“Maddening, funny, playful and beautiful…Barker has once again invigorated an old form the historical biographical novel through electric wit and sheer bedazzlement.”
The Washington Post
To the world, he is Sri Ramakrishnagodly avatar, esteemed spiritual master, beloved guru. To Rani Rashmoni, she of low caste and large inheritance, he is the brahmin fated to defy tradition. But to Hriday, his nephew and longtime caretaker, he is just Unclemaddening, bewildering Uncle, prone to entering trances at the most inconvenient of times, known to sneak out to the forest at midnight to perform dangerous acts of self-effacement, who must be vigilantly safeguarded not only against jealous enemies and devotees with ulterior motives, but also against that most treasured yet insidious of sulfur-rich vegetables: the cauliflower.
Rather than puzzling the shards of history and legend together, Barker shatters the mirror again and rearranges the pieces. The result is a biographical novel viewed through a kaleidoscope. Dazzlingly inventive and brilliantly comic, irreverent and mischievous, The Cauliflower delivers us into the divine playfulness of a twenty-first-century literary master.
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About the Author
Nicola Barker is the author of more than ten novels, including The Yips (longlisted for the Man Booker Prize), Darkmans (shortlisted for the Booker and the Ondaatje Prize and winner of the Hawthornden Prize), Clear (longlisted for the Booker), and Wide Open (winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award), and three story collections, including Love Your Enemies (winner of the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award). Her work has been translated into over a dozen languages. She lives in London.
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By Nicola Barker
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2016 Nicola Barker
All rights reserved.
The beautiful Rani Rashmoni is perpetually trapped inside the celluloid version of her own amazing and dramatic life. Of course, every life has its mundane elements — even the Rani, beautiful as she is, powerful as she is, must use the bathroom and clean her teeth, snag her new sari with a slightly torn thumbnail, belch graciously with indigestion after politely consuming an over-fried rice ball prepared by a resentful cook at the house of her oldest yet most tedious friend — but Rani Rashmoni is, nevertheless, the star (the heroine) of her own movie.
How will it all end, we wonder? Temporarily disable that impatient index finger. We must strenuously resist the urge to fast-forward. Because everything we truly need to know about the Rani is already here, right in front of us, helpfully contained (deliciously condensed, like a sweet, biographical mango compote) within the nine modest words engraved in the official seal of her vast and sumptuous Bengali estate: "Sri Rashmoni Das, longing for the Feet of Kali."
Her husband, the late Rajchandra Das — a wealthy businessman, landowner, and philanthropist, twice widowed — first saw her as an exquisitely lovely but poor and low-caste village girl bathing in the confluence of three rivers thirty miles north of Calcutta. He instantly fell in love. She was nine years old.
That was then. But now? Where do we find the Rani today, at the very start of this story which longs to be a film, and eventually (in 1955) will be? We find her utterly abandoned and alone in her giant palace (the guards, servants, and family have all fled, at the Rani's firm insistence). Her poor heart is pounding wildly, her sword is unsheathed, and she is bravely standing guard outside the family shrine room as a local garrison of vengeful British soldiers ransacks her home.
In one version of this story we find the Rani confronting these soldiers. In other versions her palace is so huge and labyrinthine (with more than three hundred rooms) that although the soldiers riot and pillage for many hours, they never actually happen across the Rani (and her sword) as she boldly stands, arm raised, fierce and defiant, just like that extraordinary Goddess Kali whose lotus feet she so highly venerates.
The Rani, like the Goddess, has many arms. Although the Rani's limbs are chiefly metaphorical. And the two arms that she does possess — ending in a pair of soft, graceful, yet surprisingly competent hands — aren't colored a deep Kali-black, but have the seductive, milky hue of a creamy latte. The Rani is modest and humble and devout. The Rani is strictly bound by the laws of caste. The Rani is a loyal wife. The Rani is a mother of four girls. The Rani is a cunning businesswoman. The Rani is ruthless. The Rani has a close and lucrative relationship with the British rulers of Calcutta. The Rani is a thorn in the side of Calcutta's British rulers. The Rani is compassionate and charitable. The Rani always plays by the rules. The Rani invents her own rules.
