The Milk Lady of Bangalore

An Unexpected Adventure


By Shoba Narayan

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The elevator door opens. A cow stands inside, angled diagonally to fit. It doesn’t look uncomfortable, merely impatient. “It is for the housewarming ceremony on the third floor,” explains the woman who stands behind the cow, holding it loosely with a rope. She has the sheepish look of a person caught in a strange situation who is trying to act as normal as possible. She introduces herself as Sarala and smiles reassuringly. The door closes. I shake my head and suppress a grin. It is good to be back.

When Shoba Narayan—who has just returned to India with her husband and two daughters after years in the United States—asks whether said cow might bless her apartment next, it is the beginning of a beautiful friendship between our author and Sarala, who also sells fresh milk right across the street from that thoroughly modern apartment building. The two women connect over not only cows but also family, food, and life. When Shoba agrees to buy Sarala a new cow, they set off looking for just the right heifer, and what was at first a simple economic transaction becomes something much deeper, though never without a hint of slapstick.

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.



Return to India

Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes

The Milk Lady of Bangalore

An Unexpected Adventure



For Ranju and Malu,

who delight in telling people

that they own a cow.

"You can catch the tail of a cow and walk all the way up to the heavens," says the priest. "That is why a cow is so important in Hinduism."

HINDU PRIEST, paraphrasing from the Garuda Purana




Part One












Part Two













Selected Reading

About the Author

About Algonquin

Ayurveda classifies milk—and every substance, for that matter—not just on its taste (rasa) but also on its qualities (guna). This five-thousand-year-old indigenous healing system has analyzed milk in a dizzying array of ways and has come up with injunctions. Among them:

  • Don't drink milk, which is a coolant, along with horse gram, which has heating properties. Not that you would impulsively come up with such an idea—"Oh, let's drink a glass of milk after chewing some horse gram"—but just in case you did.
  • Don't drink milk after eating pineapple and sour-tasting fruits like berries. Probably because it will cause the milk to curdle in the stomach. I tried blending pineapple with milk. It didn't hold together.
  • Warm, fresh milk straight from the cow's udder is like ambrosia. If you cannot for some reason drink raw milk, boil it. Drink it warm, not cold. Don't pasteurize or homogenize it. These processes help companies preserve and transport milk, but reduce the milk's intrinsic goodness.
  • Young maidens should anoint their breasts with herbal butter to improve shape and size. Victoria's Secret, take note: maybe lace some butter into your push-up bras?
  • Milk from a black-colored cow is best because it balances all the three doshas (imbalances) of the body. Milk from a red-colored cow balances vata, the air element that causes arthritis, gas, and bloating. Milk from a white cow is the worst: it causes kapha (mucus). What about milk from patchy black-and-white cows such as the Holsteins? Open to interpretation, I guess.
  • Milk drawn from a cow early in the morning is heavier in consistency, since the cow has rested through the night. Hindu priests use this early-morning milk for their rituals and drink the lighter, evening milk after the cow has frisked around a bit. If you don't have access to a frisky cow, could you vigorously shake the milk can to simulate the effect?
  • If you want to use milk as an aphrodisiac, choose milk from a black or red cow that has eaten sugarcane stalks. The cow must have given birth to a calf—but only once. It helps if the calf is the same color as the mother. The horns of the cow should point upward. The udder should have four nipples, not three. The milk should be thick, and the cow's disposition, calm. If you find such a cow, milk it in the evening; mix with honey, ghee, and sugar, and drink up. Have a nice night!


Sarala, my milk woman, needs a cow. She tells me so when I chide her for giving me less milk one morning. It is 7 a.m. The school buses have left. I am standing outside my Bangalore home, waiting in line for fresh cow's milk. Sarala's youngest son, Selva, squats nearby, milking his mother's favorite cow, Chella Lakshmi.

I have known Sarala for ten years. I see her when I cross the road to buy milk. She asks me for many things but, so far, not a cow. Sarala is not sure how much a Holstein-Friesian cow will cost. She thinks it will be one thousand dollars or so. She has it all worked out. She will repay my loan through a supply of free milk—two liters daily, which costs about one dollar a day. Within a year "or two, give or take," the loan will be repaid, she says.

When I look dubious about her rate of return, she offers an explanation. "I need you to buy me more cows. How will you do that if I don't repay your loan?" she asks.

