MORE THAN A DECADE AGO, I shook hands with the Dalai Lama at a fundraiser for Tibetan freedom in Los Angeles. I’m not a religious person by anyone’s standards — I’m an agnostic — and as someone raised both Hindu and Unitarian Universalist, I have no particular ties to Buddhism. Yet his magnetism, his glow of internal peace, was palpable even to me.

Whether the glow was the result of his spiritual legacy built up over time or some sort of innate charisma with which he was born, I felt compelled into it, graced by it. Even those of us who aren’t religious can be fascinated, mesmerized, if only for a moment, by this rare type of spiritual experience — the sensation that something or someone is pure doesn’t come around often. Unfortunately, it’s also not uncommon for the beauty of a particular spiritual experience to transmute, perhaps through the laws of supply and demand, into a kind of weird, vulgar celebrity that seems about as far from the spiritual as you can get.

Nicola Barker’s intriguing and nonlinear novel The Cauliflower examines the building of the spiritual legacy and charisma of Sri Ramakrishna, a Hindu mystic born in the state of Bengal in 1836 who compelled a considerable amount of celebrity of his own. Sri Ramakrishna experienced spiritual ecstasies and trances from a young age and eventually went on to be the mentor of Swami Vivekananda, widely credited with bringing Hinduism to the West. Sri Ramakrishna was a devotee of the goddess Kali, also known as the black mother. Kali is often misunderstood in the West, which makes the premise of The Cauliflower especially intriguing.

Hridayram, the mystic’s long-suffering nephew and helper, is the lens through which we receive the legends about Sri Ramakrishna that mark his biography. He says of Sri Ramakrishna, “He is only four years older, but still I call him Uncle, and when I am with Uncle I have complete faith in him. I would die for Uncle. I have an indescribable attraction toward Uncle.”

While Sri Ramakrishna loses himself in ecstatic flights, Hridayram does all the menial tasks of living. He likens his role in Sri Ramakrishna’s life to that of a studio photographer:

A photographer takes your picture, but the portrait he makes belongs to you. It is your own. It is yours. A perfect likeness. Simply in a more formal setting — the studio. And holding very still. And carefully posed. That is Uncle’s past. It needs to be stage-managed and well lit. I am Uncle’s technician. Although Uncle will not be managed and he will not be directed and he will not be exposed.

Sri Ramakrishna’s charisma, as conceived by Hridayram, anyway, is one that is at least partly constructed.

Hridayram is not the only figure who holds up Sri Ramakrishna. The first person we meet in the novel is Rani Rashmoni, a Sudra woman (Sudras are the servant caste within Hinduism) who was the child bride of a much older wealthy man. In spite of her humble origins, she builds the Kali Temple six miles north of Calcutta in Dakshineswar. Yet at one point, she is slapped by Sri Ramakrishna for her thoughts while praying there.

There’s a wonderful undermining of the legend of Sri Ramakrishna in the stories of Hridayram and Rani Rashmoni. Yes, all the spiritual bliss and its attendant celebrity belong to Sri Ramakrishna, but Barker seems to be pointing out that none of these things are possible without their opposite, the earthly efforts of men and women. All of the sublime charisma of the mystic is nothing without the temple created by a lower-caste woman utterly disrespected by the religion.

The novel achieves its kaleidoscopic effects primarily through a nonnarrative juxtaposition of shards and fragments of expository research about Hinduism, particularly as it manifests in Kolkata. We seem to be looking in one direction, at one set of images, but the slightest shift changes the images and undermines our sense of them. Each sentence, each mini-narrative, feels like an exercise in confounding the reader, as the narrator tries to get some purchase on the ideas about spiritual legacy she is raising. Complicating matters still further, the novel includes a pastiche of references from other cultures and traditions, including references to the Song of Solomon, an excerpt from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, and an account of being transgender in the United States. In places, there’s something ebullient and exciting about this devil-may-care approach to allusion, but the looseness of the associations often comes across as sloppy and artless.

For example, one of Barker’s signature quirky descriptions references Chinese philosophy, rather than Vedanta or another aspect of Hinduism that might make sense under the circumstances: “Two stories of the Rani’s legendary verve, cunning, and spunk neatly intertwine here — like a couple of temple cats, one black, one white (let’s call them Yin and Yang) […]” Since Hinduism has its own version of balance between dark and light — and in fact, Kali herself has two sides, a boon-giving side and a dark destructive side, as Barker acknowledges at one point — it’s not clear why she couldn’t have found a more apt metaphor. As is, the reference to Yin and Yang reads like a loosey-goosey Orientalism, in which any Eastern religion can stand in for any other Eastern religion.

