Cows, Buttermilk and Lists: A talk with Shoba Narayan
Writing any memoir is an interesting experience. When you write about cows, it’s even more so.
Shoba Narayan – the author of The Milk Lady of Bangalore, Return to India and Monsoon Diaries – looks back on childhood, homeland, religion and food in her memoirs. The Milk Lady explores her thoughts about cows, the myriad world of cow products, its place in religion, and ultimately, her childhood. The Return to India, on the other hand, deals more with lists and comparisons between two lands across seas. Monsoon Diaries is a tribute to the foods Narayan made and had throughout her life that were intrinsically Indian.
Shoba Narayan is the author of four books. She has been a journalist and columnist for 25 years, writing about travel, food, wine, culture, crafts and nature, for a number of national and international publications. She founded and co-created a website called Project LooM, which documents the handloom traditions of India.
In a short interview, Narayan spills the beans about writing process, memories, and lessons learnt.
(Edited excerpts follow)
Q: What was the writing process like for the memoirs?
The process I followed was different for each one. With respect to Return to India, it was an argument I made, to myself and the reader. I had to convince myself that as an immigrant living in America that it was worth returning to India. It made me compile lists of pros and cons of living in your homeland vs. foreign land. It was a topic of conversation for the bulk of immigrants, and I think that it still is. You go through a phase of life when your kids are young and you’re living abroad and it’s lonely. You bring up this conversation about moving back home. For various reasons, you either move back or you don’t.
So, for Return to India, it was much more of a making of lists, talking to people, and using only those aspects of my life that served the purpose of this. Therefore, there was hardly any food in Return to India, unless it was related to the topic.
With Monsoon Diaries, it was the opposite. The process of writing that memoir had to do with coming up with lists of foods that were worth remembering. Then, it meant figuring out which foods had universal appeal to readers. For example, buttermilk is a memory that is particularly South Indian, but an American could easily recreate it, too. Similarly, there’s ghee.
Q: What was your life like as you were writing The Milk Lady of Bangalore, your most recent memoir?
My life when I was writing the memoir was consumed by cows. I think writing is a torturous process. Sitting in front of a blanks screen and coming up with words is torture. But, gathering information for writing is a wonderful process. This memoir is the one that involved the most amount of journalism. It involved entering a universe I did not plan on entering and learning a lot about cows, Indian culture and the Hindu religion.
Q: This is an incredible and hilarious story of how you learnt so much from such an unexpected situation in your life (buying and owning a cow). While writing the memoir and looking back, did you realize something new?
I realized that I’d long noticed cows without even thinking, and that Indian society is far more nuanced than we all know. People, just because they cannot speak English, does not know any less. They are perhaps wiser than us, in a way.
Q: Can you give us one memory that you remembered vividly as you were writing the memoir?
While in America, I missed cows on the streets. But there was one incident in New York city when cows took over Manhattan. There were all these plastic and fiber glass cows that were painted in rich hues. They were all over the place – in fifth avenue, in front of Lincoln Centre, downtown, Soho. So, wherever you went, you saw cows. That was one incident I remembered vividly.
Q: After coming back from the U.S after 20 years, and seeing cows on the streets – which is a sight you don’t regularly see in America – did writing this memoir make you feel closer to home?
I’d already lived in India for 10 years when I started writing the memoir, but I reconnected with it further intellectually. I did not realize that one of the first verses of the Rig Veda talks about cows coming out of the cowshed as a metaphor for the sunrise. That’s about as fundamental to Hinduism as you can get. So, in an intellectual way, it was very interesting to see how cows are connected to India.
Q: In The Milk Lady, you feel strongly about the inequality in an Indian household between the employers and employees. There’s also an indication that you cannot refuse Sarala’s (the lady who sells milk) requests because this inequality pains you. Did it make it easier for you to think about the issue after you put it down in words?
When you live as an immigrant abroad, you are not confronted with the social inequalities of India. In New York, most people don’t have maids. You have a babysitter. You clean your own house, your own bathroom. On the other hand, in India, there are workers like istriwaala, iron men, dhobis. So, these people are in your house, in your face every day and you have to figure out how to deal with them.
But now, having lived here for 15 years and seeing how my family deals with it, I learnt a lot. I think, in that sense, it is an experience that allows you to grow, because you have to figure out how to rightly treat people different from you, who come from a lower social class, and you have to learn from them. What ends up happening is you value them for their admirable qualities. At the same time, it’s also a transactional thing, because they work for you and approach you for loans and advances. You have to figure out when to say yes and no. So, I think this old, Indian way of dealing with multiple religions, classes and types of people is a great preparation for life.
In one of her articles, Narayan talks about how she rates hotels. She calls it the filch factor. If a hotel has something that she wants to filch, it’s a hotel she would remember and want to come back to. Rating her books with the filch factor, there are always little crumbs of casual wisdom you want to take back with you – be it the people in them, the smells and the sights, or the actual words. Each book has moments that are very intrinsically Indian – be it milking fresh cow milk or roadside conversations. These moments are especially aware of their Indian nature when narrated through an ex-immigrant’s lens. Through this deep-rooted awareness of country and origin, these moments and things transcend their commonplace nature. They become precious things we’ve always taken for granted.
It is this transcendence that is at the core of this interview, and all her writings. And it is this transcendence for which her works should be read.
Godhashri is a journalism major who writes about literature, culture and art reporting. Her favourite things are books, art and music, and the people who make them.