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International Journal of English, Literature and Social Science (IJELS) 


Vol-4, Issue-4, Jul -Aug 2019 
ISSN: 2456-7620 

Ambiguity in Changing Stances in Sarah 
Macdonald’s Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure 

Nimisha F. 

Assistant Professor, Department of English, ST. Joseph’s College for Women, Alappuzha, Kerala, India 

Abstract —‘Putting the world on paper’ as travel writing can be simply defined, has been identified as a mode of 
colonialist discourse that reinforces European norms. As a genre, it provides insight into the fraught encounters and 
exchanges taking place between cultures, and the lives being led, and the subjectivities being formed, in a 
globalising world. With the spread of ‘postcolonial studies’, the academic interest in travel writing has increased 
dramatically. Postcolonial scholars sought to understand the processes that first created these inequalities that 
currently exist between the different regions of the worldand concerned themselves more with questions relating to 
how cultures regard and depict each other, and how they interact. 

Keywords —Postcolonial Travel, East/West, ‘Other’, Colonial Mimicry, Spiritual Confirmation. 

Postcolonial travel writers seek to challenge Western 
assumptions and stereotypes and thereby deconstructing the 
received notions about the colonized nations. While 
studying these travel narratives, one of the first issues that 
comes to mind is that of narrative authority. As 
postcolonial travellers constmct themselves in the text, what 
is it that they are looking for in their travels? Does the 
traveller move beyond the traditional binaries of 
superior/inferior culture so characteristic of colonial travel 
writing? Are they looking for ‘otherness’ or for 
conformation? Do they tend to take a privileged space, or is 
it the ‘observed’ that occupy a desired privileged space? 
And what role does colonial mimicry play in this process? 
This paper intends to probe the ambiguity in presenting 
India as a nation in Sarah Macdonald’s Holy Cow! An 
Indian Adventure, a light hearted memoir wherein she 
describes her life experience which she had gone through by 
spending two years in Delhi. 

While working with ABC, Macdonald made a 
journey to India which she describes as a ‘rollercoaster ride’ 
in search of the meaning of life and death. Travelling 
usually means leaving familiar surroundings and going to 
places and experiencing the difference which may pose a 
threat to one’s identity, ie, to question one’s concept of 
‘Self and ‘Other’. When Macdonald first came to India in 
1988, she was welcomed my beggars and potters with the 
high pitched wheezy whining calls ‘Madam, Pleazzzzzzze’. 
She is sarcastic of the plastic airport chairs and the “violent 

double-ended projectile vomits and diarrhea explosions off 
the bathroom walls” (9). The stink of mothballs, the breath 
reeks of pan, the green, yellow, red stains of teeth of 
beggars are all what she sees first in India and she firmly 
says good bye to India and promises never to come back. 
But destiny makes her come back to India after long eleven 
years and she finds everything unchanged. 

Macdonald finds that the early mornings are not 
attractive to travel in India with bum salute of slum dwellers 
squatting beside the tracks doing their morning ‘ablutions’. 
She s crons the remarkable ability of Indians to look without 

“They do not notice the child grabbing 
their shawl, the beggar pulling at their 
pants, the filth, the misery, the public 
nose picking, pissing orpooing, and they 
seem deaf to the call of the country a 
violent guttural growling retch: 
aaaaaakk, punctuated by a giant spit of 
the phlegm: 

ttttttttttttttttttttaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaab!. It 
is a sound that punctuates morning, noon 
and night. (21) 

Macdonald mocks at the way Indians treat and 
judge people according to their skin colour. She feels that 
in India she is famous for being white. The way men gap 

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International Journal of English, Literature and Social Science (IJELS) 


Vol-4, Issue-4, Jul -Aug 2019 
ISSN: 2456-7620 

and giggle hysterically at her arse when she goes out 
wearing a hideously baggy pants give her a shellshock. Her 
detest and amusement increase on her way to Rishikesh 
where sadhus and beggars worship she and her boyfriend 
Jonathan as walking dollar signs; and are constantly 
surrounded, followed, hassled and ordered to give money or 
to buy something. Macdonald is fed up of the staring looks 
from buses and truck-drivers. She is sick of the cocky 
display of penis. She finds the Indian overload of male 
attention as dehumanizing and debilitating making 
forgiveness, love and understanding of fellow humans 
almost impossible. MacDonald frequently presents Jonathan 
as an action hero, a figure of exemplary courage and 
manliness and for her all other Indian men are considered to 
be persons with the quality of ‘moroseness ’. 

