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Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure    by Sarah Macdonald order for
Holy Cow
by Sarah Macdonald
Order:  USA  Can
Broadway, 2004 (2002)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I love the title, which captures both the typical Western reaction to the frenetic chaos that is India, and the ubiquitous intrusion into daily life of the bovines sacred to the Hindu religion. Authors with backgrounds in journalism write great travel literature (think Bill Bryson), and Sarah Macdonald brings that perspective (journalist and broadcaster) to Holy Cow. She worked as a Morning Show host in Australia, leaving the 'best job in the world' to live in India for two years with Jonathan, on assignment with the Australian Broadcasting Company - they married during their time there.

It's clear pretty early that the author is a direct Aussie woman. She captures the Western reaction to India with devastating honesty and humor, writing of her initial 'rage against the bullshit, the pushing, the shoving, the rip-offs, the cruelty, the crowds'. She shares with us contrasts, like the holy cows themselves who 'know they rule' but survive by ingesting plastic bags full of garbage that 'strangulate their innards'. Macdonald tells us that 'India is the worst of humanity' and 'India is the best of humanity.' There are many deep cultural divides, such as the Indian unwillingness to ever say no (I actually found this even harder to deal with in Indonesia), which creates great confusion in communication. I enjoyed the author's 'guru girlfriend' Razoo's translation of newspaper marriage classifieds, and felt her sorrow over darker incidents like the suicide of a friend's mother when her daughter married against her will, or the violence that mars the 'lotus landscape' of Kashmir.

But what I enjoyed most about this book was the author's account of her immersion in 'India's spiritual smorgasbord'. She tells us that the 'Sikhs have shown me how to be strong, the Vipassana course taught me how to calm my mind, India's Muslims have shown me the meaning of surrender and sacrifice, and the Hindus have illustrated an infinite number of ways to the divine.' Though she's attracted towards Buddhism, the author explores all the belief systems available, even meeting a purported goddess and a god! Towards the end of her stay, Macdonald has a personal crisis of faith. She describes the shockwave that 9/11 produced and her anxiety over her husband's presence in Kabul at the time. She talks about having 'stopped seeing the world as a story' distant from herself. And as the book ends, she tells us that she has 'two spiritual homelands now - the quiet empty lands of my birth and the cataclysmic crowded land of my rebirth.'

I can't say enough good things about Holy Cow. I've traveled in India on several occasions, and while some of the author's insights gave me déja vu, she explored in much more depth than a casual traveler ever can, and shares these experiences and reactions in an amusing, self-deprecating style. If you have any interest in India as a travel destination or in the country's 'spiritual supermarket', then read this book.

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