Nicola Barker's 'The Cauliflower' opens a Pandora's box of conversations on Sri Ramakrishna

The startling topic that Nicola Barker has chosen for her latest offering is hard to imagine: the strange and sublime life of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansadeva

Gouri Chatterjee June 18, 2016 11:54:51 IST
Nicola Barker's 'The Cauliflower' opens a Pandora's box of conversations on Sri Ramakrishna

Nicola Barker, it seems, is like that only.

“This most brilliantly unhinged of British writers does whatever the hell she likes,” is the admiring verdict across the board. And, going by the only book of hers I have read so far, and that too only because of its subject, I cannot but agree.

Improbably called The Cauliflower it comes complete with the registered trademark sign of a neatly encircled small-caps R poised discreetly at top right, very much a part of the title. Why? A mystery that remains one till the end.

True, there is a cauliflower in evidence, almost near the end of the 323-page loosely packed book, but with a bit part at best. Even the “circa 1855” Indian swift, “quite silly and highly accident prone,” plays a far more dramatic role as it hops, skips and flies around with a tiny camera attached to it and provides a detailed description of the newly opened Dakshineswar Kali Temple complex on the outskirts of Kolkata until,


And so it goes. Sizzling, sputtering, fizzing, till the very end. A historical narrative that is determinedly not chronological, intercut by exclamatory italics, haikus, slapstick comedy, sound effects, ellipses, questionnaires, standalone punctuation marks, emoticons (yes, smileys), academic prattle, author’s interventions in the third person – the imagination boggles at the vast array of outlandish devices the writer has marshalled to render an account that is illuminating and mystifying, hilarious and exhausting, all at the same time.

Yet, a more fitting form for the startling topic that Nicola Barker has chosen for her latest offering is hard to imagine: the strange and sublime life of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansadeva (circa 1836-1886).

The guru “who does not want to be called guru” but ends up trend-setter for all modern-day gurus; the Brahmin who readily trod all roads to God, even Islam, and kept a portrait of Jesus in his room; a priest whose familiar, playful interactions with his idol achieved greater distinction from his frequent epileptic fits aka samadhi or trance; the saint who did not become a sinner for visiting playhouses and zoos; the husband who would rather worship his wife as a goddess than share the marital bed; the unlettered rustic who took Kolkata’s Western-educated bhadralok by storm (and continues to fascinate intellectuals to this day).

Nicola Barkers The Cauliflower opens a Pandoras box of conversations on Sri Ramakrishna

The cover of Nicola Barker's book. Image courtesy: Amazon.

It’s a tale every Bengali picks up through sheer osmosis, yet such is Nicola Barker’s skill that The Cauliflower (which may or may not signify just a vegetable that did not agree with the mystic’s weak, flatulent stomach) still enthralls.

Barker has never been to Kolkata but has been “fascinated by Sri Ramakrishna” for much of her life, she says in the Afterword. “This novel,” she writes there, “is a small (even pitiable) attempt to understand how faith works, how a legacy develops, how a spiritual history is written.” She is not the first to do so but her unconventional, whimsical, roller coaster ride of a book is quite unlike all the academic and theological treatises that have been written on this most unusual spiritual leader with his many idiosyncrasies and ecstasies, his many miracles and oracles.

Still, Barker is too canny to be unaware of the pitfalls ahead. Hers may be a novel but it is after all peopled with real-life characters with names and places wholly unchanged, some of whom are treated as God in this part of the world. Its dizzying literary pyrotechnics notwithstanding, it is also meticulously researched and is quite faithful to actual happenings.

And therein lies the catch. When it’s a matter of faith, who’s to say what is or is not a fact? Especially in a country like India where religion brooks no difference in interpretation? The Wendy Doniger episode is still too fresh in memory for anyone to think otherwise. And waving the word “novel” may not quite help, as Salman Rushdie will bear witness to.

Cut to Nicola Barker:

“Winter 1881, at the Dakshineswar Kali Temple. Sri Ramakrishna finally gets to meet the one person he has been waiting for HIS WHOLE, DAMN LIFE!!

(Suggested subheading: True Romance! Uh, oh. Although, gulp! Not with his wife…)

What follows under this chapter heading is an account of the historic meeting between the 45-year-old saint and teenager Narendra Nath Datta, who will one day become Swami Vivekananda, disciple number one of Sri Ramakrishna and founder of the Ramakrishna Mission. So, is the author saying what I think she is? Well, she has already established the guru’s love for cross-dressing through “his shadow,” his nephew’s all-knowing insights on his Uncle that is one of the major voices of the book. This is simply carrying the point to its logical conclusion.

