Do we really have a choice?

By Vijayshree Kurumilla. Vijayshree is a freelance writer and lives in Hyderabad, India

There are WINDS and Winds, just like there are TREES and Trees. Strong winds associated with gale and storm, wreak havoc and test the ability of everything that has to bear the brunt of it. Only the strongest of the Trees can withstand those winds and not get uprooted. And then there are some Trees which, even when there is a gentle breeze, do not shed their old leaves, but when those teasing Winds come and shake them, they shed the old and sprout the new leaves.

One can categorize people similarly too. Some will withstand adversity and understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness while others are afraid to do that and get weighed on by the old leaves, without ever giving it a thought that if only they will shed the old, the new ones will sprout.

In self-help books or motivational talks, people write about the need to learn to say, ‘No’ but they never tell us the consequences of it. It is all right if you are saying, ‘No’ to a friend or a colleague, but say that to your boss, or someone who is in a position of power over you and see what comes out of it to actually know whether you have the strength to withstand the forces that will be unleashed on you, to make you realize that you dare not resist those forces and say, ‘No’. That if you have to live in a comfort zone, you have to give up your right to say, ‘No’.

This is what choicelessness is, and why people never try to escape the oppressive lethargy of it. Only those who have that will, that, yes, they can bring change, only by saying, ‘No’, at some point, will be able to create those options. The option to lead lives differently, from what is being forced upon us, after being told we do not have any choice but to accept status-quo in our lives. Never to challenge the established order and never say, ‘No’ to anything which will rattle the people who have drawn up the lines within which we have to lead our lives.

When I look back upon our world and the way it was and the way it is today, I feel had it not been for a group of people or sometimes even a single individual, people would’ve continued living the way they had been told to live. Whether it was Nelson Mandela fighting against apartheid in South Africa, or Mahatma Gandhi against the colonial rule of the British over India, or Fidel Castro and Che Guevara who fought relentlessly against oppressive forces in Cuba and Latin America; they are like those TREES which withstand the WINDS and refuse to bow or bend before any force however powerful it might be.

They are the path breakers and also path makers, as they show the rest of the world that everyone has it within them, the courage to escape the suppressing forces and live the way they want to, not the way others want you to.

None of the things which we take for granted now have been easy to come by; they have all been hard won. Right from something as simple as the labour laws governing people working in factories, to something as tremendous as the right of living with dignity and equality, which was struck down so ruthlessly by countries which practised racist ideologies over people they colonized.

There are countless number of people who are unsung and who are probably fighting a losing battle and yet do not give up on their right of exercising their choice in lives. Especially in the context of women, it is all the more so, as they are constantly faced with choicelessness in every part of their life. Putting up with domestic abuse is one such primary example. And it is not just the underprivileged women but also the privileged ones, who are forced to accept what they think is the only way to live. Either they succumb and continue to lead that life or escape and live life on one’s own terms.

I would like to recall here one brave woman, whose story I came to know only much later, probably thirty years after she died. When I was a child, she was always spoken about in hushed tones, as if taking her name by itself was a sin. She was my paternal side Grandmother’s sister. It was the early 1940’s patriarchal society, ruled, pre-independence era Rural India and a time when even talking to another man was a crime. She was caught by her husband’s brother engaged in a casual chat with a male guest and was beaten up and thrown out of her home, parting her forever from her three year old son. Other women who went through similar situation ended up committing suicide by jumping into the well in the fields.

But, she stared down into that well and did not think she had no other way but to jump into it. She refused to be cowed down and instead went into another town, changed her name and started a small shop selling firewood. Once she understood that her own son, grown up, fed upon stories of his mother’s abominable act, had only hatred for her, she accepted the fact that he will never come to her. Fortunately for her, she found someone who might have been from another religion and a distant land, but he came to share a common thread of love and understanding with her. Then, she broke another rule imposed by her society, by living together and building their own home without ever converting from their respective religions. They adopted an abandoned girl child as their daughter. She thus lived life on her own terms until her last breath, at the age of sixty five. Had she given in to the thought that she never really had any choice in her life, she would have been dead at sixteen years of age. Whenever I feel I am stuck in situations where I feel I do not have a choice at all, I think of that woman who was staring at the well, and who refused to accept it as the only thing left for her to do, and instead, took a bus to freedom and dignity-filled life. At that remembrance, something stirs inside me, and I feel I should fight back and struggle out of that choking feeling of helplessness that accompanies the feeling of never really having any choice in our lives.

To take on the world which writes the rules to others with impunity requires a lot of guts, but when collectively exercised the world which writes the rules is one which will break down and people will understand how the power has now shifted into their hands. They can rewrite their own destiny and know that this is how it should be.

People who write history write of only people who are victorious, who won the war, but there are some people who create history even in their defeat. They might never be written about in any history book, but they are the fuel to the firebrand that is handed from generation to generation to keep on the legacy of fighting against the adverse winds which try to force us into one path while shutting down the remaining other paths. Those who fight against it force those shut paths open and they carry on, even if defeated, until another generation picks the gauntlet up, to take it to its just end.

Eventually, whether we like it or not, we have to accept the fact that at some point of time, in our lives, we will be grappling with the question of, ‘Do we really have a choice?’ and for a sizeable section of people, they might just think the answer is always in the negative.

My grand-aunt, whose story lay hidden from me for a long while, is like that TREE which defies the adverse WINDS and refused to conform to a dictated way of living, while people who think they don’t really have a choice will remain like those other Trees, which get weighed down, by the old leaves. A lot of times, I think, we need a good shaking to make the transition from being just a Tree to being a TREE. I needed more than a shaking; but once I made the transition, I felt life has opened up so many opportunities which I never imagined ever existed, not even in my dreams. Now, like those teasing Winds, I believe, all of us have it within us to make that transition, and escape what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes as an oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.

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