My stated purpose in going back to India thirteen years later-the "surface cause," as historians sometimes call the apparent reason for a war-was to gather material to write a novel. Since my first visit, I'd had one novel published: Revelation, the story of a liberal minister at a Chapel Hill church who, against his wishes and beliefs and those of his intellectual congregation, hears God speak to him out loud in English. The new novel that I was to draw from my experience in India was, like Revelation, a project that had both my religious longing and my religious uncertainty at its core. The only hint of a story I had in mind was a character who was a scientist, a lapsed Southern Baptist raised in the rural tradition of river baptisms, who goes to Benares to do research on Ganges water quality and "gets religion" again in the holy river city of the Hindus. I summed up the theme on a research grant application as "a fictional exploration of the expression of religion in secular life, and the effect of ritual and shrines on the inner religious life."
I didn't know quite what to make of the fact that I was again setting out to write a novel that touched on religious subjects. In spite of evidence to the contrary, I had never been able to think of myself as religious. Mostly, what I had felt was longing. I had a history of feeling enticed and, subsequently, enraged by the possibility of God.
After a lengthy application process, and a year on hold as an alternate--delays that only sharpened my sense of urgency--I received an Indo-American Fellowship, through the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars, to spend the winter of 1991-92 in India. For reasons I could not explain, I was certain as soon as I began my planning that the city of Benares, which I had never visited, was the only place in the world where my story could unfold.
I had learned years before, getting ready for my first trip, that this was a holy city. I had seen the postcard images: the wildly exotic skyline of maharajahs' palaces along the riverbend, the sunrise baths in the Ganges, the smoking funeral pyres. On that first trip, I had tried to get there, but was prevented by severe monsoon flooding. On my return, my plan was to go to Benares and, based on what I would see and learn there, to make up a tale about a traveler, a scientist, in search of the magic of the holy river. I assumed that my personal exploration would continue later at home through the writing of my novel, that I would, as so often happens in the writing of fiction, become my story's follower as much as its creator. Letting the character lead me, I'd wind deeper and deeper into the mysteries that troubled me, arriving finally at some conclusion, some new understanding or shift in perspective that would bring relief from my persistently unsettling religious questions.