Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Cauliflower® by Nicola Barker

Sri Ramakrishna was a 19th century mystic who spent most of his life in the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, near Calcutta, where he was devoted to the Goddess Kali. There is quite an extensive wikipedia page devoted to him and his teachings. There is also this book: Nicola Barker was given a pamphlet about him when she was 10 and says in an afterword that she has been obsessed with him  since reading a biography of him 30 years ago. The Temple was started by Rani - she catches the eye of a rich landowner (she was aged 9 at the time), inherits everything when he dies and escapes the clutches of all those who would advise her. Barker devotes a few passages to her: she was a devotee of Kali and stood up for the less powerful members of society. There's a story about an unfair tax imposed on fishermen, which caused her to take up a lease of the river: this somehow gave her the right to block shipping, which gave her the power to have the tax reversed. When a neighbour complained about the noise made by musicians she'd employed for a religious celebration, she doubled the musicians. Again, she could use property rights to get her own way: she owned a segment of an important road that she denied access to until the fines were reversed.
But the book (even Barker hesitates to call it a novel) is about Sri Ramakrishna. There are very few references to cauliflowers - I don't think he liked them (they make him fart too much!), but there is one very strange episode in which a tiny camera, brand-name Cauliflower®, is hung round the neck of a small bird as it flits around the temple in order to give the reader some sense of the physical environment. The bird comes to a sticky end: it is attacked by a larger bird and is ultimately engulfed by a fish ("Seventy-six per cent of the budget up in smoke. The Cauliflower® is now officially inruins. Seventy six per cent! And that's from a total budget of ... uh ... um ... nothing"). So - it isn't clear why the book has the title it does: maybe because it is told in the style of a cauliflower - little florets in no coherent order but always connected to the stem, the life of Sri Ramakrishna. One reviewer has suggested that a cauliflower is a bit like a brain, so the title is a sort of insistence on the intellect despite Sri Ramakrishna's blind focus on enlightenment. The author herself has said that it reflects Ramakrishna's own way of looking at the world - childlike in his playfulness, ecstatic, crazy, serious.

He was different from the very beginning - at his own birth, he essayed a disappearing act and was found under some sort of machine and then every story of his boyhood is "very curious" such as the day he became mysteriously and immensely heavy or the other day when his form was replaced by that of an older man. Those who knew regarded these as signs of his being "oddly blessed". At school he refused to learn to read (education is for "wage monkeys and "worldly fools") and (much later) says he erased an inclination to reason (although he cannot explain to the truth-seeker how this was done). Instead, he gave Kali his all - leaping around the temple a if he was an ape, believing (not pretending) he was one; dressing and acting as a woman as a form of devotional love. He is sometimes rewarded - has spiritual visions and long periods of bliss (he cannot perform even the most basic of tasks at times because of being "drunk on spiritual bliss") but is almost constantly concerned he is not doing enough, because Kali is elusive, does not reveal herself to him - he even attempts to take his own life to please her with the gift.  

While the narrative generally starts at the beginning and ends just after his death, it certainly does not follow any sort of linear progression or have a single narrator. A fairly consistent voice is that of Sri Ramakrishna's nephew and helpmeet (although he married (a five year old) the marriage was never consummated - his mind was always on higher things), Hriday.Hriday is very human - he generally gets Sri Ramakrishna's devotion and selflessness, but sometimes gets annoyed because he misses out on the sort of attention he might expect from his uncle. He is especially pissed off when his uncle is towards the end of his life and after, and he is pushed aside by other family members. When Ramakrishna takes to wandering off alone at night, generally after not eating anything or sleeping and not wearing everything, Hriday's devotion to his uncle is sorely tested - concerned for his own reputation as the servant of a madman, concerned that he's not doing a good job, but sick with worry and anxiety and "tied to Uncle by the clinging vines of love".

There are many other sources - the occasional emergence of a clear narratorial voice, haikus, extracts from other texts such as the Bible and Bleak House, diary entries from an amateur anthropologist who visits in 1864, pages from a letter, references to a movie made about Ramakrishna in 1955 and so on. The narrator is present from the beginning: the first paragraph introduces Rani as the star of her own movie; the second starts off
How will it all end? we wonder. Temporarily disable that impatient index finger. We must strenuously resist the urge to fast-forward...
I used the word passages deliberately: there aren't really chapters. Instead, there are passages, running from a few lines through several pages, each headed with a temporal reference - sometimes a very precise date, others are more vague - just a year - and others simply say 40 years earlier (than what?) or 20 years later.


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