In the middle of the 19th century, Rani Rashmoni, having inherited a fortune upon the death of her husband, was inspired to build a temple at Dakshineswar, near Kolkata. Dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali, the temple eventually became home to the mystic Sri Ramakrishna, who dedicated his life to the pursuit of holiness and is still revered as a saint and spiritual master.
Nicola Barker’s maddening, funny, playful and beautiful new novel “The Cauliflower” gives us a life of this saint. Barker, the author of 11 novels and winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, has once again invigorated an old form — the historical biographical novel — through electric wit and sheer bedazzlement.
Built upon the apparently reverential accounts of Ramakrishna, “The Cauliflower” reworks the contours of the historical novel into a surprisingly luminous work of art. First, she shatters the conventional linear approach to biography and rearranges scenes from his life into a mosaic that foregrounds and juxtaposes events.
Passages from other works and forms — “Song of Solomon” and haikus and catechetical quizzes — are interspersed with pastiches of Indian film, emoticons and authorial asides in the manner of Henry Fielding. Letters from Western pilgrims to Dakshineswar are interleaved with lessons on the basic tenets of Hinduism and the steps toward nirvana. Most of the time, these literary high jinks work to great effect, but when they fail, it is spectacularly.
In addition to the author/historian, a second narrator is Hriday, the saint’s nephew and bewildered disciple. The Boswell of the story, Hriday is a brilliant comic achievement, snarky one moment and devoted the next, to tell the story of Ramakrishna’s life.
And what a life it is! Born into a poor family as Gadadhar Chatterji, the boy and his miracles are mysteries to his parents. His devotion and desire to seek God in all things often leads to fits of ecstasy, fainting once at the sight of a flock of white cranes passing in front of a dark cloud. Later in life, his trances last for days. Miracles and wonders recur. Friends, disciples and pilgrims seek him out if only to touch the hem of the cloth around his waist. Some believe him a godly avatar.
Yet he is human, surely, and Barker mischievously points to his faults and foibles. He has a secret fondness for sweets. He has a weak stomach and is prone to flatulence and must avoid sulfur-rich foods such as cauliflower.
To please the gods, he dresses as a woman for a period, becomes a naked mendicant and may have even grow a vestigial tail to play the monkey-god Hanuman. His jealous disciples take note if one or the other receives preferential treatment, and all are astounded by the particular ardor he has for a young man among his followers.
Ramakrishna tries many faiths, practicing Islam for a while, tacking a picture of Jesus to the walls of his small room. Radical for his time, he claims that while there is only one God, there are many paths to follow. Midway through the book, there is an extended comparison with the work of another saint, Mother Teresa, with her own craze and devotion and self-denial. Both saints rise from the lost and desperate city of Kolkata — “a city run under the brutal, clear-eyed, and merciless auspices of the Goddess Kali. The creatress, the destroyer. The mother, the murderess.”
The goddess Kali is the other great character of “The Cauliflower.” There is no direct feminist parallel to her in Judeo-Christian tradition. She is the Divine Mother who both nourishes and destroys life, who embodies the dualistic traditions of Hindu thought, who presides over maya — the illusion called life. That Ramakrishna and millions of others love Kali may be because of her power to induce bliss, “a dangerous, overwhelming, and ecstatic energy to release, and very difficult to control once you have. Play with it at your peril, girls and boys.” “The Cauliflower” of the title may be many things, including a vegetable, but surely it is Kali’s flower as well.
Through passages both lyrical and profane, holy and human, this biographical novel about Ramakrishna reveals a core paradox that may be present in all the lives of the saints: To truly pursue the joy of God, they must abandon the self. And yet, Ramakrishna becomes more present and alive for doing so. Many people in the West may have never heard of him, but millions in the East are spreading his gospel.
In her afterword, Barker lays out her process as “a small (even pitiable) attempt to understand how faith works, how a legacy develops, how a spiritual history is written.” She is being too modest. “The Cauliflower” is a brilliant and suitably playful way to ask these questions of gods and saints, not often addressed these days in the modern novel.
Keith Donohue is a novelist. His latest book is “The Boy Who Drew Monsters.”
By Nicola Barker
Henry Holt. 291 pp. $28