April 21, 2006

Sophie's Choice? Not quite!

I owe my life to her. She was two and I was about three or four then. We lived in a city that spoke in a mysterious tongue, never spoken at our home. There were few, if any, children of our age in that Haveli shared by probably fifteen other families. None spoke our language. We had each other, though. My sister, L, was devoted to me, as I was to her. In that summer, both L and I were stricken with chicken pox, followed by pneumonia. L died, and I survived. For years to follow, I would ask of her, and no one would tell me the truth. Instead, I was assuaged with various fantastic stories about what happened to her.

I did not have another sister, and I never stopped looking for L, even after I was an adult. My relationships with some of the women to whom I was attracted to, had been confused and ambiguous. Did something in their features or behavior illuminate some neural pathways that I was not conscious of? I am a fierce advocate for women's rights, passionately pro-choice, and would very much like to challenge Lawrence Summers for a duel [for a scintillating debate on the controversial subject of gender differences in intelligence or lack thereof, sparked by Summers' public comments on the same subject, visit Edge]! Were my ideals and behavior influenced by the traumatic loss of my sister? Could it be possible that what I thought of as my reasoned stance on women's issues had a strong emotional component? I am digressing, though. These are interesting questions that I would very much like to pursue, perhaps in another post. What I intended to do in this post is to talk about my father's role in all this.

It was only a few years ago, on one of those rare occasions when my mother spoke of her past, I came to know of the shocking circumstances surrounding my sister's death. I was told my father could not afford the medical expenses for both of us. He had commitments to get his four sisters married, so he had to forgo treatment for one of us. He chose my sister as the sacrifice in the altar of his family. My mother begged him against this but without any avail. She never forgave him. My father acknowledged his choice to me, and I could never forgive him either.

Sophie's Choice
I saw the film Sophie's Choice a few years back. It was one of the most gut wrenching films that I have ever seen. To me, even Schindler's List pales in comparison to this film. The film, which is an adaptation of William Styron's novel of the same title, won an Oscar for Meryl Streep, who gave a memorable performance as Sophie. Ordered by a Nazi official in Auschwitz, Sophie had to choose between her daughter Eva and her son Jan, one of them to be saved or risk extermination of both. With her pleas not to make her choose falling on deaf ears, she chooses to let Eva be taken away to the gas chamber. Sophie's choice had a real life parallel during the recent Beslan Massacre in Russia. Zalina Dzandarova, one of the parents taken hostage, was asked by Chechen terrorists to choose between her six year old daughter Alana and her two year old son Alan, to take with her when she was released. Zalina tried to pass Alan to her sister-in-law, who was also a hostage, but couldn't succeed. She was forced to leave Alana behind. Fortunately, in this case, Alana also survived.

Although my father's choice matched Sophie's Choice in its horror, it seems to lack the extenuating circumstances of the latter. Sophie had to chose between sacrificing one of her children or risk loosing them both. That's a terrible dilemma that no one should face. My father's dilemma was either to risk his daughter's life or his sister's marriage. I don't think he considered foregoing medical treatment for me as an option. It's not surprising coming from a man of his time. Like many of his cohorts, he was a misogynist. Unlike Sophie, I didn't see him burdened by any guilt or suffering. He showed no remorse until his end.

I don't think my father was quite guilty of female infanticide, which is prevalent even today in some parts of the world. He may have been held responsible for child abuse and negligence, though. May be even involuntary child slaughter, if he had been subject to a different legal system. It was definitely not a premeditated murder as female infanticide is.

Hold it right there, what am I doing? Who am I to judge him? Does anyone have the right to question Sophie's choice to let Eva die to save Jan? I am certain that I don't. I don't recognize absolute morals, so why am I making an exception now? It was my father's choice and his alone. Well, there is my mother, who was very much an interested party, and her position on this is quite tenable, but I don't have the right to question the grounds of his choice.

If I were faced with with either my daughter's life or my sister's marriage, there's no doubt in my mind what I would have chosen. Then again, my father was not me. The events in his life, the books that he was influenced by, the people he had met, and the choices that he had made until then, were his own. He was what he had become. We make choices and the choices make us. Doesn't that sound like the doctrine of Karma? My father probably didn't even agonize over the choice for long. His duty to his sisters as the head of his family (my grandfather had died by then) came first. The choice was quite clear. Perhaps it was not even a choice. Perhaps, as illustrated by Newcomb's Paradox, free will is a myth. The only reality is the plasticity of the brain!

  1. Thanks for sharing. I am a little overwhelmed by this post to record any meanigful reaction. The fact is that life is so unfair and many times we are forced into terrible choices - we try to choose the one that seems most appropriate given the circumstances and our learning and experience which has shaped our value system - in retrospect and ina different milieu they may seem right or wrong but we make the choices and we live with the consequences.

  2. As Usha says, one tries to make the best choice under the circumstances, so judging the situation years down the line may not really get us anywhere. I also read your letter to your sister.....these, I suppose, are the realities that did prevail, and, sadly, still prevail for so many.
    For a young child to suddenly lose a family member, a part of his everyday reality, and with no clear understanding of the what and why of death- that really must have been traumatic, leaving a void that the rational mind can never fill.
    I pray that no one, anywhere, ever has to take such an impossible decision.

  3. i am actually quite shocked and overwhelmed by this post. overwhelmed by the questions u have put forth, shocked by the fact that u have actually shared this on your blog.

  4. i'm sort of shocked. has it changed the way you feel about your father.. considering the person you are...?

  5. I am shaken. I have heard and read and seen so much, but this is ...it's overwhelming. Such stories are not unheard of. In fact malnutrition, neglect and untreated illness are common causes for girl children dying. I can't imagine what your mother must have gone through, she knew. ...to choose MARRIAGE over a girl child's LIFE! Here it was not just neglect, your father knew she would die without treatment.

  6. Wow. Choosing marriage over letting his daughter die. Have you talked to your father's sister?


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