As I began reading Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower®, I felt an odd sensation in my fingertips. A slight itch, so faint it could only be the ghost of a memory. Fifteen pages in, it became a gentle nervousness that shot up and down my fingers, and there was something about it that well might be persuaded to build up into a manic spell of typing.
It was only 40 pages in that I recognised it. Once upon a time, when I was 21 or 22, and a graduate student, it was a routine affair. We were required to read a great many novels (in ugly photocopies) every week, and produce an insane number of papers/presentations on them. It was better, our professors had us know, if said papers were both meticulously researched and experimental in form. (Do note, as a 21- or 22-year-old you have a great many matters of consequence in your life that term-paper writing gets in the way of. So, quickly, as we balanced our real lives, we developed an instinct that told us quickly which book could yield a rich paper, cross-referencing our professors’ pet peeves, preferably that very night.) The next port of call was to come up with a full-mouthed title.
Before we proceed any further with this non-review (and while our principal characters – Ramakrishna, Rani Rashmoni, Mathur Babu and Hridayram – catch their breath on a muggy nineteenth-century pre-monsoonal Dakshineshwar afternoon) consider a few titles of term papers my peers and I might have come up with had we encountered, in circa 2005, The Cauliflower®.
· Kali, Black Mary and Coloured Feminisms: Rani Rashmoni and the Ramakrishna Order at the Intersectionality of Theory
· “Like Mudfish in Mud”: Deconstructing Caste, Class and Gender in the Aphorisms of Sri Ramakrishna
- A (Mis)Reading of Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower®
· The Superscript and the Superhuman: Signification, Slippage and the E®otics in the title of Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower®
· The End of the “Historical Novel”? Postmodernism and Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower®
· Ramakrishna between the Daakini and Totapuri: the Multiglossia of Tantra and Vedanta, and its Resistances to the Rationality of Imperium
· A Critique of the Critique of Heteronormativity in Nicola Barker and Christopher Isherwood
· Imagining the Indian Swift as a Drone: Re-reading The Cauliflower® as Commentary on the Intelligence Games during the Bengal Renaissance
· Haiku and/ as Mantra: The Politics of Utterance, the Poetics of Faith in Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower®
According to scholars, Nicola Barker’s prodigious talent ensures that no two novels written by her are alike in any sense (she has published ten novels and two collections of short stories, including the Man Booker-nominated tome, Darkmans).
Consider The Yips, her second last, which I read recently. It is set in Luton in England and boasts of a cast of eccentric and freshly-minted-in-fiction characters as they go about their deliciously mundane lives (whether a down-on-his-luck golfer who simply cannot get rid of his expensive habits, an agoraphobic tattoo artist who worships Kali, a grand-nephew of Cheiro who has beaten cancer seven times or a Muslim sex therapist with a bossy wife – everyone’s lives are mundane, right?). It is a contemporary comedy of manners set in the Austenesque “two inches of ivory” that an English village represents.
Compare that with The Cauliflower® a curious novel about the life and times of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. It is a polyphonic text, with haikus and pauses, missing diary entries of an amateur British anthropologist who observes two “Hindoo” saints, Ramakrishna and Jatadhari, leaves of a lost letter, and includes guest appearances from people who came to Calcutta a century before or after the Master – Job Charnock, Mother Teresa, to name two – as well as guest appearances from people un-related to Calcutta – Brahms and Black Sara, the Romany polytheist from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in France – and punctured by an ironic authorial voice that laughs in a whisper throughout the narrative at its own sheer audacity to tell this tale.
“I have not lived in the nineteenth century. I have never met Sri Ramakrishna. I am not a practising Hindu. I have never visited Calcutta. If I had, I probably could not have written this book. I wouldn’t have been stupid, arrogant, brave, naughty – and possibly even dispassionate – enough,” the author confesses in the epilogue.
As you can imagine, there are shifts in time and space throughout the book, helpfully prefixed by a date. The first time you read, if you make a little list of your own to track the events in Dakshineshwar over the entire era of Sri Ramakrishna, then you can enjoy the delicious back-and-forth without getting dizzy. Of course, you could choose to get dizzy – and feel the swirling in the stomach. As in the world of Ramakrishna, there is no shying away from the physicality of life in this book.
There is, unfortunately though, an obsessive Freudian tendency towards free association, especially in the beginning. This last I do not like so much, though I can acknowledge (with bad grace) the theory of play that underpins it.
The story of Sri Ramakrishna started with salt. Salt. Although it is probably equally conceivable that it may have started with sugar, a granule to which Sri Ramakrishna was passionately attached (although he passionately eschewed all earthly attachments)…
Or – if you feel the urge to rotate it on your tongue in the form Ramakrishna himself would have used – “lobon”.
Just over the border in Bangladesh (which wouldn’t exist till 1971) this same word “lobon” means “nun”. And if we think of Calcutta (364 miles from the border) we often think of the free flow of people, of poverty, of refugees, and then our minds sometimes turn (a sharp incline, a small bounce, a quick jink) to Mother Teresa.
Self-respecting Bengali that I am, I am exquisitely irritated. Remember, this is still early enough in the book. My fingers, as you know, are itching to declaim and denounce. The association of Calcutta with poverty and refugees is so perfectly stereotypical the post-colonial red flag raises itself.
I mutter under my breath: yes, and the British, the we I presume, had nothing to do with the poverty of the Bengal countryside that engulfed every part of “pestilential” Calcutta but the “white town”.
I continue to mutter, eyebrows beetled, mid eye-roll: oh yes, in its time, Calcutta has taken in its belly millions of refugees, at the cost of its infrastructure, its economics, in fact, its image. And it’s something to be proud of. (Insert cross reference to British visa regime and the Syrian Refugee Crisis.) Too clever by half, I pronounce irritatedly and keep the book aside.
