In Other Words The Cau­li­flower by Ni­cola Barker

292 pages

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

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

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