Shoba Narayan is a journalist and author. She has written two memoirs, Monsoon Diary and Return to India and her recent non-fiction book, The Cows of Bangalore was published recently. Shoba writes about travel, wildlife, nature, food, drink, fashion, art, music, culture, luxury, and lifestyle for many publications.
Why did you pick cows as a subject for this book? Did you want to write something totally different from Monsoon Diary?
I didn’t pick the subject. The cow literally walked up to me. One day, I pressed the elevator and found a cow inside. That’s how it began. People think that cows are passive, quiet animals, but underneath that stillness is an ability to influence their destiny. So I wouldn't say that I chose the cow as a subject. I would say that cows picked me to engage with them - and that is a gift. I used to see them all over the place in India. I didn’t realise then that they would arrive at my doorstep. The story too, unspooled over 10 years. Like the slow and sensuous gait of a cow, this was a tale that took its own time to come to life.
Can you describe the extent of cow-adoration in our country?
Think of any word that begins with "go". They all have a link with the cow. Gopuram, Godavari, Gavisti, Godhuli, and of course names such as Gopal, Govardhan, etc. Cow adoration is linked to the Hindu faith.
How has your own affection for cows changed over the years?
It has only become greater with every passing day. I used to notice cows all the time. I think that all the stories and mythology around cows are true. They are gentle animals. They have limpid eyes. They have a generous soul and spirit. Their gait is slow and majestic like the elephant. The cow is an iconic Indian animal and I love this animal for these reasons and others that I find difficult to articulate.
What are your earliest and fondest memories of Bengaluru, where you grew up? How much has it changed since then?
Bengaluru is home for me now but when I returned from America, it was a new city. I grew up in Chennai. That said, no other Indian city is as welcoming as Bengaluru and we are so happy to be living here. I don’t have visions of the old Bengaluru - about how it used to be a Garden City and how there was very little traffic on the streets. Maybe that is an advantage because I don’t have that nostalgia or miss the good old days. To me, the Bengaluru of today is what I know and I love it.
Has your perception of cows changed over the years, from when you lived in the US and when you came to India?
Well, we all grew up with cows roaming the streets in India. I am a cow lady. As in, I watch cows. Observing the cow, being drawn to these animals, and then encountering the milk-woman, all provided fodder (pun intended) for the book. That said, I think a particular set of circumstances had to come together, almost as if the universe was conspiring to bring them to me, in order for this book to happen. The book is doing very well internationally. In America, it has received very positive reviews and sales.
Can you describe the special bond between you and Sarala?
The heroine of my story is a milk-woman called Sarala. She is an amazing character: full of stories and ideas. Sarala believes that cows can influence humans. So do I. If you had told me ten years ago that I would write a book on cows, I would have laughed at you. Yet, here I am. I hope that my readers will read about, enjoy, and respect Sarala for the amazing person that she is.
How long did it take you to write this book and to research the subject?
This book took me 10 years to write, mostly because, the story unfolded at its own pace. Once I started writing it, I began doing research on the cow and this changed the book. I learned about native Indian cows that belong to the Bos indicus species. The milk that these cows give are supposedly healthier and I’m very pleased to see that many Bengalureans have started buying desi cow milk.
Among all the adventures described in the book, which is your favourite?
I would say that the section in which Sarala and I go to the santhe, or cow-market to buy a cow would be my favourite adventure.
What was it like to own a cow even for brief while? Is it the same as owning any other pet?
Oh no. The cow is not at all like a dog or cat. It is far more independent. That said, I hope that my readers will learn to love cows and all animals as much as I do. And I hope that they start seeing cows as the sentient beings they are.
What does your family say and feel about your adventures with the milk lady and the cows?
My husband tolerates it with a hidden eye roll. My kids openly laugh at me while (I hope) secretly being proud of my weirdness. My parents and in-laws who belong to the earlier generation of Indians heartily approve. My aunts and uncles use me as an example when they talk to their own children who are now in America. “Look at Shoba. See how connected she has become to her Indian roots,” they will say. All my cousins hate me for becoming the Indian role model in a way that they simply cannot emulate. I mean, how can you sit in Buffalo, New York and compete for family approval with a cousin who has gone and bought a cow? You can only say, Shoba bought a cow but I live in Buffalo.
Who are your favourite authors and some of the books you like the most?
My favourite contemporary writers include those who mix memoir and magic realism like Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, David Sedaris, Jonathan Franzen, Haruki Murakami and Aatish Taseer. My favourite writers of all-time fall in the same genre: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, R. K. Narayan, Ayn Rand, Salman Rushdie and Alice Munro. Even today, I can pick up any of their books and lose myself. P.G. Wodehouse’s books always make me laugh, particularly the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves series. Besides that, I enjoyed ‘Catcher in the Rye’, by J.D. Salinger. More recently, I liked the wit of Maria Semple’s novel, ‘Where’d you go Bernadette?’ I also loved ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy. I love her writing style and the way that she has put together the story like a jigsaw puzzle, or as she said in an interview, like an architectural piece that comes together. Another favourite is William Dalrymple’s ‘City of Djinns’ - because he writes about Delhi in a way that is rooted in history but whimsical and magical as well. I wish I could write in this way about my two cities: Bengaluru and Chennai.
Where do you usually find inspiration for your books?
The inspiration comes from my interest in Indian culture with all its complications and chaos. Human interest stories spring up in the oddest places. I hope that readers will embrace, indeed seek encounters with people who are different from them. This is possible in every city. All of these people potentially have strange and fantastic lives that you can learn about and enjoy. They have great stories. You can become their friends. I just happened to write a book about this. Connect with cows. And birds and bees. I think those of us city-dwellers who have lost our connection to nature - the birds, bees, and ahem… bovines that surround us - are depriving ourselves of a vital link that was part of our evolution and ecology. We should reclaim it. Our lives will be richer for it.
What is the key quality that a good writer must have, according to you?
The key quality is to write without waiting for inspiration. As someone said, inspiration is for amateurs. You just have to be able to write at will. I have been writing my whole life. I was one of these kids wrote poetry as a child, angst ridden journals as a teenager. I began writing for my local newspaper at 18 and never stopped.
What would your advice to a new author be?
Find your writerly voice. Find a topic that is compelling. Be observant. Then sit down and write.
What are some of the other subjects you intend to explore in your next books?
I am working on a few ideas with my agent and publisher. There are many themes which resonate with me in the areas of spirituality, healing, and fitness. The trick is to the find the right one for a book.