And immediately pick it up again, to continue my argument. Salt is pronounced “noon”, not “nun”. You cannot get to Nun from Salt – at least not so obviously.
Of course, I return to The Cauliflower®, if only to nitpick like the Bengali priests of Dakshineshwar or like the academic I always ran the risk of turning into. But after page hundred or so, something happens. The narrative leaps off the page with a life of its own that is as startling as energetic, yet, oddly, it is also as calming as poetic.
I feel my irritations – with the devices employed to tell a tale that cannot, really, be told straight anymore, not in this day and age of excessive rationality, of a secular vocabulary that is best suited for other stories – begin to fade. I feel like submitting to this strange man-child, god-realised or god-himself, this extraordinary soul, this rishi who was bossed over by his beloved nephew and cradled by Kali herself – how can his story be framed into a bound volume?
So, Barker does the best she can, and with the shards and fragments of the story as told to M by Hriday (long after Hriday’s downfall), the edge of Rashmoni’s banarasi, the melody of the first song that Naren sang to his guru and the taste of the full plate of mishtis that Ramakrishna forced the teenage Naren to eat, and the image of Mathur Babu’s moustache and the sorrow in Akshay Sen’s dark face – she creates a college that captures, as it were, the tiger, not by its tail, but the memory of its stripes.
The bibliography at the end provides Barker’s sources. In any case, there is no doubt that the research is the best kind – a thorough examination of sources illumined by a deeply intuitive reading. Many of the anecdotes are almost a part of the collective oral culture of Bengal, and yet, there is a certain novelty about encountering it in Barker’s version:
Narendra watches the Master with a combination of social unease, teenage hauteur and exhaustion.
The Master – after a little more muttering – turns, looks hard at the boy, then suddenly stands up and moves towards him. Narendra panics. Oh no! Is there about to be another of those exquisitely embarrassing scenes? Like the last time he visited?
He has barely begun to process this thought (and its concomitant dread) when the guru lifts his leg and places his bare foot firmly upon the teenager’s body (where we do not know – the lower thigh? The hip? The chest?) and then everything goes completely haywire. The walls of the guru’s room collapse backwards, everything starts to spin at an extraordinary speed and the teenager has the powerful inkling that his consciousness – his essence – is about to be swallowed up into a massive, ravenous, rotating vortex; an all-engulfing void.
In terror he hears his own voice scream out (all signs of teenage hubris instantly evaporating), “What’s happening to me? Help! What would my parents think?”
The laughing guru lifts his foot and gently touches his hand to the terrified teenager’s chest. “All right,” he murmurs, half to himself, “let it stop. This needn’t happen all at once.” And, just as suddenly as it emerged, the giant void disappears. The walls reform. Only a couple of seconds have passed, in real time, but entire continents have shifted within Narendra’s consciousness.
While there are many voices that come and go, including the author’s, the most powerful is the voice of Hridayram, Sri Ramakrishna’s nephew – and his assistant, bodyguard, caregiver and bouncer all rolled into one. Four years younger, it was Hriday who knew the past and the old associations of the family, and it was Hriday who managed the trances and lit the lamps and comforted him when the Divine Mother appeared difficult:
Uncle had been blessed by many extraordinary spiritual visions, but still he was not satisfied. On some days his confidence would falter and he would turn to me for comfort. “I am afraid, Hriday,” he would say. “Of course I long to feel the presence of the goddess at all times, but often when I meditate I hear locks turning and feel manacles fastening, one by one, first around my feet, and then around my legs, then my hips…Eventually I am completely imprisoned inside my own body and the goddess alone has the key. But she will not release me until she is ready. She makes me stay there for many hours, Hriday, in terrible bondage. Until my bones feel like they must surely snap! She frightens me, Hriday. But this is just her divine play and I must submit to it, Hriday, like an obliging child submits to its parent. I must submit to it because I love her more than life itself.”
The dark side of this story – Hriday’s banishment from Panchavati over his practice of vaamacharya, and his estrangement from his beloved Uncle – has also been rendered movingly (“I am a rent cloth. I am a spoiled meal. I am a shallow breath. I am a broken drum that cannot be beaten. Because there is no Uncle.”) It is based closely on the account of Swami Chetananda’s They Lived With God.
Every age requires a new biography of its great men, one which can speak to the readers in their own tongue, internalising the contradictions and peculiar fetishes of the age.
In 1929, a life of Ramakrishna was authored by the great French writer and thinker, Romain Rolland. It was published in India by Advaita Ashram and the Preface was written by Swami Mumukshananda:
In bringing out the present volume, we must at the outset tender our grateful thanks to the great author for affording us an opportunity to know what one of the greatest and most representative minds of modern Europe thinks of the Great Masters Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Such knowledge, in these days of rapidly increasing international cooperation, is, we believe, indispensable for all Indians. We should like to mention that the work was prepared primarily for Western readers, and the subject was conceived and interpreted from a Western point of view. The author’s views and interpretations, therefore, have not agreed in toto with those of the Ramakrishna Order. This is only natural; for through a true and complete understanding of the Master and his message requires neither a Western nor an Eastern standpoint, but simply a complete identification of life and mind with his own, every man of every race and nation can accept and benefit by whatever in his life and teaching appeals to his own genius. A many-sided life such as that of Sri Ramakrishna makes different appeals to different persons; but all are worthy of respect for all are true as far as they go.
Romain Rolland’s The Life of Ramakrishna was translated by the renowned scholar, Miss E.F. Malcolm-Smith, who, to reference the sort of serendipity Barker has celebrated throughout The Cauliflower®, belonged also to Cambridge (University), Barker’s alma mater as well as hometown.
The Cauliflower®, Nicola Barker, William Heinemann.