Relating to two cultures but belonging to neither.
We used to live on 66th Street and Central Park West, in the shadow of Lincoln Center. In many ways, it was an idyllic life. We walked across Sheep Meadow—had sheep ever grazed on that particular meadow?—to pet the animals in the Central Park Zoo. We woke up before dawn to move our car across the street depending on the day’s alternate-side parking rules. We bought Priscilla’s Pretzels from a cart down the street before ducking into the Museum of Natural History to see dinosaurs on winter afternoons.
I knew exactly which subway car to get into so that I could escape through the turnstile at the 116th Street station before anyone else in order to sprint up the steps to Columbia University’s Journalism School when I was late for class. I knew the cashiers at Fairway, and could catch the eye of the baker behind the counter at Zabar’s—a decided privilege, particularly on weekends when the suburban hordes descended. He would nod slightly and throw me a box of chocolate rugelach.
We used nebulous words—culture, identity, and homeland—to explain the impending move to our friends, our two young daughters, and mostly to ourselves. Both Ram and I grew up in India. Though we became naturalized American citizens, we ate vegetarian Indian food at home and went to the Hindu temple in Queens. We spoke to our daughters in English and to our parents in Tamil. We have American passports but listen to Carnatic and Hindustani music. I watch House of Cards, Homeland, and The Good Wife rather than Indian soap operas; indeed I cannot relate to their high-octane histrionics, which make Jane the Virgin seem tame in comparison.
Exile, wrote Palestinian-born cultural critic and scholar Edward Said, is the “unhealable rift forced between a human being and his native place; between the self and its true home. It’s an essential sadness that can never be surmounted.” For immigrants like Ram and me, this is a double whammy. Born in India, we came of age in America. We could relate to both cultures, yet belonged to neither. We were like the primordial Trishanku of Indian mythology, who hung between heaven and earth, unable to choose his home. We straddled India and America, sandwiched between our Indian parents and American-born daughters.
Heritage is a hazy concept but that’s what we used to explain our move to the children. We wanted them to know their heritage, we said, while hoping that they wouldn’t ask if we knew it. The more tangible reason was our parents both sets were still in India. They were getting old. Their annual trips to the States to spend time with us wore them out. We wanted our kids to know their grandparents, their cousins and relatives. After much heartache and discussion, we pulled the plug on our life in New York and moved to Bangalore.
Having my brother and sister-in-law in the same city makes the transition easy. Their son and daughter get along famously with our girls. My sister-in-law, Priya, helps me figure out which schools to put my girls in. When they buy an apartment on St. John’s Road, we decide to follow suit and buy a place in the same building. My parents live around the corner and so we recreate a new avatar of the old Indian joint family: both endearing and aggravating.
Across the street from our new building is a large army settlement, reflecting Bangalore’s colonial roots. The British army was stationed in Bangalore, thanks to its temperate climate. We live in what’s called the cantonment neighborhood, with the barracks now used by the Indian military and their families. Winston Churchill served here in his youth and still owes thirteen rupees to the Bangalore Club—a private club with a waiting list of 32 years for membership. Prince Charles offered to settle the account when he visited Bangalore in the late ’80s, but the club, which proudly displays young Churchill’s outstanding dues in a glass-enclosed ledger, refused.
The self-sufficient army enclave has schools, churches, clinics, homes, training grounds for its staff, and, as I come to find out, a milk woman to service their dairy needs. From our terrace, we look out at meticulously maintained roads bordered by flowering trees, clean sidewalks, and no garbage, all unusual for a large Indian city.
It is from this vantage point that I first see Sarala the milk lady. As I drink coffee at around 6:30 in the morning, I watch army families enter and exit the campus. Cadets in khaki uniforms march out for training exercises nearby. Security guards are stationed at the entrance to ask if you are “phriend or phoe” (friend or foe) parroting a wartime instruction in a language that means little to them. Army wives clutch the hands of their children and walk them out to school buses. Civilians need to show a special permit, or answer questions before they are allowed inside. They can enter the army quarters to pray at the temple, church, or mosque inside, but that is about it. Cows and their caretakers, however, are granted a visa-free, no-questions-asked entry. The cows are led in to graze on the pastures that surround the barracks.
At the entrance is a cement culvert, about the length of a park bench. Here the milk woman sells her wares from a large, stainless-steel drum. Her cows are milked right there on the sidewalk so that her customers buy fresh milk straight from the source.
Three days later, I see her again. She is walking into my building as I am walking out.
“Got milk?” she asks. She is carrying a stainless-steel container filled ostensibly with milk. “Have you finished your paal-kaachal [milk-boiling] ceremony?”
Milk is the first thing that Hindus boil after moving into a new home. They allow it to froth, rise, and run over. The Hindu equivalent of “my cup runneth over.”
“Yes, I have,” I reply. “I used packet milk.”
“Packet milk is inferior to fresh cow’s milk,” she says. “Just ask those army folks across your street.”
“Do you sell your milk in my building also?” I ask.
“I’m carrying this milk for the new family that has moved in on the eighth floor. Do you want some?” she asks.
“It is very nice of you to ask, but no thank you,” I hear myself reply with the exaggerated politeness people use when they want to shake someone off. With years of practice, Indians have a highly honed instinct for spotting artifice, power hierarchies, and the limits of negotiation. From across the room, in a crowded wedding hall, for example, people can zero in on another guest as a useful ally or useless loser. They might accost perfect strangers at the reception to ask if they know of any “good boy or girl” with whom they can forge “an alliance” for their daughter or son. There are subtle undercurrents that hinge on several questions that are occasionally at odds with each other: Will she take advantage of me, or can I take advantage of her? Even if I take advantage of her, how can I preserve the relationship? How can I win this particular negotiation without pissing her off?
