Like a bird focusing on a shiny object, I was at first attracted to the brightly colored cover of The Milk Lady Of Bangalore. My eyes skimmed over the cow and focused on the flowers. As a sometimes meat eater, I’ve developed the skill of never looking animals in the eye, or I can’t eat them again. This happened when my husband and I took the kiddos to the petting zoo at Poplar Grove Plantation in Wilmington, NC.
I saw adorable little piglets running around, and I stared at horror at them, wondering… “That’s bacon?” I turned to my husband and asked him, “That’s bacon?” Never a big pork eater, I swore off pork that day. No Carolina BBQ, no organic, thick-cut Applewood smoked maple bacon. Nothing.
Of course, I’ve seen pigs on television, read Charlotte’s Web as a child, even read articles that spoke of how similar pigs are to humans, but seeing a pig face-to-face as it were was impactful. The pig was personified. Well, not a person exactly, but it was a thing. A cute thing with big eyes, made cute noises and had hair. Hair, ya’ll!
And so, The Milk Lady of Bangalore does the same thing for cows. They are described as beautiful, elegant and in varying shades of brown and red. And black. You’re made to see them as individuals. As mothers. As members of the family. They’re empathetic, they’re caring, they have memories… Cows are much more than just cows in this book, and they are much more than that in Bangalore. And that is what this story is about.
We’ve all heard that cows are sacred in India, that they are worshipped and revered. And it all seems a little odd, a little… eccentric maybe? Especially in a country as carnivorous as the USA. But it’s not just one guy who has a thing for cows in India, it’s an entire country, an entire culture with sacred texts to support their beliefs. And after reading The Milk Lady of Bangalore. I get it. Kind of. As much as I ever will.
The author, Shoba Narayan is a naturalized American who returns to Bangalore. And hilarity ensues. Well, not exactly. But she’s a witty, engaging narrator, the perfect guide to her city, state and country. I can relate to her. We both shop at Target for one. And we’re both into natural remedies, we’re moms… She’s a bit snarky at times. She’s practically me in Bangalore, if I’d been born in India, so I appreciate her takes on all of the “only in India” moments and the vivid slices of life in which she interacts with the milk lady and the rickshaw driver and the army wives and the tribal cow herders. She’s funny, which is perfect. Because this story told in a just-the-facts-ma’am kind of way, as if bringing a cow into a modern apartment for good luck is not slightly wacky would not have worked.
Everything I’ve learned about India pretty much comes from Priyanka Chopra’s Twitterfeed, so I lapped up all of the dung, all of the medicinal uses of cow urine and all of the local color and flavors (mostly mangos and tender coconuts) that Narayan served up in her work of non-fiction. But for me, the most interesting part of The Milk Lady of Bangalore was the revival of the debate about milk. Which is better? Which is safer? Pasteurized milk or raw milk?
I read a lot of natural food and remedy websites, some of which sing the praises of raw milk, while others preach hell and damnation for drinking milk the way our ancestors did for thousands of years. Whatever the case, after I turned the last page of the book, I immediately searched online for local purveyors of raw milk. I am not a big milk drinker, in fact, except for the four tablespoons of organic half-and-half I pour in my morning coffee we’re a coconut milk beverage kind of family. And we use butter-flavored coconut butter in lieu of organic butter. But that’s also because my middle son has a dairy allergy, not because I dislike butter.
Of course, after reading The Milk Lady Of Bangalore, I’m wondering if raw milk might help my son. In India, I was delighted to read, milk can be savored like a fine wine. And it has terroir – in other words, raw milk’s taste varies based on where the cow has grazed. In fact, the taste varies based on what the cow grazed on, the temperament of the cow and various conditions, like did the cow just birth a calf? Is the cow sad?
You can’t help but think the author is obsessed with cows by the end of the book, but if she is, I think it’s probably acceptable in Bangalore and beyond. And I must admit, I certainly want to see a cow now. Not speed by in my car with the windows up, holding my breath when I pass grazing cows on expansive patches of land, as I occasionally do when drive away from the city of Raleigh and towards rural North Carolina.
After reading this book, I am ashamed to say I have never thought of cows at all, except that they smell bad. If I looked too closely at a cow, I might not be able to eat gourmet, grass-fed hamburgers, but honestly, I think it will be awhile before I eat beef, if I ever do at all. But what I do want to do, is actually see a cow. Look into her eyes, note the color of her fur and the whorls – her loops of colored striations – try to determine what they say about the cow’s temperament because that’s a thing too. I want to actually look at a cow and maybe pet it and see if she can sense my emotions like a dog can.
But I digress. I probably sound a bit obsessed with cows too. I’m not, but The Milk Lady of Bangalore has made me think about them in a way that I never have, with affection like a beloved family pet, with romance like a fabled unicorn or even Mother Nature herself, generous with her bounty of healing and nourishing gifts.
The Milk Lady Of Bangalore is a quirky work of non-fiction that does not fit neatly in one genre or the other. You might expect it to be a travelogue or a satirical look at India, but I’d say it was more love letter to Bangalore with all of its vibrant colors, tastes and smells; but also, a love letter to cows and meant to be read by people who never realized that cows are worthy of love.