A headily curry-scented tale, part fable and part imaginative biography, by postmodern maven Barker (In The Approaches, 2014, etc.).
Devotees of Indian religious thought will know at least the name of Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th-century guru who was deeply influential in the spread of Vedanta and other expressions of modern theistic Hinduism. He is perhaps less well known as the illiterate keeper of a temple to Kali who was as devoted to its benefactor, the widow Rani, as to the goddess. Barker calls her lively reconstruction of this episode “a painstakingly constructed, slightly mischievous, and occasionally provocative/chaotic mosaic.” That’s about right, though the chaotic parts deserve underscoring, especially when they involve such odd turns as an anachronistic point of view delivered by a camera fitted to a certain bird, which in turn yields a couple of Python-esque moments; catch one and see, Barker counsels: “This shouldn’t be too difficult because the pre–1855 Indian swift is quite silly and highly accident-prone….” Why the ploy? Kali only knows. Her name lies hidden in the very title of the book, though the actual cabbage kin has a role, too, as does the Bengali city of Kolkata, which means “field of Kali,” where such a vegetable might be grown. Suspend disbelief while you’re catching the bird, and suspend the ordinary expectations of plot development; still, this is no postmodern, attention-deficit-begging exercise in the manner of a Danielewski or Kristeva but instead a more straightforward if still idiosyncratic story that evokes Eleanor Catton and even William Vollmann at points. In the end, that story centers on how faith works and religious communities and traditions are formed, sometimes, it seems, accidentally as much as by design: “The Brahmini has a very controlling manner and is of strong opinions, and after only a very short acquaintance with Uncle she became convinced that Uncle was an incarnation of God.”
Respectful, playful, and often entertaining—though just as often puzzling. Barker’s fans will enjoy the outing, forgiving her quirks.