A Cow, A Calf and Grief {Book Club}

A Cow, A Calf and Grief {Book Club}

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary on Unsplash

There’s still time to be part of our webinar this week on the topic of kids and transition! Even if you can’t join live, you will get access to the recording. Click on the picture to register!

Join us for our first unplugged retreat!


  1. Michele September 27, 2020

    I’ve been so far behind in this book that I haven’t been able to comment in the discussions, but I finished it the other night and so I’ll at least give my take-aways here now. They’re pretty similar to yours. I DO live in a Hindu context- three years in North India and eight in Nepal, so there was much that was familiar to me- packet milk vs. fresh from the cow, cows eating garbage on the streets, etc. Only a year or so ago I finally learned that many of the cows on the streets of Kathmandu were abandoned because they no longer produced milk. A lot of other things were also familiar, and it was interesting to see the culture through Shoba’s eyes as she returned after so many years. I got a much deeper understanding of the place of the cow in Hinduism and more awareness of the culture overall and how the people I live among think. It was interesting to me that Shoba was also an ‘outsider’ in many ways just because of her wealth and her time overseas- that she had to earn trust. I loved the way the friendship developed and could relate to it a lot- that they could really love each other and yet there would always be this separation because of their different worlds. I also just really enjoyed Shoba’s wit and her story-telling style.
    Once again, I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed a book I probably never would have heard of if it wasn’t for the VA book club! 🙂

    1. Rachel Kahindi September 28, 2020

      So interesting about Shoba having to earn trust as an outsider. Thanks for sharing your reflections! And thanks for reading with us, Michele!

  2. Phyllis September 28, 2020

    My takeaway was something like “it’s a small world after all.” India is really not a familiar place in my mind. However, I came away from this book realising that it’s not so terribly foreign as I thought. So much of what she wrote about seemed so much like my home here. 🙂

    1. Rachel Kahindi September 28, 2020

      It’s really interesting to find similarities between places that we think should be totally different!

  3. Amanda Hutton September 28, 2020

    This book was unlike any other I have picked up before! Learning more about Indian culture was fascinating for me as an avid Bollywood fan.

    Lately our team has been focusing on spending unhurried time in relationship with others. Shoba, although sometimes reluctantly, was able to develop a meaningful relationship by purchasing cow from a neighbor instead of a big company. My main takeaway was the importance of spending time with others and learning what matters to them.

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