Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald, Australia, 2002

I had a mixed reaction to this book: I really enjoyed the first part, but I found the second part sluggish and slow. The author's attempt to not only give a light-hearted and, at times, horrifying picture of Indian culture and lifestyle but also to give an insight into the many different religious beliefs practised in that country deserves a large amount of praise. Although Holy Cow is written by a non-Indian, many of Sarah Macdonald's observations are the same or similar to observations made by the Indian writers Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance ) and Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger), and are not, as some have complained, the result of an outsider summing up Indian society from the perspective of a more progressive and successful culture. Macdonald's humour is not at the expense of India and its people but is, to a very great degree, the self-deprecating humour of the average Australian.

Sarah, a journalist (who has taken time off from work) is in India with her fiancé who is working as a foreign reporter for the ABC. After the shock of having to absorb a very different culture, a near-death experience with pneumonia and the ongoing loneliness of being separated from her fiancé who spends most of his time on missions outside of India, she begins to investigate India's religious heritage.

Initially, these investigations are simply part of the story she is telling, and information about different religions creeps in as part of something else she is relating; the integrity of the actual story is retained. Halfway through the book, Sarah and her fiancé briefly return to Australia where they are married. Back in New Delhi Sarah takes the conscious step of following up all religions in India, and from this point the novel moves into the realm of the documentary.

Like India itself with its millions of people, impressions, smells and experiences, the information about the various religions is psychedelic with so much happening that it is, at times, difficult to hold on to any kind of central thread. Many incidental people are introduced – some disappear after a few pages, others re-emerge pages further on by which time the connections between that particular person and the story are forgotten. I found that I kept checking to see how many pages I had left to read; I was thrown between genuine interest and definite boredom.

In spite of my disappointment with the second part of the book, I could imagine rereading it, mainly as a general introduction to India's many religions. Reading it from such a perspective could, I feel, be a rewarding experience for most people.

Photo of Sarah Macdonald from www.smh.com.au