I wasn’t interested in the idea of the Lord’s plan’s or faith being tested. As far as I was concerned, if they had such clear ideas about how not to live life, it was my parents’ job to provide one that worked. I wasn’t interested in things turning out in a way they hadn’t expected or hoped for. They’d deliberately engineered me to be weird, so it was their job to provide an environment where I fitted in. And if I hadn’t turned out how they wanted me to, they should have brought me up somewhere that was more conducive to shaping me to the way they wanted.
The temples were full of people in the 1980s, in Belfast, Dublin and on Inis Rath. People often moved between them, back and forth. My parents bought a house in County Wicklow, as it was cheaper than Dublin. Along with another family with young children, they wanted to build a community, assuming it would grow and grow like the temples had and we could live our lives within it, largely removed from the outside world. More families followed but community living didn’t quite work out as hoped, making democratic decisions was fraught and they couldn’t agree on what to do about a school. So we had two tiny community schools – one with four children and one with six. We got fed up and moved up north to the island, where low and behold, making democratic decisions was difficult and they couldn’t decide what to do about a school. We had various different teachers in a cold old building, then in one of the family’s living rooms, then it was me and the two girls next door, with our mothers taking turns, then it was just me and my mum. She tells me I was very stubborn and resisted her efforts to hothouse me. I did read the copy of Animal Farm she gave me although the political allegory completely escaped me (I was eight). I wonder why she didn’t go for a more conventional approach to providing a bright child with some stretch and challenge, like sending me for piano lessons or something. Perhaps it was because we lived in the middle of nowhere and my poor father already drove me to Belfast every Saturday for dance classes.
My dad was tired of sitting on a conflict ridden temple council. We moved to Belfast because the team who ran the temple were happy to have him on board. There were a few other children. I remember summers, running around on the lawn. I also remember hanging around, waiting for my mother to finish her seemingly endless service. I liked the temple, I liked helping in the kitchen and serving the feast, I liked my collection of honorary aunts. But the congregation started to dwindle, people stopped coming, started moving away. I went to visit friends on Inis Rath and Dublin during the school holidays.
We hung around on the island, a roaming pack of bored teenagers. Together we sat around on the quay, dangling our feet in the lake. We sat around and ate and talked, waiting for something to happen. We talked about how we were supposed to get married. It wasn’t unusual for people to get married in their late teens or early twenties. Where were these spouses supposed to come from? Maybe they would just magically turn up out of the blue one day.
I feel like the adults expected us to be fully formed mini adults, magically coming into the world with religious sentiment, focus and clear religious conviction so strong as to override there being few people around and not much to do. There is a story about a child saint named Prahlad – we were not Prahlad. We weren’t interested in chanting, prayer or reading scripture. We hung around, waiting for Janmastami at the end of August – we wanted festivals and fun. We wanted to dance. We also wanted to immerse ourselves in maya and nonsense: watch tv, listen to pop music, buy jeans, wear make up. We wanted to belong. We didn’t quite fit in at school, yet we were slowly moving away from the world we had grown up in, in part because it was dwindling. Our parents had deliberately withdrawn from mainstream society and surrounded themselves with people who shared their beliefs. They chose to follow the rules and regulations and shape a life that was in many ways incompatible with mainstream society.
We listened to the adults talking about the outside world. Some of them made it sound like a scary, unpredictable place, a school of hard knocks. They talked about materialists simply enjoying themselves and materialists trying and failing to enjoy themselves. To me it seemed most people outside our community had slightly dull lives with jobs, family obligations and mortgages; I wasn’t sure how much this ‘enjoyment’ factored into it. We were somehow supposed to have absorbed our parents’ life experience without much of our own. I wasn’t quite sure their idea of the world matched up with my admittedly limited experience of it.
The idea of withdrawing from the world is one that interests me. I’ve written about it in more depth here but we knew people who had some awful experiences in life and felt withdrawing from the world was the best choice. Others had seemingly normal lives but felt there was more to life. All of them talked about profound religious experiences. I often heard a narrative of people failing to see or find any meaning in life and immersing themselves in drugs, alcohol and promiscuity before finding God and embracing a polar opposite lifestyle. This was often framed as a journey of discovery and exhaustive search.
