A fictionalised biography of the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna penned out of a writerly obsession is an insufficient description of The Cauliflower (William Heinemann, £16.99). Comic, irreverent and often mystifying, it explores faith, history and vegetables.
Why did you feel Sri Ramakrishna’s story should be retold?
I’ve been fascinated by Sri Ramakrishna for most of my adult life, simply because he is such a complex and funny character. And I think his ideas about faith can teach us a huge amount in the current climate where everything – in the religious sphere – is often so polarised and unbending and dogmatic. Sri Ramakrishna was a simple genius, a great saint, a contradiction in terms, a perplexing puzzle. Was he man or God? Very little is known of the historical Jesus or Mohammed, but plenty is known about Sri Ramakrishna. At root, this book is about how faiths are formed and how they persist.
You take a very playful approach to the story. How much of it is rooted in research and how much creative license did you employ?
I say nothing about Sri Ramakrishna that hasn’t been previously documented by other people – often in first-hand accounts. The book is not really my work so much as a complex mosaic of other people’s love, dedication and research. My contributions are merely the frosting.
Why do you dedicate the book to victims of honour crime?
Around 5,000 women and girls worldwide are murdered, each year, for the sake of “honour”. It’s a horrifying statistic. And I must confess to hating the use of the term “honour” in relation to these killings. There’s nothing remotely honourable (or grand or noble) about them. It’s an issue of control, ignorance, arrogance, misogyny, and – worst of all – pride. These women are killed by the very people who should be defending, validating and protecting them. One of the main characters featured in my book is a woman called Rani Rashmoni. She was from a low caste, became a widow in her thirties, had little formal education, but through a combination of natural intelligence, great imagination and sheer chutzpah managed to generate an extraordinary amount of good in the restrictive social, religious and cultural world of early 19th century Bengal. She’s an incredible role model for women around the world who feel powerless, brutalised and dispossessed.
What is the significance of the cauliflower?
The cauliflower in the book represents the struggle between innocence and responsibility. Sri Ramakrishna, the book’s chief protagonist, dedicates his entire life to God, but to do this successfully he needs to exploit his put-upon nephew, Hriday, who acts as his servant. Ramakrishna suffers from terrible stomach disorders and flatulence so cannot eat certain vegetables, but he is given a cauliflower as a gift by a disciple. He tries to hide it from his exasperated nephew, who makes a huge public scene snatching it from him. Hriday loves Ramakrishna so much that he ends up brutalising him. The cauliflower is actual (it’s a true story, believe it or not), but also symbolic. Sometimes worshipping God isn’t as selfless an act as it might appear, and sometimes love can be terribly cruel. These contradictions are very much a part of life and faith. Nothing is straightforward.
You explore faith in this novel, as in In The Approaches. What is it you are attempting to understand about it and are you religious yourself?
A series of religious visions/experiences I had as a child have led to my always having a profound interest in ideas of faith and transcendence. All of my books – to a greater and lesser extent – engage with these themes. To me, faith is love. Just love. And each person will find their own route to transcendence by experiencing love, and its’ necessary by-product, self-abnegation. It’s a crass platitude, but the more you give the more you receive. That’s what faith is to me.
Tell me about the structure of the novel and why you chose it.
The book is unstructured (although actually very structured) and funny (although extremely serious). The style of the book expresses the perplexing character of Sri Ramakrishna himself.
What’s your opinion of the appropriation of yogic practices, and associated practices like mindfulness, in the west?
I wrote this book as a kind of love letter to Hinduism. which I think is sometimes undervalued in the West – thought of as just a primitive form of idol worship. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. Hinduism is one of the most wonderful, subtle, sublime, sophisticated, clever and complex faiths out there. Anything we can learn from it in the west is useful and valuable. If my book can add to a general sense of how glorious a faith it is, and how much we still have to glean from it, then I’ll be very happy – I’ll consider my job well done.
Tell me about your sleep disorder – does it inspire your spirituality or your writing or both?
I suffered some damage to my pineal gland – which Descartes calls the seat of the soul – as a baby after a severe bout of pneumonia. This means that sometimes images from my dreams leak into my waking life. I guess this has always given me a sense of how fragile one’s own perceptions actually are – how fragile reality is. There’s a line in The Little Prince which goes something like “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly what is essential is invisible to the eye.” I think that pretty much perfectly sums up my life (and spiritual) philosophy.