In Other Words The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker
The mystic Sri Ramakrishna is admired in India the way St. Francis of Assisi is in the West. Both figures are known for their rigorous devotion, rendered with touching simplicity. Those who have visited Assisi in Italy will have experienced the reverence seemingly spilling out of the cathedral onto the cobblestone paths and into the town’s peaceful atmosphere. The spiritual home of St. Francis, though, lies not in Assisi, but in the world at large.
So it is with Sri Ramakrishna. He was born in Bengal in 1836, and as a practitioner of bhakti yoga (the path of devotion), he aimed to dissolve his ego and experience the Divine through the practices of meditation and love. He acquired numerous disciples in his lifetime, after which his chief disciple, Swami Vivekananda, spread his gospel throughout India and in the West. It is useful to have this basic context before approaching
The Caulif lower by British author Nicola Barker, which is a novelization of the life of Sri Ramakrishna, told from the point of view of his nephew. This unusual work is set primarily in the Dakshineswar Kali temple, near Kolkata, where Sri Ramakrishna lived for much of his adult life.
Barker jumps around the episodes in Ramakrishna’s life as gleefully as a girl skipping rope. We are bounced between Ramakrishna on his deathbed and his time as a young, spiritually frustrated priest at the Dakshineswar Kali temple. We are introduced to Rani Rashmoni, who, inspired by a dream, founded the Kali temple, which was built on a Muslim burial site. At first, Ramakrishna’s older brother is appointed priest, but after his unexpected death, a reluctant Ramakrishna is persuaded to replace him. He becomes such an ardent devotee of the goddess Kali that he yearns for her the way an infant does for his mother, and he throws tantrums worthy of a toddler when Mother Kali does not materialize before him. After an intense period of meditation and self-abnegation, he has a vision of Kali, after which time he goes into spiritual trances in the most inconvenient moments. He has several petty enemies, but his loyal nephew keeps him safe until he succumbs to throat cancer in 1886 at the age of fifty.
This novel will amuse, and confound, readers who have no prior knowledge of Sri Ramakrishna. But it will cause those who have a rudimentary understanding of the mystic’s philosophy to gulp hard, many times. The problem here is that Barker, for all her inventive humor, presents Sri Ramakrishna alternately as a distracted child and a miserably frustrated devotee, while giving the reader little inkling of the philosophical growth that transformed him from a Bengali village boy to a widely acknowledged spiritual giant.
All this is not to say that an author cannot write an irreverent novel about a sacred figure. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922) is an example of a spiritual subject transformed into a character in a lasting work of literature. And Barker’s book does have more to offer than its comic scenes, which she seems to present, bewilderingly, as a blueprint for a film. Her vaudeville sketch of Sri Ramakrishna’s life may send some readers scurrying for a good biography. A book that provides a smooth entryway into this mystic’s life is Ramakrishna as We Saw Him, edited and translated by Swami Chetanananda (Vedanta Society of St. Louis), an intimate collection of reminiscences from disciples and family members who describe how Sri Ramakrishna embodied his philosophy in his everyday life.
Barker has clearly studied books about Sri Ramakrishna’s life, but she acknowledges that she has never as much as visited Kolkata. This means she has had little in the way of experiencing what Sri Ramakrishna means in his native land. There is a risk in writing too much from the outside and from bookish knowledge; Barker’s version turns Sri Ramakrishna into something of a curio. She writes that he used his long matted hair to scour toilets at night, but this is the kind of eccentric detail that she either needs to back up or contextualize; otherwise, it detracts rather than adds to our understanding of him.
Here is a characteristic question Barker sets up: “If you were a little Indian swift (Cypselus affinis) dashing around catching insects in the newly opened Dakshineswar Kali Temple grounds circa 1855, what great delights might you espy with your tiny, beady, and perpetually darting swifty eye?” Several dizzying pages follow during which the swift flies over the Kali temple, and with the aid of a camera the author has tied to its neck, the swift gives us, yes, a bird’s-eye view of the temple grounds. Barker writes, “The swift had suddenly doubled back and is rapidly returning to the
panchavati. If you glance to the left you’ll be able to feast your senses upon the farthest reaches of the extensive and perfectly heavenly flower gardens which the Rani has planted . ... Just close your eyes for a second and imagine inhaling the intoxicating perfume of ...
Ouch! Thwack! Crunch! Eh?! What the—?!”
Exactly. In overdone moments such as these, the book swoops as far away from the mystic as the aforementioned swift. But there are also times when Barker gets tantalizingly close to Sri Ramakrishna, as when she quotes him as saying:
“Always speak the truth — The tusks of an elephant Can’t be retracted.”
Sri Ramakrishna believed that “when egotism drops away, Divinity manifests itself.” As Barker writes here, the mystic felt that an onion can be useful in understanding the ego. Even after you have carefully washed out a bowl that previously contained an onion, the bowl still smells. We can extrapolate some literary insight from Sri Ramakrishna’s observation. This novelization of his life has undoubtedly been written with care, but it smells too much of its author and not enough of its intriguing subject. — Priyanka Kumar