The Milk Lady of Bangalore by Shoba Narayan

The Milk Lady of Bangalore is a memoir by Shoba Narayan, who moved to the United States to attend college twenty years ago then got married to another South Indian and had two daughters. With the desire to expose their children to the motherland after being away for twenty years, Narayan and her spouse move to Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka, with their American children. Bangalore is a city of twelve million residents and is called the Indian Silicon Valley for its tech industry. However, people in poverty with rural jobs still exist right outside Narayan’s city door, including Sarala and her family, who milk cows on the street.

Fearful of diseases after reading warnings from agencies like the CDC, Narayan ignores the warnings and buys fresh milk from Sarala. Her logic is personal, despite risks to her family’s health:

The reason I want to buy milk from a cow is because I’m trying to recapture the simple times of my childhood, particularly after the intricate dance that I have undertaken for the last twenty years as an immigrant in America.

Narayan gets to know Sarala’s family better when they ask her to buy a cow to replace one that was recently hit in the street. Due to India’s history and religious attitude toward cattle, Narayan can reasonably donate to Sarala a cow and call it a gift to her father and father-in-law, who have 80th birthdays close together. Finding the perfect bovine takes a long time, much travel, and a great deal of arguing with Sarala’s son. Overall, this is the entire plot of the memoir.

Though I enjoyed the premise of The Milk Lady of Bangalore, I came away from the memoir feeling as distant as if I had not opened the cover. Narayan often claims she feels deeply about something — a calf born of the cow she purchases, a dog she had for three years that dies, Sarala and her family — but tends to shrug her shoulders, imply an “oh, well!” and move on with her life. Narayan’s American, citified daughters are supposed to be thrilled they own (donated) a cow, but the author fails to capture their excitement or even the time her children spend with the animal. Had the author woven together her family’s experiences with fresh milk from Sarala’s cows and how they adjusted to living in India, I would have been more interested.

Though she describes moments that are called “only in India,” such as riding in a rickshaw, drinking cow urine to cure whatever ails a person, dragging a cow through a new apartment to bless it, and describing how the milk tastes (which is supposed to change based on what the cow eats, whether it has had a calf, and its emotional state), I had a hard time picturing the setting. I missed out on the distinct foods and flavors, smells, and feel of living in southern India. Coconuts are mentioned a few times. Those rickshaw rides didn’t feel terrifying, but the author claims she’s in a few vehicular crashes in her memoir. I could easily forget Banglaore is a tech hub with giant shiny buildings. Narayan could have been living in decimated inner city Detroit for as vivid as her setting was.

Narayan’s own feelings are a mystery, keeping readers at arm’s length. When I reached the end of The Milk Lady of Bangalore only to learn that Narayan has lost track of the milk woman who sells her product across the street from Narayan’s apartment building, I was surprised. For no reason explained to readers, Narayan goes back to buying processed milk like an American, and Sarala is forgotten. There is no connection made between milk, India, Narayan’s family, or the author’s identity.

It feels like the author is say, “Haha, wasn’t this a funny moment in my life, me buying a cow?” but it’s hard to feel jovial when she barely investigates her own feelings, personal growth, or reflects on her efforts to recapture the “simple times” of her childhood. A very underwhelming book.

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16 comments

  1. I was interested in reading this one but I can tell from the issues you raise that it’s definitely not going to be for me. It sounds like a bunch of missed opportunities to explore these elements more deeply. I would be so disappointed to read it and not get some sense of what the city around her is like! And kind of baffling that she lost track of the lady and doesn’t follow up on it all, that seems like something odd going on there.

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    • It’s not even clear how the author lost track of the milk lady, or what happened to make her stop walking across the street to speak with this woman. It all felt so rushed and read more like a really long article in a newspaper than a memoir. Glad I could help you make a decision about this book. More time, more books.

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      • That’s so strange. It just makes me suspicious that whatever happened is a story she didn’t want to tell, because really, how do you lose track of someone across the street who you have a significant connection to? And I really don’t like those memoirs where an anecdote that would’ve made a decent article is padded out to book length, which kinda sounds like what happened here. Thanks for saving me the time, hope your next read is better!

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  2. Oh what a shame, you’ve helped me as well as I will remember your review if I come across the book! It’s exactly the kind of book I like, so what a shame it was so rushed and jumbled!

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  3. Ah, bummer. I hadn’t even heard of this one, but the first couple paragraphs where you describe the premise sounded so promising- it is disappointing the author didn’t provide more clear insight or emotional engagement.
    If you’re interested in reading more about India, I read a novel (fiction, obviously) earlier this year called The Far Field, by Madhuri Vijay, which is a little light on plot but a great display of current culture and political climate across the country. Part of the book takes place in Bangalore, and part in Kashmir, and it really grounds the reader in both places. Not sure if you’re looking for a book like this, but I remember it fondly, though it is a sad story.
    I hope you have better luck with your next read, in any case!

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    • Only when I speak to Indian people does it hold any allure for me. When I speak to Americans who have traveled to India, they mostly complain or talk about which virus they picked up while traveling. I feel the need to remind such travelers that loads of countries have illnesses that the traveler may not be used to. I got into a whole conversation when I was in grad school with a woman from Ireland who INSISTED that EVERYONE gets de-worming medicine in elementary school. I could not, for the life of me, convince her I had never been wormed; however, I did have to wonder if people in Ireland have worms.

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