Holy Cow! or: A lot of bull.

The reviews I publish tend to be positive, for two reasons–one, the books I choose for review are ones I think I’d like, and two, if the book doesn’t do it for me, I usually don’t bother reviewing it. Occasionally though, I come across a book so offensively mediocre it begs to be debunked. Holy Cow! by Sarah Macdonald is a load of holy crap skimpily disguised as a travelogue. The book got me so hot and bothered I dashed this review off for Sawnet.  Here’s my piece:

Lurid covers seem the norm for travel books on India — my edition of The Lonely Planet has a purple cow with pink ribbons on its horns, posing in front of a yellow, red and green striped bus. Holy Cow! however necessitates a recalibration of the lurid-O-meter. The cover shows the god Shiva with Technicolor indigo skin and chubby cheeks, and, in some editions, with outsize sunglasses on his divine nose. Speckled golden snakes dance around the god’s neck, and a golden halo floats behind his head. Trapped in the coils of Shiva’s hair is a bejeweled woman, who seems to be projectile vomiting.

Holy Cow! is the story of Sarah Macdonald, a presenter for Radio National in Sydney, Australia, who travels to New Delhi to be with her boyfriend Jonathan, a South Asia correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Macdonald admits to a fascination with religion, and India offers her the opportunity to explore her interest to the full. To that end, the intrepid author visits the Sikh Golden temple at Amritsar and the Hindu Kumbh Mela gathering on the banks of the Ganges. She reads the Koran in Kashmir, meets the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, and visits a synagogue. A Zoroastrian fire temple, a Buddhist meditation centre, a couple of homegrown Indian gurus and a few New Age courses later, she’s off to Velangani in the south to see the Virgin Mary’s basilica, before heading back to Delhi to visit a Jain temple.

There’s nothing objectionable about the story of a quest for spiritual knowledge, even if it appears the traveler is checking off a laundry list of religions. And the author is certainly passionate about India. But the ultimate source of all of Sarah Macdonald’s passion is – Sarah Macdonald. Her religious peregrinations aren’t undertaken to develop a deeper understanding of spirituality nor of India, but instead, to understand herself better and to find “inner peace.” The objective of her stay is to figure out how India can be of use to her, and she seems to assume the country exists solely for this reason. “I do believe that trying to understand more about this country will make my life easier,” she writes.  A travelogue gets tedious when it’s all about making the author’s life easier.

In addition to musings on the nature of “inner peace,” there are frequent descriptions of the author’s relationship with her boyfriend — in cringe-inducing prose. “I let go of the hurt, the need, the fear and I trust in love, the greatest power of all.” This reviewer felt at times as though she had picked up the diary Nora Roberts kept in her gap year.

There is also no real attempt to comprehend the India that exists outside of the author’s limited interface with the country (mostly middle and upper-class Indians). Yet, the book is filled with gross generalizations. “India has a hair fetish.” “Extreme Hinduism would seem to be an oxymoron, but in this country the nonsensical often triumphs.” “Indian society forces its middle class to live an extended adolescence.” There are few statistics to back these claims, and Macdonald’s assumption of authority over the subject after a year or two in the country seems distinctly arrogant.

The blurb on the back cover reads “Kathy Lette meets Tom Robbins on a slow train to Varanasi…” Tom Robbins ought to sue. Macdonald is often funny and irreverent, and she can coin a snappy description, referring to a palm-reader’s accurate prediction as a ‘good hand job.’ Holy Cow! is, however, bogged down beyond redemption by the author’s relentless self-centeredness. Combine that with her tendency to substitute wit for insight, and Sarah Macdonald is rendered into Tom Robbins’s polar opposite.

There are plenty of books about India that transcend Orientalist images of snakes, elephants, sacred cows and fakirs — check out works by William Dalrymple or Mark Tully for original, insightful and entertaining travelogues. Sarah Macdonald sounds like an interesting person to have coffee (and perhaps a samosa) with, but you’d do well to look elsewhere for a travel companion. Holy Cow!, alas, can be judged all too accurately by its cover.

(This review originally appeared in the Sawnet bookshelf.)


7 thoughts on “Holy Cow! or: A lot of bull.

  1. The most memorable part of the book for me was the part where Sarah fell asleep on the plane ride and woke up with a man’s hands poking at her intimate areas. I called a desi friend and asked “is that seriously likely to happen on a transcontinental flight to India?” and he said “yes.”

    Though I think he was pulling my leg; and luckily for me, it didn’t.

  2. Aniche: The only interesting thing about the book!

    Blue: Hasn’t happened to me on a flight to India yet. But trains–now that’s a different story…

    John: Add opinionated to the list,and you’ve pretty much summed her (and the book) up.

    Bill: Yes, the cover has a peculiar charm 🙂

  3. Well said. Many Americans I know who have been to India raved about this book, but I found it…well, dull (as well as not holding much resonance with my own experiences there). Her laundry-list approach (which I hope was more nuanced in her actual experience and was oversimplified for the book) is frustrating – almost any area of human experience deserves a more contextualized approach than that, but especially one as complex as religion in a place as complex as contemporary India. She probably knows more about India than I do – she’d have to, surely, based on the length of her stay and variety of her travels – but I kept making notes to the effect of “well, that’s just dumb” or “seriously?!?”

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