My Life in Orange
Tim Guest Granta, 301pp, £12
Tim Guest's mother was one of the "Orange People" - a follower of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. At a low ebb one day in the late 1970s, she listened to one of Bhagwan's tapes, on the cover of which was the invitation, "Surrender to me, and I will transform you." Guest himself was five years old. His mother took Bhagwan's advice. She surrendered, and spent most of the next decade traipsing from one commune to another in England, India, Germany and America. This book, which is terrific and rather sad, is the story of what happened to poor Tim during his childhood as an involuntary Orange person.
At the age of five, the author's life was already quite complicated. His mother had studied psychology at the University of Sheffield; his father, a Captain Beef-heart fan, was "one of the wilder, freakier members of staff". But the relationship didn't last; she fell in love with another man when he was six months old. She was a committed feminist, she experimented with sex and drugs, she was interested in the wacky theories of R D Laing. When she heard Bhagwan's tape, she wrote him a letter. "I felt you were speaking to a part of me that has never been spoken to before," she said.
What was Bhagwan's attraction? In 1979, he was presiding over an ashram, a religious retreat, in the countryside outside Bombay. Born in 1931, he had been brought up by his grandparents, who spoilt him rotten. Bhagwan had grown up believing in his own greatness; he meditated, allowed snakes to crawl over his body, and dived into the local river during heavy storms, believing he was invincible. When he was 21, he saw a blinding flash of light and underwent a religious conversion - to himself. He insulted Christ. He referred to Mother Teresa as "Teresa the Terrible". He called Gandhi a "pervert" because he wouldn't sleep with his wife. One of Bhagwan's mottoes was "leap before you look". He believed that people would become enlightened if they took lots of drugs and had lots of sex; on the cusp of the 1980s, thousands of washed-up hippies wanted to believe it, too.
Bhagwan's philosophy was simple: he didn't have one. He believed in sex, in telling jokes, and in contradicting himself. "My whole approach is that of humour," he said, ". . . not truth. Not God. Not virtue." He was a showman. Every morning, he would drive a white Rolls-Royce 150 metres from his mansion to the ashram's auditorium, where he made speeches to his 6,000 followers, often using jokes cribbed from Playboy and Penthouse. He said the contraceptive pill was "the greatest revolution since fire was discovered". Later in the day, he would hold "special Darshans" with female disciples.
And what effect did this have on Tim Guest? The children "needed comfort. We needed a place to stash our Lego. We needed our home." At one point, desperate, he writes, "I wanted my mum." But his mum was permanently on the move, helping to run communes in Suffolk, Cologne and Oregon. Tim went with her, dragged along in her slipstream. As the book goes on, the communes become increasingly desperate and corrupt places; we watch as Bhagwan accumulates Rolls-Royces (he ended up with 93) and as he dictates his work, high as a kite, sitting in a dental chair and sucking laughing gas from a canister.
Bhagwan preached the "three Ls - Life, Love and Laughter". But he also said: "Unless you become consciously insane, you can never become sane." This is an excellent study of what happens when a charismatic leader comes into contact with a group of rudderless, dispirited people. They follow him blindly. They let him get away with anything.
All sorts of people will read this book and make interesting connections with their own experience. But I don't think Tim Guest's mum will like it much.