Yes, But Are We Normal Yet?

Image result for inis rath island copyright free images

‘Why can’t we just be normal?’, I would ask my mother.

She always responded with a question – ‘What is normal, anyway?’

‘Well, it’s not us, is it!?”, I would reply indignantly.

I felt irritated that my parents didn’t understand how important being normal, or at least pretending to be normal was. Neither did they understand that we should devote time, energy and effort to our objective: becoming normal.

What was so unusual about us? Well, we belonged to a religious community whose public image I always felt uncomfortable with. Some people view them as lovable eccentrics, others are scathing, some perceive something positive and joyful and some will simply state in a matter of fact way that they are mad. But whatever they think, they will probably never know how much more there is to it, see our world behind closed doors or have my experiences. On one hand, I’d like them to know what it’s really like, on the other I just can’t be bothered.

We lived in Dublin, then Wicklow, then a lake island in Co. Fermanagh, then on the mainland. Our lives were centred around the temple and were regulated by many rules. Maybe I could clumsily compare it to Judaism – the combination of rules and ritual with joy, celebration and food. We didn’t have a television or listen to secular music. Attitudes to sex made Catholicism look liberal and relaxed. We led abstemious, teetotal, caffeine free lives and got up early; worship began at 4:30am for the adults, we children joined in at 7am. We were homeschooled. We started the school day by chanting the Upadesamrta or Brahma Samhita. I preferred the latter and still remember it. Govindam adi purusam tam aham bhajami. We sang all the time; worship through music is central to the bhakti tradition and is called kirtan. There was a song for every time of day. 4:30am, 7am, midday, 7pm. I still like to go to the temple for gaura arati in the evening. Big communal meals were served every day. Fresh rice, dal, subji and chapatis every day for lunch. Food was so plentiful that newcomers always gained weight.

Our clothes were odd, much like our parents’. Long skirts for modesty, woolly jumpers for warmth, slip on shoes for practicality in a shoe free temple, socks for the Northern Irish weather. Did any of our mothers wear make-up? Or even go to the hairdresser’s? We wore our hair long and plaited, trimming each others while standing on a newspaper to catch the trimmings.
I loved the Harry Potter book where the wizards go to the Quidditch world cup and try unsuccessfully to pass as Muggles. It seemed just like us. Maybe if we just got the clothes right, we could at least temporarily fool people into thinking we were normal.
I have many positive memories of the island, but it felt very remote and boring at times. We spent much of our time in the car. You needed to drive miles to get anywhere or access anything. Sometimes we got stuck on the island if the lake was too choppy to cross. It was only accessible by rowing boat; the barge operated periodically. You needed wellies for the endless mud and a life jacket, just in case. We carried torches at all times and a plastic bag to sit on in the boat – the seats were permanently wet from the rain. My dad would row and I bailed out the rain water with an old ghee tin. The barge has been fully operational for many years. It all seems a bit soft to me.
The island was wonderful at festivals, when it was full of people. Days were spent picking flowers and making garlands to decorate the temple room. The smell of the kitchen pervaded the whole building. We got dressed up and French plaited our hair. We were allowed to stay up late and the kirtan went on well into the night. There were lots of festivals, each with their own song. The festivities went on all day and ended with an enormous feast. Full, happy and all danced out, we’d row back over the lake, clutching a plate of leftovers in one hand, hitching up our long dresses with the other to climb into the boat, trying to make sure your cake didn’t end up in the lake.
It was a diverse community. My best friend’s mum was French, our neighbours from Brazil and Latvia. People came to stay in the temple for a while, generally before deciding that such a rural, watery life wasn’t for them. They came from Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, Croatia, the US, Holland and India. Peacocks roamed freely, largely oblivious of the humans. We collected the feathers they shed to put in vases.