Then she lays it on thick. "You know, the family in the apartment below yours wanted to buy a cow for us. They like to do that, these Jains. Good karma, you see. But the timing didn't 'set.' When they were ready to buy, I didn't have space in my cowshed. When I had space in my cowshed, they didn't have the money. It didn't work out. You are lucky. Else why would I approach you instead of them when I need a cow?"

As a kicker, Sarala gives me naming rights to the cow that I buy—as long as the name ends with Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. Otherwise, she says, the name won't set.

If you had told me years ago that I would write a book about cows, I would have done the "Elaine." I would put both my hands on your shoulders and push you hard, yelling, "Get out," as Elaine so often did to Jerry Seinfeld. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was a harried, working mother living in New York City. I liked dogs, not bovines. The only cows that I noticed were the wildly painted, acrylic sculptures of cows that had popped up all over the city, and those only because tiresome tourists would accost me on the street to have their picture taken in front of a pink or purple cow. Even then, I didn't link cows to India, the homeland I had left.

If you had told me then that this cow story would come to me, I would have laughed in your face. Not unkindly, but laced with a scorn I couldn't have hidden. Freshly graduated from journalism school, I would have said that waiting for stories to come to you was passive and fatalistic, so Old World. This was America, where you went after what you wanted, where you changed your destiny, made things happen.

I am older now and I don't have the boundless confidence of youth, the eternal sunshine of the unsullied mind. I realize now that opportunities sometimes present themselves in forms that you don't initially recognize as a story. I didn't know then how much Sarala, my milk woman, had to teach me about living in the moment and about framing misfortunes in a way that makes for resilience.

No, I didn't plan to write a book about my relationship with a cow. It literally walked up to me.

Cows are a cliché in India. They make headlines and are displayed on billboards. Sometimes, they eat billboards. They are the subject of parodies and exclamations, and like most stereotypes, epitomize an underlying reality: cows are indeed holy in India. Cows appear in the Rig Veda—one of Hinduism's oldest texts, written around 1200 BC—and in every Hindu text since. The cow makes an appearance in the magical and imaginative Purana (ancient) literature—whose stories encompass the collective myths and legends of a culture. Cows play many roles in these Hindu myths: warrior-princess, mother-to-the-world, primordial fertility goddess, fulfiller of all wishes, sacrificial mother, and harbinger of immortality.

The cow in India is a quagmire of contradictions and controversies, and also a symbol of the country's sometimes polarizing politics. That said, this is not an explicitly political book. It gives some amount of context about why the cow is so important in India. It isn't, and doesn't wish to be, a magisterial work on all aspects of the cow. Well, it sort of wishes to be a magisterial work on all aspects of the cow, but isn't one.

With these caveats, read on.

Part One


The Cows—and Humans—Come Home

The elevator door opens.

A cow stands inside, angled diagonally to fit. It doesn't look uncomfortable, merely impatient.

I reflexively move forward, and then stop, trying not to gape.

"It is for the housewarming ceremony on the third floor," explains the woman who stands behind the cow, holding it loosely with a rope. She has the sheepish look of a person caught in a strange situation who is trying to act as normal as possible.

"Hey, hey," she shushes, as the cow fidgets. "Don't worry, the cow and I will get off on the third floor and send the elevator down." She smiles reassuringly.

The door closes. I pull out bug spray from my handbag, stare at it for a moment, and then put it back in. Does bug spray work against bovine germs?

I shake my head and suppress a grin. It is good to be back.

Although I grew up in India—in Chennai, or Madras, as it was then called—I left for undergraduate studies in the United States and didn't come back for close to twenty years. Returning to India was a long-cherished dream. Living here is like being in a dream sometimes, replete with surreal "only in India" sights, sounds, and smells that would have given Salvador Dalí either a ton of inspiration or a run for his money.

Like encountering a cow in an elevator.

Outside the apartment building, a large, red moving truck is parked near the curb. Two burly men are unloading cardboard boxes labeled "Crown Relocation." My husband stands on the sidewalk, checking off boxes from the list he carries: bedroom, kitchen, toys, and so on. Pink bougainvillea grows on the compound wall of the building named "Ivory." We are moving into a newly constructed apartment building named after a banned product created from elephant tusks that, quixotically, is painted in a shade called "ebony."

