Tim Guest gives an insider’s view of how a charlatan fooled many people most of the time in his childhood memoir of life in a commune.
My Life in Orange
by Tim Guest
Granta £12, pp300
A large slice of my childhood was spent living in a commune in Norfolk, and a great deal of what Tim Guest recounts in his memoir of growing up as a child of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – in communes such as Medina Rajneesh in Suffolk, as well as Pune in India, Oregon and Cologne – stirs memories.
I remember the absolute freedom afforded us; I remember the wide-eyed innocence of the adults. My father reminded me recently of the time when a friend of his who lived in a commune near Cambridge turned vegetarian and remarked to him a few days later, with an ecstatic expression on his face: ‘My shit is so wonderful!’
I also remember the powerful sway Eastern mysticism could hold over people. A friend was adopted by a couple who fell under the influence of an Indian guru; they took the child to India, changed his name; then, back in England, convinced he was a wrong ‘un, made him parade around the village wearing a sign which said: ‘I am evil; do not speak to me.’
The quest for answers, for truth, for God, whatever, drove them east; it also impelled Tim Guest’s mother. From a strict Catholic upbringing to sex and drugs in the Sixties, she had founded and lived in a series of communes – ‘Marxist, Marxist-Feminist, Alternative Socialist’ – but had never been happy. In each one, Guest quips: ‘She had argued, from different basic principles, over whose turn it was to do the washing-up.’
Then, one day, she dyed all their clothes orange; later, she consulted the I Ching over whether she should visit Bhagwan in India – and off she went. From there, Guest’s secure childhood in a northern town was turned upside down as mother and son moved to the commune.
Guest provides considerable insight into what appealed to her and thousands of others about Bhagwan – his notions concering love and sex, the obligatory hedonism, the wild dancing, the music. He also makes no bones of the fact that he thinks Bhagwan was a charlatan, noting early on the guru’s obsession with magic tricks and hypnotism.
His true intent is amply demonstrated by his pronouncements. At one stage, he decided his special mediums (the ones who danced in front of him during ‘Energy Darshans’) must have big breasts (‘I have been tortured by small-breasted women for many lives. I will not do it in this life!’).
His dictum on children – that the best way to honour and respect the child is to let him be – has some value. But the flipside of this is neglect; when Bhagwan tells Guest’s mother: ‘You have two millstones around your neck: your lover and your son. All you have to do is get rid of them, and you will fly’, you want to leap up and set fire to his beard.
Childhood memoirs are legion in this navel-gazing age, and most of them are hard-luck tales. Guest’s story (being shunted around the world, only rarely seeing either of his parents, constantly wrongfooted by the doolally pronouncements of an asthmatic hypnotist) is certainly that.
However, the self-pity is kept to a minimum, while the personal insight registers high on the scale. The clarity with which Guest recalls periods such as his time in Pune makes this a valid document of a remarkable experience, and there’s enough vivid remembrances of things which are common to any childhood to give it universal appeal.