BootsnAll Travel Network

Finishing Holy Cow

If I can’t travel every moment, at least I can peer into someone else’s travels. It took me more than one day to finish Sarah Macdonald’s Holy Cow, partly because I’m wrestling yet again with a different kind of beast: a migraine. These have been the bane of my existence since I was in my twenties. Anyway, I have finished the book, and I like it even better than I did initially. Macdonald makes no claims to accurate or objective perceptions, but she describes India in the details that she notices, and she outlines, with hilarious self-deprecating humor, a “spiritual” process many Westerners experience: from revulsion and curiosity, to fascinated involvement, to earnest and naive effort to understand or “try on” certain beliefs and practices, and finally to a position of respectful balance, rejecting what she can’t stomach and incorporating what she can, feeling (sometimes accurately) like a fraud and a dilettante. She walks a sharp edge of cynicism and respect, and I find the way she does that admirable. I also see that those who attack her for cultural imperialism didn’t finish the book. She tracks her own journey from cultural imperialist to cultural relativist, and unless her reader goes with her all the way, that reader will definitely get the wrong impression. Here are some excerpts of her conclusions, for those who may be interested:

Regarding her experience of Mata Amritanandamayi:

A devotee beside me grabs my arm.

“Trust your heart and not your head. What’s your heart saying?”

I tune in. It’s beating “bullshit, bullshit, bullshit” in time with the tabla.

Amma throws flower petals. The mass of arms and legs pushes against the stage. Thousands raise their hands and beg for love. The Mother falters and almost falls. She slowly scans the crowd, her exhausted eyes full of absolute patience and love. When she sweeps my face the bullshit beat stops. I feel my heart melt, contract and then explode. A supernova of love sends sparks of pity, compassion, admiration and amazement through my being. If God is the source of pure love then Amma’s an avenue. I feel the touch of a pure soul, of a saintly grace.

My suspension of cynicism could be hype or hysteria, momentary madness, the drug of exhaustion or the power of group suggestion. Whatever it is, it fades by lunchtime. (208-209)

Part of the story includes being in India when 9/11/2001 happens. Macdonald’s journalist husband is immediately sent to Afghanistan, where his life is in danger and her various samplings of spirituality are put to a test which she claims to fail, hopelessly. She follows him to Pakistan, which she finds shockingly different from India. In Pakistan she meets a Sufi sage who has little tolerance for her wobbly dabbling:

He agrees to an interview for Radio National but mystics are not good at simple radio spots; Asana Seer talks in rambling poems and Hamid has trouble translating. Basically, he tells me he facilitates pilgrims’ relations to God by communicating with the Sufi saints of the past in prayer–this magnifies the power of Allah, whose miracles are everywhere….

Asana Seer tells me he won’t answer any more questions, and says, “Why are you asking me this? You have the answers, you spend time alone with self. You know it deep inside, I know you do. What are you doing in India?”

“I’m learning about different faiths,” I answer.

“What have you learned?” he demands.

I stammer, “I-I-I-I’m learning different things from all–from Buddhism about controlling my mind, from Hinduism respecting other paths, from Islam the power of surrender.”

The saint stares hard and unflinching while Hamid translates my words. Suddenly there’s a mini-riot. The men begin screaming at each other, motioning toward me and throwing their arms up in the air and then banging them on the floor. Increasingly nervous, I ask Hamid what they are fighting about.

“Some of them are saying as Muslims we have a duty to try to convert you to Islam, as you should not follow these atheist faiths like Buddhism and look upon the false idols of the Indians. Others say, no, we are Sufis, we show her with love that we respect all paths. She must find her own inner journey.”

My head is reeling from the strong smoke, the deafening debate, the mystic music and the passion. The saint is impassive. He dismisses me curtly.

“You have the answer. Follow your path, it will lead to peace and love.” (273-274)

Then she goes back to India. Her eyes take in the shock of difference between the sober colors of Pakistan and, well, this is how she says it:

…leaving brown Pakistan for India’s kaleidoscope of Technicolor has made me feel less like Alice [in Wonderland] and more like Dorothy in the land of Oz. A yellow brick road of marigold petals paves the local shopping center….Bright golden saris flutter on mopeds, and pink bougainvillea and blooming frangipani paint and perfume my house. India’s organized chaos has exuberance and optimism, a pride and a strong celebration of life. I truly love it. (276)

Like most of us who write, Macdonald has trouble with conclusions. Her last chapter reads as though it has been rewritten 296 times, and it has lost the punch of the rest of the book. I can almost hear the voice of an editor, advising her to do what most college freshmen try to do at the end of their essays: say what you have said. Horrible idea. She concludes with a phrase for each of the paths she has explored, with a few cliches, and with a dose of sentimentality. But that doesn’t mar the book for me. It’s best when she describes her perceptions and her failings:

Rodger gives me a short quiz. “Do you have deep feelings for nature or do you yearn for detachment? Do you prefer sex or self-control?” I admit that a stunning mountain vista and a good root can be quite redeeming. Rodger tells me I’m more Jewish than Buddhist….I look around the room to embrace my new Israeli brothers and sisters but find they left long ago to smoke hash…. (172)

I’ve now been immersing myself in India’s spiritual smorgasbord for eighteen months. At times I feel god-filled, at other moments slightly spiritualized, but mostly I feel like I’m failing. It’s as if, after scrambling to the top of the wall that separates doubt and dharma, I fall Dumpty-down into bad thoughts and bad living. Between faith and faithlessness is a sea full of sharks that pull me down into the depths of doubt, rip any emerging happiness from my heart and spit me back to the surface of cynicism. (194)

…the smell of sweat, hair oil, jasmine, petrol, incense, urine and religious fervor is stifling and nauseating. A massive generator chugs black smoke and loudspeakers blast a blancmange of Tamil, Hindi and English sermons about chastity and goodness. (249)

Nearly everything is pink–the phallic fifteen-story-high living-quarters tower, the hospital, the Ayurvedic center, the shops, the canteens and even the temple. Rising up in a series of stories crowned with small domes, the Hindu temple, or mandir, looks like a pile of giant cupcakes topped with marshmallows. (197)

In my continuing effort to strip myself of baggage, I will pass the book on to whoever wants to read it next. Ansie, would that be you? I will try to envision stuffing my right eye, which feels like it is bleeding in my lap, back into my throbbing head as I go on making arrangements for my summer shifts and travels. Will mid-July ever get here? I’m glad I have the distraction of moving to a new apartment soon. Despite the bloody black throbbing mass of spikes and exploding lights which is the right side of my brain, I am straining to move into the future and my visits to the two Zen centers. Utterly unBuddhist of me, I know. I should be fully here, now. Right. My greatest fear is that I will be beset by migraines while I’m visiting, and the people in the two communities will decide I’m too feeble and sickly to be suited for their way of life. And then what? Aarghh.

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-2 responses to “Finishing Holy Cow”

  1. stephenbrody says:

    hmmm, no, I still don’t think so …. the woman is so obsessed by her own ‘consciousness’ that she doesn’t see that the Indians are having her on. There’s nothing they enjoy more than a gullible foreigner in search of a ‘true experience’, and oh boy do they make the best of an opportunity ….. they must have had a field day with this one!

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