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The madness and beauty of Old Dehli

If you’ve been reading WU for a few years, you might remember a blog I wrote called Saying No to Say Yes [1], about my long-held desire to visit India.  Please notice the date, which was November 2015, over three years ago.

I finally made it there in January this year. It took me that long to work up the courage to go by myself, because no one wanted to go with me (one friend just couldn’t make it work). I joined a small group foodie tour, but I made my way there on my own, and spent the first two days alone in my Dehli hotel.

It was terrifying. It was exhilarating. Dehli was a slam to the senses, so insanely different from any place I’ve ever been that I reeled with it at first. On the way from the airport, I practically giggled over seeing cows ambling and tuk tuks putting and dogs trotting and brightly painted buses packed to the gills and women walking along in such ordinary ways, each wearing a sari more beautiful than the last.


It was wedding season, so the air was filled with firecrackers, and one night in Jaipur we chanced upon a wedding party dancing down the street with a groom on a horse. We feasted on thalis and learned to make proper chai and…oh, so many things.

I wrote to myself on the way there, “I don’t know what I’m looking for. I don’t know what I’ll find. But I have to do this.”

My personal life has been completely insane with family crisis after family crisis the past three months, and one portion of it exploded the day I was heading to the airport.  Everything was packed and I was taking a walk before calling an Uber when I heard the news.

For a long, painful moment, I wondered if I should stay home. My heart ached with the need to be present for everyone else because that’s who I am, Demeter, the nurturer (in case you never guessed).

But no. I decided, made a conscious choice, to put myself and my hunger first. It was entirely for my imagination, for the girls in the basement, for the fifteen-year-old I once was. I knew the crisis would be ongoing and I would be twelve (and a half) hours opposite my family.

In a way, it might have been a relief to claim a family emergency and stay home. By departure day, I was filled with worries of a million varieties—what if I hated it, what if it was awful, what if I hated everyone on the tour, what if, what if, what if….?

I left anyway. I dove into India with everything I had, showing up for whatever I felt or saw or experienced, with no judgment. I accepted that I would still be participating long distance in the crisis at home. I had texts in the middle of the night sometimes, and felt sorrow and anger and upheaval.

But I saw a monkey steal bananas from a paratha stall in Dehli.  I spent the night in a castle with the most elegant bathtub I’ve ever seen. Ate dosas on Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai. Rode an overnight train and listened to the people snoring in all the berths like cats purring in the contented quiet.  I watched the landscapes of Rajasthan and Gujarat through the windows of buses and trains, and saw the forts of the Mughals and drank fresh lime soda.

I also got very, very sick.  Not with Dehli belly, though I did have a day of that and had to miss the Bollywood movie in Jaipur (sadly). The air in Dehli was very bad and several of us picked up a chest cold, an ordinary virus that turned evil.

None of my fears about India proved true at all. I loved it. It was magical and rich and even more amazing than I expected, and I’m in love with so many pieces of the history and culture and have only been able to get the tiniest taste so I have to return.  I won’t lie—it’s not an easy place to visit.  It’s just that it’s worth the challenges.

But that trip home—36 hours on various flights and layovers—was the most miserable I’ve ever experienced. By the time I made it to Denver, I could barely breathe, and was so feverish and exhausted that I burst into tears when I saw my partner, standing at the international arrivals gate with a 7-up in his hand.

You needn’t worry or comfort me—I’m fine now. Serious antibiotics and a week with the covers over my head cleared it up. (Mostly.)

That was part of the experience. All of it was. The family crises, the terror, the joy, the monkeys, the saris, the hotel room with no window in Agra, the friends I made, the bracelets I brought home, my increased curiosity and hunger to learn about the ancient land emerging as such a player in the new world.

What does this have to do with writing?

Everything. I keep imagining a gigantic stock pot on the back burner of my imagination that has been packed with all of this, everything from the past three months. It’s a very, very rich stock, made of everything life contains–wild highs and sorrow and adventure and beauty and poverty and exhilaration and history and loss and hope and illness.

It also has India in it now. I can smell the fragrance swirling up in the low steam. Readers have asked if I will write a book about India, and the answer is I never have any idea how my experiences will show up in my work. I only know that it’s my job to keep gathering the material and stowing it all away. This is a very, very important part of what we do–gathering new material and experiences and absorbing them deeply into our bones

Once I finally have time, I’ll begin to stir that pot and see what might be there. I feel replete with experience, renewed by sights and sounds and emotions and passion. A bit about a Mughal builder might show up in a paragraph about something else. That searingly beautiful pink might appear in a garden. Maybe that still courtyard of the mosque will arrive in some other guise.

Who knows?

I don’t. I only know that I am full of all sorts of things. I’m ready to write in the quiet months to come.

How about you? How are the levels in your creative well? Are you due for a deep fill, like I was?  Or have you been topping it off on a regular basis?  Is there a place you’re burning to see? A dream you must cross off your bucket list? 


PS. If you want to read some of the travelogues I posted, here they are:

#1 The Madness of Delhi
https://www.facebook.com/barbara.h.samuel/posts/2153909081366336 [2]

#2 All is Beauty
https://www.facebook.com/barbara.h.samuel/posts/2156857037738207 [3]

#3 Foodie India
https://www.facebook.com/barbara.h.samuel/posts/2170389379718306 [4]


About Barbara O'Neal [5]

Barbara O'Neal [6] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [7], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [8].