On a sweltering October night in 1991, I finally arrived in Benares, or Varanasi. I expected the India I had seen in 1978-chaotic, overwhelming, yet relatively free of violence. Coming into the city by rickshaw, I found again, in the nightlit crowds, the cooking fires, the raw, physical India that had so dumbfounded me. But on this visit, my expectations for contemplation in a holy city were transformed. During my three-month stay, rioting and terrorism erupted, locking the city in curfew and military occupation for weeks. The secular India, based since independence on the idea of tolerance of different religions, was beginning to fray.
At dusk one day a few weeks into my stay, firecrackers from a Hindu religious procession sparked a fight between Hindus and Muslims that ended in five deaths. A city of a million people was shut down by police, day and night, in a curfew that lasted for two weeks.
Because of the bombs, the daily sight of burning corpses, the stabbings and riots in this city during my stay, I came to know that every day is unavoidably dangerous, that "bombs" of one sort or another go off in every life, that today may be the day that news will come. Yet it was not until I was back home, and writing the story, no longer about a scientist, that I came to a sort of religious precipice.
My questions were no longer an abstract matter. I had to know: if we are the purposeful creation of a good and powerful God, why do we seem innately disposed to do so much that is harmful? And why, if my human failings are inevitable, must I be burdened with guilt as well? I wanted to write my way to God to get my answers. This was my project; it produced Sister India, the story of a woman from eastern North Carolina who, after a horrific incident in which she feels complicity, flees and attempts to start a new life in India on the bank of the holy river. By allowing my imagination to inhabit this woman's life for a time, I came to a reckoning with the fact of danger and death, and with the fact that people do harm. That exploration gave me glimpses-that's as much as I can claim-of a paradoxical kind of security that requires neither safety nor perfection. It was a modest spiritual transformation in the aftershocks of religious terrorism. For this journey, the unfolding novel Sister India was my guide.
Duke alumna and author Peggy Payne lives in Raleigh, NC. Her novel Sister India was a New York Times Notable Book for 2001.