It is often assumed that the motives behind such 
pejorative or patronising portrayals of other cultures will be 
unconscious and over-determined, springing from a 
complex mixture of emotions, such as fear, envy, revulsion, 
incomprehension and sometimes even desire, when another 
culture stirs taboo fantasies that travellers wish to repress 
and disown. Very often, instances of pejorative ‘othering’ 
in travel writing serve an important justificatory function. 
They may legitimate the traveller’s personal conduct 
towards the people he or she met crucially. The traveller’s 
portrayal of another place or people is often in this way 
ideologically motivated, seeking at some level to justify 
and encourage a particular policy or course of action 
towards those others. 

India for her is “Hotel California: you can 
check out anytime you like, but you can never Ieave”(9); 
and the Indians are ‘ugly lepers’ and ‘skinny Adams 
family’.She classifies Indians as anglophiles who are 
obsessed with foreigners and have their fingers in their 
noses or other parts of their anatomy. She doesn’t meet a 
single Indian who could speak English properly. According 
to her everybody’s face resembles as that of some animals. 
In all the ‘meditation camps’ that she frequents, the Indians 
are the only ones who quit before everybody else or they are 
unable to grasp the ‘true meaning’. While highlighting the 
crowd, stink in all the tourist spots, she talks of India as a 
“place unfit for human inhabitation, it’s mad! Why are we 
here? What the hell have I done? I’ve left my job for this 
place! Why can’t we be normal and live where we were 
bom? Sydney is safe” (32). The orient in her generalizes 
everything about India when she says Indians are the only 
ones spreading the garbage whereas all the others are very 
careful about their cleanliness. 

In the Location of Cultures, Ho mi K. 
Bhabhadefines the concept of colonial mimicry associated 
with postcolonial studies. Bhabha’s concept of mimicry is a 
strategy of colonial power/knowledge which has a desired 
goal for the inhabitants of approval and changed outlooks in 
temis of inclusion and exclusion. While inclusion aims the 
acceptance of‘god natives’ as the colonizers programmers 
and exclusion puts the goal of denouncing the majority ‘bad 
natives’. Seeing a bus driver dragging a beggar from the 
road who was lying on the road struck by some vehicle, 
Sarah Macdonald says “India is the worst of humanity” 
(80). And the very next moment when she sees the local 
beggar Pooja, feelings of pity and compassion are aroused: 
“India is the bestofhumanity”(80). 

The notion of sentimentality associated with 
women travel writers is felt when she comments on the 
lives of men and women in India. The oriental male was 
frequently deemed insufficiently ‘manly’ and displayed a 
luxuriousness and foppishness that made him appear as a 
grotesque parody ofthe ‘gentler’ female sex. The exoticised 
oriental female, often depicted nude or partially-clothed in 
hundreds of western works of art during the colonial period, 
is presented as an immodest, active creature of sexual 
pleasure who held the key to a myriad of mysterious erotic 
delights. Sarah is alarmed at the gender discrimination in 
India and comments on the greatestevil in India. 

Most often, women travelers stood in ambiguous 
relation with colonial projects as they are doubly colonized 
by gender and race. The affinity they show generate greater 
openness towards other cultures, and a greater sympathy 
with the plight of indigenous populations. Sarah 
MacDonald becomes a mere Occident with looking glass 
through which she considers Indian women as passive, 
moral and chaste. They are denied of choosing their own 
life partners. It is the family of the girl who decides the 
upcoming son-in-law. Her friend Padma's mother commits 
suicide for Padma brought dishonor to her family by falling 
in love. The author comments that for women with choices, 
death can deliver status and honour. Padma makes her 
realize that India is in love just with the idea of romance. 
People love to watch romance and such songs and scenes on 
the big screen but there is a gulf between real and reel. 
Sarah is alarmed as in India a women is not much without a 
husband. Once, a neighbor told her mother that her dad 
mustn't have cared for her much because he left her. 
Widows are considered as worthless and bad luck. 

