THE WRITER NICOLA BARKER generates profoundly ambitious novels at a near Dickensian clip. As with Dickens, several of her books can double as doorstoppers. Raised in South Africa until her teen years, Barker has long lived in London. Though just 50, she has published three collections of short stories and 10 novels — three of which have been listed for the Man Booker Prize. Barker’s latest opus, The Cauliflower, is a genre-busting novel of enchantments, chronicling the life of the Bengali spiritual titan Ramakrishna (born Gadadhar Chatterji, 1836–1886), who is regarded as a godly incarnation among most Hindus and revered in India and beyond.
While the novel adheres to historical and biographical facts and personages, the story itself is laced together by dueling narrators, haikus, actual letters, authorial asides, and even passages from the Song of Songs. One of the book’s primary characters is Rani Rasmani (1793–1861), whose beauty and gravitas dazzles one of Calcutta’s wealthiest landowners. The daughter of a penniless farmer (and a Kaivarta, one of the śudra or lower castes), it is the devout but gritty Rani, arguably India’s first public feminist, who repeatedly defies and outwits the British. A lifelong devotee of Kali, Rani is among the first to glean that the guileless 19-year-old Ramakrishna is no mere mortal. In time, the Rani installs him as the Brahmin priest at her resplendent Kali Temple bordering the Ganges, dedicated to the goddess of infinite creation, preservation and pitiless destruction. And yet, as compelling as Rani Rasmani is, Barker doesn’t choose her as the narrator, nor does she choose the saintly Ramakrishna (who found parity among all religions and rejected caste). Instead, she settles on Ramakrishna’s opportunistic young nephew, Hriday — a device that cleverly drops the lofty pursuit of god-realization onto our very mortal laps.
In her recreation of Ramakrishna’s life, Barker fearlessly dives into the origins of faith. In our exchange, Barker concedes that a work like The Cauliflower could have been “literary suicide,” since faith as a subject is almost like a collective allergy among many intellectuals. Barker’s full-throated exploration of the divine recalls no one as much as William Blake. Like Blake, Barker writes with a mischievous mirth that can only be borne out of a certainty in the divine. Her Cauliflower (a homophone for Kali’s Flower) is a celebration of Hinduism in all its noisy glory — and a testament to Barker’s own grit, guts, and immense talent.
ANN LOUISE BARDACH: You write in your endnotes to The Cauliflower that your journey toward this book began at age 10 in South Africa. At what age did you first hear or read about Ramakrishna?
NICOLA BAKER: I first became aware of Krishna Consciousness when I was about 10, while visiting a place called the Oriental Bazaar in Fordsburg, South Africa. This was during the Apartheid era. My mother was working at the time for the country’s main black educational newspaper, The Learning Post (many of its writers were subsequently banned or placed under house arrest). A man came up to my mother and me and tried to give us a free album. We finally accepted it — it turned out to be a copy of Ananta’s Night and Daydream — then he asked for a donation. I’m not sure how much money we gave him, if any, but we kept the record, took it home, and when I listened to it I was bewitched.
My awareness of Sri Ramakrishna himself probably transpired some years later. We were huge fans of the film Cabaret at home and so, by extension, all things related to Christopher Isherwood, whose enthusiasm for the guru is well documented [in My Guru and His Disciple]. And I practiced meditation from a young age.
But if I was asked to describe the moment at which I felt a profound connection to the guru I would definitely say it was on reading Sri Ramakrishna, the Great Master in my 20s. That is the definitive biography, written by one of his immediate disciples, Swami Saradananda, based on dozens of firsthand accounts and sources. What fascinated me about that book, from the outset, was the position of the Master’s nephew, Hriday, in the narrative. At some level, Hriday played a Judas role in the story. As a person interested in spiritual/moral conundrums, Hriday’s weakness and indispensability really captured my imagination.
How did you become so well versed and erudite on the subject of Ramakrishna?
I only wish I was erudite on the subject! Much of what I know is right there, on display, on the page. I still have a huge amount to learn. In some ways, I think the key to the book is the fact that I am not too embedded in everything Ramakrishna. I am a fan, yes, but not a convert or a disciple.
A measure of distance allows me to have something which I think is vital in my telling of his story in a new way — skepticism. Even cynicism. The book is specifically written for a Western audience. (I have nothing to teach Hindus about their own faith.) I see it as a sort of humorous but respectful Ramakrishna primer.
I do believe that the novel is a kind of love letter to Hinduism, though. I feel as if we have a very superficial understanding of this great and complex faith in the West. Christians, by and large, sometimes seem to think of it as a form of primitive idol worship. But that is crazy — there is so much more to learn. That was fundamentally my aim and the aim of the novel.
How did you arrive at the decision to have Hriday, the conflicted, opportunistic young nephew, narrate much of this story?
