After the noise and crowds of Delhi, Shimla was a welcome rest. The mountain air. The quiet(er) streets. A chance to take a walk among trees. The stacked shops and stunning views. The old Viceregal Lodge, where the British colonial Viceroy once lived and which later became the summer home of Indian presidents.
I drank it in (and also took in a mediocre Bollywood movie called Banjo that at least had good music). And after a couple days, we moved on to Mandi, also known as the mini-Varanasi for the number of temples it has, corner after corner.
This is what I remember: Shopkeepers standing in open storefronts. Oil sizzling in big, big pans by the sidewalk. Puffs of bread emerging. A tailor looking up as we passed, surrounded by colorful fabrics. An old Raj—a man who should’ve been king if India hadn’t become a fully unified country under one government (post-independence).
We stayed in said Raj’s palace-turned-hotel (The Raj Mahal), and the history stared down at us from the walls—pictures of kings gathered in Delhi, a portrait of his father before him, paintings, black-and-white photos with color added (circa 1935).
And down the streets of Mandi, the temples on every corner. The river. Shiva’s temple watching over—Shiva the destroyer. “He’ll take anything,” our leader said. Shiva does not discriminate. “But we worship Shiva because we know things have to be destroyed for life to be possible. It’s part of the cycle. Destruction and creation.”
And as we talked about this, I couldn’t help but think of my own journey—here, the places and people I’d left behind. The roads I could’ve trod. The roads I did. The ways that loss so often leads to new life but masks itself in dead ends and the hopelessness of the dark.
But what if we can see our way through the darkness? And what if the darkness itself is a place where learning and growth can take place?
We passed another Shiva temple. And I knew that Shiva was there in the power of the river. Shiva, down the road from me. Shiva, behind me.
“We can’t have creation without destruction.”
I turned our leader’s words over in my head, again and again, held them in my hands like stones. And I thought about art. My writing.
I’d written a little in Korea, but to be honest, I hadn’t written any fiction that I felt very good about for years. I’d reached out to other genres—film, playwriting, poetry even—almost as if I were avoiding the prose I’d devoted myself to for so long. Perhaps fearing that I was done writing anything good. Often questioning the usefulness of telling stories. Fearing failure.
And/or this: Too exhausted after countless hours of work to even lift the pen. Emotionally exhausted by the labor of educating others about rape culture, about the reality of LGBTQ people’s lives, about our value as humans. Spent by making mandated reports after children disclosed their experiences of abuse to me. Fed up with the very structures and hierarchies within social justice movements and organizations that allow those in power to oppress, bully, and abuse those most devoted to the work. Surprised every day that as hard as the work was “out there,” the biggest fights were often within and among these organizations themselves.
The darkness that clouded in on me those days. The stuckness of it all. The systems hemming me in.
I knew that selling all my things and traveling around the world was extreme. But at the time, over a year ago now, I felt I needed something that extreme to launch me from what felt like a slow but unrelenting downward spiral. The currents that were pulling me deeper and deeper. The debris left in its wake.
I watched the water go by, watched life moving along the roads, across the bridges. Locals bathing in the ghats by the river. The honking of motorbikes. Laughter from some alley down the way. Children playing on the street corner. A bell ringing in a temple to let the gods know that someone had come for them.
Smoke rose from a cremation ceremony by the river. The water would take the ashes down to the Ganga River, a holy river that brought the dead one step closer to some kind of ascension. That might finally take them out of this cycle of death and rebirth.
Or perhaps they would be reborn, reincarnated. Perhaps there was more that their soul had to learn and do.
I thought of the things I had left behind. The joys, the wounds, the fires that still burned deep in my gut. The parts of me that needed to be cleansed. The things I still clung to that I needed to burn. And then let go of.
I wondered if when I did, the Creator would finally return.
We can’t have creation without destruction.
The smoke and the ash. Bits of charred bones falling into the water. All that remains, swept into the river’s current. A family mourning at the banks. Saying goodbye.