The Cow in the Elevator {Book Club}

They say you can’t go home again, but we try, don’t we? Then, we find that for all the ways we have changed, everything at home stayed the same. Or, what we missed (and hoped to submerge ourselves into on returning) has completely changed.

My family typically returns to the US every 18 months, for 2 months at a time. (Our next trip very likely will be pandemic-delayed.) Things change while we’re gone, and we do too, but it’s nothing like staying abroad for several years before a return home. And it’s nothing like returning home for good, or for the foreseeable future, which might as well be the same thing.

Before getting married, I had lived overseas, just shy of a year. I didn’t have much trouble returning to the US afterwards. My husband, on the other hand, spent 9 years in the US, taking just a few brief trips home to Kenya during that time. I learned about reverse culture shock vicariously when we moved to Kenya. I remember wondering how something could bother my husband so much when he is from here – he should be expecting it, used to it! I don’t know whether Milk Lady of Bangalore will address reverse culture shock or not, but the topic of returning home and reconnecting with one’s roots – when those roots are not in the 50 states – is what drew me to this book.

After 20 years in New York, Shoba Narayan repatriated to India. She narrates the experience by describing her friendship with Sarala, the importance of cows in India, and her efforts to “recapture the simple times of [her] childhood.” Shoba wrote, “Milk is my way of reconnecting with the patch of earth that I call home.”

What reconnects you with the place you call home after spending years in another country? (Whether that home be the place you were born, the place you spent formative years, the place you raised your family… is open for interpretation.) What brings the simple times of childhood back to you?

Shoba’s connection with milk goes beyond drinking it and to the comprehensive process of cows, milking, boiling, making yogurt and paneer, etc. Still, I think of connecting with a place through eating. When we go back to the US, my kids insist on eating at Chick-fil-a ASAP. Chicken nuggets and root beer (easy on the ice) tell their taste buds and tummies that we are back in the country of their birth. When we come back to Kenya, my husband appreciates a pot of coconut beans and a stack of chapati. Or a big bowl of githeri. I grew up on quick, processed foods. Even though I can’t handle processed food like I used to, nothing makes me feel like I’m back at home more than Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Shoba’s friendship with Sarala is remarkable. It reminds me of African friendships, which are “about the sharing of woes.” You may not hang out with each other just for fun, you may not know all about each other’s lives, but together you share the weight of burdens and help each other solve problems. The purpose of the relationship is mutual benefit. This type friendship used to feel cold and transactional to me, but I have come to realize that there is a unique vulnerability and intimacy in sharing of woes.

There is so much information in this book about India, Hinduism, cows, and milk – history, folklore, nutrition and medical practices. It’s all so interesting. The heroic cows of legends have been my favorites. Also, the history lesson about Indo-Iranians was fascinating. What new things have you learned?

Let’s talk in the comments. What did you think about the beginning of this book? Do you find Shoba relatable?

P. S. I found an interview with Shoba Narayan here.

Join us in September as we read The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure by Shoba Narayan!

From Amazon: The Milk Lady of Bangalore immerses us in the culture, customs, myths, religion, sights, and sounds of a city in which the twenty-first century and the ancient past coexist like nowhere else in the world. It’s a true story of bridging divides, of understanding other ways of looking at the world, and of human connections and animal connections, and it’s an irresistible adventure of two strong women and the animals they love.

The reading schedule is:

Sept 8: Ch 6-11

Sept 15: Ch 12-16

Sept 22: Ch 17-Post Script


  1. Bayta Schwarz September 1, 2020

    I am so intrigued by your thoughts on friendship, Rachel! Do you think that’s also part of more communal cultures, where there is a whole intricate web of relationships? And maybe less affluent ones, where people need each other in very tangible ways? Though the author clearly is rather affluent…
    I was struck by the quote on exile being an”unhealable rift forced between a human being and his native place; between the self and its true home.” Obviously in many ways exile is very different from choosing to live overseas, but this still resonated.
    Lastly, it seems food isn’t quite as important in giving me a sense of home. At least I’m really struggling to think of examples… On the other hand, certain styles of buildings do give me a strong sense of place. Like the typical red-brick buildings of my home town. Or a row of British-style terraced houses. So interesting!

    1. Rachel Kahindi September 2, 2020

      The quote on exiles is something I’ve been thinking about since reading it, too. And I can see connecting with architecture when an area has a strong style.

