I’ve had Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald on my mile long list of books to read for what feels like forever. For some reason, every time I read the blurb about it, I felt disinterested. A girl goes to India, hates it, and is forced to move there with her boyfriend. Frankly, it sounded like a couple hundred pages of “I hate this, and this, and this, and India sucks.” I’m glad I finally put my initial impression aside and gave it a go because this book ended up blowing me away.
Like the synopsis says, Sarah visits India on vacation and hates everything about it. She can’t get a flight out of there fast enough. While waiting impatiently at the airport, a janitor gives her a ‘hand job’ (palm reading) that says she will be back in India again. Lo and behold she falls in love with a man whose job moves him to India, and of course she goes too.
Sarah’s description of India is filled with juxtapositions. Some so dramatic that you literally find yourself laughing out loud. Others so sad that you can’t help but get tears in your eyes. She paints a vivid picture of an indescribable world. One where women are nothing without a man. A place where a person can get hit by a car and then be dragged out of the way into a ditch so traffic doesn’t get slowed down. It’s also a place of great hospitality. Where thousands of people wash their sins clean in a river. Where weddings are weeklong extravaganzas full of joy. Where people are tolerant of other religions.
She learns yoga from a man who treats it like an aerobics class and learns the language from a teacher who insists she only speak the most proper version. It isn’t until a man harasses her and she replies with something along the lines of “Kind sir, would thou care not to do that again please,” instead of her intended, “Screw off or I’ll punch you in the face” that she finds out no one speaks that way anymore.
Although the book is about Sarah trying to get a grip on living in India, it’s mostly about her search for spirituality. After a brush with death, Sarah finds that being an atheist might not be her best choice. “I must find peace in the only possible place in India. Within.” In a country with more religions than I have fingers to count them on, she delves into just about all of them. Some of which I’ve never even heard of.
She spends time with Buddhist monks learning that all life is equal. While there she encounters a bug in her room, which results in her first test. She spends an excessive amount of time trying to catch and release the little guy into the hallway where a monk walks by and steps on it without noticing.
She visits Hindus and spends time in silence learning to ease her anger at others. As soon as she leaves she finds herself tested as beggars pester her for money in the street. She continues on to have encounters with Christianity, Islam, Jainism, Sufis, Sikhs, Parsis, Yogis, and Swamis. She takes away lessons from each while remaining skeptical of whether or not any of them are worth committing to full heartedly.
Later, her husband, who works for a news channel, finds himself covering a story in Pakistan after the twin towers are attacked. Sarah joins him there and spends time with Afghan refugees. In a time when refugees are a major news story, I found this next quote truly touching. She has a conversation with one woman who asks why people hate them…
“I’m not sure they hate Afghans. I think they are more scared of you,” I mumble, shamed and embarrassed.
“How can you be scared of people who have nothing?”
I don’t know what to tell her, for the hospitality in this part of the world is overwhelming.
Sarah has a gift of writing thoughtful stories full of self-deprecation, compassion, and wit. However, it’s the lessons she learns along the way that are truly compelling. She meets people from every walk of life and although she is often overwhelmed, confused, or skeptical, she gives each one an equal chance to enlighten her. Over the course of a couple of years, she learns to let go of judgments and gains a greater understanding of humanity. It’s a touching story that teaches us the true meaning of embracing others.
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.
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