When you are a child, you expect your parents to be sensible, authoritarian and, most importantly, boring. It’s great to spend your early years having fun and being naughty, but only when you know where the boundaries lie. When your parents throw normality out of the window, however, it’s a whole different matter.
Once upon a time in the 1980s, the Hodgkinsons were a very normal family. We lived in a semi-detached house in a middle class suburb of London, we had a Volvo in the drive, our mother earned a lot of money as a tabloid journalist and our father was an award-winning science writer. Then, when I was twelve and my brother Tom was fourteen, Nev (we never called him Dad) had a Damascene revelation in Westminster Abbey after recovering from a life-threatening bout of food poisoning from a salmonella-laced chicken risotto. That day, he gave up his job and embarked on a spiritual quest. He has continued on it ever since.
Nev came home from Westminster Abbey to tell us he had experienced his moment of transformation during a press conference on meditation. “There was a silent meditation that lasted for five minutes, and that’s when it happened,” he told us as Mum chucked frozen pizzas into the microwave for that evening’s dinner. “A golden red light poured into the centre of my forehead and it was absolutely stunning. The bliss that accompanied it was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.”
“I still think you haven’t recovered properly from your illness,” said Mum, flicking through the pages of the Sun in search of her own byline. “You know your constitution has never been very good.”
I didn’t appreciate the significance of Nev’s spiritual epiphany at the time, but a month later he came upon the Brahma Kumaris, an Indian religious group run entirely by women. The Brahma Kumaris espoused vegetarianism, celibacy, clean living and a radical, non-evolutionary worldview. Nev fell for them in a big way, and from then on, nothing would ever be the same again.
Every day brought seismic shifts. Gone were the Edwardian prints on the living room walls of innocently suggestive ladies drinking Coca-Cola, replaced by luridly coloured paintings of smiling Indian deities. All remaining meat, mostly in the form of slices of ham in the fridge and sausages in the freezer, left the kitchen. Not so long ago, Nev came back from work trips with I Love New York mugs and Converse trainers. Now he proudly handed over t-shirts with a naïve drawing of happy children holding hands underneath the words ‘Be Holy… Be Raja Yogi.”
“This isn’t a present,” said my brother Tom, holding up his t-shirt. “This is propaganda.”
Bizarrely, Mum went along with it, possibly because she was entering her feminist phase and Nev’s becoming a Brahma Kumari meant she no longer had to sleep with him. “You know what?” she said as we drove back from our first Brahma Kumaris meditation session, held in the suburban home of a woman in a white sari called Sister Jayanti. “This celibacy thing isn’t a bad idea. It’s one thing to sleep with a handsome man in your twenties, but when you have some horrible balding bloke puffing up and down on top of you when you have another article to write before bedtime, the whole idea of sex takes on a whole different colour. Besides, denying men sex is the only way you can truly liberate yourself from them, otherwise they will always have some sort of power over you.”
“But Nev hasn’t had any power over you for years,” said Tom.
“I rest my case.”
Then there was the apocalypse. The Brahma Kumaris believe that time exists within a 5,000-year cycle, and that evolution is a myth. We begin in the Golden Age, when the world is pure and we are in touch with our true nature as souls for whom the body is just a physical vehicle, then move through the cycle until life gets progressively worse. Finally, there are the end times, which clear the way for a new Golden Age. Nev, who only a few months earlier had told us that religion was a refuge for weak minds, revealed this over dinner one weekday evening, soon after I came in from riding my BMX bicycle in the local park.
“Society as we know it will be destroyed,” he announced, casually.
“Whether that’s through nuclear war or natural disaster I couldn’t say, but we’re probably see it in happen in, ooh, about thirty-two years’ time.”
I did some quick calculations in my head, which came to me much quicker than usual. “But that’s in 2014. I’ll only be 44!”
Nev gave a lighter-than-air smile, something he had been doing a lot of recently. “But Will, you won’t really die. Your soul will be reincarnated into another body, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you make it into the Golden Age. That’s why you need to become a Brahma Kumari and start meditating as soon as possible.”
The new life choices of our parents impacted on our lives in increasingly significant ways. I would come home from school to be confronted by the sight of a white-clad, wispy looking man in the garden, gazing at a daffodil. I would escape into the living room only to find 30 more Brahma Kumaris in there, sitting cross-legged on the carpet and staring at the red plastic egg, the yogi symbol of the Supreme Soul, which Nev had fixed up onto a wall. Even hiding in my bedroom didn’t work. I would seek refuge in the pages of a comic, and minutes later an Indian, female voice would be imploring me to come down and get stuck into some premium level meditation.
The food changed, too. Because Mum viewed cooking as a form of subjugation we had so far subsisted on a diet of fish fingers and frozen pizzas, but after Nev went mad it was all nut roasts and lentil bakes with no meat, onions, garlic or anything else that might arouse, inflame or even pique the curiosity of the senses. One evening, after Mum dropped a nut roast onto the table with a thud and, after failing to cut it with a knife, started whacking at it with a hammer, Nev did his latest weird thing: he stared at his plate.
As he sat before the table, his eyes went a little watery. He sat with his hands on his lap and meditated on the crushed nut roast. He had a hint of a smile, not of amusement, but of piety.
“What the hell…” I said.
“I’m giving thanks. It’s a little like saying grace. We have been extremely lucky in this house in that we have never gone hungry.”
“What about that time Mum tried to make a soufflé and it was too late to get a takeaway?”
“I am taking a moment to appreciate this nourishment for my physical manifestation.”
“I wouldn’t take too long over it,” said Mum. “I want those plates cleared in five minutes.”
