My Life in Orange by Tim Guest

A childhood in the cult of the Bhagwan
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The Independent Culture

It is, surely, the ultimate act of hubris to publish a memoir when still in your twenties. Tim Guest was just 21 when he started marshalling his memories of childhood into the narrative that would become this book. From the first page, however, it's clear that this is not an act of hubris, but catharsis. For Guest has a remarkable story to tell.

He still remembers the loud splash from the bathroom and the sight of his mother, "her arms stained orange up to the elbows, sloshing all her clothes around in the bath". In her frenetic search for meaning, she has stumbled upon a tape called "Meditation: the art of ecstasy" by a man with a long white beard. She writes to the self-styled Bhagwan and gets a letter back, announcing her new name. "She told me she wasn't called Anne any more," says Guest. "Her new name was 'Vismaya' and it meant 'Wonder'. I asked if I could still call her 'Mum'."

So begins a narrative of madness, a tale of breathtaking parental irresponsibility. Shortly after her son's fourth birthday, his mother jets off to India, leaving Tim with his father in Leeds. She stays at the ashram for four months and is only lured back by a photo of Tim with a balloon in the Leeds Evening Post.

It sets the tone for what will follow: a tale of parental absence and sudden moves from one commune to another. "Sometimes," says Guest, "it seemed the only evidence for the past was in the shape of my body: the tough skin on the soles of my feet, from years of walking barefoot over gravel. The tight tendons in my calf, from a lifetime of standing on tiptoes, looking for my mother in an orange crowd."

My Life in Orange is, in fact, two stories. One is an astonishing chronicle of folly, of a generation so desperate to escape the discomfiting uncertainties of what they learnt to call the Western mind that they would do anything they were told by the Bhagwan or his designated deputies. While they attended energetically sexual (and sometimes limb-breaking) naked encounter groups, their children ran wild.

It is also a tale of corruption on a mass scale: not just stashes of cash and fleets of Rolls-Royces, but accounts of poisonings, intrigue and secret tunnels that would be deemed too far-fetched for the average thriller.

The more interesting tale, of course, is the one of a child who lives without moorings, who spends his life seeking the gravity that his mother has rejected. Here Guest comes into his own. His accounts of history, whether that of his parents or of the movement that claimed them, are nicely told, but sometimes fade into a haze of reported detail. It is the visceral detail of his own memories that brings the narrative alive - the rare delight of his father cutting his nails, the grey, fluffy seal he clutched as a talisman - and which, at times, bring tears to the eyes. Guest ends this sad, brave book by wishing his parents "all the luck in the world". I wanted to do the same for him.