Top positive review
a lively, unusual and creative novel
21 November 2016
This is such a lively, unusual and creative novel. Do read it! There are several narrators - most notably, Hriday, the put-upon nephew of the great nineteenth century Bengali guru, Sri Ramakrishna, whose story is loosely told in what are a linked series of highly imaginative anecdotes.
The guru himself – who refused to be a called a guru – continually breaks down people’s expectations of how he or they should behave, being at turns childish and wise, spoilt and utterly selfless – but always unpredictable, except in his extreme devotion to experiencing closeness to God (or Gods) in mystical meditation. Thus when Ramakrishna as a child is honoured by being given the main part in a religious drama, to be acted out in public for the whole town, he shocked everyone by refusing to speak, because he was so intent on being the part he was playing.
Ramakrishna was an historical personage (1836-1886), whose followers founded a number of religious movements, some of which persist to this day. Despite the fact that he wrote and preached extremely unsystematically, he was a significant tolerant and creative force in the renaissance of Bengali culture and more broadly in Indian religion and philosophy. Figures as diverse as Gandhi, Tagore, Tolstoy and the contemporary composer Philip Glass have acknowledged his influence. His teachings spanned most facets of life, but it seems from this novel that it was his carefree, alert and dedicated life-style itself which exerted the most influence. He felt bound by nothing except his devotion to the Godhead – he briefly became a Moslem and later a Christian; he dressed for a long period in women’s clothing; at the behest of his mother he married (a very young girl) but remained chaste; he was the main priest of a major temple but refused to perform many duties (his nephew Hriday did much of the work); and he preached and practised against the caste system.
Barker is equal to the task of capturing this phenomenal, chaotic life-force, as she tells his story in a way which mirrors his character. The narrative jumps about - for example from the musings of the proud Calcuttan heiress whose rich descendant will become a disciple of Ramakrishna, to the devoted narrative of Hriday in1857, and back to the salt pans and salt riots of 1793, from which the Rani’s wealth flowed … but this worked well, for me.