Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit Lamu, Kenya, a centuries old Swahili town. The Swahili people have heritage from both East Africa and Oman, and the city of Lamu shows the Oman side in its beautiful architecture.
At the Lamu Museum, there is a big exhibit dedicated to everything involved in a traditional wedding. Standing in front of a case containing what looked like several kilograms of silver jewelry, we were told that in the old days, brides would wear all of it during the wedding, but not so much these days. The guide said, “Once people realized how much money they could get for silver, they stopped enjoying it for themselves and started selling it instead.”
This brought to my mind criticism of the South American quinoa industry: when quinoa became a fad in the US, villages that used to subsist on nutrient dense quinoa started selling it instead and buying cheaper (and less nutritious) grains for themselves. As a result, their health was suffering.
And I thought of all of this again as I read the last quarter of The Milk Lady of Bangalore. Sarala, who loves, respects, and venerates cows, ultimately had to give away a calf because it was male, which would be a financial liability for her. Despite how she felt about it, she could only keep cows in her dairy farm which actually produce milk. The decision came down to how much money the cow was worth.
This contrasted with the Jain cow shelter, on land that would be worth multiple millions of dollars. Instead, they took in cows which weren’t worth anything to anyone else and spent thousands of dollars per day to support them. The cows were valuable in themselves.
Kothari, the secretary of the cow shelter explained thus: “It is hard to convince non vegetarians. They think we are just wasting money. But we don’t want to convince them…Everything I am is because of the blessing of the cow.”
It’s natural to value certain things by how much money they will sell for and value others for what they are. But how and where do we draw the line? What do you think? What do you value for what it is regardless of how much (or how little) it would be worth if you sold it?
The rest of this section was pretty intense – between buying a cow, the cow getting pregnant, Shoba’s dog dying, having to get rid of her cow’s male calf, getting wives for Sarala’s sons, and Shoba’s father-in-law’s death… What an emotional roller coaster!
Shoba shared her insights about grief. A couple of my favorite parts:
“Till you experience it, you think that grief is one emotion. It isn’t; it is many emotions packaged into one.”
“Who are you? Are you the kind who grieves intensely and quickly, or does your grief take time to reveal itself and leave? Does it ever leave?”
“Goodbyes are guilt on steroids.”
And Sarala said, “Animals touch your heart in ways people don’t realize.”
As I closed this book (by tapping the Home button on my Kindle), I thought about what I’m taking away from this book.
- I have learned a lot about Hinduism and cows. This kind of knowledge doesn’t seem to have a direct application, but learning about different people increases empathy, so I call this a big plus.
- I admire Shoba’s posture of learning. We have often emphasized the importance of learning when we enter new cultures, but even in reentering our old culture, being a learner is a better way to forge connections.
- Sarala may see generosity in relationships as a cow-ish trait, but it is a godly one, and one that I want to cultivate in my life.
What is your takeaway from The Milk Lady of Bangalore? What did you appreciate about this book? What does it draw you to contemplate? Let’s talk in the comments.
We will be reading Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey by Sarah Shin in October and November! We would love to have you join us for our discussion. We’ll take the book a little slower, reading Part One in October and Part Two in November.
Here’s the schedule to get us started:
September 29th: Preview and chat about how we approach conversations about diversity
October 6th: Chapter 1
October 13th: Chapter 2
October 20th: Chapter 3
October 27th: Chapters 4 and 5