"You will never guess what I saw inside the elevator," I say.

There is no response.

"A cow."

Now he looks up, my husband.

"It is a busy time for cows," says the relocation guy. "A new building in Bangalore, many people moving in. They all want cows to walk through their homes."

Yes, I know what he means.

For Indians like me—equal parts global citizen and traditional Hindu—the role that the cow plays in Indian society, both as a symbol of Hinduism and as a reality that roams the street, is a matter of acceptance and embarrassment, much like what parents become to teenage children. On the one hand, Hinduism is intricately linked with this particular quadruped. On the other, you'd think that a modern democracy like India would get over this cow obsession already. What is the point of talking about software and IT and development if you can't cut off pastoral links with an ungulate that harks back to when nomadic tribes became settled civilizations?

Psychologist and professor Martin Seligman, often called the father of positive psychology, made a list of the six character traits that were valued by cultures across the world. The six traits, per Seligman, are wisdom, courage, temperance, transcendence, justice and humanity. In India, the cow is imbued with all these qualities in folklore, myth, and poetry.

Take justice, for example. The story goes that a king of the Chola dynasty, famed for its stunning bronzes that adorn museums across the world, hung a giant metal bell outside his palace. Citizens, he said, could pull on the bell's rope and summon him if they wanted justice. The king probably thought that it was a grand, if unnecessary, gesture. The rope was just for show, because who would have a grievance against his perfect kingship?

One morning, he woke up to see a cow pulling on the rope. Apparently, the king's son, the crown prince, had killed the cow's offspring under his chariot wheels. Mother Cow wanted justice. What would you do in this situation?

King Manu Needhi Cholan didn't offer the cow-mother a lifetime of hay as compensation. He didn't ask his son to go and apologize to the cow or to make nice. He ran his son down under chariot wheels—just like the prince had done to the calf. The son died, of course. Today, this king's statue stands at the entrance of the Madras High Court as a potent if largely ignored reminder of how the scales of justice ought to work.

My mother used to tell us about the "cow that rang the bell to seek justice." For a while after hearing this story, my brother, Shyam, and I tried ringing a bell in lieu of yelling an outraged "Mom!" when we got into a fight that needed an adjudicator.

Unlike the king, my mother ignored us.

A modern version of this tale plays out in the state I live in, Karnataka. It is captured not in ageless mythological manuscripts but on YouTube, in a video titled "Soul Touching Story of a Cow in Sirsi Asking for Justice."

The video shows a white cow that chases and stops a blue public transport bus in the town of Sirsi. We learn that her calf had been killed under the bus wheels weeks earlier. For five long minutes, in a honking, crowded Indian street, the cow stubbornly stands in front of the bus, looking below the bumper for her calf. A crowd gathers to stare at the cow; some people attempt to shoo it away from the front of the bus, while the bus driver turns the steering wheel to try to circumnavigate the cow. Every time that particular bus plies the road, the cow appears, we learn. Bloggers report that officials tried repainting the bus a different color. They even stopped its service for a few days to shake off the cow, but to no avail.

If myth is the smoke of history, as historian John Keay wrote, then some animals appear in its wisps more than others: the sheep in Christianity and the cow in Hinduism. India's link to the cow is both pervasive and perplexing when viewed through the lens of modern science. Do some Indians—not just Hindus—view cow urine as a cure-all? Yes. Do they use cow dung both ritually and in daily life? Yes. Do Hindus worship every aspect of the cow? Yes. Do they believe that the goddess of wealth resides in the anus of the cow? Yes. Are cows a symbol of growing Hindu intolerance and nationalism? Yes.

Ever since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took power, men posing as gau rakshaks (cow protectors) have assaulted Muslim and Dalit Indians. In September 2015, an angry mob of such cow vigilantes lynched and killed a Muslim ironsmith, accusing him of eating beef. In July 2016, cow vigilantes assaulted four Dalit men who skinned hide for a living. Muslims in India live in fear of these cow brigades who reserve their compassion for this animal at the cost of human lives. As for me, I love cows. I actually think that Hinduism's claiming them as an iconic symbol is pretty cool. But killing people for them? That is taking the sacred cow to a sacrilegious limit.