And on a daily basis: How far can I push the vegetable vendor/milk woman/insert choice of profession into reducing the price of his goods so that I don’t get scammed?
Raised in India and trained on the streets of New York, I am already a master of this. I know that the milk woman views me as not just a potential customer but also a potential marketer who will find her new clients in this brand-new apartment building of seventy families.
“My name is Sarala,” she says.
I nod. I remember her name.
“You can find me every morning and evening across the street with my cows. We have been supplying milk for the last ten years. Ask anyone in the neighborhood. It is the best milk you can find. Here, have a taste.”
She opens the container and waves it under my nose. Inside is frothy, white milk. Having drunk only pasteurized milk from plastic containers for twenty years, I am nonplussed by the earthy, grassy smell of fresh milk.
I shake my head. “No, thanks,” I say. “But if I ever need it, I will come to you.”
Sarala tells me that the army wives are tough, discerning customers who keep her on her toes. They demand the best milk, she says. You will get the same high-quality milk. You ought to try it, she says.
I nod distractedly. I have bigger problems to deal with—an elephant of a problem, to be precise.
RAM AND I HAVE joined the building’s volunteer maintenance committee, taking turns attending meetings.
“We have a situation,” Ram announces one day as walks in after a meeting.
Apparently the German tenants wants to hire an elephant to give rides at their daughter’s birthday party. When our building committee refuses, they produce photographic evidence of a cow in the elevator. Since we have allowed cows into the building, why not an elephant? they ask.
Unlike our co-op in New York, our home here is part of a complex. There are three high-rise buildings arranged in a triangle. In the middle are a swimming pool, party hall, gym, and pool room. The entire complex is enclosed by a boundary wall. Around the towers is a driveway built to accommodate fire trucks but used mostly for walking or jogging. It is here that the German family wants to parade the elephant. There is only one problem: our parking garage is underneath the driveway.
No one on the committee is against elephants. In fact, it would be nice to get a ride on a elephant. The problem is whether our driveway can withstand the weight.
“The parking garage is a hollow space, which could collapse under the weight of an elephant,” says Ram. “Heck, the whole building could collapse if the elephant walks on our driveway.”
There is no way an elephant can be accommodated. What next, we think with outrage, but can’t even come up with a bigger animal. We need a compromise. So we negotiate with the Germans. A horse is out of the question, they say. They have ridden horses in Germany. They need an exotic animal. What about a cow? we ask. There are plenty of cows around. The Germans look interested.
The committee deputizes me to approach the milk woman when they hear that I have interacted with her. My assignment is to make nice and secure one of her cows to give children rides around the building.
Now it is my turn to ask Sarala for something, and her turn to view me with suspicion.
“Cows don’t carry people, Madam. They give milk.”
What about bulls? She must have bulls in her stable of animals. After all, a cow needs a bull to fornicate and reproduce, yes?
She looks at me with pity. “Urban dairy farmers don’t keep bulls,” she says. “They rent bulls on demand. Most of the impregnation of cows is done through injection [artificial insemination] anyway,” she says.
Can she find us a bull? I ask. The Germans will pay good money for the animal. There is a bull parked outside the post office down the road. I have seen it every day “with my own eyes,” I tell her. A beautiful sleek animal with curved horns and a shiny white coat, loosely tied to the metal fence.
“Oh that,” says the milk woman. “That’s a Kangeyam bull. It belongs to the brick mason who lives behind the temple. It pulls his bullock cart filled with bricks. Would the children like to sit in a bullock cart? That we can arrange. Instead of the bricks, we pile on kids.”
I am not sure. I have a feeling the German kids would prefer riding a bull in the buff, as it were, sans bullock cart. They want it raw and real.
“What about a buffalo?” I ask.
Sarala shakes her head.
“Buffaloes are the vehicle of Yama [the Hindu god of death],” she says. “Why would you want children to ride death? Plus buffaloes are lazy. They won’t carry children. Even if a cow sits on top of it, the buffalo lumbers.”
“Can you find any animal that can carry children on its back?” I ask, desperate at this point. “It can be a cow, buffalo, or bull …”
The milk woman shakes her head. She knows people with bulls, but they won’t carry 20 giddy 7-year-olds on a sugar high around the building. It isn’t safe for the bull or the children. Bulls hate red. If a child wearing a red dress approaches, it will throw off the offending child and run away. Worse, it might bend down and ram its horns into the child.
“What about a tractor?” she asks. She can find a tractor with a trailer. All 20 kids can be given a single ride around the building. That is possible.
But that isn’t acceptable to the German family. They want to send home photos of their daughter astride an animal, not merely sitting on a giant red tractor, the likes of which they can find back in Düsseldorf. They want an experience on the wild side, of true India. Finally, the maintenance committee agrees to let them use a camel for the birthday rides. How they find the camel is up to them.
A few days later, I encounter a camel when stepping out on an errand. It is a testament to German—and Indian—enterprise. A joint venture like none other. An Indian camel carrying German schoolchildren. I am not even fazed. I am getting used to India.
Shoba Narayan writes about food, travel, and culture for Condé Nast Traveler, Financial Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Saveur. Her commentaries have aired on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Narayan is also the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes, which was a finalist for a James Beard Award, and her essay "The God of Small Feasts" won the James Beard Foundation’s MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. Visit shobanarayan.com. Excerpted from her new book The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure © 2018 by Shoba Narayan. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.