Review: The Cauliflower® by Nicola Barker

A slightly irreverent biography of a Hindu saint.



Read: The Cauliflower® by Nicola Barker

Stars: Four

Drinking: Raspberry Leaf Tea, Clipper

I love the cover of this book so much. It’s really evocative of the novel’s humorous tone and yet representative of the story of a man (a saint? a reincarnation of God?) worshiping Kali.

The Cauliflower® is a non-linear, tongue-in-cheek novelization of the life of Sri Ramakrishna, a 19th-century Hindu saint. I occasionally had trouble following the story as it skipped around in time, switched narrators, and skipped from Sri Ramakrishna’s life to philosophical musings about God and Hinduism or poetry. However, this mixed-up way of telling the story highlights how we perceive spiritual people and the myths and legends that grow up around them. It also allows Barker to insert commentary that helps the reader along this journey, like explanations of Hindu beliefs or the history of Kolkata. This commentary adds to the story, rather than distracting.

Barker also highlights two women who had a profound impact on Sri Ramakrishna. The first, known as The Rani, is a wealthy widow who managed her husband’s fortune (with the help of her son-in-law) rather than burn herself on his funeral pyre. It is The Rani who builds the Dakshineswar temple that Sri Ramakrishna lives in for most of his life as a mystic/priest. Her clever leverage of her status as a woman in 19th-century Hindu culture to maintain power is repeatedly commented on by the narrator.

She will become emblematic of something intangible. Of female power, a power that may only exist – and does and will exist- if it remains charming, superficially submissive, unerringlly polite and appropriatly dressed.

The second key woman is known only as the brahmini. She is a traveling priestess who stops for several years to teach Sri Ramakrishna. She  becomes his closest companion during those years, to the point where his nephew, Hriday, one of the narrators, becomes jealous.

A passing observation

First the Rani and now the brahmini? Both negotiating paths of such extraordinary freedom and flexibility within the restricting manacles of nineteenth-century tradtion, sex and caste? How on earth did they manage it?

First answer: Feminine guile!

Second answer: Native wit!

Real answer: Ah Hinduism: This the Pair of Opposites, Binds and releases!

There are three other women in Sri Ramakrishna’s life that are important: his wife, his mother, and Kali. I say less about these three because the first two are your stereotypical “weak” women. The mother is actually referred to as “slow” or “not bright” frequently. His wife, the “Holy Mother,” is apparently quiet and withdrawn, content to live a life of prayer and worship in an unconsummated marriage. She is also at least 25 years younger than her husband and spends much of their marriage at her family’s home, growing up.

Kali dominates the story. It is her right as a goddess, after all. It is she that Sri Ramakrishna worships throughout his spiritual journey. He refers to her as his Mother. He goes to her for advice. He is driven nearly mad trying to experience her divine presence.

Were I to go into all my feelings about The Cauliflower®, this post would become as long as the book. Read it! I’m probably going to read it again because there are so many nuances and observations that I’m sure I missed the first time through.

Review copy kindly provided by Random House UK through NetGalley.


Author: Lisa M Fry

Freelance writer & copy-editor. Book lover. Feminist. American in London.

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