This paled into comparison with the time Nev turned up at my school to give a lecture on the benefits of meditation. “Did you take a lot of drugs, Mr Hodgkinson, like back in the Sixties?” asked one boy, as I gradually sank deeper into my desk and wondered if there was any way I could cease to exist, just until school was over, at least.
One day, Nev asked if I wouldn’t mind moving out of my bedroom. “You can swap with my study,” he said. “I’ve got some beautiful plans for your room that I feel would really help us connect as a family.” A week later the room, so recently dominated by a Scalextrix track on the floor and posters of superheroes on the walls, was entirely white. The walls and ceiling were white. The floor, its carpet removed and the boards painted, was white. There was no furniture beyond a white mat. There was even a white bookshelf with some white books on it. I picked up one of the books. It was called Into The White.
“We, said Nev, eagerly straining his long, bony, cracking legs into an out-of-shape person’s answer to a lotus position, “are going to have a family meditation session.”
Mum looked around the room, hands on her hips, and said: “You expect me to miss Coronation Street for this?”
Our parents used to throw great parties, but that all went out of the window after Mum and Nev held a disastrous “Meet The Yogis” evening one Saturday evening. Friends turned up clutching bottles of wine, only to be met by Nev, wearing an Indian-style pyjama suit, saying: “you won’t be needing that” and putting the wine to one side before ushering the friends into the living room, where Dadi Janki, a tiny, elderly Indian woman of immense wisdom and solemnity who was (and remains) the leader of the Brahma Kumaris, was delivering a lecture on the eternal nature of the soul.
“If you want a mid-life crisis, Nev old pal, just climb Mount Everest — or Miss Everest,” said one friend, after the meditation session came to an end. “Don’t go all Mia Farrow on us.”
While our parents’ friends watched in horror as the man they thought they knew appeared to be love-bombed, spiritually seduced by a cabal of exotic women in white saris, I tried to find something in common with the children of other yogi converts. I said to one solemn, hollow-eyed boy, who was around the same age as me: “how long have you been a Brahma Kumari?”
He looked at me quizzically. “Do you mean in this bodily incarnation?”
Then there was sex, or rather, a lack of it. One evening I confided in Nev that I had a terrible crush on a friend’s elder sister and I didn’t know what to do about it.
Nev smiled in a paternal fashion. “You know the best thing of all to do, Will?”
“No. What is it?”
I sat up in bed. “What, never?”
He smiled meaningfully, as if he could not be wrong in this or anything else pertaining to the matter of life. “It would solve a few problems. Well, good night.”
I wanted advice from Nev about what to do with girls, and he was telling me to become a celibate monk. It was certainly original paternal advice in the late 20th century.
It didn’t stop there. A few years later, when I was sixteen, Mum decided to cash in on her situation by writing a book called Sex Is Not Compulsory, her case for the celibate marriage. I didn’t even know about it until one evening at school — they had sent me off to boarding school by then — when a bunch of us were watching television in the common room. A chat show came on, and the host was talking about introducing a married couple who were staying together but no longer sleeping together. At first I didn’t notice. Then someone said: “Hey Will, isn’t that your mum and dad?”
To my horror, it was. Mum, legs crossed and hair bigger than ever, and Nev, stiff-backed and clad in white, were sitting opposite the chat show host. “But you’re both young, good-looking people,” the host said, holding his arms up. “If you love each other and you’re married, why on earth don’t you want to sleep together?”
“There are many forms of love, and the purest are not physical,” said Nev, gently, with raised eyebrows.
“I’ve had enough of the idea of my body being owned by someone else!” trumpeted Mum. “When I was growing up, there were two options open to a woman who wanted to escape her family: prostitution or marriage. Turns out they were the same thing!”
One of the girls in the room turned to me, giggling.
“So are your parents really celibate?” she asked. “Does that mean they live together but don’t sleep together? And does that mean you’re celibate too?”
“Yes, yes and yes, although I’m hoping to do something about it as soon as possible.”
Of course, our unconventional lifestyle, of Nev meditating away in his “family room” while Mum wrote furious feminist tracts in her study, could not last forever. The marriage ended as so many things do: with an argument about money. Mum could handle the lack of sex, the vegetarian diet, even the white robes and the meditation, but when Nev started handing money over the Brahma Kumaris on a weekly basis it was the last straw. Mum moved into a flat in Ladbroke Grove, West London, while Nev bought a flat nearby before moving to Global Retreat Centre, the Brahma Kumaris’ communal headquarters in a former stately home in Oxfordshire. Tom and I left home and got on with our lives.
It was only years later, when I had children of my own, that I thought of revisiting that strange transformation in our childhood, of making sense of it in the only way I knew: by writing about it.
As a friend’s mother — the woman who cooked the poisoned chicken risotto that set the whole thing off, in fact — put it: “Nev is a nice man. But he’s always done exactly what he wanted, whatever the consequences.” Both Mum and Nev were selfish, like so many of the post-war, baby boom generation, who needed to build an identity separate from the generation that had gone before them. In reinventing themselves and calling old certainties into question, they didn’t take too much time to consider the needs of their children. The upside of the situation was that Mum and Nev didn’t judge Tom or I in the way parents normally do. They were too busy pursuing their own strange interests to worry about the direction our own lives were taking, and from the age of thirteen I was out discovering underground music, going to gigs in basement dives all over London and not coming home until midnight. I don’t remember any cross words about the situation from my parents. Perhaps they didn’t notice.
Now Tom publishes The Idler, his magazine dedicated to the art of doing nothing, while I have made a living from the solace I found as a teenager in music when the family turned upside down: I’m the rock and pop critic for The Times. All things considered, we haven’t turned out too badly.
The House Is Full Of Yogis by Will Hodgkinson is out now on HarperCollins