19th March 2016: a day that did not appear to bear any significance at the time but would later reveal itself to be a significant turning point on my writing journey. I was sitting on a grassy banking, notebook in hand, earphones plugged into my iphone as I listened to songs on random shuffle, and I settled down to write a key part of Book Two. I was procrastinating slightly as I looked up at the birds in the trees above me and wrote a particular sentence over and over again.
I knew the writing needed to be emotional and to feel authentic to the reader because I was writing about Stefanie's feelings of being disconnected both physically and emotionally when she arrived on Tandro. We have all experienced feeling disorientated when arriving in a foreign country after a long-haul flight but my character had arrived on another planet! I needed to dig a bit deeper than simple jet lag!
I remember closing my eyes and trying to imagine how she would experience this. That perhaps she would feel terribly alone; an alien amongst these "people" who all looked so similar to each other and yet so different from her; how far away she would realise she had taken herself away from her husband and children......and then the music changed! The unmistakable sound of Alanis Morissette's voice boomed into my ear and I put my notebook down and listened to the lyrics carefully, before playing the song over and over again. I basically committed the song to BE an ear worm in my head and it hasn't left me all year:
Thank you India
Thank you terror
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you frailty
Thank you consequence
Thank you thank you silence
If you have never heard the song, I highly recommend that you look it up.
But If you had asked me, at the time, why I was so obsessed with listening to the song, I am not sure I could have explained. It just spoke to me and the energy I was trying to convey in my stories: that simple but hard truth, that life will always throw you challenges but the greatest one is learning to accept them as gifts that help you move forward; to find acceptance and to forgive yourself and those around you.
What I could never have imagined back in March 2016, as I sang along to the words, "Thank you India", was that I would end up travelling to India at the end of the year; that going there would turn into one of the greatest challenges I have ever faced and that it would show me more than I could have hoped for: the light and the dark.
And as I returned home from India on December the 6th, in time to decorate the Christmas tree with my family, I was able to quietly hum along to my theme song of 2016 and both empathise with Alanis Morissette and understand why she had chosen to dedicate a song of gratitude to a whole country back in 1998.
And in summary, for me, this is is why:
Whilst in India, I travelled both in company and alone: some days I was working with the team members of the charity YouCanFreeUs- a charity striving to end the evil of human trafficking - and other days I had to be brave and travel alone as part of my research into stories for "The Magic of Diamonds" book I am also writing. The days I experienced with the charity were incredibly eye-opening, heart-breaking, uplifting and inspiring.
I spent one day photographing a beautiful group of girls who have been rescued from the prisons of the brothels and are now being cared for, educated and rehabilitated so they can re-emerge in to society as free young women no longer exploited, trapped and abused. The girls welcomed me into their training centre with beaming smiles, keen to show me their art-work and happy to pose for photographs with their children who have been rescued with them. They threw their arms around each other and hugged each other tightly. There were obvious bonds of union between these girls, formed in response to the terror they had all experienced and survived. They laughed with an innocent child-like sense of freedom as we walked around their gardens and they happily let me follow them with my camera. They trusted me. They called me didi (sister) and they embraced being young girls who could enjoy receiving safe, invited attention as they danced around me, allowing the sun to shine through the thin material of their head-dresses as they twirled around. And I knew then that if there was ever a time to feel gratitude and faith then that was a day I will always hold on to. It was like seeing these girls releasing a light inside of them that had been trapped; an energy that had been zapped. Thank you India.
But then there was the dark too. I also saw the girls that are still trapped, owned, exploited - slaves to evil- in their thousands. And this was hard. You cannot un-see what you have seen. But as the founder of the charity, Sujo John explained, when you see evil with your own eyes, it opens up a part of you that is moved to take action. It changes you but this can only be for the better if it will help others. And for this, Thank You India.
And the days on my own took me by surprise in another way. Navigating the safety boundaries in a country bustling with people wherever you looked, a relentless energy of cars honking and activity on the streets, but also a much higher level of danger for a woman on her own, was not an experience I wish to ever repeat. But it taught me valuable lessons: awareness of danger, of frailty, of reality. And yet by taking these risks I also made some inspirational connections that I would not have made without those challenges.
I heard rags to riches stories that make Hollywood look bland: about a thirteen year old boy from a deprived village who headed to the city with nothing more than two pieces of clothes and a head full of dreams and determination. A boy that turned his dreams into reality and now runs a diamond export company with a annual turnover of 800 million dollars. A company that he runs under the mantra that their employees should only ever be referred to as family members . A place of business where everyone is treated like a human being and not a machine to make money and where the founder spends half his day dedicated to their social responsibility programme to give back to the communities around them
I also spent a wonderful hour talking to the Director of the Gemmology Institute in Mumbai about India, diamonds, tolerance and the strength of people when put under pressure. I will never forget the feeling of peace that washed over me as I listened to this calm and intelligent lady talk to me as she sat behind her imposing mahogany desk, Indian music playing in the background, and she said:
"A baby is born all fresh but it does not know how its brain works. But as you grow you acquire information and you look around and decide how to apply it. How you apply it is what is important. You can start applying it and become a briliant, sparkling human being ( like a rough diamond to a sparkling diamond). But then you can choose what to do with that brilliance. You can choose whether to keep that sparkle to yourself or whether to spread it around. Like you Naomi, you are a happy person and I can already think ' Oh I enjoyed meeting Naomi ' and by you being happy then my happiness level has gone up! So being brilliant and applying that you can spread that light around."
Thank you India.