Our attempts to buy a derelict cottage on the mainland took longer than expected. We lived in a caravan temporarily and the winter was very cold that year. We woke up one morning to find that the toilet was a solid block of ice and there were thick sheets of ice on the inside of the windows. We had a mortgage in Belfast within eight weeks. We also left because community living wasn’t always so easy. We couldn’t decide what to do about the tiny school and the temple management disagreed frequently.

Belfast held tremendous novelty for us. There was a shop ten minutes walk away! We no longer spent all our time driving everywhere. Unimpressed with my mother’s efforts to hothouse me, I announced I wanted to go to normal school. I liked school but I was weird. I was tall and tubby, from the kheer, the halava, the cake, burfi, sandesh, rasgulla, jalebis, laddhu and malpura. I am neither tall nor tubby as an adult.

I still spent every summer on the island. It was better to be bored there with friends than bored on my own in Belfast. The summer of 1999 was warm and sunny. We swam in the lake and I turned twelve that year. We loitered outside the kitchen, waiting eagerly for the fresh puris and potato subji that were brought out around 8pm. When my friend’s mother went to the temple in the evening, we would gather around the radio and secretly listen to Radio 1. My friend’s brother, four years older, dictated our taste in music. Boyzone and the Spice Girls were out. Fatboy Slim, The Prodigy and the Divine Comedy were in. Sometimes we watched television when the house was empty. The television had been rescued from a shed on the mainland, hidden under a blanket and transported by wheel barrow and rowing boat over the lake.

They were my adopted second family. I remember the cosy house that smelt of the wood fire, freshly baked bread and oats toasting in butter for the granola. Swings hung from the beams in the attic and there was a library of books under the ottoman sofa bed. We shared clothes and earrings, negotiating shower schedules and hair washing rotas before we got to the temple for 7am.

In Belfast, the temple congregation dwindled. Almost everyone left. To get married, to find a more exciting community, for work. This wasn’t what I had in mind at all. I felt stuck and confused. I was supposed to live within the community but it was very thin on the ground. Where did I fit in? I felt I’d been brought up to exist in a world that no longer existed and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the outside world where people mangled my name (despite it already having been shortened and simplified for their convenience) and gave me dreadful things to eat.

I remember a coach load of teenagers coming to the island one summer from the temple in London. We were utterly delighted to have them, yet so jealous of them. There were so many of them; with their sophisticated mridanga beats, their Bengali tunes and fancy kartal playing, the temple was transformed. Oh, to have a crowd to belong to with life and energy and such good kirtans.