Aside from the first-person perspective of Hridayram, much of The Cauliflower is told from the voice and perspective of an unknown bystander speaking directly to the reader, often using the collective pronoun “we.” This authorial voice talks about a wide range of subjects often associated with Hinduism by Western people, among them sati. “It may legitimately cross our minds whether the Rani considered — even briefly — the tradition of sati,” the voice says. “Research tells us that sati was considered to be the ultimate act of honor and devotion by a pious wife.” The claim that this thought may cross “our” minds and also that “research tells us” signals that readers of the book are assumed not to be Hindu but outsiders watching the events unfold from an elevated, objective place. There’s a deliberate excluding of the Hindu perspective by the authorial voice in many of the book’s fragments.

Elsewhere, however, Hridayram appears to be a stand-in for all Hindus. For example, Hridayram says at one point, “We poor Hindus must accept our station in life and simply do the best that we can under whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, no matter how difficult or unfair or hopeless they may sometimes seem. We are not all born equal.” It’s problematic for purposes of staying inside the novel, however, that “We poor Hindus” seems to be a pitying phrase from the viewpoint of someone other than a Hindu person. Hridayram then goes on to talk about how every caste has its own role, discussing a viewpoint on caste that seems so stiff it could have been lifted from a textbook.

Perhaps to ameliorate the effect of a distanced and non-Hindu viewpoint, Barker provides a reason for the distance from the first page of the novel by framing the content as something we’re watching on film or as a video: “The beautiful Rani Rashmoni is perpetually trapped inside the celluloid version of her own amazing and dramatic life.” She continues this perspective by writing, “How will it all end, we wonder? Temporarily disable that impatient index finger. We must strenuously resist the urge to fast-forward.”

The video frame is not quite adequate to the task. Early on, one section lists “Twelve slightly impertinent questions about Ma Kali,” and among them are “She looks rather tipsy! Is she drunk?”; “Is my mind playing tricks on me, or is she actually wearing some kind of — of weird skirt made out of severed human arms?”; “Is she black?”; “Why is her hair such a dreadful mess?”; “How can people love this horrible creature? Aren’t they afraid of her? Isn’t it merely a love born of fear?” There’s little sense on Barker’s part that she’s conscious of a power dynamic between the British and Indians during the period of Sri Ramakrishna, a power dynamic that continues to have an effect on India and Indians that might make this list offensive to a Hindu rather than “slightly impertinent.”

However, as if in direct response to the irritation I experienced while reading this, just a few pages later, a list of sober answers to these questions appears — sterile encyclopedia-entry explanations for a reader who is assumed to be ignorant of Hinduism.

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Although it’s about a wholly different subject, The Cauliflower is constructed along the same wild, comic experimental lines as Barker’s earlier sprawling novels Darkmans and The Yips, both of which are propelled by inventiveness, wordplay, puns, and an abundance of dialogue about ideas. Shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, Darkmans is a doorstop that examines the contemporary effects of history by exploring the lives of a large cast of quirky characters in the through-town of Ashford in England, described in the novel as a “landmark in social and physical re-invention.” It’s hard to name a central figure — the novel is more of a surreal ensemble piece: a drug dealer named Kane has a difficult relationship with his father Beede; both father and son are in love with Beede’s chiropodist; the chiropodist’s husband Dory has been diagnosed with ailments as disparate as narcolepsy and schizophrenia, and goes through periods during which he may be possessed by John Scogin, a medieval jester. The characters are arranged in a simultaneously interesting and frustrating manner, with stray narrative threads picked up and dropped many pages after they are first introduced, only to be dropped again.

Similarly, The Yips, longlisted for the Man Booker, follows an assortment of loosely connected oddball characters that includes Stuart Ramsey, a repugnant and egotistic professional golfer on a downward slide with a bad case of the yips; his Jamaican manager; a bartender who has survived seven bouts of cancer, humors Stuart through a racist bit on “the relative hotness — or notness — of female Koreans,” and develops a crush on a tattooist whose professional focus is pubic tattoos; a teenage barmaid; and a Muslim sex therapist.

What reads as uniquely funny and occasionally ribald in these earlier books sometimes comes across as juvenile silliness in The Cauliflower. For example, in one episode, Barker references Job Charnock, an employee of the English East India Company in Bengal who is considered (from a British perspective) to be the founder of Kolkata. Barker writes, “They all lived in Cal-Kali-kata-cutta,” and repeats it a few times to make sure we understand there’s a relationship between Kali and the city of Calcutta. However, this silliness is in service of a sermon, as she also denounces Job Charnock, writing,

In the beginning was the word, and the word was Cal-Kali-kata-cutta, but there is no word, and the person who created the word is no person, only rock, and if there was a person he was a most loathed, mistrusted, morose, and morally degenerate company administrator.

Some seeds of The Cauliflower are germinating in both Darkmans and The Yips. For example, in Darkmans, Beede and Dory have an exchange about yoga that might shed some light on what Barker is trying to do as an author with the The Cauliflower.