If you ask an Indian why cows are viewed as sacred in his country, he will probably say something like, "They herald good things." As a schoolgirl, I often saw cows with pink tassels around their horns being led ceremoniously into construction sites. A band walked in front, the cow walked next, and the construction crew followed, to break ground for the new structure. Inviting cows to warm houses is a tradition that continues in India. Fitting one into an elevator is a creative take on it. The Hindi word for this is jugaad.

Jugaad is makeshift ingenuity; improvisation; recycling, precycling, and upcycling; finding new uses for everyday objects—and for that matter, animals. Indians are masters at jugaad. It is the product of a resource-constrained culture. When you don't have enough, you figure out how to make do. You tie empty Coke and Sprite bottles around your waist in order to float in the water; you line up tattered shoes as goalposts when you play football; and you figure out how to get an animal to the third floor. But you don't give up on culture and tradition, particularly when they bring good luck. You don't give up on inviting a symbol of prosperity and good luck to walk through your home. You smuggle said symbol into an elevator. If it urinates during the course of this passage, you carry a bottle so that you can catch the urine, not because it will desecrate the place, but because cow urine and dung bestow good vibes on a house for complex reasons that have to do with ritual, tradition, habit, culture, and, yes, beneficial bacteria.

I used to be one of those "modern young people" who rolled my eyes and made snarky remarks about Indian traditions, particularly those that involved scatological remnants from ruminants. Now, I am not so sure. Early Indians found uses for cows and their by-products. Those traditions continue to this day. Beyond the milk, which is converted into yogurt, buttermilk, butter, cream, and ghee, there was the cow dung, which is used for cleaning courtyards of village homes and to make methane gas, or "gobur-gas," as it is called in India. The word gobur means "benediction from a cow." A part of me wants just such a benediction for my new apartment. The moving man provides the impetus.

"You should ask that lady to bring her cow through your home as well," says one of the movers. "After all, the cow is already in your building. She will give you a discount."

I glance at my husband. Before he says anything, before he protests, I turn and walk back into the building. I ride up the elevator to the third floor.

The apartment door is open. Sandalwood incense perfumes the air. A colorful rangoli drawing decorates the floor. As is custom, mango leaves, considered auspicious, are strung together above the door. If you ask elders why mango leaves, they will say, "because it is tradition," or "because it is good luck," answers that can apply to any of the countless things that Hindus do. I suspect mango leaves are hung because they attract gnats and insects that will feed on the leaves and then forget about entering the house—kind of like leaving Halloween candy outside so that boisterous kids don't bother knocking on your door.

Outside the apartment stands the slightly fidgety cow with the woman beside her. "The cow cannot walk on marble floors," she says in explanation when I walk out of the elevator. "She will start skating."

Inside, the people, dressed in silk, are scrambling to line the floor with newspapers and old gunnysacks so that the cow's hooves will gain traction and not send her flying across the apartment. Finally, the floor is covered. The lady and cow gingerly walk in. A bare-torsoed priest begins reciting Sanskrit mantras. When they see me, the people smile with reflexive hospitality. A woman in a beautiful sari comes forward. She is clearly the mistress, beaming with pride for her new home.

"Please come," she says. "It is our housewarming. You are moving in upstairs, aren't you?"

I nod and smile.

"We are so lucky to have found a cow," she says, folding her palms prayerfully. "Now it is as if all the gods have come home."

"Amen to that," I say rather inappropriately. "All hail the holy cow."

My new neighbor stares at me, as if trying to figure out if I am joking or mocking. Probably both, even though I didn't intend to. "All thirty-three thousand gods live in the cow," she says huffily. "Her four legs are the Vedas; her eyes are the sun and moon; her neck holds the trinity. Even her dung holds Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Gomaye vasathe Lakshmi; go mutre Dhanwantri. Her urine contains Dhanwantri, the celestial physician. You didn't know this?"

I have a choice: to fudge and say that, of course, I knew every detail of her account. Or to tell the truth and say that I sort of knew what Hindu scriptures said about the cow without knowing the details.

"Of course, I knew," I say, a trifle too loudly. "That is why I came. I was wondering if I could hire the cow to walk through my home as well. After you are finished with her, of course."

The woman pauses and frowns slightly. I know what she is thinking. Will sharing the cow dilute the good luck that she hopes to accumulate?

