Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Cauliflower - Nicola Barker

A saint is his own breed of magical creature, the care which, as we learn from Nicola Barker's delightful biographical novel of the 19th century Hindu Sri Ramakrishna, can be complicated, infuriating, and occasionally dangerous, but oh so rewarding.

Told from many perspectives, and pieced together floret by floret into a robust and tangled timeline, The Cauliflower, by Nicola Barker (Henry Holt and Company, 2016) paints a multifaceted portrait of this revered saint and the many devoted friends and family who make his ecstatic spiritual life and leadership possible. Our guru  - though he does not wish to be referred to as such - experiences God firsthand, frequently, and inconveniently, falling into a trance-like state and requiring you to carry him off just when you were about to enjoy a nice outing. He will only eat sweets, or he will not eat at all, or he will attempt to eat the very thing you know will cause him the most distress. He will become enamored of the latest fad of a person and ignore you, his most dedicated nephew and primary caretaker altogether. If you are his most generous benefactor who sustains his very existence he will reject your simple gift of a scarf but insist you spend inordinate additional sums on a festival. Today he is Hindu, tomorrow Muslim, and next week Christian. His spirit is magnanimous and beautiful, his message of faith universal and inclusive, his personal behaviors childish and unpredictable. He is bewildering and you adore him and are enchanted and aggravated all at once.

The author's sharp wit and imagination were immediately captivating and carried me through the novel, though it took me the first thirty pages or so to gain my bearings on voice and chronology. I loved the immersive and transporting details of life in late 1800's Bengal at the Dakshineswar Kali Temple on the Hooghly River near Calcutta - the characters, language, landscape, gods and goddesses, and a fascinating cast of characters. The non-chronological telling and rotating point of view for the most part was a strength, both setting off Nicola Barker's impressive mind and writing, and conveying a wonderful and complex portrait of Sri Ramakrishna and his entourage, but also maybe got in the way of the narrative building up to a very strong crescendo - which didn't stop me from thoroughly admiring and enjoying the book, though I did lose a little momentum. The novel's tone achieves a wonderful balance between reverence and humor, mysticism and realism, and clearly comes from a place of great love for its subject. The Cauliflower left me with warm feelings, a sudden urge to travel across time and place, a few lovely big ideas to ponder, and a firm desire to read more by the author.

I received my copy of The Cauliflower from the publisher.

Happy reading!


  1. I find this a very interesting idea - that "God realized" beings can also be pains in the ass. I read something by Ram Dass years ago that in the people often revered in India would be in mental hospitals here. He seemed to suggest that we in the west are overlooking something.




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