“Eventually he would be called God. Avatar. Paramahamsa. he would be called The Great Swan.”
I have been putting off reviewing Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower for about 7 months now, for two reasons. The first reason is that it has taken me time to truly understand and process what I think and feel about this book. Secondly, this review will probably achieve the impossible by pissing off both right wing conservatives and left wing liberals in India–so yeah, I have been dreading this.
But the heat and humidity have conceivably turned off my instinct for self-preservation, so here we go.
My interest in this book was first spiked when I saw the cover of the UK edition (here if you want to see it) which in my opinion is the better one. It was clear right from the cover that the two main characters in this book were the Goddess Kali, and Sri Ramakrishna. I have always been fascinated by his life, and even as a child had read some books and comics that detailed his life. Needless to say, this was a book that I had to read.
The book, a fictionalized biography of the eccentric Indian saint Sri Ramakrishna (better known to the West as the Guru of Swami Vivekananda), turns the concept of a historical novel on its head. It does away with the traditional trappings of the genre, and becomes a weird kaleidoscope instead.
One of the narrators is the writer herself, and the other is Sri Ramakrishna’s nephew, Hridayram. These two voices carry us on a random, almost stream of consciousness journey through time and space. There is no linearity–we jump from thought to thought, from character to character, from past to present within the blink of an eye. One must be a very alert reader indeed to keep up with the author.
Interspersed with the text itself are haikus, excerpts from the Song of Solomon, letters from Western visitors to Sri Ramakrishna’s ashram etc. The form and structure are fluid. While this grants the book literary merit, it makes for a confusing and painstaking reading experience. For those readers who do not mind the experimental, for whom reading is not a passive act, this book is a great choice. I certainly enjoyed this crazy, unpredictable aspect of the book.
What I do question however, is whether the author is the right person to write this book. She describes the book as “a small (even pitiable) attempt to understand how faith works, how a legacy develops, how a spiritual history is written.” Given that, Sri Ramakrishna’s life is a perfect candidate, seeing how he himself approached faith using many roads–including Islam and Christianity. An objective exploration of his life would have made for an engrossing narrative.
Unfortunately, the writer, in my opinion, is anything but objective. By her own admission, she is not a practicing Hindu, has not lived in the time of Sri Ramakrishna, or met him, and has not even visited Calcutta. She claims this makes her “dispassionate”. From my point of view it makes her not aware enough.
I am not saying that Western authors cannot or must not write about Hinduism or India. But representation matters, and especially in the case of sensitive topics like religion, an “own voices” narrative is far more necessary. The author’s knowledge about Sri Ramakrishna, his life, and Hinduism as a whole, comes from books (the list of which she has helpfully provided at the end), but such once-removed knowledge is hardly something that one should base a novel such as this on, especially when it is based on an actual person, and when it deals with a religion as complicated and multi-hued as Hinduism.
There are indications throughout the narrative that the intended audience for this book are Non-Hindu, Western readers. I know from personal and anecdotal experience that Hinduism is a largely misunderstood religion in the West. Unfortunately, I doubt that this book will do anything to help the people reading it gain any real understanding of the religion or its practitioners. If anything, it may reinforce pre-existing ideas and prejudices. This is not to say that Hinduism is not flawed–like every other religion it has its positives and negatives, but unless one has context –through personal experience, it is not possible to make that distinction. I have that context; the intended audience does not.
That said, I do not and will not support the banning of this book, if that ever happens. I believe, very sincerely, that a ban, a suppression of a point of view, achieves nothing. If one believes that a particular book spreads misinformation, then the solution is to write a better book, or make other attempts to clarify. Speak out against what you do not like or do not agree with; do not attempt to silence it. I am for freedom of speech and expression–for all parties.
In conclusion, The Cauliflower is a difficult read both in terms of form and content. It is not a book that one should pick up if one is not willing to put in the effort, both intellectually and emotionally. There is much to criticize here, but there is also much to appreciate, and it is the task of the reader to find that balance.
FTC disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.
Author Bio: https://us.macmillan.com/author/nicolabarker/