Kirtan has always been a part of the fabric of my life. My mother tells me I would kick to the sound of the mridanga drum when I was in the womb and that I all the words since I was tiny, singing at the top of my little lungs. It’s hard to explain the comforting familiarity of it all, the neatly cyclical percussion, the feeling of singing together, songs that you have always known, the pleasing major key change towards the end as the singer inevitably moves into the Prabhupada tune, the feeling of the mridanga reverberating through you, through the packed temple room, sometimes through the whole house; how it feels forget your inhibitions, forget that you’re a self-conscious teenager and simply pick up your skirts and dance, swept up in it all. The myriad songs and the memories attached to them and the joy of learning a new song or a new tune.
I think our parents were disappointed that regardless of their efforts to keep us away from the extraneous nonsense of the outside world, we just wanted to be normal teenagers. I suspect my mother was frustrated that I wasn’t more interested in prayer and developing a religious inner life. I feared it would lead to a lonely life unlived, cultivating beliefs, practices and rituals that would make it harder and harder to fit into every day life. I feared I would be left only able to exist within the temple community and there really weren’t many of us. I was also very aware that everyone else seemed to have much stronger religious experiences than I did. I was waiting, waiting for my Damascene conversion. Waiting for it all to start making sense.
I asked my parents a lot of questions. What did they expect from me? Why hadn’t it all worked? Where was everyone? Why didn’t we have any money? What was I supposed to do with my life? I imagine they expected me to marry a nice local boy and become a teacher at the community school. But there wasn’t much community, there weren’t many boys (inconvenient, given our mothers’ Mrs Bennett-like obsession with getting us married off) and there was no school.
I asked more questions. Why did they give up their lives to join a weird religion? Weren’t they tempted to have normal proper jobs? If we didn’t live in an ex-council house, would our neighbours be more likely to be brown rice eating, Times readers like us? What were they thinking giving me a name that people were unable to spell or pronounce? Why hadn’t they moved to London where there were jobs and a big vibrant temple? And would they PLEASE wear NORMAL clothes to the next parents’ evening at school?
While I paint a picture that sounds a bit lonely, there were wonderful people in our life, wonderful women who I still see, whose life experience, maturity and wisdom I value. I’ve always collected aunt-type figures. Pleasingly, some of them live in England now, like me. The other children I grew up with will be friends for life, bonded by our shared experiences. We gathered recently in Ireland for a friend’s thirtieth birthday, with the addition of husbands, partners and children.
At school, I was busy with my teenage life – orchestra practice, violin lessons, extra German, choir and recorder band (I told you I wasn’t cool). I talked about going to university and getting a job and a mortgage. I watched the price of our house increase tenfold in the space of twelve years, prior to the crash. It didn’t seem viable to go with the flow, to aim for just enough. I’d grown up in a religion that advocated eschewing materialism yet my main takeaway seemed to be a focus on financial and material stability. I just wanted to be middle-class.
When I talk to people, I neatly gloss over sections of my life in a well practiced way. I have a vague story that I trot out when people ask me questions. My name? My mother reads very widely. Why did we move so much? My dad was self-employed so it didn’t matter where we lived. How did my parents end up in Ireland? They both had friends over here and they liked it so much when they visited, they decided to stay.

Why the reluctance? Well, I didn’t want to be weird. I suppose I’d rather be myself than a curiosity, a novelty, a show piece from which people could ascertain information about an unknown other. The reality is most people don’t know anything and aren’t really interested in finding out much. I think they’d prefer it to remain something weird, unknown, for them to decide what it consists of, to make ill-informed, clumsy jokes. Some people seem to retain little of what I’ve said, asking questions that suggest they haven’t taken in anything. Or perhaps latching onto minor details, failing to take in the bigger picture. Some people are great. Listening, suspending judgement, asking thoughtful questions, understanding that this is my life experience, what has shaped me in so many ways. Maybe that’s just manners…

After university, I took stock of life. Shuttling between England, Ireland, France and Germany had left me feeling discombobulated. While people headed off to China and South America, I just wanted to feel settled, as horribly uncool as that was. I wanted a job, a flat in London with some kilner jars in the kitchen and to meet someone nice. I lived at home in Belfast for a year as a postgrad student and then moved to London. I ignored everything my dad said about it – the expense, how unfriendly people were, how long commutes were – and just moved. I still say it’s the best thing I ever did and I have no intention of leaving.

Where am I now? I still feel confused in many ways but I think I’m doing a good job of pretending to be normal. We have a mortgage and a garden in suburbia and a cupboard full of kilner jars in our big kitchen. I have a stable public sector job with a pension that I started when I was twenty-five. I go to Wednesday and Friday kirtans. Fridays take place in a rented space in Covent Garden, a project started by friends to share kirtan. I’m pleased to be part of it, it doesn’t feel weird. I bring the cake every week, a neat combination of my enthusiasm for music and baking, a familiar mix of singing and hospitality, like we had every Sunday at the temple. I walk through Covent Garden afterwards to catch my train, humming as I carry my empty cake tin. I went to an event in Oxford in December and made gulab jamuns for 50 people, hovering over the wok with the kitchen door propped open to hear the kirtan. It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

It feels a bit redundant to talk so much about music without actually hearing any so here’s a video for you. It starts with an Sanskrit invocation which I don’t remember learning – I just know it. It’s followed by something quite simple but it’s beautiful, chilled and polished. Enjoy!