Inside this book and on its back cover is an image of a toddler holding a balloon. It is a picture of the author, Tim Guest, from when he was about three. It is a happy enough picture, but once the story behind it unfolds, it assumes a haunting sadness; becoming a mascot of loneliness. The book, My Life in Orange: Growing up with the Guru, first released in 2004, and has been re-issued in 2018 after the Netflix series Wild Wild Country became, well, wildly successful.

Books and films piggybacking on each other’s successes is no new thing, but this time the author isn’t around to partake of either the royalties or the revelries. Guest, an English journalist and author, died of suspected non-dependent drug overdose in 2009. He was just 34. But the story of his life is much longer than the years he lived.

Destiny, dyed

Both Wild, Wild Country and My Life in Orange speak about Rajneeshism – a spiritual movement that grew gnarly in the most unimaginable ways. Starting in the early 1970s in Pune, the movement was spearheaded by a “guru” who called himself Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Riding the wave of other neo religious and countercultural movements of the time, such as the Hare Krishna Movement (ISKCON) or the Hippie Movement, Rajneesh quickly amassed followers.

His cult, comprising mostly disgruntled Westerners, came to Pune in droves in search of a society that was anti-establishment, offered mystical and spiritual solutions, endorsed community living, free love and vegetarianism among other things. As the movement gathered momentum, Rajneesh communes started sprouting the world over, creating islands of orange – the colour his followers wore.

Guest’s mother was one such follower. Mesmerised by Rajneesh’s promise of a radically different life, she decided to dye all her clothes orange and embrace the life of a “neo-sannyasin”. She dragged little Tim with her too, perhaps not realising how deeply it was going to colour his destiny.

A life in experiments

Unlike Wild, Wild Country, which is set in the expanse of Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, US, Guest’s story is set in England, where his mother became one of the first members of the Rajneesh commune at Leeds. As she moved from one partner to another, one commune to another, Guest moved with her too. Mostly separated from his mother, he was made to live with other children at the commune or ashram. Sometimes he met his father across the continents, getting his share of fatherly love and indulgence.

Guest describes his less-than-ordinary life at the commune, surrounded by robe-clad, mala-wearing, Mas and Swamis. Beyond the “informal” ashram school, he grew up observing therapy groups with sometimes violent and sometimes weepy adults, the culture of free sex, lectures, mediation and music, and most of all, a constant reiteration of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s presence and philosophy. Life was lived in both – celebration and scandal. In the Oregon chapters are details of an unbelievable time when the so-called spiritual movement took on the form of ruthless power-mongering, and ultimately, anarchy.

The strangeness of it all notwithstanding, Guest writes without malice. From the poignant to the ridiculous to the downright scandalous, his child-like perspective remains unchanged. His gift is in being able to present his past as he saw it. Without the scorn of an adult who knows better. Even the excesses during the “reign” of Ma Sheela – Rajneesh’s notorious secretary – are described matter-of-factly. Even if mass breaches of law, espionage, and attempts to murder were part of the Ashram narrative, it was the only life Guest knew and had. His emotions were reserved only for his mother, and his life came to be defined by her absence.

No child’s play

Guest’s description of his growing up years, although filled with anecdotes from the uncommon ashram life, is also underlined by an aching sense of isolation. His name changed, his home gone and his mother away, he sought solace in books and a few close friends. Sometimes, even toys and trees. But there was a pervasive loneliness that he strove to redress by constantly seeking out his mother.

“Sometimes, it seemed the only evidence of 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.”

Guest’s writing is remarkable in its vividness. Walking off to school alone at 4 am, reading in secret corners, playing pretend with his best friend, walks in the forest, pillow-fighting with his commune friends, drives with his father or nearly drowning to death, Guest recollects many such events from his childhood in lush detail. And these recollections stand out not just as honest, but also as markedly visceral and emotional. Of a time, when he had newly moved to an ashram in Germany he writes, “In Germany, I knew about cold and about loneliness; in the German school that winter I learned everything they had to teach. Loneliness was like frozen water, like falling into a pond in the dead of winter and turning blue with cold. Loneliness was like stepping on a live rail.”

Heartbreak is a constant in the story of Guest’s childhood, but his pain is poetic. Like a Prometheus chained to a strange life, eaten alive each day by loneliness, healed by his mother’s occasional caresses, only to be eaten alive all over again. His retribution comes, in part, as an angry teen, years later when he and his mother leave the commune for good. Through confrontation and dialogue, he is finally able to unburden himself, though the sadness never leaves his bones. The book is a wistful look at his past, an attempt at salvaging the small joys of his unusual childhood, and the finding of his feet, even when the ground underneath shifted constantly.

This is a book about many little disappointments, but it is certainly not disappointing.

My Life in Orange, Tim Guest, Hachette India.