“The Cauliflower” by Nicola Barker


The Cauliflower® is a playful and provocative investigation of faith, and of how a spiritual master’s legacy is ensured. It raises many questions, including, even before the book’s been opened the ® symbol in the title. It is perhaps a joke that, notwithstanding people’s best attempts, ideas can’t be trademarked. Fifty pages in, one may well start asking whether this is a novel at all or whether that even matters. Although The Cauliflower® does have a reasonably conventional narrative thread running through it—the biography of Sri Ramakrishna, the beloved, mid-19th-century Hindu guru, as told, in the present tense, by his nephew, Hriday—it includes much else besides.

There are excerpts from a variety of texts, notably from The Song of Solomon, which weaves through from the opening page (Catch us the foxes, / The little foxes that spoil the vines…) to the final page (We have a little sister, / And she has no breasts…) What did Barker intend with these references to the Song of Solomon? I’m not sure, and I suspect every reader of The Cauliflower® will come up with their own answer, or answers.

The Cauliflower, Nicola Barker (Henry Holt, August 2016; William Heinemann, April 2016)
The Cauliflower, Nicola Barker (Henry Holt, August 2016; William Heinemann, April 2016)

Meanwhile, Barker also offers an excerpt from Bleak House, in which Mr Skimpole claims to covet nothing: “I almost feel as if YOU ought to feel grateful to ME for giving you the opportunity of enjoying the luxury of generosity.” This is presumably a nudge to the reader to consider the likely fraudulence, knowing or otherwise, of spiritual masters. Certainly, Barker later has fun with what would be called Sri Ramakrishna’s more grasping side, if he were, say, a modern televangelist.

As well as references to other texts, there are also many haikus. Some are questioning:


Sri Ramakrishna —
Who gave you this moniker?
What is your true name?

Others offer spiritual advice:


Be a cast-off leaf —
Just blown by the wind,
And you will find God


Others offer general observations, advice on diet, and so on and so forth.


Even when writing prose, Barker eschews chapters in favor of short sections. She introduces these with notes explaining, in italics, what they are—Twelve slightly impertinent questions about Ma Kali—or where in time and space they are set: Late at night in Sri Ramakrishna’s room at the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, August 1884. There are “Several pages of lost and quite badly water-damaged jottings by an amateur anthropologist.” A little later there is a letter from a Victorian miss explaining that cauliflower made Sri Ramakrishna “subject to the most horrendous trapped wind.”

There are history lessons, and lessons on Hinduism. There are excursions into movie-land—one of Sri Ramakrishna’s benefactors, Rani Rashmoni, who is not a rani at all, was in 1955 the subject of a movie, and Barker has her “perpetually trapped inside the celluloid version of her own life.”

So: is this a novel, and does it matter one way or the other?

There is a diversion from Calcutta/Kolkata to the Camargue to discuss the relationship between Black Sara, saint of the Romanies, and Kali, whose devouring presence looms over this book. There is an interesting explanation of why Kali wears a necklace of skulls. I always thought the skulls represented demons she’d killed, or people she’d liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth, but according to Barker:


The fifty skulls that Ma Kali wears around her neck represent the fifty letters of the ancient Sanskrit alphabet. Kali creates worlds and she creates words. The ancient concept of the logos is contained here and originated here (long before St John thought of it or wrote about it in his exquisite gospel), nestled in the murky bosom of the Black Mother.


Whether or not you agree the origin of the concept logos, at least as used by St John, has anything to do with Kali, and whether or not you agree the skulls round Kali’s neck represent letters, it is a really interesting idea that they do. Inevitably, in a book about Kali, set mostly in Calcutta/Kolkata and its environs, there is a section devoted to Mother Teresa.


So: is this a novel, and does it matter one way or the other? Of course it doesn’t matter—labels are too often reductive. But Barker herself throws a nod to the question. In her afterword, written in her own voice, presumably, she says:


This novel (if I can call it that) is truly little more than the sum of its many parts. It’s a painstakingly constructed, slightly mischievous and occasionally provocative / chaotic mosaic of many other people’s thoughts, memories and experiences. I have not lived in the nineteenth century. I have never met Sri Ramakrishna. I am not a practicing Hindu. I have never visited Calcutta.


Perhaps this is intended as a comment on the status we should accord novels, particularly historical novels, or even on the possibility of writing any historical novel which has anything interesting to say.


Barker’s style defies easy labels too. She jumps about in time, and tense, and place, and point of view. She is fond of knowing asides, and of comments on her own text, and of repetition, and of the informal language of speech, and of exclamations, and of questions, without or without answers, and of lists, and of italics for emphasis, and of emoticons—smiley and sad faces.

The design of her text, as well as its style, is playful. The anthropologist’s jottings, and the letter about the cauliflower, are both presented in fonts resembling handwriting. Barker consistently has the word salt in bold type. Salt is the seasoning running through The Cauliflower perhaps a hint that we are supposed to take it all with a pinch of salt. In any case, one learns that the Bangladeshi word for salt, lobon, also means nun, which is interesting, especially if the mind takes “a quick jink” towards Mother Teresa. Although what is one supposed to do with this information, given that modern Bangladesh is Muslim.


I would love to know what Indian readers make of The Cauliflower. It is plainly intended for readers in the West. Barker finds it necessary to spell out information that will be familiar in any country with a large Hindu population:


This strange Aum, this sound, this process, is embedded and celebrated in the Hindu faith by dint of its mystical triumvirate – its holy trinity – of three gods: Brama (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer).


Reliance on haiku, a form so closely associated with Japan, is perhaps curious, as is her suggested naming of a couple of temple cats yin and yang, which is odd given the context of Hinduism—it suggested a lumping together of India and China as “The East”.

But that’s nit-picking. The Cauliflower® is well-worth reading for its inventiveness, its funniness, and its energy—and also because we surely need investigations of faith which dare to hint we should take the whole idea with a large pinch of salt.

Rosie Milne runs Asian Books Blog. She lives in Singapore.