It would be also naive to assume that women travel 
writers today face no constraints, and that there are no 

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International Journal of English, Literature and Social Science (IJELS) 


Vol-4, Issue-4, Jul -Aug 2019 
ISSN: 2456-7620 

gender expectations which they have to negotiate, either as 
they travel or as they write. The fear of violence, and 
especially of sexual violence, arguably remains a more 
pressing concern for female than male travel writers. The 
cultures that they visit, will sometime require different 
conduct and costume from women. Sarah Macdonald 
becomes conscious day by day that she makes sure that she 
is wearing a salwar with duppatta across her breasts to 
cover it. 

Prior to her exploration of India’s smorgasbord of 
spirituality, she found the Gods and semi-Gods amusing. 
She gives an entertaining description of the Ambassador car 
she hires: “dashboard has a fluorescent Ganesh (the 
elephant god), an orange toy cow, a snow dome of Satya Sai 
Baba (the Afro-aired living god of Bangalore), and a blue 
plastic Shiva god bouncing on a spring, a brown, four 
armed Barbie in a sari stands on a lotus and she has an aura 
of tiny lights that flash when we brake”(23). 

Macdonald becomes more interesting and 
informative as she moves from being a passively observing 
traveller making wisecracks to an active participant in 
India’s spiritual marketplace. She samples large scale 
events like the MahaKumbhMela in Allahabad, the Our 
Lady of Velangani in Tamil Nadu, the Golden Temple in 
Amritsar, the Sai Baba Ashram near Bangalore, Mata 
Amritanadamayi’s Ashram in Kerala, and the Tibetan 
Buddhist centre in Dharmasala. She also explores smaller, 
more marginal traditions including Vipassana Buddhist 
meditation, the Parsi of Malabar Hill, the now-fading Bene 
Israel Jewish community. Though she doesn’t visit any 
major mosques in India, she shares her experience in 
Muslim-dominated Kashmir. Macdonald considers whether 
the religion she encounters is something she can connect 
with, and whether its something she would want in her life 
in an ongoing way. She dabbles in ten different religious 
traditions in the course of two years. 

At times, during her journey, when she encounters 
different people and confronts different cultures and 
religions, she gets the spark of the flame that is fuming 
inside her. She feels that India is a spiritual homeland but 
that does not cure all spiritual illness. In India she had 
travelled a soul’s journey: from hedonism to sickness, from 
silence to song, from violence to peace, and from learning 
to die to celebrating life. “Yet a small flame within me has 
been lit by what I've shared, a flame that warns me with a 
realization, hidia: a land that shares its sacred space, seems 
a spiritual home worth having” (199). 

Sarah Macdonald’s confirmation with India comes 
through her encounter with the different religions here. She 
attributes everything good happened her to Mata 
AmritanandaMayi (Amma) whom she met in Kerala. 
Macdonald is astonished to find a female human God in a 
man’s world. As a result of female infanticide, girl babies 
are aborted, undernourished and murdered, there are fifty 
two men for every forty-eight women. After meeting 
Amma, she decides not to judge people harshly and to treat 
India better. She realizes love as a compelling tool that has 
the powerto gain respect from fellow Indians. Macdonald’s 
observes that India is particularly suited to take from 
western culture what it wants from it without losing its 
conservative nature because it is already a very pluralistic 
society that allows religious tolerance. After the spiritual 
odyssey, she considers herself as a rejuvenated self 
embracing everything that is ‘other’ but one finds her 
intentionally or unintentionally projecting the 
superior/inferior, East/West dichotomy when she says: “I 
feel guilty for being in a position where I’m privileged 
enough to be a giver than a taker and I feel guilty for 
wanting more than I have and taking what I do have for 
granted. . . But most of all I feel confused ad confronted. 
Why was I bom in my safe, secure, sunny Sydney sanctuary 
and notin Kesroli?”(128). 

