Grief drove a photographer to India. She found joy.

Grief drove a photographer to India. She found joy.

Published February 7, 2023

4 min read

Grief ran through the first decade of my career. I photographed stories about devastating topics: sexual violence, migration, religious conflict, war. On the cover of my notebook in 2019, I wrote a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “The soul is neither born, and nor does it die.” It was intended to remind me to play more and take myself less seriously.

Sometimes I’d get the rare assignment where I could breathe—for example, photographing an article on teas for an airline magazine. I was in the Darjeeling area of north India, at the foothills of the Himalaya, a region known for producing the “Champagne of teas.” I took the job hoping to make playful, almost cinematic images, but at the end of the day, I found I’d made nothing of the sort. Packing up my camera, I felt like a failure.

On the drive back to the hotel, I noticed heavy steam rising from a building up ahead. Arriving at the scene, I opened the car door—and realized I was at the Ghum station for the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, better known as the Toy Train, a tourist attraction traditionally pulled by steam locomotive.

Then, out of nowhere, a figure ran toward me. I picked up my camera and quickly made three frames. One was out of focus. One was poorly composed. But one worked.

When I submitted my images to the editor for the tea article, this one wasn’t chosen to be published, but I knew it meant something to me. I had been looking for serendipity in my own life. This photograph symbolized exactly that.

I was 27 when I first traveled to India after the sudden passing of my father. Unable to comprehend the meaning of death within a Western framework, I yearned to grieve somewhere that saw the cycle of life with less finality. Over many months, with my best friend, I traversed India with no phone, with limited internet, and with healing as my compass.

I sobbed on the steps of sacred temples, practiced yoga and meditation at an ashram near where the Beatles’ White Album was born, had a spiritual ceremony with an intoxicated Tibetan shaman, fell in love, and had my heart broken. I climbed mountains, swam in the sea, and unraveled entirely. India became my home, and for a while I continued to make images that reflected my own grief. After all, isn’t each image a self-portrait?

But as I learned to navigate some of the world’s most populous cities, I began to see life with more color, light, magic. I permitted myself to walk aimlessly, with no goal but to observe, and each moment became a dance—serendipity waiting to be revealed.

I landed in Mumbai more than 12 years ago, and recently I left it for good. I feel sad that I’ll no longer be able to visit the tea stall down the street from my home or weave through traffic to reach my favorite south Indian restaurant, or simply hear the rice cooker every morning from the apartment above me.

But if India and this journey taught me anything, it’s that what comes next will bring its own magic. New colors, more light, waiting to be revealed.

Photographer and National Geographic Explorer Sara Hylton won a 2018 National Magazine Award for her work on missing and murdered Indigenous women in her native Canada.

This story appears in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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