Hriday was my means of access from the start because he was the only person who stayed with Ramakrishna throughout his sadhana [spiritual journey] and beyond. In many respects, Hriday held the key to Ramakrishna’s life story. But Hriday is flawed, very human, and quite confused by Ramakrishna’s unconventional behaviors. He essentially represents the reader in this regard. Hriday loves life and is quite worldly (if naïve) but is utterly loyal to the guru. In the end, this love devours him. It’s a really sad but fascinating story. Theirs is a beautiful and complicated relationship, which speaks volumes not only about what faith means, but also about how people love and relate to one another.
Did you ever consider having the Rani Rasmani, or one of the disciples, whom you describe as a “uniformly charming bunch,” serve as narrator?
No. It was always Hriday, because at some level the story was fundamentally his to tell, but other people (the disciples who were, by and large, much better educated) told it, with his help. I wanted to take the narrative back to its original, very loving but flawed source.
The titular “cauliflower” in your book is actually a hallmarked micro-camera, embedded in a bird and eventually in the mouth of a catfish. It is also a vegetable that Ramakrishna found indigestible and the phonetic homonym of his revered Kali Flower. How did you think this up?
It just came to me in a flash. I wanted to describe the Dakshineswar Kali Temple but couldn’t think of how to do it. Because the novel moves through time and space, attaching a tiny piece of future-technology to a little indigenous bird seemed like as good a way as any of doing it. So I transport something modern back into the past, and readers find themselves inhabiting a liminal space between now and then.
The novel is very playful because Ramakrishna himself was very playful. At some level, the design of the book is a tribute to the Great Master’s [Ramakrishna’s] way of acting and looking at the world. It is ecstatic — a little bit crazy — sometimes very serious.
I try to take nothing too seriously as an author (especially myself). The process of writing is about having fun. I write how and what I want. There’s no grand scheme. In a way, this is a form of self-protection. My hope is that the reader enjoys the book and doesn’t feel lectured or preached at. I truly am the last person on earth qualified to do that.
In your endnotes, you call this book a novel but also say it’s more of a “mosaic.” How did the disparate pieces begin to assemble into a structure for you? How important or challenging was it to stick to the historical record and firsthand sources?
I often use real historical or contemporary people in my work (I wrote a novel about David Blaine a while ago, for example) and my one rule is that everything that happens, in a factual sense, must be true. I would never swerve from that. So, everything Hriday says about Ramakrishna is based in historical fact. This is where the book gets its power. I imagine how Hriday might feel, certainly, but the events he describes are all previously documented.
As I said earlier, the shape of the book mimics the guru and his philosophy. A childlike playfulness informed virtually everything he did. He defied convention. He was unpredictable. He was profound one minute and then cracking jokes the next. He was very present and utterly absent. He couldn’t be pinned down. He was many different things to different people. The novel simply wrote itself in this style. It jumps around. It finds sense in incoherence. It gives and it takes away. And of course Ramakrishna was a devotee of the Goddess Kali — the Goddess of creation and destruction. So, the novel creates and destroys — like life itself.
I had to think long and hard before calling the book a novel. Often I just call it “a book,” but the narrative of Hriday is, at some level, imagined on an emotional level. It is linear and unfolds as a novel should, which is what renders it a novelization, I think. Even if it happens to be true, it is also imagined.
Who was your favorite character, other than Ramakrishna? There is more in the novel on the remarkable Rani than say, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna’s most famous disciple, who usually gets most of the press concerning this epoch, being more accessible to the modern reader.
I see Vivekananda as Ramakrishna’s Saint Paul. Saint Paul created modern Christianity. But I didn’t dwell too much on Vivekananda’s role in the novel because I suppose I felt like he’d already had his say. Ramakrishna, like Jesus, did not write down his philosophy and here, I think, lies his power. It was a conscious decision on his part. It makes him endlessly fascinating and mysterious. The book focuses mainly on Ramakrishna’s spiritual journey — his struggles to gain enlightenment, the extremes to which he goes. This is a difficult and lonely time for the guru; only his nephew fully bears witness and, of course, the Rani, who supports him. I cleave to the idea in the novel that in order for Ramakrishna to spiritually germinate, all of the conditions around him needed to be just right. He comes from a very special place in history. He is at once ahead of his time and behind it, so the small band of people who support him are, by and large, extraordinary.
The Rani is, I feel, one of the great feminist figures of modern history. She is at once radical and yet utterly conformist, she follows the rules assiduously while tearing up the rule book. My admiration for her truly knows no bounds.
Was this book more challenging to write than your others? You also called this book: “an attempt to understand how faith works.” Was it a difficult work to sell to your publisher, agent, editor?
It was a relatively easy book to write. Some of my novels (Darkmans or Behindlings, for example) are very big and the internal structures are immensely complex. It takes years to make all of the apparently disparate elements cohere. This book was all there from the start. I rely, by and large, on the scholarship of others. The novel moves around but the fundamental structure (Ramakrishna’s life) dictates the plot.
