Food with a Slice of History

Shoba Narayan The Milk Lady of Bangalore

a cow

Image courtesy of Derek Story on Unsplash

I knew that in India cows were considered holy beings, but it was only when I read Shoba Narayan’s latest book that I understood how the relationship to these animals enriched the exchanges between humans.  The Milk Lady of Bangalore tells a captivating story about Sarala, who tends to her cows in the midst of the rapidly developing, bustling capital of Karnataka state in South India.  Narayan’s decision to buy raw milk from Sarala’s cows sets her on a path of unexpected discoveries about the life of urban farmers like Sarala, the bond they nurture with their animals, cultural beliefs about the wholesome qualities of cow urine and the purifying properties of cow dung.  However, most importantly of all is that Narayan’s narrative reveals the ways in which two human beings who inhabit radically different worlds can share rich moments of understanding and intimacy.  In an age when we rely predominantly on social media to connect and communicate with others, and even to maintain our friendships, it is both eye-opening and much needed to engage with Narayan’s thoughtful and compassionate narrative of her interactions with her milk lady.

Social media in particular, and the internet in general, tend to feed us content that conforms with and thus largely re-affirms our own values and believes.  Thus, it is unlikely that online platforms would allow us to experience illuminating encounters like the ones between Shoba Narayan, the high caste-born, Columbia University-educated, research-oriented journalist, and Sarala, the slum-resident of a lower-rank caste, whose inability to read and write doesn’t stand in the way of her knowledge of animals, herbs and natural cures.  The Milk Lady of Bangalore makes us consider how much there is to be gained from respectful, human face-to-face interaction with people whose value and belief system doesn’t adhere to our own.  Such exchanges nurture our ability to empathize with others, an ability that is a measure of our own humanity.  Thanks to them, we ultimately discover significant things about ourselves that were hitherto inaccessible to us.

Shoba Narayan decides to buy raw milk from Sarala’s cows in a leap of faith.  After researching the issue on the internet, her rational self is not convinced that unpasteurized milk is safe.  However, Narayan is also aware that there is another side to her which is emotional and rooted in her childhood memories of drinking raw milk.  Soon after she joins the line at Sarala’s milking spot, it becomes clear to her that her milk lady has opinions on a vast array of matters from issues pertaining to children and husbands to animal intelligence.  Narayan is often amused and sometimes annoyed at Sarala’s logic, the workings of which contradict sensible, research-based reasoning.  However, a good number of times she restrains from objecting to her milk lady and listens patiently and respectfully to what Sarala has to say.  With time, Shoba Narayan notices that Sarala may contradict herself but she still raises philosophical questions, such as “how smart are animals compared to us?”  The milk lady touches upon matters that Narayan finds fascinating, including the idea that the milk of a given cow is suitable for a specific customer, depending on that person’s disposition and life-situation.  Eventually, through Sarala, Shoba Narayan gets a glimpse into a world-view which she had not explored much, despite her own Indian origins.  Thanks to the exchanges with Salara, the religious rituals Narayan performs with her family in honor of her father-in-law’s passing are much more meaningful to her.  While at the beginning of the relationship Narayan assumes that she is the one who would be granting or declining Sarala’s requests, with time she realizes that the milk lady has both literary and figuratively given her way more than originally expected.

It is interesting to ponder over Sarala’s and Shoba Narayan’s relationship against the background of a world where the video demonstration of Google’s Duplex AI assistant understandably fascinates many internet viewers.  Once a technology is widely available that meets our needs and grants our wishes without making it necessary for us to consider the needs and wishes of others, what will happen to our ability to empathize? True, if we had robots to cook for us and clean our houses, we wouldn’t have to deal with the personal emergencies of a cook and house-keeper or  feel guilty that their standard of life is much lower than ours. However, would there be something lost? What would happen to the “texture of life” which Narayan unravels in her insightful book?

It is a privilege for readers to witness the self-examination Shoba Narayan undertakes because of her exchanges with Sarala.  There is a lot of responsibility in telling another person’s story, especially if this person, like Sarala, does not read and write.  Narayan carries this responsibility with impressive grace.  She takes her own opinions lightly and her self-irony is infectious.  When we arrive at the end of her story, we cannot help but wish that we had our own milk lady in our life.  I feel fortunate to look back and realize that in my childhood, I had a milk lady. (You can read more about this here.)  I am looking forward to reading whatever Shoba Narayan writes next.  You can get more information about The Milk Lady of Bangalore on her website.



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1 Comment

  1. Sylvia

    Wow! What a thoughtful and joyous analysis of Narayan’s work! It’s on my list!

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