The soldiers — when they are finally compelled to withdraw on the orders of their irate commanding officer (who has been alerted to these shocking events by the Rani's favorite son-in-law, Mathur) — have caused a huge amount of damage. The Rani wanders around the palace, appraising the mess, sword dragging behind her, relatively unperturbed. She cares little for material possessions. Only one thing shakes her equilibrium. They have slaughtered her collection of birds and animals, worst of all her favorite peacock, her darling beloved, who lies on the lawn, cruelly beheaded, magnificent tail partially unfurled in a shimmering sea of accusing eyes.
1857, the Kali Temple, Dakshineswar (six miles north of Calcutta)
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. It is painful to be parted from Uncle — even briefly. It was ever thus. And it is only when I leave his side — only then, when I am feeling sad and alone and utterly forlorn — that the doubts gradually begin to gnaw away at me. Perhaps I should never leave Uncle's side, and then the doubts will finally be dispelled. Mathur Baba repeatedly instructs me not to do so, never to leave Uncle. (Uncle is a special case, Mathur Baba insists, a delicate flower who must be supported and nurtured at all times — and who else may perform this task if not I, his ever-faithful nephew and helper Hridayram?) I have great sympathy and respect for Mathur Baba's views, but how can I always be with Uncle when I am constantly doing the work that Uncle cannot manage to do himself? Sometimes Uncle is unable to fulfill his duties in the temple and I must perform arati — the sacred worship — on his behalf. Sometimes Uncle sends me to the market for sweets (Uncle has an incredible sweet tooth) or on sundry errands. Even so, I guard Uncle jealously. I am Uncle's shadow. But Uncle is slippery. He can be secretive. Uncle is not as other men.
The family jokes about how Uncle's mother, Chandradevi, gave him birth in the husking shed at Kamarpukur. The old blacksmith's daughter was acting midwife. She was sitting on a stool in the half darkness briefly catching her breath and then suddenly she heard the baby cry out. She leaped forward to take her first good look at the child. But he was nowhere to be found! She and Chandradevi — who is by nature a simple creature — were completely mystified. They both felt their way blindly around the shed until poor Uncle was finally located, hidden in the pit below the husking pedal. In many of our local Bengali folk songs the husking machine — the dhenki — is seen as a kind of phallic symbol. Uncle had fallen straight from one vagina into the deep, dark depths of another! Ah, yes. Looking back on it now it seems only right and natural that Uncle should eventually become a great devotee — perhaps even the greatest-ever devotee — of the Black Mother.
Every story flows from a million sources, but the story of Rani Rashmoni (and therefore, by extension, the story of Sri Ramakrishna — as yet unborn, but already floating like a plump and perpetually smiling golden imp in the navy-blue ether) might easily be said to begin with a pinch of salt. Yes, salt. Sodium chloride. That commonplace, everyday, intensely mundane, yet still precious and once much-contested mineral. Salt. That most revolutionary of crystals.
If we cast our minds back, we see this powerful yet curiously delicate whitish-transparent grain generating ferment (ironically, salt is a preservative) worldwide throughout centuries. Salt is serious; it's no laughing matter — didn't we once look on in awe as the ancient Hebrews gravely made a covenant of salt with their jealous God? And what of Christopher Columbus? Didn't he voyage across the world (leaving in his wake that ugly colonial legacy — that despicable flotsam — of genocide, slavery, and plunder) financed, in the main, by Spanish salt production?
A mere sprinkling of years before the mother of the beautiful Rani Rashmoni gave her birth (in 1793) we see salt riots playing a central role in the American Revolution; the gabelle, a much-loathed salt tax, spurring on the French Revolution a few years later; and beyond that, flowing far off into the future, we see the fragile brown frame of Mahatma Gandhi (a passionate adherent of the philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna) dressed in his humble white dhoti and leading a hundred thousand protestors to the sea — a critical moment in the heroic march toward Indian independence — on his 240-mile Salt Satyagraha.