“You’re still doing the yoga?” Beede murmured.
“The Pranayama? Yes. It’s pretty much the only thing keeping me sane right now.” [Dory] glanced over at him. “I know I keep hammering on about it, but you really should buy the book …”
Beede shrugged.
Dory smiled. “You think it’s all rather too ‘New Age’ to be taken seriously, eh?”
“Not at all.”
“But it’s an ancient discipline …”
“New Age disciplines invariably are,” Beede said, disparagingly, “but in the modern world they lack context — we just pick them up and then toss them back down again, we consume them. They have no moral claim on us. No moral value. And without that they’re rendered meaningless, fatuous, even.”

As Beede puts it, The Cauliflower picks up Hinduism and consumes it, then tosses it back down — it has no moral value and no moral claim; it is Hinduism and specifically the worship of Kali rendered meaningless.

Unlike the natural, lived-in drama of The Yips and Darkmans, The Cauliflower includes a tremendous amount of exposition about 19th-century Bengal, Sri Ramakrishna, Rani, Kali, and the Dakshineswar Kali Temple. All of it is stitched together out of sequence — dozens of stylistically interesting and memorable tableaux, rather than a play of living, breathing actors. In some cases, the experimentation with multiple perspectives leads to lovely invention. One memorable sequence features a camera attached to a swift moving through the temple. On the side of the camera is “Cauliflower™” (Kali-flower, get it?). The swift travels throughout the temple, over the orchards, over a pine grove used for defecation, and into a structure that was to be Sri Ramakrishna’s second main residence during his stay at Dakshineswar, before meeting its fate. But overall, the effect of the disjunctive but energetic sequencing is a book with far less breath than her other works.

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In his introduction to Orientalism, the cultural critic Edward Said explained that the Orient not only is adjacent to Europe but also served as the source of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. He wrote,

[T]he Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles.

The Cauliflower seems to be interested in Orientalism, in the signs and rituals that make up the Western experience of Indians, and Sri Ramakrishna in particular. Within one sentence, Barker juxtaposes Krishna and Mowgli as if they are figures of equal worth when discussing Hinduism, and throughout the novel she recites explanations of good and bad aspects of colonialism. Forcing these different perspectives together doesn’t quite work and often feels laborious. For example, in a passage alluded to earlier she writes,

It may legitimately cross our minds whether the Rani considered — even briefly — the tradition of sati, and what the implications might have been for her if this practice had not been summarily outlawed by India’s British colonial rulers in 1829 (seven years before). Research tells us that sati was considered to be the ultimate act of honor and devotion by a pious wife (a sign of both insurmountable grief and spiritual renunciation).

This quickly turns into a long-winded and largely irrelevant lecture about sati and self-negation within Indian faith traditions.

Also in Orientalism Said points out, “Perhaps it seemed irrelevant that Orientals themselves had something at stake in the process.” This is what the book seems to forget in striving to depict its subjects. Part of the problem with The Cauliflower is that it seems to be trying to rescue Hridayram and Rani Rashmoni from the bowels of history by showing the indispensability of humble people to Sri Ramakrishna’s spiritual legacy while simultaneously patronizing them. Unlike the characters in Darkmans and The Yips, the characters of The Cauliflower are merely instructive surfaces for Barker’s ideas; they don’t interact the way real people do.

Barker’s afterword notes that she has not lived in the 19th century, has never met Sri Ramakrishna, is not a practicing Hindu, and has never even visited Calcutta. She reasons, “If I had, I probably could not have written this book. I wouldn’t have been stupid, arrogant, brave, naughty — and possibly even dispassionate — enough.” This may well be true, but — to what end all this irreverence?

There isn’t all that much artistic danger involved in writing a book like Barker’s if you have an interest, but no real relationship to Hinduism or India. The book promises to be emotionally risky, especially with its conceit about a film camera recording the Rani’s life and being flown through the Kali Temple on a swift, yet it ultimately dares little. There are no emotional stakes to an Englishwoman writing a postmodern consideration of Orientalism from all angles. It is writing about writing, writing about the aspects of Hinduism that have already gotten cultural attention in the West, rather than writing from a place of urgency about the spiritual things themselves.

I can’t help but imagine the book that this should have been — the book that it could have been with more emotional investment and more breath — a book that took more risks because it came not solely from a place of playful verbal hijinks but also from a place of deeper embodied knowledge. As is, the book raises the question: Are the postmodern formal innovations of The Cauliflower enough?

Does a book stop being Orientalist because it criticizes the British? Does it stop being Orientalist because it is also irreverent and clever in the manner of Lawrence Sterne’s much earlier Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy? The Cauliflower is original and ambitious in form, but its bafflement — its sense of being both confounded and awed by Hinduism — feels antiquated in the context of global literature and thought. Its formal boldness and strong research seem inadequate to counterbalance its tourist’s (albeit a well-educated tourist) vision of India as a place of sati and caste and other concepts belonging to the Other, and not as a place of living, breathing people.

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Anita Felicelli has contributed essays and reviews to The New York Times (Modern Love), San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, and The Rumpus. Her short stories have been published in The Normal School, Joyland, Kweli Journal, Eckleburg, Strangelet Journal, and Stockholm Review.