Macdonald’s reconciliation with India leaves one 
bewildered. It is the spiritual encounters that she had 
brought in the transformation of her ‘self that was pooling 
between ‘self and ‘other’. She has shed the old mind, body 
and hair. She calls herself a newborn babe budding in 
India’s spiritual supermarket. With the thought of regrowth 
in mind, Sarah hesitates not to re-embrace the life of a 
material girl living in a material world, but Sydney has 
teased her with luxury. While India may well have a soft 
spiritual centre, it’s also got a hard head for cash, and the 
middle class is embracing the products and symbols of 
Western consumer culture. During her visit to the famous 
Velangani Church, Chennai, for the first time she feels that 
Christianity can be dynamic, living faith that can evolve and 
spread without interference from a human hierarchy. 

As a medium that presents information about the 
wider world. Holy Cow has generated considerable 
uncertainty and unease in readers. She makes some horrible 
mistakes in relaying basic acts of modem Indian culture. 
Her interpretation of the giving of the rakhee and speaking a 
Shakespearean style of Hindi within weeks of beginning 
Hindi classes are some imagination at play. The 
ethnographic notes of the book may be a bit superficial but 

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International Journal of English, Literature and Social Science (IJELS) 


Vol-4, Issue-4, Jul -Aug 2019 
ISSN: 2456-7620 

it is much more serious than the quasi-comical title “Holy 
Cow”. Her discussion of the eponymous cow and the traffic 
rules do hurt Indian sentimentality: 

in challenging the stereotyped conventions and assumptions 
about India. India remains a cataclysmic crowded land of 
her rebirth and Sidney, the quiet empty lands of her birth. 
The oriental undercurrent runs even in the closing note 
when she talks about the shadow cast by India in their lives: 
“We now both have a new view of our so lucky lives, yet 
our innocent optimism about humanity has been sucked 
from our hearts” (317). 

I’ve always thought it hilarious that 
Indian people chose the most boring, 
domesticated, compliant and stupid 
animal on earth to adore, but already I’m 
seeing cows in a whole different light. 
These animals clearly know they rule and 
like to mess with our heads. . . . But for 
animals powerful enough to stop traffic 
and holy enough that they will never 
become steak, cows are treated 
dreadfully. Scary and sickly, they survive 
by grazing on garbage that’s dumped in 
plastic notes.( ) 

[3] Hulme, Peter, and Tim Youngs, eds. The Cambridge 
Companion to Travel Literature. United Kingdom: 
Cambridge UP, 2002. 

[1] Bhabha, HomiK.77ie Location of Cultures: London: 
Routledge, 1994. 

[2] Blunt, Alison. Travel, Gender and Imperialism: Mary 
Kingsley and West Africa: New York: Guilford, 1994. 


Macdonald oversimplified it by talking of it in 
terms of shallow terms such as syncretism and plurality in 
India. The title of the book and the first image on the cover 
seems very funny to a non-Hindu but it is certainly hurting 
the sentiments of followers of Hinduism in general and 

[4] Macdonald, Sarah. Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure. 
London: Banton Books, 2002. 

[5] Thompson, Carl. Travel Writing. London: Routledge, 

2011 . 

Lord Shiva in particular. The occasional smugness and 
certain off notes leave one with the question how is India 
projected through her work. And what a person in India 
feels about the religious and spiritual practices is as 
important as that of the West. In fact there are some 
common approaches to the divine in India that cuts creeds 
and confessions. The book doesn’t shed much new 
information about India but it captures the Indian diversity, 
the attitude of the people, and a person’s spiritual quest, but 
one feels too much of generalisation for a country as vivid 
and diverse as India. 

Macdonlad sets up a very simple East/West binary 
that ignores India’ history and cultural heritage. Holy Cow 
has instilled interest in many to have a scholarly study of 
the religious and cultural traditions of India but one with 
critical thinking skill can easily understand the ubiquitous 
orientalism in the book. The book should not be taken as a 
source of authentic description about any religion, faith or 
culture for it is just a personal account of the impression 
India gave Sarah. At times, Sarah feels her histrionics as 
part of Indian faith but unlike other Westerners, Sarah 
Macdonald is not carried away by it. Sarah says she is 
reborn as a better person in India, “the land of the profound 
and the profane; a place where spirituality and 
sanctimoniousness sit miles apart” (318). The hilarious 
graphic descriptions about India and Indians, and the 
comparisons make one baffled as how far is she successful Page | 1026