I recently watched a four part documentary series on BBC3 called Young, Welsh and Pretty Religious. It followed a number of young people in Wales including a sky diving Muslim woman who wore the full veil, a young Jewish woman, a pagan, an evangelical Christian and a Hare Krishna monk named Gopal Roy. I was curious about what he said about joining the temple. He talked about going to parties, lots of sex and drugs. He said he thought he could keep doing that until he died or he could join the temple. I hadn’t heard this sort of story in years. I thought this was a thing of the past, when counterculture still existed. I also found it quite odd. A binary choice almost sounded fatalistic. Don’t most people who party hard usually leave that behind at university or in their early twenties, then get sensible jobs and settle into a calmer life. None of my peers were ever party hard types; it’s a foreign world to me. My peers, wholesome, high achieving young women who belonged to choirs, went swimming, volunteered at a local primary school and bought a nice bottle of wine at the weekend.
Going to a normal school was viewed as a bit of a last resort but I liked school and did well. Doing well was my salvation, my compensation for being weird and awkward. And my ticket out of Belfast. My mother was worried the other girls at school would be a bad influence. She needn’t have worried. I wasn’t interested in hanging out on street corners, drinking cheap cider or snogging boys who wore tracksuits. Ugh. My best friend and I made apple pies, tested each other on our French verbs and watched old episodes of Blackadder with her sister.
I think I was meant to turn out super religious, bursting with devotional sentiment. Wear my hair long and glossy in a plait and fill my days with productive service at the temple. Marry someone nice from the community. Everyone would nod and approve and say what a nice girl I was and wasn’t it so encouraging to see the youth so enthusiastic. Mostly I talked about going to a good university and getting a good job. A fruitive worker. I can’t help but laugh that growing up in a religion that tried to eschew materialism made me decide that financial stability was paramount.
There also wasn’t much for us to tap into at the temple as teenagers. I’m not sure I entirely trusted the adults. Retrospectively, a part of me sees it as a series of social experiments which didn’t quite go to plan. What happened? I don’t think it turned out how anyone had hoped. We ended up in a bizarre half-way house, our lives built around a temple that grew ever emptier. Life choices had been made around immersing ourselves in religion but now they seemed to be about money. We talked endlessly about leaving Belfast but we couldn’t afford to – the house prices just didn’t stack up compared to anywhere else. My dad had kittens every time I talked about going to UCL.
I decided I needed to go in search of excitement, something to compensate for how dull the Belfast temple was. I had two jobs the summer after my GCSEs – sanding walls for a house painter and helping a friend of my mum’s with her pakora van. I bought my plane ticket for the next summer and a few of us went to America. Our bored gaggle of Irish teenagers didn’t do kirtan but I was amazed at how musical this lot were, how good the kirtans were. I remember one evening when Acutya Gopi sang. We danced and danced until there was no grass left, only mud. This was what it was supposed to be like! (The contrast between this and Belfast was rather marked. In Belfast, 15 people turned up on a Sunday and my dad hid all the kartals in the cupboard because it drove him mad when people played them out of time. ‘For God’s sake’, he sighed in the car on the way home. ‘You could play them in time when you were three!)
I was jealous of the bharatanatyam dancers. They had had years of dance training since they were little. Next to all these dancers and kirtaniyas, I felt a bit useless and green-eyed. A big group of us sat in a circle and everyone was encouraged to share something with the group (Americans, eh?). I didn’t say anything and just passed the microphone to the person next to me. I wanted to tell them how they had no idea how lucky they were. To have a sizeable community to belong to, to have proper kirtans and an opportunity to learn to do it, to have the chance to learn to dance. To have something so rich, so concrete to show for it, to have something wonderful to contribute. What did I have to show for it? A massive identity crisis, a lingering sadness, an odd sense of poignancy at things that never were. A sense of time lost, the things that could have been achieved while we were hanging around and make it all worthwhile.
I didn’t want to have to question anything. I didn’t want to dance between two worlds. I wanted life to work. I wanted the temple to provide a rich and interesting life. I didn’t want a set of rules and life choices that left us a bit lonely and broke. Surely my parents wouldn’t have made life choices that left me nowhere. They seemed so clear about how we shouldn’t live our lives, they must surely have a viable alternative up their sleeves.
New comers often told us we were lucky (it does say in the Bhagavad-Gita, chapter 6, verse 42 ‘Verily, such a birth is rare in this world’) but I was grumpy and confused. I was meant to be focused on God, but I was focused on ideas of normality and being weird. I didn’t understand why things had turned out the way they had but somehow my experience was wrong. I was viewing things from an external perspective. I was meant to be taking the long view. (I remember meeting an American who told me he didn’t care if his daughter felt weird or as if she didn’t fit in; he cared about her understanding the higher purpose of life.)
