‘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 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.
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.
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!