In her twenties, journalist Sarah Macdonald backpacked around India and came away with a lasting impression of heat, pollution and poverty. So when an airport beggar read her palm and told her she would return to India—and for love—she screamed, “Never!” and gave the country, and him, the finger.
But eleven years later, the prophecy comes true. When the love of Sarah’s life is posted to India, she quits her dream job to move to the most polluted city on earth, New Delhi. For Sarah this seems like the ultimate sacrifice for love, and it almost kills her, literally. Just settled, she falls dangerously ill with double pneumonia, an experience that compels her to face some serious questions about her own fragile mortality and inner spiritual void. “I must find peace in the only place possible in India,” she concludes. “Within.” Thus begins her journey of discovery through India in search of the meaning of life and death.
Holy Cow is Macdonald’s often hilarious chronicle of her adventures in a land of chaos and contradiction, of encounters with Hinduism, Islam and Jainism, Sufis, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians and a kaleidoscope of yogis, swamis and Bollywood stars. From spiritual retreats and crumbling nirvanas to war zones and New Delhi nightclubs, it is a journey that only a woman on a mission to save her soul, her love life—and her sanity—can survive.
Australian radio correspondent Macdonald's rollicking memoir recounts the two years she spent in India when her boyfriend, Jonathan, a TV news correspondent, was assigned to New Delhi. Leaving behind her own budding career, she spends her sabbatical traveling around the country, sampling India's "spiritual smorgasbord": attending a silent retreat for Vipassana meditation, seeking out a Sikh Ayurvedic "miracle healer," bathing in the Ganges with Hindus, studying Buddhism in Dharamsala, dabbling in Judaism with Israeli tourists, dipping into Parsi practices in Mumbai, visiting an ashram in Kerala, attending a Christian festival in Velangani and singing with Sufis. Paralleling Macdonald's spiritual journey is her evolution as a writer; she trades her sometimes glib remarks ("I've always thought it hilarious that Indian people chose the most boring, domesticated, compliant and stupidest animal on earth to adore") and 1980s song title references (e.g., "Karma Chameleon") for a more sensitive tone and a sober understanding that neither mocks nor romanticizes Indian culture and the Western visitors who embrace it. The book ends on a serious note, when September 11 shakes Macdonald's faith and Jonathan, now her husband, is sent to cover the war in Afghanistan. Macdonald is less compelling when writing about herself, her career and her relationship than when she is describing spiritual centers, New Delhi nightclubs and Bollywood cinema. Still, she brings a reporter's curiosity, interviewing skills and eye for detail to everything she encounters, and winningly captures "he drama, the dharma, the innocent exuberance of the festivals, the intensity of the living, the piety in playfulness and the embrace of living day by day."