Metrolife: Cow-owning in city theme of new book

Metrolife: Cow-owning in city theme of new book

Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan talks about The Cows of Bangalore, and what motivated her to write it

Shoba Narayan’s latest book is titled The Cows of Bangalore---How I Came to Own One. It talks about how she relocated from the US to India, and settled in the Cantonment area of Bengaluru. She strikes a friendship with a woman who delivers milk, and then discovers a whole lot more about cows in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, besides her own roots. 

Your new book, The Cows of Bangalore, has just hit the stands. How is it being received? 

I was worried that there would be some hate speech given that the cow is a political animal in India, but thankfully there has been none. On the contrary, readers have commented that I have changed the way they view milk women, the urban dairy system, and all things cow.

How has writing the book changed you as a writer?

This bovine is divine in India. I heard this statement all my life and used to roll my eyes.  Now, I am not so cynical. The connection that certain animals have with cultures and religions go back millennia and connects us to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.  The sheep is linked to Christianity, the horse to Islam and the cow to Hinduism. India hasn’t shorn itself of this link, which is a cool thing when you think about it.  Oh, and it has made me realise that even the most innocuous of situations can be milked for a good story.

You have a master’s in journalism from Columbia University, where you won a Pulitzer Fellowship. What challenges did you have weaving in your personal story with the journalistic part of the story?

I had a good editor.  In the first draft, I was so excited by the research I had done and the connections that I had made between my milk lady’s story and....oh, just about everything I guess— animal domestication, milk tolerance, A2 milk, religion, that I put it all in the book in great indigestible chunks.  My editor said that people need to chew the cud on so much material. So we pared things down and stayed true to the story— which in itself is quite wonderful.

How often do you write? What environment is best to write?

My writing practice amounts to the same pattern: stare at the computer screen.  Write a line. Hate it. Rewrite. Repeat. Decide to check if new bird photos have come on Instagram— being a birder, I use Instagram to identify new species of birds. Spend 10 happy minutes gazing at new bird photos. Feel guilty. Eat chocolate. Walk away from my study in disgust. Sit on my dining table with paper and pen and write without distraction for as long as I can hold out.  I work at home. All over my home. Bedroom, dining room, study....

What do you love about writing? What frustrates you?

Writing makes me lose myself, which is why I love it so.  Writing well gets progressively harder as you read a lot, which is the frustration.  

What writers do you admire and why?

Favourite contemporary writers include those who mix memoir and magic realism.  Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, David Sedaris, Jonathan Franzen, Haruki Murakami and Aatish Taseer.  Of course I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, R K Narayan, Salman Rushdie and Alice Munro. Even today, I can pick up any of their books and lose myself.