So she does, in her jerky, roundabout way. There is so much going on in the book that this really is not a big deal, not for the story being told, but it is there.

"Late December 1883, the Dakhineswar Kali Temple."

“The Master (who will not be called Master) is in his room, collapsed on his bed, weeping copiously, still perfectly demented with love for Narendra Nath Datta. A bemused devotee, Bholanath, is holding his hand and trying to calm him:

“Bholnath (concerned): ‘But is this appropriate behaviour, Master? To become so distressed because of a simple kayastha boy?’

“Sri Ramakrishna (briefly staunches his tears for a moment, thinks intently, hiccups, and then, at full volume):


It’s not that the Paramhansa’s fondness for his male, mostly young male disciples, his longing to see them, his eagerness to feed them with his own hands, pinch their cheeks, place his feet on their body and similar acts of physical intimacy are unheard of. The guru himself made no secret of it. But it has to be, we are always told, seen in the cultural context, that this was quite normal in nineteenth century Bengal, that they were innocent expressions of his beatific love, nothing more. Try giving it a homosexual connotation and see what happens.

Or ask American academic Jeffrey Kripal, author of Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1995. Based on his PhD dissertation written under the supervision of Wendy Doniger (yes, there she is again), it is a psychoanalytic study of Sri Ramakrishna’s life based on Freudian presuppositions. It maintains that the guru’s mystical experiences were caused by repressed homosexual tendencies that he himself did not recognise. He criticised Ramakrishna’s treatment of his wife as misogynistic and even accused the Ramakrishna order of manipulating biographical documents to hide this truth.

In 1996, the American Academy of Religion awarded Kali’s Child its History of Religions prize for the best first book of 1995. But it was barely known in India – until January 1997, when The Statesman published a full-page review of the book by another US-based but Bengali academic, Narasingha Sil, under the rubric “The Question of Ramakrishna’s Homosexuality”. It ended with the words that the book was just “plain shit”.

The Statesman trembled. Outraged letters, telephone calls and cancellation notices flooded the venerable Kolkata paper. Of the 39 letters it published, all from this city, only one had read the book. Yet, their condemnation of the writer – “sick,” “diseased,” “perverted,” etc. – was unanimous. The greatest ire was reserved for the newspaper itself for giving credence to a book that “should not have been touched even with a pair of tongs,” “deserves to be thrown into the dustbin,” “filth,” “trash,” “garbage,” and so on.

The Statesman surrendered. ‘Now Let It Rest’ was the headline of its February 18, 1997, editorial which read: “In the past fortnight, this newspaper has seen more reaction from its readers than as far back as memory serves … [Kripal] has been questioned on his credentials and the quality of his research… The greatest criticism has however been reserved for The Statesman – for having allowed its editorial judgement to be suspended by publishing a review of such a book at some considerable length… we concede this, our judgment went askew.”

Soon there were reports of a demand for a ban on the book, with one senior bureaucrat pleading that the government of India “take up this matter with the US government and ask it to impress upon the publishers to disallow the publication of ‘such trash, totally devoid of a sense of history’.” Nothing happened but Kali’s Child is not mentioned in polite circles in India, inside or outside academia. The criticisms against it, that the book’s conclusions were arrived at through mistranslation of Bengali, misunderstanding of Tantra and misuse of psychology, may be well deserved. But the disproportionate reaction to it had certainly little to do with its academic merit or lack thereof.

A country which still sees homosexuality as a crime, where a Bill to decriminalise it is laughed out of Parliament, whose religious-turned-political leaders do not shrink from dubbing homosexuality an aberration can hardly be expected to countenance its godmen being painted in rainbow colours. It will not be surprising therefore if “the most daring piece of storytelling to appear in English this year” fails to make it to India at all. It hasn’t yet, though it’s been out in London for almost two months now.

India would be the natural launching pad for a book on such a subject one would think. But then, its publisher, William Heinemann, is part of the Penguin-Random House behemoth. Penguin has already had to bow to Dinanath Batra’s diktat and agree to pulp all unsold copies of Doniger’s The Hindus – An Alternative History. They may be twice shy now. Unless of course it fits into someone’s electoral calculations and then The Cauliflower will become a mega talking point – for all the wrong reasons. Literary merit – who cares about that in India? That’s for the birds, and “sickularists”.

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