In a charming debut memoir, “The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure,” author Shoba Narayan and her husband, Ram, both of whom were born in India and came of age in the United States, decide to move back to Bangalore (now officially called Bengaluru), with their two young daughters to be closer to family.
“Heritage is a hazy concept but that’s what we used to explain our move to the children. … After much heartache and discussion, we pulled the plug on our life in New York and moved to Bangalore.”
When Narayan comes upon a cow in the elevator of her building, the bizarre encounter leads her to contemplate the mammal’s historical, mythological, religious and practical role in India, as well as the magic of raw milk, which she soon begins purchasing from a local “cow-lady” named Sarala.
In the months after leaving behind her formerly cosmopolitan lifestyle, Narayan attempts to extinguish the snootiness and contempt she once held for old Indian traditions. “And although years of living abroad have made me both suspicious of and entranced by this back-to-nature approach of my ancestors, I am, perhaps without even realizing it, swimming towards such a life myself.”
Her global shift grants her a new perspective on deeply held American tenets. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s claim that unpasteurized milk is dangerous, she concludes, is a spurious one.
Narayan deftly weaves the ayurvedic properties of milk, dung and even urine into a satisfying personal narrative of assimilation. She patiently parses the types of cows and the kind of milk they produce (A1 or A2) when she begins to search for a cow to purchase for Sarala. The Malnad Gidda cow, for example, has antibodies against the flu and cold season; the Hallikar cow, with its diet of calcium-rich grasses, gives its consumers “enough strength for a bullfight.”
Despite this engaging mixture of science and culture, at times, the book has little forward momentum and relies too heavily on the relationship between Narayan and Sarala as its narrative spine. The women are seller-purchaser, boss-employee, never quite friends. (The stark wealth difference between them prohibits this.) A more detailed account of the gradations in class and caste in India would have provided greater context to their somewhat awkward exchanges and the tension inherent in their negotiations.
Despite this minor shortcoming, Narayan shines a lustrous light on the crucial and unexpected function cows play in her acclimatization to her old stamping grounds. “Milk,” she writes, “is my way of reconnecting with the patch of earth that I call home.”
Anjali Enjeti is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her reviews appear in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rewire News and elsewhere.
The Milk Lady of Bangalore
By: Shoba Narayan.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 252 pages, $24.95.