      On friendship, I read a book called “African Friends and Money Matters.” It goes into the western view of friendship and the African view — and how that affects the perception of a friendship between the two. When one of the friends has greater affluence, they still “get something” out of the relationship. In the case of Shoba and Sarala, Sarala teaches Shoba, helps connect her with people who can help her, gives her a free liter of milk when she has guests… I think that type of friendship is more common when infrastructure is thin. An example from Kenya is “borrowing” water from friends. If your water isn’t running, you find someone who has water. Then, when they have a need, they can borrow from you. In the US, we depend on the water company to always supply water. On the very rare occasions that our water is cut off, all we can do is go buy jugs of bottled water.

      1. Amanda September 2, 2020

        What a fascinating perspective! I love your example of borrowing water. When we first moved abroad, we tended to look for services to meet our needs. Now we heavily depend on our neighbors and community when the water turns off, our car breaks down, I need an egg for a recipe, etc. In the states we Google when we are in a pickle. Here we message everyone we know first! It’s actually something I have grown to love, and I find myself understanding more how to depend on Him instead of first exhausting my resources and THEN praying or seeking answers in His Word.

        1. Rachel Kahindi September 3, 2020

          So true. The habit of depending on others, of not being self-sufficient, does promote dependence on God.

      2. Phyllis September 3, 2020

        I once read a Russian book about American culture. Something the author said stuck with me. It was about how in Russia (and similar cultures) you can run to your friend at any time of the day or night to drink together and discuss your problems, while in America… well, your friends don’t have problems.

        I am loving this book! And parts of it are wonderfully familiar, even though I’ve never been to India and know very little about it. The whole milk thing (minus holy cows) is a lot like what goes on in my own home and neighbourhood now. I love fresh milk. No one else in my family does. Our kids say that they like store milk, not cow milk. 🙂 There’s a man who delivers fresh milk on our street early every Monday morning. He rides up on his bicycle, and everyone who has ordered in advance gets their 3 litres. I can’t drink a whole 3 litres by myself before it goes sour, so I don’t order, but very often neighbours pour off a few servings for me and send it over.

        Also, like Sarala said, “I live with Muslims and Christians and we all help each other out.” We rent the back half of a house, and a Muslim family rents the front. We all definitely help each other out.

    2. Sarah Hilkemann September 4, 2020

      I love all these insights on friendship in different cultures!

  2. Sarah Hilkemann September 2, 2020

    It’s been so interesting learning more about Indian culture and particularly why the cow is sacred, or what that looks like in every day life. I also love that we are hearing someone’s journey of going home to another part of the world!
    My situation is probably different than a lot of people’s because my parents still live in the house I grew up in. I remember each time I came back to the States for home assignment how the familiar roads and the lane to my family’s farm brought so much comfort. One thing that reminded me of home while I was in Cambodia was the smell of cut grass. There was so little grass in Cambodia and I think I only experienced this once, but I was riding my bike home and hot a whiff of freshly cut grass and was instantly transported. 🙂

    1. Rachel Kahindi September 3, 2020

      I love the fact that the physical journey of traveling back to your parents’ house also involves a mental journey of connecting you with home!

  3. Amanda September 2, 2020

    As an avid Bollywood fan and former dairy farmer, I was SO excited to see the topic of this book! Thank you for always introducing me to new titles and stretching me in my reading. 🙂

    There is a lot to chew on here, so I will just share one thought. Shoba states, “The reason we choose an object, a product, or a lifestyle–whether it is mink or milk–has to do with complex layers of emotion, romance, nostalgia, and yes, if you must have it this way, loss.” My dad’s side of the family is unbelievably nostalgic, to a point that they buy anything that has to do with Elvis because Grandma loved him. Ha! Right now people are ordering online because of the pandemic, but how much of that is due to the loss that has been experienced? After reading this chapter I went on my once-every-six-weeks trip to the capital to run errands, and I asked myself with every purchase, “WHY?” It is fascinating to consider our motivation for purchasing items or being loyal to a certain brand.

    1. Rachel Kahindi September 3, 2020

      Wow. This is really interesting. Thanks for bringing it up! I need to keep this in mind next time I am shopping.

    2. Sarah Hilkemann September 4, 2020

      Amanda, I’m a dairy farm girl too! 🙂
      Your comment about why we buy things is so fascinating! I know in Cambodia I would often to be tempted by (and ultimately buy) items that reminded me of home- even if they weren’t things I would eat or purchase in my passport country. I should use that practice the next time I go shopping- asking why I am drawn to this brand or item. Thanks for bringing that up!

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