Why does Nicola Barker’s book The Cauliflower ® have a registered trademark symbol after it? I’m afraid I can’t tell you that, in fact the cauliflower makes a very late entry into this curious book. One thing does become clear, however, having a guru in the family is not something to be wished for. The guru, even when he or she doesn’t want to be described as a guru, has such a great sense of his ordained spiritual path, that those on whom he bestows his presence are left to deal with the necessities of daily life, like food, shelter, clothing, income, and management of the throngs of adoring followers. In The Cauliflower®, a fictional biography mostly narrated by the guru’s nephew Hriday we see the thankless task of devotion writ large.
Sri Ramakrishna, referred to as Uncle throughout most of this book, lived in India between 1836 and 1886. An uneducated man, but given to ecstatic trances from an early age, his teachings were imparted in rustic Bengali. His nephew is only four years younger but deeply in awe of his Uncle. Here is an early experience,
…suddenly, without warning, the Master came barrelling outside on to the balcony- around and around the mat where lay. He could hear the Master’s bare feet slapping against the polished concrete floor, his voice whispering and wheedling, hoarse and cajoling. He could see through his lashes, the master’s hands frantically wringing.
‘Mother! Mother! Mother! Mother!’
Uncle’s devotion is to the goddess Kali and the path he has to follow to spiritual freedom is a very tricky one. It involves being possessed by various stages of being. At one time he is a monkey, and very trying Hriday finds this,
…The ape-Uncle makes no eye contact. In fact the ape-Uncle’s eyes are small and dark red. They move restlessly about.
Uncle’s hair has grown long and become very dirty and matted The ape-Uncle picks at his scalp and the nibbles at the old skin and salt he removes from it.
Uncle comes through this phase of his sadhana (a spiritual practice aimed at destroying the ego), but not without Hriday doubting his Uncle’s sanity,
Oh this latest phase of Uncle’s sadhana is truly a fearful blight on us all!
Those who have read other books by Nicola Barker will have met her wild humour and strange themes. Her 2014 book, In The Approaches, is described by her as a ‘romantic comedy,’ but by others as profound and brilliant, as well as boring and infuriating. Sometimes I think her writing is almost wilfully uncommercial. Her range is vast, but at the same time excessive. She piles detail upon detail, plays around with time, has tiny pages followed by long lists, does exactly what pleases her.
The Cauliflower® is mostly the tale of Uncle’s rise to (spiritual) fame told through the voice of an unreliable narrator. It also tells the tale of the Rani, Sri Ramakrishna’s first wealthy supporter and the woman who built the Kali Temple at Dakshineswar (six miles north of Calcutta) where he mostly lived, and her son-in law Mathur who took over the financial dealings on her death. It also tells of the Brahmini, a powerful old woman and, one of the guru’s important spiritual teachers.
The time in the book moves about before and after and during the life of the guru, and the book contains three line poems (called haiku here but not as we know them) extracts from the Song of Solomon, questionnaires of the attributes of Kali and even a bizarre tour of the temple complex via a camera strapped to the back of a swift (this doesn’t go too well.)
I loved this book. It is a brilliant insight into Indian devotional life but also a very human look at what it’s like to be a fallible human being in the presence of uncompromising spiritual power. Poor Hriday, he gets no thanks for his years of devotion.
Nicola Barker states on the blurb she was given a free album about Krishna Consciousness as a ten-year-old-child. I’m not sure if that means she follows an Indian spiritual practice, but this book is a compassionate and informed look at the devotional aspect of one Indian religion. It is also fascinating and wildly funny. Barker at her best.