"You could ask the cow's owner, I suppose," she says finally. "She sells milk to this neighborhood apparently."

I don't know my neighbor's name but we are already sharing cows. Our sojourn in Bangalore is off to a swimming start.

I nod at the milk woman. Her cow moos in response. Her name, I am told, is Sarala. The cow, too, has a name, but we haven't yet been introduced.

The priest calls my neighbor to minister to the cow, feed it sugarcane stalks and green bananas. She does so prayerfully, glancing at me every now and then as if to say, "See, this is how it is done."

A few minutes later, a young girl clad in a mango-yellow skirt hands me a bowl of milk payasam. "Please have it," she says. "My mother made it."

By now, I am convinced that this is my neighbor's ploy to show me up not just in the cow-hiring but in the culinary area as well. Or maybe she is just being hospitable. I nod my thanks and spoon up the warm, milky payasam. Flavored with roasted cashew nuts, it is sickeningly delicious. Much better than my uninspired version.

The priest calls everyone to feed the cow.

"Those who want the blessings of this goddess of wealth can feed it," he announces as we line up. I pick up my token, which happens to be fresh green grass. As we stand in line with our offerings; the priest recites some mantras. He explains their meanings to us.

"Daughter of Surabhi, the fragrant one, who is framed by the five elements of wind, water, earth, sky, and ether. You are, holy, pure, and benevolent. You have sprung from the sun and are laden with precious gifts. Mother of the gods, sister of the original progenitor of the world, and daughter of the ancient creators: the Rudras, Vasus, and Devas. Accept this food from me as a salutation to thee. Namaste!"

"Namaste," I intone just to blend in.

The cow stands in a dignified fashion and quickly eats everything that we offer. Her raspy tongue tickles my fingers.

After the cow is relieved of her official duties, I follow her and her owner as they amble out the door. Can she come up to the fifth floor and parade the cow through my apartment as well?

"Normally, they give me one thousand rupees [about fifteen dollars] for this, but since we are already here, you can pay us seven hundred," Sarala says.

We have a deal. I run up two flights of stairs while the cow and accomplice take the elevator. I feel that I ought to welcome the cow properly but there is little at hand in my empty apartment. I think about allowing it to lick my cellphone instead of a banana but decide against it.


  • “An absolute joy to read. Through her close encounters with the bovine kind, Narayan shows how Indian traditions are incorporated into her contemporary way of life.”
    Library Journal, starred review

    “Sincere and laugh-out-loud funny . . . Narayan’s rich and evocative writing transports readers to the busy streets of Bangalore and a fully formed picture of modern India.”
    Kirkus Reviews

    “Filled with the vivid colors, sights, and sounds of a vibrant and ancient culture, Narayan’s in-depth treatment of cow mythology is a beautiful ode to her motherland.”

    “Lovely, lighthearted . . . a journey through cultural mores and female friendship, as well as a look at the spiritual and historical part that cows play in India; an easy read that you can’t help but love.”

    “Anyone with the slightest interest in India or cows will find Narayan's memoir, with its myriad insights, a delight.”
    Shelf Awareness

    “The relationship that forms between Shoba Narayan and her milk lady is wildly funny, and completely real. It’s so rare to find friendships like this that cut across class.”
    Arun Venugopal, host of WNYC's Micropolis

    “Narayan imparts well-researched, intriguing, and sometimes humorous facts about the complex role of cows in Indian culture.”
    —New York Journal of Books

    “Shoba Narayan offers a surprisingly fresh understanding of everyday life in the land of the sacred cow, overflowing with the daily contradictions and ironies that India so richly offers up to the discerning eye, in a wonderfully eloquent generational saga, intertwined with milk, dung and Uber.”  
    Raju Narisetti, CEO, Gizmodo, and former managing editor of The Washington Post  

On Sale
Jan 15, 2019
Page Count
288 pages
Algonquin Books

Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan

About the Author

Shoba Narayan writes about food, travel, fashion, art, and culture for many publications, including Conde Nast Traveler, the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Town & Country, Food & Wine, Saveur, Newsweek, and House Beautiful. She writes a weekly column for Mint Lounge, an Indian business daily, which is affiliated with the Wall Street Journal. Her commentaries have aired on NPR’s All Things Considered. Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes, and her essay "The God of Small Feasts" won the James Beard Foundation’s MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.   

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