In her twenties, journalist Sarah Macdonald backpacked around India and came away with a lasting impression of heat, pollution and poverty. So when an airport beggar read her palm and told her she would return to India-and for love-she screamed, "Never!" and gave the country, and him, the finger.
Australian radio correspondent Macdonald's rollicking memoir recounts the two years she spent in India when her boyfriend, Jonathan, a TV news correspondent, was assigned to New Delhi. Leaving behind her own budding career, she spends her sabbatical traveling around the country, sampling India's "spiritual smorgasbord": attending a silent retreat for Vipassana meditation, seeking out a Sikh Ayurvedic "miracle healer," bathing in the Ganges with Hindus, studying Buddhism in Dharamsala, dabbling in Judaism with Israeli tourists, dipping into Parsi practices in Mumbai, visiting an ashram in Kerala, attending a Christian festival in Velangani and singing with Sufis. Paralleling Macdonald's spiritual journey is her evolution as a writer; she trades her sometimes glib remarks ("I've always thought it hilarious that Indian people chose the most boring, domesticated, compliant and stupidest animal on earth to adore") and 1980s song title references (e.g., "Karma Chameleon") for a more sensitive tone and a sober understanding that neither mocks nor romanticizes Indian culture and the Western visitors who embrace it. The book ends on a serious note, when September 11 shakes Macdonald's faith and Jonathan, now her husband, is sent to cover the war in Afghanistan. Macdonald is less compelling when writing about herself, her career and her relationship than when she is describing spiritual centers, New Delhi nightclubs and Bollywood cinema. Still, she brings a reporter's curiosity, interviewing skills and eye for detail to everything she encounters, and winningly captures "[t]he drama, the dharma, the innocent exuberance of the festivals, the intensity of the living, the piety in playfulness and the embrace of living day by day." Agent, Fiona Henderson. (On sale Apr. 13) Forecast: A print ad campaign and media attention could draw in armchair travelers and spiritual seekers, and the book's quirky, hot pink jacket will definitely catch browsers' eyes. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 2001
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Excerpt from Holy Cow by Nick Reding
Through the Looking Glass
I have a dreadful long-term memory. I only remember two traumatic events of my childhood -- my brother's near-death by drowning and my own near-death by humiliation when I was rescued by a lifeguard while attempting my first lap of the butterfly stroke in the local pool. I vaguely remember truth or dare kisses in the back of a bus, aged about twelve, dancing to "My Sharona" at thirteen, behaving like an absolute arsehole in my adolescence and having a hideous hippie phase involving dreadlocks and tie-dye when I was at college.
For my twenty-first birthday my parents gave me a plane ticket and a blessing to leave home and Australia for a year. This middle-class rite of passage had become a family tradition -- my mother had hitchhiked around Europe in the fifties and wanted us all to experience the joy of travel before we settled into careers. My trip through Europe, Egypt and Turkey is a bit of a blur and recollections of the two-month tour of India on the way home are vague. I can see myself roadside squatting and peeing with women in wonderful saris, sunset games of beach cricket with a trinity of fat Goan men named Jesus, Joseph and Jude, and the white bright teeth of a child rickshaw driver wearing a T-shirt printed with COME ON AUSSIE COME ON. I recall angst, incredible anger, deep depression and a love-hate relationship with the country, but I can't remember why. I'd filed the soothsayer, his prophecies and my vow never to return under "young stupid rubbish" and let it fall deep into the black hole of my brain.
Until now -- a month short of eleven years later.
As I walk into the plane in Singapore, a seed starts to sprout in the blocked sewer of my memory; a seed watered by the essence of stale urine and the whiff of vomit coming from my window seat (where the pink and orange paisley wallpaper artfully camouflages the spew). The high-pitched, highly excited jumble of Indian voices almost germinates a recollection. But after too many going-away parties, involving too much indulgence, I'm too wasted to let the bud bloom. I fall asleep.
Somewhere over Chennai I become aware of an increasingly rhythmic prodding of my inner thigh by something long, thin and hard. I open my eyes to see a brown finger with a long curved nail closing in on my crotch. The digit is attached to a scrawny old Sikh in a turban sitting beside me. He is slobbering and shaking with excitement. I'm too sleepy, shocked and, for some reason, too embarrassed to scream, so I buzz for sisterly assistance.
An air hostess with big hair, long nails and drag-queen makeup slowly strolls over. She looks cranky.
"This man is touching me when I sleep," I bleat indignantly.
The hostess rolls her eyes and waggles her finger.
"Well, stay awake and don't let it happen again, madam."
She wheels on the spot and strides off, swishing her nylon sari.
Months later a friend will tell me that many Indian flight attendants are rich girls whose parents pay a massive bribe to get them a job involving travel and five-star hotels. These brats view passengers as pesky intrusions way beneath their status, and detest doing the job of a high-flying servant. But right now, I'm floored, abandoned and angry.