But the episode we are to briefly dwell upon here is not an especially glorious one. It is little more than a mere technicality, a brief doffing of the cap to Pritiram Das, no less, father of the Rani's husband, Rajchandra, who started off his meteoric business career as a poor and humble clerk in a Calcutta salt-distributing agency.
The story of Sri Ramakrishna started with salt. Salt. Although it's probably equally conceivable that it may have started with sugar, a granule to which Sri Ramakrishna was passionately attached (although he passionately eschewed all earthly attachments). Yes, it's probably equally conceivable that his story may have started with sugar. But it didn't actually start that way. Not this time. Not in this telling. Not here. Not with sugar. Not so far as we are aware. No. The story of Sri Ramakrishna started with salt.
Or — if you feel the sudden urge to rotate it on your tongue in the form Ramakrishna himself would have used — lobon.
Just over the border in Bangladesh (which wouldn't exist until 1971) this same word, lobon, means "nun." And if we think of Calcutta (364 miles from the border) we often think of the free flow of people, of poverty, of refugees, and then our minds sometimes turn (a sharp incline, a small bounce, a quick jink) to Mother Teresa.
1857, the Kali Temple, Dakshineswar (six miles north of Calcutta)
There are so many strange stories I could tell you about Uncle's boyhood. In fact, all the stories of Uncle's boyhood are very curious. It would be difficult for me to recall a single story that is not thus. Uncle was always the weft in the weave. He was singular. Chandradevi tells how she was once holding the baby Uncle in her arms as she was relaxing in the sunlight by a window when she suddenly felt him grow very heavy on her lap. Somewhat alarmed, she quickly lifted Uncle up and placed him down onto a winnowing fan lying on the bed close by. Moments later the fan began to crack, then the bed underneath Uncle started to creak and complain. ... She tried to lift Uncle but she could not. Uncle had become an extraordinary — an unbearable — weight!
Chandradevi — and she is a simple soul, by nature — began to wail. Nearby villagers ran into the house to try and aid her, but she could not be calmed until a ghost charmer was summoned. Only once he had sung a mantra to pacify the spirits could she be persuaded to hold baby Uncle in her arms again.
On a further occasion I have been told how she left Uncle on the bed and turned around for a moment to perform some minor chore or other, and when she turned back again the top half of the baby's body (Uncle could not have been more than three months of age) was hidden inside the nearby bread oven. The oven was cool and full of ashes. Uncle withdrew from the oven and proceeded to roll around on the floor until he was coated from head to toe in white ash (ash, the dust of renunciation — Lord Shiva's habitual raiment). Chandradevi simply could not understand how Uncle — still such a small baby — had crawled into the oven, nor why he now suddenly appeared so large to her as he rolled around. Again she began wailing, inconsolable, until a local woman ran into the house and — apprehending the dreadful scene before her — scolded Chandradevi for her terrible neglect of the child.
On a further occasion Chandradevi had placed the baby Uncle under the mosquito net for a doze. She then went off to perform some small task, but when she returned a fully grown man was sitting under the net in Uncle's place. Chandradevi was dreadfully shocked and alarmed. She simply couldn't understand where her baby had gone. Again, the tears, the wails, the pitiful calls for assistance. But on this occasion it was Kshudiram, Uncle's father, who rushed to her aid. I am told that Kshudiram was always a profoundly devout and holy man. People accused him — just as they do Uncle — of being truthful to the point of mania. In fact, he had lost his fifty-acre family estate in Derapur after a powerful but corrupt local landlord tried to force him to testify falsely in court against an innocent neighbor. When he refused, the landlord's wrath became focused upon Kshudiram himself, culminating in a second court case and the eventual loss of his entire inheritance. Kshudiram, his wife, and his family (Uncle had a sister and two considerably older brothers) were saved from complete destitution only when a kind friend — Sukhlal Goswami of Kamarpukur — stepped in to help him with the offer of a group of huts on his property and a half acre of fertile ground. Kshudiram accepted this gift most gratefully. He thanked his chosen deity, Sri Rama, for it and then — apparently without any bitterness or resentment — he dedicated himself still more heartily to a dignified Brahmin's life of quiet meditation, japa, pilgrimage, and worship.