Let’s go back to the previously quoted Chakravarti Ram-Prasad, Distinguished Professor at Lancaster University’s Department of Religious Studies. In a Radio 4 programme about the Bhagavad-Gita he talks about the Hindu belief in reincarnation, describing the world as a ‘house of sorrow’ which people hope to escape from by achieving moksa or liberation. Followers aim to rid themselves of worldly desires and attachments in order to be freed from ‘the cycle of birth, death, disease and old age’.
I should have been delighted, bursting with gratitude that I had been set on the path to escape this ‘house of sorrow’ but I was confused and hesitant. If following this path had got us where it had, I wasn’t convinced. I also felt guilty for being critical. I observed my dad’s mid-life crisis, the in-between jobs that he hated but did to pay the bills, the career change that didn’t quite take off. My parents had drifted into living almost separate lives until they did separate. Dad was tired out by his attempts to keep the temple running alongside a full-time job. He was fed up of doing the accounts and weary of congregational meetings where everyone was very keen to list the temple’s shortcomings but unwilling to actually do anything to contribute.
The Bhagavad Gita does address this conflict, comparing those stuck in the middle to riven clouds. The commentary to verse 38, chapter six says: ‘When one takes to the path of Transcendence, one has to cease all material activities and sacrifice all forms of so-called material happiness. If the aspiring transcendentalist fails, then he apparently loses both ways; in other words, he can enjoy neither material happiness nor spiritual success.’ But ‘he is still not a loser’ (6:40) because his endeavour ‘is never forgotten, and one so engaged will continue to be so … in the next life’ (ibid).
There we were in the land of the riven clouds. But this didn’t make me feel much better. It was too long a game for me to play; talk of lifetimes meant little to me at the beginning of my own. It just seemed easiest to move to London. So I did.
I found a bharatanatyam class near work and spent a year learning to dance with 12 year olds. I felt a bit like one of these women who had never grown out of their childhood dreams of becoming a ballerina. (That said, there are lots of ballet classes for adult beginners.) I was regularly held up as an example for having a neatly put on dance sari, which amused me. I would have liked to continue but found learning with children difficult and we moved house so everything stopped for a while. I’ll go back to it one day, hopefully not too long from now.
I think about this elusive religious experience. I still wonder what life would have been like, had things been different. I remember visiting the primary school attached to Bhaktivedanta Manor and Krishna Avanti Primary School as part of my teacher training programme. I felt another enormous wave of retrospective jealousy. Why hadn’t our efforts at community schooling turned out that like this?
I think about things I’d change and things I wouldn’t but I accept that these are pointless thoughts. Could I just have gone to school with the rest of the four year olds and had a bash at being a bit more normal from the outset? Could we have lived in one place and not moved house all the time? Could we have lived in a semi-detached house in suburban Hertfordshire, near the temple with life and a community and proper kirtans, near the opportunities that London offers? I imagine an alternate life where my dad was an accountant (I have never met anyone else who does so much book-keeping) and my mum was an academic. We wouldn’t have worried about the bills and my mum would have been happier. She would have been Head of World Religions and Theology at Brunel perhaps. (She would have taught a class called ‘The significance of sanctified food in pilgrimages made by foot in 14th century Bengal’ about Madhavendra Puri and Ksira-Chora Gopinatha. No doubt she would have brought her students some cardamom laced sweet rice to try and brought her harmonium in and taught them to sing Gopinatha.)
I still wonder about this person I felt I was supposed to be and how I felt it was an impossible burden. I did have one clear idea: I should be a cook like my mum. Able to make things, good at things that required skill. Able to churn out pakoras, samosas, kachoris, chapatis, puris, parathas, sweet rice, halava and gulabs. I’m getting there.
Part of this is about feeling I have something to show for it all. Srila Prabhupada (AC Bhaktivedanta Swami) said that many people can really only relate to kirtan and prasadam (sanctified food) and I feel I might be in that camp. I’ve said it before, but those really are the parts I wouldn’t change as they make life so much richer. A friend pointed out that he (Prabhupada) also said that we should chant and be happy. I spend my week looking forward to the Friday kirtan. Chant and be happy it is then: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bUMg2wVSC8&t=504s.