Book Review of Milk Lady

The Book: Milk Lady of Bangalore by Shoba Narayan

The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure

by Shoba Narayan

Narayan shows her experience and expertise with memoirs in this book rich with all those connections that surround us. I have enjoyed reading her writing before in the ‘Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes‘.

Memories this Memoir Brought Back:

I grew up in a middle-of-nowhere town with a dairy farm. The milkman would make his daily rounds around this town with two huge milk pails. We would rush down as we heard the familiar ring of his cycle bells to buy our daily quota of milk. Today, people in my childhood town mainly buy packets of milk. While the dairy-farm building still stands, the cows have long disappeared.

When we moved to Bangalore, my mom bought fresh milk from a milk-lady for years as well. But today, it is the day of the packet-milk.

Dear reader: What about you? Do you have any similar memories? Of milk pails in carts, of tiny neighborhood stores you walked down to for just about anything (how did that tiny store carry just about everything you needed?)?

My Thoughts on the Book Itself:

Narayan found that yesteryear town – the one where you buy fresh milk milked from the cow – in modern Bangalore (Bengaluru). When the author moved back to India after years in the US, serendipity (I think, what else?) landed her right into an elevator with a cow on her first day in her new apartment!

This chance encounter led to Narayan’s exploration of the Bos Indicus(the domestic Indian cow), into befriending the milk-lady whose cow she met, and into owning a cow herself (even if it was briefly).

From an elevator-pitch Sarala the milk-lady made to her to use her cow for Narayan’s house-warming ceremony to drinking cow urine (for its toted medicinal properties) to embarking on a fascinating journey into the cow markets around Bangalore to understanding the hows and whys and whats, as well as the science and the stories of the (holy) cow – this book has it all.

Narayan’s many honest insights into herself and her observations about those she meets, especially Sarala made me pause. I nodded in agreement, in turns smiling and frowning at the bundle of contrasts and quirks that is human nature.

Talking about Sarala:

“….She has the gift of making commonplace actions sound like achievements. …..her son’s talent for spotting fruit carts and peanut vendors with the best products from a mile away…. She is an optimist by nature. “

When Narayan’s articles about Sarala (before this book came about) appeared in the paper:

“And when the series of eight articles has been published, I walk across the street and show all three of them all of the newspapers. They look at the photographs ….. They are intrigued but unimpressed. At first, I am a bit hurt by their lack of obvious interest. It occurs to me though, ……….. “How cool,” but it really wasn’t relevant to my life.”

Narayan’s portrayal of Sarala and her family was definitely the best part of this book for me. It reminded me that I know people like them too; and that their interactions with us make our lives all the more worthwhile and well-lived. 

Random Thoughts:

Other things that caught my attention for various reasons were:

  • Narayan’s description (and many uses) of reduplication in the book – delightfully-delightful! One excerpt from the book below:

‘That lady is too shrewd,’ Sarala tells me in Tamil after Mumtaz leaves with milk extracted from her preferred cow. ‘She can line up all my cows and tell tiny-tiny differences in the milk with needle-like precision.’

Indians will rarely say ‘tiny’in isolation. It usually involves what my father, the English professor, calls ‘reduplication’, or repeating the same or similar rhyming word. Our languages are full of reduplication, as well as onomatopoeia. Perhaps we do this to make ourselves heard in a noisy land.

  • Her journey to buy a cow led her, and us, the readers, to many interesting discoveries. For example: how cow trade markets like the ones Narayan visits in the book work; how whorls on a cow matter and how buyers use them as part of their decision making process. Narayan makes a reference to Temple Grandin‘s work on whorls in horses in the book, ‘Animals in Transition‘.
  • The link between the bacteria found in cow dung – M. vaccae – and serotonin. So, in effect, s**t and compost can make us happy!

In Summary:

The book is a delightful, lighthearted, bovine literary paraphernalia. It is in parts heartwarming, honest, humorous, charming and interesting. While I did find a few scenes(like, a couple) that seemed a bit out of place in the narrative, I enjoyed this book overall.

So what do I have to say at the end? ‘The Milk Lady of Bangalore’ is, as the tag line says, An Unexpected Adventure; an udderly joyous read that will leave you with ‘udd(er)itional’ trivia at the end!  .