Every happening in Kshudiram's life was perceived by this devout and well-respected man as a sign from God. On apprehending his wife's distress at Uncle's transformation, for example, he calmly told her to collect herself, hold fast her counsel (to please avoid encouraging the villagers in idle gossip or unnecessary speculation), and simply accept the fact that these strange occurrences were a part of God's divine plan for their son. They were beyond mere human comprehension. Uncle was different. It was ever thus. He was golden. He was special. He was oddly blessed. Most important of all, Uncle was ours. He was ours. He came from us.
Twenty-one years earlier
The streets of Calcutta are flooded with books. Piles of books from England and America. Books in incredible, immense, inconceivable quantities. A veritable infestation of books; a plague!
At every brief stop or blocked intersection people thrust them into carriages or through palanquin windows. Huge consignments of novels and philosophical tomes. Books about free will and independence and revolution. Every kind of book. Sometimes (it occasionally happens) a ship from England or America bound for Calcutta is wrecked at the Cape of Good Hope — the Cape of Storms — and the sandy African beaches are littered with novels. Thousands of novels in colorful mounds, in prodigious literary heaps, in giant fictional dunghills. And the savage wind blows across them (as the savage Cape wind invariably must). Their pages flip and tear and whip over and over and over and over. A million sentences, a billion well-turned phrases, all clamoring for attention. Read me! Read me! Read me! Please.
The gulls circle and then take fright — keening pitifully — at this awful, bright mess of fatally sodden torsos, this tragedy of broken spines, this terrible, deafening flapping and beating of horribly disabled limbs.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter 6 (1852–53)
"I don't mean literally a child," pursued Mr. Jarndyce, "not a child in years. He is grown up ... but in simplicity, and freshness, and enthusiasm, and a fine, guileless inaptitude for all worldly affairs he is a perfect child." ... When we went downstairs we were presented to Mr. Skimpole ... a bright little creature with rather a large head, but a delicate face and a sweet voice, and there was a perfect charm in him. All he said was so free from effort and spontaneous and was said with such a captivating gaiety. ...
"I covet nothing," said Mr. Skimpole. ... "Possession is nothing to me. ... It's only you, the generous creatures, whom I envy. ... I envy you your power of doing what you do. ... I don't feel any vulgar gratitude to you. I almost feel as if you ought to feel grateful to me, for giving you the opportunity of enjoying the luxury of generosity. ... For anything I can tell, I may have come into the world expressly for the purpose of increasing your stock of happiness. I may have been born to be a benefactor to you, by sometimes giving you an opportunity of assisting me in my little perplexities. Why should I regret my incapacity for details and worldly affairs, when it leads to such pleasant consequences?"
Monday, 30th June 1884, at 4:00 p.m.
Sri Ramakrishna (with a melodramatic sigh): "I used to weep, praying to the Divine Mother, 'Oh Mother, destroy with Thy thunderbolt my inclination to reason!'"
Truth Seeker (patently surprised): "Then you, too, had an inclination to reason?"
Sri Ramakrishna (nodding, regretful): "Yes, once."
Truth Seeker (eagerly): "Then please assure us that we shall get rid of that inclination, too! How did you get rid of yours?"
Sri Ramakrishna (with an apparent loss of interest): "Oh ... [flaps hand, wearily] somehow or other."
This is the story of an unlettered sage who spoke only in a rudimentary and colloquial Bengali — described by some commentators as a kind of abstruse haiku. A curiously effete village boy who stammered. Who didn't understand a word of English. Who went to school but wouldn't — yes, wouldn't — read. At a time when the world was ripe with a glossy new secularism — bursting at the seams with revolutionary ideas about Science and Knowledge and Art and Progress — this singular individual would tie his wearing cloth around his hips with an expanse of fabric hanging down at the back to simulate a tail (and him a respectable Brahmin — a temple priest), then leap — with beguiling agility — from tree branch to tree branch, pretending to be an ape. No, worse. Worse even than that. Believing himself to be an ape.
Excerpted from The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker. Copyright © 2016 Nicola Barker. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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