that “more than any creature, cows are connected to humans.” Another person told you that “cows are the most evolved animal, after humans.” What are your thoughts on these statements?
I started as a skeptic. I would roll my eyes at these statements and then try to figure out what the agenda was. I think those of us city-dwellers who have lost our connection to nature—the birds, bees and, ahem, bovines that surround us—are depriving ourselves of a vital link that is part of our evolution and ecology. Such statements reveal the connection that people like Sarala have maintained with all species great and small. Their lives are the richer for it. I am now trying to emulate and engineer such connections. It is easier to do in India.
You write that if anyone had suggested that youd be writing about cows, you would have yelled “Get out!” in an Elaine-Jerry Seinfeld kind or way. Now you're in love with them. Did you pick cows as a subject, or did they pick you?
Cows picked me. I used to see them all over the place in India. I didn’t realize then that they would arrive at my doorstep. The story too, unspooled over 10 years. Like the slow and sensuous gait of a cow, this was a tale that took its own time to come to life.
Unlike your previous book, the recipe-filled Monsoon Diary, this book contains only one recipe: for panchagavya, a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, yogurt, bananas and other ingredients. You describe an incredible number of uses for cow dung and cow urine, including urine as an elixir, which you tasted. Do you recommend it?
Look, I know that you guys are now rolling your eyes like I once did. Do I believe in esoteric alternative remedies that most people would mock? Yes. Do I imbibe cow urine tablets on a daily basis? No. Do I realize that this situation is ripe for satire? Yes. Do I add panchagavya to the manure for my garden? Most definitely. And I grow wonderful heirloom tomatoes, purple eggplant, beans, pumpkin, basil and tons of herbs. So there you have it.
You grew up in India, where cows are holy. Then you immigrated to America for college and journalism school, and eventually returned to India with your husband and two daughters. How has your view of cows changed throughout these transitions?
Well, it is hard to find a live cow walking the streets in the U.S. So my interest in cows remained dormant while I lived stateside. It was hibernating perhaps. When I returned to India, my interest renewed with fresh zeal because I saw cows as animals I had grown up with but also as symbols of Indian culture and the Indian ethos where fantasy and reality seem to blend in kaleidoscopic color.
What does your family think about your cow adventures? Are they as fond as cows as you are?
My husband tolerates it. My kids openly laugh at me while (I hope) secretly being proud of my peculiarities. My parents and in-laws who belong to the earlier generation of Indians heartily approve. My aunts and uncles use me as an example when they talk to their own children who are now in America. “Look at Shoba. See how connected she has become to her Indian roots,” they will say. My cousins all resent me for becoming an Indian role model in a way that they simply cannot emulate. I mean, how can you sit in Buffalo, New York, and compete for family approval with a cousin who has gone and bought a cow?
“The reason I want to buy milk from a cow,” you explain, “is because I am trying to recapture the simple times of my childhood, particularly after the intricate dance that I have undertaken for the last twenty years as an immigrant in America.” Can you explain how it feels for you to taste a glass of fresh, raw milk, and how it helps you reconnect with your native country?
I hate to burst this bubble, but I don’t drink raw milk. Years in America have made me a tad cautious. So all milk in my house, even my cow’s milk, is subject to strict standards of, shall we say, sanitation. We double-boil it and use it to set yogurt. For my everyday milk for coffee, I am, as I say in the book, still using pasteurized milk.
That said, I touch every passing cow. I am not queasy about dung. I don’t mind squatting on the sidewalk to milk a cow. These are the ways in which I reconnect with my culture.
Has Sarala read your book or articles that you’ve written about her?
Well, she doesn’t read English. But she knows about all my articles and my book because my newspaper sent a photographer to shoot her and her family for some columns I wrote about her in India. So every time one was published, I would walk across the street, where she milks her cows, and show her the piece. She would glance at her photo and nod her approval but it was not a big deal to her.
Sarala seems to have acted as a personal tour guide when you moved back to India, showing you so much about your new home, its people and ways. You write touchingly about your relationship and also mention how financial inequities at times made you feel uncomfortable around her as well as others. Are you still living in India, and do you plan to stay?
Yes, and yes. Still living in India. Plan to stay. For now. We have developed deep connections here to our large and extended family. My daughter goes to college in Pittsburgh, so we come back every year to visit. We go to New York, D.C., Florida and Pittsburgh—all places we have friends and family. I imagine that we might eventually spend time in California because my daughter studies engineering and, who knows, she may end up in Silicon Valley. We loved our 20 years in America and we could see moving back, but that won’t likely be for at least another few years.
You came to own a cow during the process of writing this book, which you donated to Sarala. Can you give us an update on Anantha, the cow that you and your husband named after his sister?
She is still around. Cows are often roaming untethered in Bangalore, so I meet Anantha on the streets sometimes and I speak with Sarala about her. I worry about her getting hit on the road. But life in India is all about relationships and most people quickly develop a keen sense of the balance between attachment and detachment. So I try to stay close with my cow but not too close.
You write that your life goal is to be a stand-up comic. How’s that going?
Not very well, I am afraid. I am taking classes with Second City, Chicago, but online classes can only help you so much. Now that would bring me back to America in a heartbeat: To study comedy for a year would be a dream. And it is easier to do in the States. I did a comedy Masterclass with Steven Martin online. All my classmates kept writing about their gigs in their posts. I don’t have a single gig in India.
You never planned to write cows until one “literally walked up to me.” What’s next? Have you bumped into anything new?
Hahahaha. Nice one. You know, that is such a nice line that I don’t want to add anything to it. Let me wait for the next story to bump into me. I can’t imagine what it will be.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Milk Lady of Bangalore.