Book Review: The Milk Lady of Bangalore

By Samir Shukla

The Milk Lady of Bangalore
By Shoba Narayan
(Algonquin Books)

Cows and their lore are wholly intermingled with India's culture and religions, especially Hinduism.

Writer Shoba Narayan lived and worked in the US for 20 years and moved back to India with her family (husband and two young daughters) to the South Indian city of Bangalore (now formally known as Bengaluru).

Sarala, the milk lady, lives across the street from Narayan family's new digs, a modern apartment complex. Sarala and her family own several cows, keep them in sheds near their simple home and sell fresh milk to people in the vicinity. Narayan meets Sarala and the two women slowly strike up a friendship and over the course of the book expound on life, family, and all things milk.

Narayan develops this backdrop and writes from the crossroads of centuries old traditions (folks selling fresh milk daily) crossing paths with the 21st century modernity of Bangalore.

Cows are part of the fabric of India. They are everywhere, lazing on roads and highways, sauntering about where they please. They are bringers of good luck and are used to bless everything from apartments to auspicious occasions.

The Milk Lady of Bangalore is a wonderful non-fiction account of the friendship between a world-traveled and educated woman and a local, illiterate milk seller. Narayan documents many encounters and adventures with Sarala in everything cows, their milk, dung and even urine in her wit-filled book.

Narayan follows Sarala and her family of milk sellers, their connection to their cows, and their constant need for money. The working poor of India are forever in debt and trying to make ends meet, but are also passionate for life.

Eventually Narayan embarks on a journey to buy a cow she wants to give to Sarala, guiding readers into the unseen world of cow markets in South Indian villages with their unique ways of bargaining and socializing.

The book is a travelogue through a world so common in India, yet its struggles and ethos unknown to most. She writes with the keen reporting of a journalist combining fluid prose and storytelling, stitched with first-hand research.

The following passage gives the essence of India's connection with the cow and the premise of the book perfectly.

“The elevator door opens. A cow stands inside, angled diagonally to fit. It doesn't look uncomfortable, merely impatient. “It is for the housewarming ceremony on the third floor," explains the woman who stands behind the cow, holding it loosely with a rope. She has the sheepish look of a person caught in a strange situation who is trying to act as normal as possible. She introduces herself as Sarala and smiles reassuringly. The door closes. I shake my head and suppress a grin. It is good to be back."