If there was one thing that I found laborious it was finding very specific references in a giant pile of books. I tend to put little colored post-it notes into the books I read and then hope to find the bits and pieces when I need them. Sometimes I would have an example in mind and then spend days exasperatedly trying to locate it. My approach to my work is generally very intensive. I immerse myself completely in my sources, like a kind of conductor, I suppose. I can’t turn away or relax or miss a beat. I stay immensely focused, which can be exhausting. There are no breaks or days off. This is tough, but also very pleasurable. But for life to be livable, it can only be sustained for limited periods of time.
I found a good deal of mirth — even joy — in your book. You express none of the contempt or condescension one finds among many intellectuals today toward faith and belief, much less miracles and avatars! Have you felt you are bucking a hostile atmosphere?
I’m really taken with the idea of divine play — or lila. It’s very pertinent to Ramakrishna himself and so I used it in constructing the book, because the structure of the book reflects who the Saint was — and is. Of course, play has many definitions and applications in Hinduism but I take it to mean fun (which may well be pushing things!) The book is fun — or at least, I hope so. The guru liked to make his teachings entertaining. He’s not alone in this — I’m thinking, off the cuff, about Saint Therese of Lisieux, and her childlike attitude. To emulate the innocence and openness of childhood was very much Ramakrishna’s style. The downside to this is that a child must be cared for and protected by others — we can’t all be children. Someone needs to be the grown up. And this is where Hriday steps in.
I find writing a fundamentally joyful process. I feel free as I approach the empty page. I have no expectations and no pretensions. I am not an intellectual. I’m playing and generally flying by the seat of my pants. So I don’t take myself too seriously. I can be sarcastic sometimes and droll, but that’s okay. I’m very aware of what may be perceived as the guru’s limitations. The book doesn’t try to hide or disguise those.
Am I bucking a trend in writing — sincerely — about faith? Yes, I think so. I often find that people imagine I’m being ironic, even some people who know my work well. But I am not. I am playing, though. And when you play you often do so with a friend (my reader). This counterpart is at liberty to play how they like, too. If they are a skeptic, that’s fine. The book still has plenty to share with them. An exchange is still possible. Ideally, play is fearless but safe; there is room for maneuver, for mischief and spontaneity. The secret, I think, is to be open and honest about what your limitations are. I’m not reinventing the wheel — at best I am replacing an old hubcap with another old hubcap.
I do see the act of writing about faith as deeply radical in the current intellectual climate. In some ways it’s literary suicide. But that’s the whole point of what I do — to be free you need to be willing to sacrifice everything, to be unafraid. This isn’t bravery on my part, it’s my nature. I deserve no credit for it. I am lucky to be supported — unflinchingly — in what I do by my agent and my publishers. They’re the brave ones. And God bless them for it.
Many Hindus perceive current academia as having a bias against them. Some of this likely stems from Jeffrey Kripal’s Kali’s Child — which some scholars have said mistakenly translates key 19th-century Bengali phrases and insinuates that the zealously celibate Ramakrishna was gay and a misogynist. I’ve also heard the complaint that the Hindu faith is either sensationalized or misunderstood. Any thoughts about this?
With regard to Ramakrishna’s sexuality, my attitude is basically that it’s not really any of my business — Ramakrishna preaches sexual abstinence (as do most of the great faiths) because a spiritual life is, fundamentally, a creative life. It takes energy. It requires your full attention. You need to conserve your resources. But gender is an altogether different matter. What I especially love about much of the writing on Ramakrishna by his disciples is that it makes no attempt to hide or brush aside Ramakrishna’s strange inconsistencies. He’s a controversial figure, a one-off. I make as much of these things in my book as the original texts do. What is different is how I frame them. What is implicit becomes more explicit.
I really admire the way that Ramakrishna moves so seamlessly between different genders and roles. There’s a natural flirtatiousness, a boy-like charm. He cross-dresses. He’s often a flirt and a coquette. His approach to gender is intensely modern, but some of his views may come over as rather conservative. It’s just a matter of perspective. He is often considered to be all things to all people. Hinduism celebrates the idea of the Pair of Opposites (Kali both creates and destroys, for example). This notion really fascinates me, and Ramakrishna seems to personify it. Western thought eschews such ideas, thinking they represent madness, hypocrisy, or inconsistency. But people are generally walking contradictions. Hinduism not only recognizes this tendency but actively celebrates it, which is both wonderful and profoundly liberating.
I think it’s inevitable that misunderstandings will emerge when people write about faith, and Hinduism is an amazing religion. There’s so much about it that we haven’t yet grasped in the West. The temptation to highlight the most controversial facets is naturally going to be a strong one. This, married with an ascendant cultural, social, and political conservatism in India (and the dreadful legacy of colonialism) makes a measure of rancor all but inevitable I fear.
Author/Journalist Ann Louise Bardach won the PEN USA Award for Journalism in 1994 and has written about Vivekananda in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal Magazine, along with other writings on Vedanta.